Naomi Congdonoklahoma, 1940s, 20s, illegalparamedicalSUMMARY: Naomi Congdon, age 21, died August 28, 1943 after an abortion perpetrated in Oklahoma City by maternity nurse Lena Griffin Smith.
Naomi Congdon, age 21, was the wife of Donald Congdon, a sailor from Denver, stationed in Norman, Oklahoma.
On July 27, 1943, Dr. Andrew Young examined Naomi and noted that she was pregnant, and also that she had an ingrown toenail that was infected. The infection, he said, was “minor”.
Naomi told her husband that she wanted to “do something” about the pregnancy. She even admitted to him that she had ingested turpentine to try to cause an abortion, but had vomited it back up. Donald objected to the idea of an abortion.
On August 16, Donald found a note from his wife, telling him that she was at the home of Mrs. Lena Griffin Smith, a 63-year-old maternity nurse in Oklahoma City. Donald went there and found his wife in great pain. He contacted doctors at the naval base, who instructed him to have Naomi brought to the base hospital. Donald called an ambulance and rode with his wife to the hospital.
After Naomi was hospitalized, Smith called Donald and asked if she was going to face further questioning. Donald said he didn’t think so, since Naomi hadn’t died from the abortion.
Police raided Smith’s practice at her residence, finding one woman in bed recuperating from an abortion, and another just arriving for “treatment” she had already paid for. Smith confessed that she had been operating an abortion business for about 15 years. She had an accomplice, Mrs. Pearl Green, who was also a nurse. Smith herself had attended medical school for two years.
On August 19, a Navy doctor examined Naomi and found she had a fever of 103 from an infection that appeared to have started in her uterus. He administered sulfa drugs and blood transfusions. But despite the efforts of the Navy doctors, Naomi died of septicemia on August 28.
Smith was charged with first-degree manslaughter. Her defense claimed that Naomi had already been feverish when she’d come for care, and that the fatal infection had originated in the ingrown toenail. Dr. R. S. Love testified that at the autopsy he conducted he could not determine absolutely if the septicemia had come from the foot infection or an abortion, but in cross-examination the prosecution wondered how a woman in otherwise good health could have died on August 28 from an ingrown toenail that had been observed as a “minor” infection a month earlier. The defense also noted that Naomi’s landlady had found turpentine, ergot, and douche powders in Naomi’s room, indicating that Naomi herself had initiated the abortion and thus allowed the toenail infection to take hold and become fatal. However, Donald noted in his testimony that on August 15, the day prior to the visit to Smith, Naomi had been in apparent good health and had even gone on a trip to Turner Falls for the day with some friends.
The jury found Smith guilty, and recommended a 10-year sentence.
Smith also faced manslaughter charges regarding the death of an infant born in an Oklahoma City hospital after Smith had attempted to perform an abortion on the child’s mother.
During the 1940s, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality from abortion. The death toll fell from 1,407 in 1940, to 744 in 1945, to 263 in 1950. Most researches attribute this plunge to the development of blood transfusion techniques and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
- “Abortion Mill Operator Guilty”, The Oklahoman, Oct. 21, 1943
- “Abortion Mill Operator Guilty”, The Oklahoman, Oct. 24, 1943
- “Abortion Death Suspect to Tell Her Story Today”, The Oklahoman, Oct. 19, 1943
- “New Abortion Charges Filed as Baby Dies”, The Oklahoman, Aug. 31, 1943
- “Body Hiding Count Denied”, The Oklahoman, Sept. 2, 1943
- “Old Abortion Count Dropped by Attorney”, The Oklahoman, Aug. 31, 1942
- “Sailor Claims he Protested Fatal Abortion”, The Oklahoman, Oct, 18, 1943
- “Appeal is Lost by Abortionist”, The Oklahoman, Dec. 4, 194
- “Abortion Mill Raided in City”, The Oklahoman, Aug. 30, 1943
- Smith v. State, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals 1946 OK CR 115, 175 P.2d 348, 83 Okl Cr. 209
- 19th century
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