Olive Ash1850s, drwilliamhoward, illegaldoctor, 19thcentury, vermontSUMMARY: Olive Ash, age 19, died on January 29, 1858 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. William Howard near Bradford, VT.
The Journey | The Telegram | The Autopsy | Second Death in Two Days? | The Trial | The Verdict | ContextOlive Ash worked for a farmer, Mr. Beckwith, in Vermont, in the summer and fall of 1857. She was about 19 years old, and she lived with the family during her employment. In the autumn of that year, Olive returned to her family home in Sutton.The Journey On December 28, 1857, Olive and her twin sister, Olivia, left their home and went by rail to the home of their cousin, Levi M. Aldrich, in Bradford, ostensibly to visit his widowed mother. During the visit, Olive seemed to her family to be in normal health.
The sisters remained at Aldrich’s home about two weeks, then said that they were going to meet some friends at the Fairlee depot for an excursion into New York or Massachusetts. Instead, when they arrived at Fairlee depot they took a wagon to the home and office of Dr. William Howard, about six miles north of the depot and three miles south of Bradford.The Telegram On Friday, January 29, 1858, Olive’s mother, Mahitable, got a telegram telling her to come to Howard’s home. She quickly complied, and was there when her daughter died at about 6 in the evening. Olive left behind her siblings Betsy, David, Hiram, Rebecca, and Myron, in addition to her twin and her mother. Dr. Howard got a coffin for Olive, and the twins’ mother took her daughter’s body by train to Sutton. The Autopsy
On February 3, Olive’s body was exhumed for an autopsy, which was performed the following day by Dr. C .P. Frost and witnessed by Dr. Bliss, Dr. Carpenter, and others unnamed. Frost found that Olive had been “plump” and, healthy, and well-nourished. He also found evidence of recent pregnancy.
The cause of Olive’s death was obvious. There was a quantity of pus and the cervix was nearly ragged with injuries. Dr. Frost believed that Olive had hemorrhaged due to the damage to her cervix. He removed and preserved her uterus. Another physician examined the uterus and concluded that the placenta had been retained for some time after the abortion, perhaps as long as seven to ten days, and that this retained placenta would also cause hemorrhage.Second Death in Two Days? A February 19, 1858 article in the Orleans Independent Standard of Irasburgh, VT notes that, “Before the examination of Howard, information was brought from Stanstead that the body of a Miss Young of Stanstead, who had died at Howard’s house in Bradford, on the 17th of January, had been examined by the physicians of Stanstead, who were satisfied that her death was also caused in the same manner as that of Miss Ashe. Other evidence also corroborated their opinion.”
Howard was released on bail of $600 for each woman’s death, The Independent Standard thought ill of the whole deal, noting that the total $1,200 in bail “was readily furnished by a rag-a-muffin crew of admirers of Howard, some seventy-five of whom affixed their names to his bonds. This man is now at large, ready to continue his practices upon any who may commit themselves to his tender mercies. We were greatly surprised that a Justice could be found in a State considered as law-abiding as Vermont, who should have so low an estimate of the crime of man-slaughter as to consider $600 sufficient bail to bring a man to trial charged with that offense.”The Trial
In the trial of Dr. Howard, Olivia testified that she knew her sister was pregnant and had accompanied her on the journey knowing that Olive was planning to get an abortion. Olivia said that Daniel Beckwith, the grown son of the farmer Olive had worked for, met them at their cousin’s house, and he gave them the information on where to go and who to see for the abortion.
From Olivia’s testimony, the sisters arrived at Dr. Howard’s house and informed him that Olive was about six months pregnant. He spoke to the sisters and indicated that he wanted to consult with Daniel Beckwith before deciding if he was going to proceed with an abortion. The sisters remained at Dr. Howard’s house for a few days until Olive got a letter from Beckwith, and she read part of it to Dr. Howard. He then agreed to perform the abortion for a sum of $100.
Dr. Howard told the sisters that the process would take three or four weeks. He gave Olive a concoction to drink two or three times. On the Friday the week after the sisters’ arrival, Dr. Howard performed some sort of procedure on Olive as she lay on the bed in the room the twins shared. Olivia was permitted to remain with her sister during this procedure. She said that Dr. Howard used two or three of the three or four instruments he had at hand. Olive was in pain during the procedure, which took two or more hours, and resulted in a gush of fluid, which continued to flow for two or three hours.
The following day, Dr. Howard performed another, similar, procedure on Olive, who clutched her sister’s hand and reported great pain. Olive bled profusely. After this second operation, Olive kept to her bed.
That night, Dr. Howard performed yet another procedure, very painful for Olive to endure. This time he used instruments then reached in with his hand and pulled out a fetus, which Olivia reported as being about two-thirds the size of a newborn. Dr. Howard removed the fetus from the room, and Olivia never saw it again.
Olive bled after this, but not profusely. Afterward her behavior struck Olivia as violent and irrational. A girl named Margaret Kelley, who lived at Dr. Howard’s house, also testified that Olivia had laundered her sister’s bloody clothing while at the doctor’s house. Bloody clothing were introduced into evidence, including two chemises and a small quilt or pad. The witness, Mrs. Wilson, who produced the evidence indicated that she’d found these things hidden in the rafters of the house when she was cleaning in the fall of 1858.
Mrs. Wilson also said that about two weeks after Dr. Howard’s arrest, she saw one of Dr. Howard’s dogs come out from underneath the office privy with something in its mouth. She made the dog drop what it was carrying and discovered it to be a fetus of about four or five months, in a state of decomposition. While she was looking at the fetus, another of the doctor’s dogs snatched the fetus up and ran off with it. The dogs, she testified, had been digging at the privy for some time before retrieving the fetus. Mrs. Wilson’s description of the fetus she’d seen the dogs with was similar in size to the fetus Olivia had described taken from her sister. Olivia had also testified to having seen a number of fetuses of various sizes preserved in containers in Dr. Howard’s premises.
The defense presented a witness named Susan Squires, who was staying at Dr. Howards from January 23 until after Olive’s death. She said that the Thursday before Olive’s death, she had spoken with Olive while Olivia was eating lunch. Susan said that Olive told her that she didn’t expect to live, that she’d taken poisons before coming to Dr. Howard, that Dr. Howard was not to blame in her death but had done everything in his power to help her. Susan said that Olive seemed rational at the time, but that by Friday morning Olive seemed to have lost her reason.
On cross examination, Susan indicated that she had stayed at Dr. Howard’s off and on for two years, to do sewing and to receive medications. She indicated that on Thursday afternoon, at about 4:00 Friday morning Olive managed to kick the footboard off the bed, prompting Olivia to summon Susan and a Mrs. Green into the room. Olive complained of being tired and continued to thrash and kick for a short time before settling down.
Mrs. Green was brought as a witness. She said that she had gone to Dr. Howard’s on Tuesday afternoon and remained there a week visiting the doctor’s wife. She first saw Olive on Wednesday morning, when Olivia had summoned her to help attend to Olive, who was trembling, delirious, and bleeding from the nose. Mrs. Green also went to Olive during the episode when she’d kicked the footboard off the bed. She’d helped the others restrain Olive. Mrs. Green testified that Olive never revived enough to speak after that.The Verdict Dr. Howard’s witnessed attempted to show that Howard could have been treating Olive after her fetus had died but she hadn’t delivered it, or perhaps she had tumors or another growth that would mimic pregnancy in some ways but would not have resulted in a living fetus for Howard to abort. The jury found Howard guilty of abortion, but, inexplicably, not guilty of manslaughter. Context Olive’s abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.
I have no information on overall maternal mortality, or abortion mortality, in the 19th century. I imagine it can’t be too much different from maternal and abortion mortality at the very beginning of the 20th Century.
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 on this era, see Abortion Deaths in the 19th Century.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion.
- Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in American, by Marvin Olasky;
- 32 Vt. 380, 1859 WL 411 (Vt.); Supreme Court of Vermont. The State of Vermont v. William H. M. Howard; November Term, 1859
- Death record
- “Arrest of W.H.M. Howard,” Orleans Independent Standard (Irasburgh, VT), Feb. 19, 1858
- “Report of a Trial for Criminal Abortion,” American Medical Monthly and New York Review, Volume XIV, July-December, 1860
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