Mercedes Berriozabalteens, chicago, illinoisSUMMARY: Mercedes Berriozabal, age 15, died February 5, 1906 after an abortion attempted in Chicago by an unidentified perpetrator.
Mercedes Berriozabal’s death is an example of how important it is to track down reliable sources. According to the Homicide in Chicago Interactive Database, by the time of her death at age 15, Mercedes was already known to police as a bootlegger. This was far from the truth.
The Cook County Death Index accurately lists her as a schoolgirl. And she wasn’t just an ordinary schoolgirl. Her father, Felipi Berriozabal Jr., was living in Chicago as the Mexican Consul with his wife, Doloris, and their other children during the entirety of Mercedes’s short life.The family was a highly respected one: Mercedes’s grandfather, Felipe Berriozabal Sr., had been a highly regarded military and political man in Mexico. He died when his granddaughter was about ten years old.
According to her parents, Mercedes had gone to her mother on January 28, 1906, reporting that she was in pain. Mrs.Berriozabal told her husband. “I told Mrs. Berriozabel to take the girl to Dr. [Bayard] Holmes without delay. When they returned from the doctor’s office my wife told me the terrible news. I could not believe it. Mercedes resisted all my questions. I could not learn from her that she had known any man or boy. She denied absolutely that such was the case.”
Holmes said that on that initial visit he told Mrs. Berriozabal that “an operation should be performed,” but that she took her daughter home without allowing him to operate. He said that he and his assistant, Dr. Moore, saw Mercedes again the following night.
At 11:00 the night of January 31, Mr. Berriozabal agreed to allow Holmes to admit Mercedes to Wesley Hospital under the name “Mercedes B. Zabal.” “The operation was performed Thursday morning at 11 o’clock. It was finally found necessary to make an incision. While I have no positive evidence that another doctor had operated on the patient, I presumed from examination that such had been the case.”
Holmes also testified that he tried unsuccessfully to get Mercedes to tell him who the father of her baby was.
Mercedes died of blood poisoning on February 5. Holmes completed a falsified death certificate using the fake name and sent Mercedes’ body directly to the undertaker in the wee hours of the morning of Wednesday, February 6. The undertaker reported the suspicious death to the coroner, who initiated an inquest. During the inquest, Holmes was asked, “Did you think that certificate would be accepted by the health department without an investigation?”
“I believed it would be,” he replied. And when asked if he realized that he was covering up for two criminals with the falsification, he said, “I didn’t look at it that way. I have concealed nothing and I am as anxious as you to solve the case.”
Holmes was an extremely reputable physician, highly esteemed for his work in bacteriology and in establishing a medical library in Chicago among his other accomplishments. He evidently either was not suspected of having perpetrated the abortion attempt that had left Mercedes injured and in need of hospitalization, or was too highly connected to have official accusations made against him.
Mercedes’s parents said that their daughter had no male acquaintances outside the family and as far as she knew had never been seen with a man unfamiliar to them. “We Mexicans are not like Americans,” he said. “We follow the Mexican custom of keeping girls at home and away from male companions. My daughter never went out with any young man. I do not know of a single boy with whom she associated. She did not belong to any club of girls Company never came to the house to visit her. I cannot tell of a girl friend that she had.”
Around seven girls at Mercedes’ school, Hyde Park High School, had formed some sort of secretive sorority, and investigators believed that other girls in this group might have had knowledge about the pregnancy and abortion attempt. Some of Mercedes’ friends said that in fact she’d left home alone on several occasions. This report was supported by Mercedes’ older sister, Carmen, who said that Mercedes would sometimes go shopping alone on Saturdays. However, nobody reported knowing of Mercedes having any sort of romantic attachment to anybody.
Mercedes’ brothers, Louis and Filipe III, belonged to a school fraternity whose members offered to help the police with their investigation. The fraternity did not include Fred Cummings, whose name was written several times in Mercedes’ school books.
There must have been some brouhaha over the sorority and fraternity, however, because in 1909 an Aukland, Australia newspaper reported that some school districts in the US were banning similar sororities and fraternities because those at Hyde Park High School were mixing boys and girls together with cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and likely sexual liaisons.
Since Mercedes was a tall girl who looked much older than she actually was, there evidently was some speculation that she might have been involved with an older man rather than a school mate.
Mr. Berriozabal swore that if he found the person responsible for his daughter’s sad fate he would shoot him. He said that he’d hired his own detectives to learn what had really happened. Some of those detectives might have leaked rumors to the police about the
He was uncooperative about the investigation, withholding information and complaining that he wanted his family to be left to grieve in peace. He gave a statement, saying, “I feel that I have been unfairly treated. I did not ask the police to drop the investigation. I said the discovery of the guilty party would avail me little, inasmuch as I have lost the girl. If I had the slightest proof of the identity of the guilty man I would not go to the police. I would go and shoot him. I do no want my friends annoyed by useless questions, however.”
“I did not tell of the visits of the girl to the dentist before because I was excited and broken up, I suppose. Mercedes had been going to the office of Dentist E. E. Lampert in the Venetian building for about six months, I should say. I went with her the first time and agreed with the dentist to have her teeth straightened. Dentist Lampert was recommended to me by … a friend of many years’ standing. I have every confidence in Dr. Lampert and am sorry that he has been annoyed by the bringing of his name into the case. It is possible that the girl was lured away by some scoundrel and drugged.”
Dr. Lampert said the his assistant was always with him when he treated Mercedes and her sister, and that Mercedes had missed several appointments over the six months he had been working on her teeth.
Mercedes’s mother and siblings moved back to Mexico, bringing her body with them for burial. Mercedes’ father told reporters that the President of Mexico had sent him a telegram of condolence. “The publicity in this awful case has been particularly annoying, and as an investigation cannot bring me back my daughter, I and the other members of my family wish that the matter might be dropped. My daughter was as pure as any other girl. We thought her safe, but on one is safe in this savage town.”
The investigation into Mercedes’ death ran into a dead end after the family left the country. A former alderman told the police that he knew of a physician, whose name he refused to give, that might have treated her prior to her death, and the coroner admitted that he’d found some leads, but evidently there was insufficient evidence to ever charge anybody with the crime.
Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good. For more about abortion and abortion deaths in the first years of the 20th century, see Abortion Deaths 1900-1909.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion.
- Homicide in Chicago Interactive Database
- Cook County death certificate, 22810
- “Secret in Death of Schoolgirl,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 1906
- “Mystery in Death of Consul’s Daughter,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Feb. 7, 1906
- “Who Killed Miss Mercedes?” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 8, 1906
- “Light on Girl’s Death,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 8, 1906
- “Father of Girl Now Aids Police,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 9, 1906
- “Hunt Baffled by Crime,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 10, 1909
- “Gives Berriozabal Clew,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Feb. 11, 1906
- “Unsolved Crime List Augmented,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1906
- “Points Duty to Police,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 15, 1906
- “Mexican Consul Denounces Chicago,” El Paso Herald, Feb. 20, 1906
- “American School Societies to be Legislated Out Because Abused,” Auckland Star, Jan. 2, 1909