Nellie Walsh1900s, 20s, chicago, illinoisSUMMARY: On February 12, 1907, 28-year-old Nellie Walsh died in Chicago’s National Emergency Hospital from complications of an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Adolph Buettner.
Nellie’s Dying Declaration
On February 11, 1907, housemaid Nellie Walsh, a 28-year-old Irish immigrant, was brought to National Emergency Hospital in Chicago in grave condition from complications of a criminal abortion. She had been admitted to the hospital by Dr. Michael Nelson, who had been called to her home and had been alarmed by her condition. A curettage was performed at around 4:00 that afternoon to try to save her life, but her condition continued to deteriorate.
The next day, February 12, the doctor told Nellie that there was nothing more that could be done for her, and that she was dying. Head nurse Cora Bachino asked Nellie if she’d like a priest to administer last rites. Nellie answered yes, and a priest was brought to her.
Shortly after receiving last rites, Nellie made her dying declaration, naming Dr. Adolph Buettner of 679 Lincoln Avenue as her abortionist. She said that Buettner had perpetrated the abortion at her request on Wednesday, February 6, after assuring her that “there would be no danger.”
A stenographer, in the presence of nurse Bachino and another witness, typed up the statement. After both copies — the handwritten one by the stenographer and the typed one, were read to her, Nellie confirmed that she understood them.
Less than an hour later, she died.
Sorting Through the Stories
There were conflicting assertions about how the abortion itself had been performed. One count of the indictment indicated that Buettner had used an unknown instrument, and another that he had used the fingers of his right hand.
Buettner himself insisted that he had only ever given Nellie a prescription for medication but had never performed any procedure upon her.
A laborer named Patrick O’Connell admitted having taken Nellie to a doctor, but insisted that he could not identify the doctor in question. He was arrested as an accomplice and later acquitted, though he seemed to have spent the entire time between his arrest and his acquittal in jail. Nellie had named him as the father of her baby, which he denied.
Buettner, who had been practicing in Chicago for a number of years, had been indicted for another abortion case seven or eight years before Nellie’s death. Found guilty of manslaughter for Nellie’s death, was sentenced to Joliet. He appealed on three grounds:
First, he noted that after Nellie had made her dying declaration, a nurse had asked her twice how she felt and Nellie had answered, “I feel good” and “Very well.” Buettner’s attorney claimed that these statements indicated that Nellie hadn’t really thought that she would die soon.The appeals court noted that both Nellie requesting last rites and the willingness of the priest to perform them was sufficient evidence that Nellie did indeed sense that she would die soon, especially given the fact that both her doctor and the head nurse had told Nellie that there was no hope for her.
The second and third grounds for appeal constituted quibbling about the precise wording the judge had used when instructing the jury about “reasonable doubt,” and whether his instructions to the jury had been too long and thus had confused them. The appeals court pretty concisely kicked those complaints to the curb. Buettner’s conviction was upheld.
Nellie’s abortion was typical in that it was performed by a physician.
Note, please, that with overall public health 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
- People v Buettner, Supreme Court of Illinois, Feb. 20, 1908
- Death certificate
- “Girl Implicates Two,” Philadelphia Inquirer, undated clipping citing wire story dated Feb. 23, 1907
- “Girl Dead; Physician Held,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar. , 1907
- snippet, Illinois Medical Journal, Volume 11 1907
- “Found Guilty of Girl’s Death,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Aug. 2, 1907