Roberta Danks1940s, 20s, chicago, illinois, illegaldoctor, dumpedbodySUMMARY: Roberta Shirley Danks, age 28, was dumped along a highway in Indiana on February 17, 1949, after dying from an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Edward Rosenzweig at the Chicago home of Olive Janes.Roberta DanksOn February 17, 1949, the battered body of Mrs. Roberta Shirley Drury Danks, a 28-year-old war widow from Chicago, was found crumpled on a rural road half a mile north of Fumessville in Porter County, Indiana. She had bruises over her body and a deep gash on her head, consistent with having been run over with a car. An autopsy, however, revealed that these injuries had been sustained after her death, evidently to try to make Roberta appear to be the victim of a hit-and-run driver. She had actually died from peritonitis and hemorrhage caused by an illegal abortion.
Roberta had been on leave from her job as a switchboard operator at Roosevelt College in Chicago. Roberta’s boyfriend, 36-year-old interior decorator and former Army lieutenant James Manes, who had been involved with her for three years, said he hadn’t seen her since February 6. He told police that Roberta had called him on the 7th saying that she was going to postpone a planned visit to relatives in Michigan and instead would spend her leave time looking for an apartment.
At first, police believed that the fatal abortion might have been perpetrated in Fort Wayne, Indiana after speaking with Roberta’s friend Hallie Ellgren. Hallie told police that Roberta had visited her for two hours on the night of February 7 and had told her that a woman had called her that afternoon asking if she was “ready to go to Fort Wayne” and quoting a $400 price for an abortion. Roberta told Hallie that she was going to meet the woman that night at the intersection of 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue.
Hallie told police that on February 8 and 9, Roberta had called her between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. to tell her that the abortion hadn’t been done yet. On February 10, Hallie said, Roberta called to say that the abortion was finished and that everything was “all right.”
Investigators found four witnesses who had seen Roberta in the Chicago home of 40-year-old housewife Olive Janes. One witness, a 17-year-old girl, testified that she herself had gone to Janes’s home for an abortion and had seen Roberta in bed there on February 16, around 16 hours before her body was discovered. The teen said that her own abortion had been perpetrated by Janes, not by a doctor. Another witness had been there for an abortion as well, though hers had been perpetrated by a doctor while Janes assisted.
Janes came home from a trip to Sarasota, Florida, where she had been vacationing with her husband, to find police searching her house. She was arrested on the spot.
Janes said that in the six months leading up to Roberta’s death, she had assisted Dr. Edward H. Rosenzweig in between 60 and 80 abortions in the basement of her home. The fee Janes had charged Roberta was $200, of which she kept $50 and gave $50 to Rosenzweig.
Janes said that the abortion that cost Roberta her life had been perpetrated on February 11, and that Roberta had left the house in good health the following day in the company of a man called Harold, whom Janes described as 35 years old and about 5’9″ tall. Police put no stock in the “Harold” story, concluding that Roberta had either been dead or dying when she was removed from the Janes’s home. The physician who had performed the autopsy had concluded that it would have been clear by the time the abortion was finished that Roberta had been injured in the process and was likely to die. From this the police concluded that whoever had perpetrated the fatal abortion likely would not have wanted to allow Roberta to go anyplace where her condition might be discovered and tracked back to him.
On March 17, Janes told police about the involvement with Rosenzweig, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and new owner of Douglas Park Hospital and Medical Center, was found unresponsive in his office. He was slumped over in a chair, with a newspaper open to an article about the abortion case. Rescue workers tried for half an hour to revive him before declaring him dead. His death was originally attributed to heart disease. Janes was brought to the funeral home during the viewing and identified Rosenzweig as the abortionist she had assisted. His body was immediately removed for an autopsy, which found no signs of heart disease.
Toxicology reports came back showing a barbiturate overdose, the highest concentration the laboratory had found to date in a human brain. A coroner’s jury ruled the death to be a suicide. This was Rosenzweig’s first implication in a criminal case of any kind. The only prior complaint about him had been in 1937, regarding overcharging for a tonsillectomy.
During jury selection, Janes asked to plea-bargain to manslaughter by abortion, but the prosecutor insisted that if she wanted a deal in order to avoid a possible death sentence she had to plead to murder by abortion, which she did. The judge then elected to find her guilty of the lesser manslaughter charge and sentenced her to 7 – 14 years.
Roberta’s late husband, Howard, had been a lieutenant in the Army Air Force and had returned to be an aviation instructor in Bryan, TX. He was killed in an aviation accident in 1945.
Roberta’s abortion was typical of criminal abortions in that it was performed by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.
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 Attempt Blamed in Death”, Chicago Tribune Press Services, Feb. 18, 1949
- “War Widow Found Slain on Highway,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 18, 1949
- “Dead Chicago Surgeon Identified as Abortionist,” Schenectady (NY) Gazette, Mar. 18, 1949
- “Tells Fatal Abortion on Phone Girl,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 18, 1949
- “Police Probe Abortion Murder,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, Mar. 19, 1949
- “Woman Held in Fatal Abortion,” Binghamton Press, Mar. 19, 1949
- “Abortion Mill Probe Widens; Delay Funeral,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 20, 1949
- “Witness Shakes Abortion Mill Death Story,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 21, 1949
- “Woman Faces Grand Jury in Abortion Death,” Buffalo Courier-Express, Mar. 22, 1949
- “Girl Disputes Story of Woman Seized in Abortion Death,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 23, 1949
- “Report 3 True Bills Naming Mrs. Janes in Abortion Cases,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 30, 1949
- “State to Ask Death for Mrs. Janes in Abortion Death Case,” Chicago Tribune, Jul. 12, 1949
- “Woman is Sentenced in Abortion Death”, The Oklahoman, Aug. 3, 1949
- “7 to 14 Years for Abortion Death Figure,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 3, 1949
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