Rena Armstrong

Rena Armstrongteens, kansas, 1930s, infection, abandonedpatient, illinois, illegaldoctorSUMMARY: Rena Armstrong, previously identified here as “Eudroa,” age 17, died February 28, 1930 from an abortion perpetrated in Wichita, KS by Dr. Charles C. Keester.

SUMMARY: Rena Armstrong, previously identified here as “Eudroa,” age 17, died February 28, 1930 from an abortion perpetrated in Wichita, KS by Dr. Charles C. Keester. | Journey to Wichita | Signs of Trouble | Recovery, then Tragedy | The Autopsy | The Defense | The Excuse | Typical or Not?

Journey to Wichita ORenaArmstrongYearbookPhoto.pngRena Armstrongn Monday, January 6, 1930, young man brought a 17-year-old girl from Wellinton, Kansas, to Wichita to seek an abortion at the hands of Dr. Charles C. Keester. They knew his name and looked him up in the phone book to find him. The girl’s name was Rena Armstrong. Not knowing the young man’s name, I will call him, “Mike.”

How had Rena and Mike known Keester’s name? It could be for his history of abortion-related arrests. He was arrested for the late 1921 abortion death of Mrs. Virgil Rector. He was charged with two counts of manslaughter in 1922 for the deaths of 19-year-old Hattie Myers and her unborn baby. Hazel Hadicke, age 19, died in a hotel under Keester’s care on December 21, 1923. He was implicated in the deaths of “Bonnie” and Loren Franklin in August of 1924.

Rena and Mike told Keester that Rena was pregnant and wanted “an operation to get rid of the condition.” Keester put her in some sort of reclining exam chair and examined her, then used instruments on her as Mike stood at her head and observed. Keester then helped Rena from the chair and sent the couple to a hotel half a block away, where Keester kept his patients — much the same way George Tiller would later use the Wichita LaQuinta as a sort of abortion clinic annex. Mike paid $40 in cash and took Rena to the hotel, where they registered as a married couple.

Signs of Trouble On Wednesday, January 8, Mike told Keester that Rena was well. On Thursday the 9th, “a consequence of the operation was checked”, court documents said. Mike sought Keester, to no avail.

He found him on Friday, January 10, at about 7:30 p.m. Keester went to the hotel, where Rena was in bed, and examined her. He told Mike that Rena needed care or she would die. He sent Mike to get a fountain syringe, then used some instruments and the syringe on Rena without sterilizing them.

Recovery, then Tragedy On Saturday, Rena seemed better. On Sunday at about 2:30, Keester visited the hotel and said that Rena was well enough to go home. Mike took Rena to his mother’s home in Wellington, telling her about the abortion. On Monday night, Rena took ill. Mike told Rena’s sister what had happened, and the family summoned Dr. McGrew, who examined Rena and recommended that she be taken to a hospital. She was admitted the next morning, January 14. She was suffering peritonitis.

Dr. Van Deventer was summoned on January 23, and he and McGrew examined Rena. They found her in grave shape, and summoned Dr. Snyder. Snyder performed surgery on January 31, with Dr. McGrew assisting with anesthesia, to try to save Rena’s life. McGrew testified later that Rena’s abdomen had been full of abscesses. Rena’s condition continued to deteriorate. On February 4, she was given a blood transfusion. On the evening of Feb 5 or 6, she asked everybody but her stepmother to leave the room. She said, “Mother, I am going to die. What Dr. Keester did to me is going to kill me.” She then told of the trip to Wichita and the abortion. On February 12 Rena became irrational, but she continued to linger until her death on February 28.

The Autopsy Dr. McGrew attended the post-mortem examination. He later testified that everything he saw in examining Rena, everything he observed in surgery, and everything he saw during the post-mortum, was consistent with the statements of Rena and Mike about the abortion.

According to court documents, “The defense was the stock defense of the practitioner of abortion — the girl did it herself, and then went to a doctor for help.”

The Defense Keester testified that Mike had indeed come to his office, but alone, saying he had a very sick wife in his car who he wanted the doctor to see immediately. Keester said that he was in the doorway between his reception room and exam room, and told Mike that he had other patients but that Mike could bring the girl up. Mike came back with Rena. There were three men and “an office girl” in the reception room. Keester said that Mike told him, in the waiting room in the presence of the three men, “This is my wife. Examine her, and see what is the matter with her.” Keester said he took Rena into the exam room but left the door open, which allowed those in the reception area to hear what transpired.

RenaArmstrongIola(KS)Register18Oct1930.pngKeester was asked if he routinely left the exam room door open so as to allow people to listen in on private consultations with his female patients. He said, “I did it that time.”

Keester said the only examination he made of Rena was to take her pulse, which was 128, and her temperature, which was 102 — clear criteria to immediately hospitalize a patient, which of course Keester had failed to do. He said he asked Rena what the trouble was, and she said, again in hearing of the men in the reception room, that she was pregnant and had attempted a self abortion. He said that the girl didn’t give her name as being Mike’s wife, nor that she was from Ponca City, as Mike supposedly had said. Keester said that he told her he was suspicious, told Rena, “Your story don’t jibe,” and sent her away and never saw her again.

The Excuse Court documents noted, “He said that in cases of that kind he didn’t care what became of them, and said: ‘I have been accused of taking those kinds of cases, until now I don’t have anything to do with them.”‘

If true, this would still make Keester complicit in Rena’s death, because if he did what he claimed, he abandoned a patient who was in critical condition, allowing her to die.

The men that Keester said had been in the reception area testified that they heard Keester tell the girl “I can’t do anything for you.” The office worker testified that Rena had said, “I fear I have made a serious mistake, and the doctor has refused to do anything for me whatever.” One of the men in the reception area testified to having heard a similar statement from Rena. But he testified that the private office door was closed while Rena was in there with Keester.

Keester also tried to counter Mike’s story that he had cared for Rena at the hotel on January 10th by bringing his wife and other relatives and friends to testify that he had been at home with them, celebrating his wife’s birthday. These relatives said, along with Keester, that they remembered the date well because another woman’s birthday was January 9, and that for five years she and Mrs. Keester had celebrated their birthdays together, choosing to do so on the 10th, Mrs. Keester’s birthday, that year. However, Mrs. Keester’s birthday is January 28, not January 10, as the prosecution was easily able to document.

Keester’s story evidently didn’t convince the jury. He was convicted of manslaughter in Rena’s death, and his appeal was denied.

Typical or Not? Rena’s abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

Keep in mind that things that things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future. For more about abortion in this era, see Abortion in the 1930s.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


  • 134 Kan. 64, 4 P. 2nd 679, Supreme Court of Kansas. State v. Keester. No. 29993
  • Untitled clipping, Iola (KS) Register, Oct. 18, 1930


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