Clara Duvall #30s #1920s #pennsylvania #questionablestories

Whoever Clara Jane Bell Duvall was in life -- elegant society matron or desperate slum mother -- in death she has become a sort of patron saint of the abortion lobby.

claraduvall.jpgAccording to the abortion lobby, Clara was a 32-year-old married mother of five, aged 6 months to 12 years. She and her family were living with her parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania due to financial problems. NOW says that Clara attempted a self-induced abortion with a knitting needle. Though she was seriously ill and severe pain, NOW says, Clara's doctor delayed hospitalizing her for several weeks. Her death, at a Catholic hospital on March 27, 1929, was attributed to pneumonia.

Patricia G. Miller's book The Worst of Times also tells Clara's story, identifying her as "Claudia" and attributing the narrative to her daughter, identified as "Marilyn."

Both NOW and Miller place Clara in her early 30s, though Marilyn, placing her mother's age at 34, meshes better with the birth and death dates on the real Clara's grave.

Marilyn also said that her mother sang with the Pittsburgh light opera company, which may also explain the elegant portrait used for abortion advocacy in Clara's name -- a portrait that a poverty-stricken and desperate woman would have been unlikely to afford.

Both NOW and Miller agree that Clara was the mother of five children, from an infant to a 12-year-old, though census records indicate that the oldest child would have been closer to the age of 14 when Clara died. They agree that she induced an abortion on herself using a knitting needle, and was home ailing for several days under the care of her usual family doctor who seemed at a loss as to how to care for his moribund patient. Both NOW and Miller agree that Clara was transferred to a hospital, and that her death there was attributed falsely to pneumonia in order to cover up the abortion.

Marilyn said that her brother Gerald was the oldest, twelve years old when Clara died. Eileen was ten. Rose was eight, Marilyn was six, and Constance was 18 months. Marilyn describes poignantly the difference between her life before her mother's death and her life after losing her mother. The loss was truly shattering for the entire family.

Marilyn said that her mother had gotten help from a friend for a successful abortion between the births of Marilyn and Constance. Marilyn didn't have any details of the first abortion, and got what she knew about the fatal abortion from her sister Eileen, who, Marilyn said, had spoken at length with their mother when she was hospitalized.
NOW has the family living with the woman's parents; Marilyn said that they were living in a large house owned by the woman's parents.

Indiana (PA) Evening Gazette, March 29, 1929
Census records show that Clara and Grafton were indeed living in Pittsburgh's 19th Ward with their son Grafton Jr. (b. 1916) and daughter Elinor Jane (b. 1919). Grafton's profession is given as "newspaper editor." Though both the Bell family and the Duvall family are shown at the same street address, Clara's husband and father are each listed as the head of his own household, which implies that there were two separate dwellings sharing an address.

A Pittsburgh directory of the time shows Grafton, an editor, at r1616 Westfield Avenue in 1922. Grafton applied to the Sons of the American Revolution as a descendant of John Duvall, reportedly ranked "General of the Army." His obituary identifies him as a retired newspaper reporter and said that he was "one of the early announcers for KDKA radio and was a founder of the Pittsburgh Press Club and the Dapper Dan Club. He was a member of the Milnor Lodge, F&AM, Eld Lodge 579 and a 32nd degree Mason."

NOW indicates that the family were too poor to afford a home of their own. Marilyn said that they lived in a large house, and that her father was an editor of one of Pittsburgh's daily newspapers, and that he did freelance public relations for sports events. Marilyn also said that one of her mother's friends was the wife of a well-known Pittsburgh industrialist. This is not a likely friendship for a destitute woman forced to move her family of seven into her parents' home. Marilyn also said that her mother was laid to rest in a magnificent mahogany casket with a satin lining, hardly the sort of burial a poverty-crushed widower could afford for his dead wife. Marilyn also said that the casket lay in the parlor, not a room that poor people were likely to have. In fact, Marilyn describes how shocking it was, after her mother's death, to go live with poor relatives. Poverty was a new experience for the child. In fact, Marilyn describes a riverboat outing the family took before her mother's death. She described how the girls were dressed in matching navy blue coats with red satin linings, and her brother had a jacket and tie. NOW's tale of financial woes rings false.

Whether Clara's family was thriving or already poor at the time of her death, there can be no dispute that her death was devastating to her children. But was that death actually caused by a self-induced abortion? The entire story hinges on third-hand information supposedly relayed to an anguished 10-year-old, then passed along decades after the fact.

We are to believe:

Clara's death certificate indicates that she had been ailing for three months from nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) and that this, complicated by pneumonia in the final two days, caused her death. The doctor who signed her death certificate had been treating her for those last two days. An annotation in a different color of ink, and what looks to be a different person's handwriting, indicates that Clara's death "non-puerperal," meaning not related to childbirth. This added comment suggests that the possibility of an abortion was entertained and rejected. No operation preceded her death, and no autopsy was performed afterward. None of this is in any way in keeping with a hospitalization for a septic abortion. (For an example of what an Allegheny County, Pennsylvania death certificate from a septic abortion actually looked like, see Annabella Lewis.)

Perhaps Clara Bell Duvall's death really did play out in such an ugly way. Perhaps Clara's very respectability shielded her family from a coroner's inquest and kept sordid truths under wraps until the family chose to bring them to light. I'd rather believe that Clara's distraught children heard things they didn't understand, mulled them over in their stunned, bewildered grief, and at some point as adults came to see a knitting-needle abortion as a scenario that made some sort of sense to them, much the way Becky Bell's grief stricken parents were convinced by political activists to frame their daughter's death as an illegal abortion death when in fact the "abortion" was only a miscarriage.

Either way, though, Clara makes a great rallying point, and even if the truth ever did fully emerge, there'd be no need for it. NOW's story is on the web, it fits the narrative, and that, as they say, is that.


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 1920s.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion