Clara Mathews #california #illegaldoctor #20s #19thcentury

SUMMARY: Clara Matthews died September 17, 1893 after an abortion perpetrated in a San Francisco boarding house by Dr. Joseph von Werthen.

At The Boarding House | Police Alerted | At the Cemetery | Arrests | Harry Gray's Story | Shifting the Blame

“A Tale of Horror – Terrible Murder of Clara Mathews. – Brutally Hurried to Her Grave. – Her Betrayer's Heartless Conduct. – An Appalling Scene at the Cemetery.”

“Horribly disfigured by the surgeon's knife, the corpse of what was once a beautiful woman lies packed in ice at the undertaking parlors of Carew & English. The body is that of Clara Mathews, who died from the effects of a criminal operation performed by two physicians and her lover.”

At The Boarding House

Mrs. Annie Long rented out rooms in the San Francisco house she shared with her granddaughters, Eva and Olive. On Wednesday, September 13, 1893, Harry Gray (pictured), a man about 30 years old, came to the house to rent a front upstairs room for $3 a week. That evening he brought a beautiful young woman who he introduced as his wife, Petaluma, and a man he introduced as a doctor.

The next night the woman was ill, and another doctor was summoned. She was even sicker the next night, and both doctors came. “Both doctors were walking about the room and there seemed to be much confusion.” Mrs. Long went upstairs to see if she could do anything to help.

“When she reached the apartment a horrible sight met her gaze. The room was swimming with blood. The doctors' hands and clothing were red, while a pile of gory bed clothing lay at the side of the bed. The mattress was soaking with blood and a small stream was dripping through it on the carpet underneath." The young woman was semi-conscious, tossing about on the bed and crying out, “Harry!” and “Papa” repeatedly.

“Gray said he was sorry things had been so soiled. He promised to have the sheets washed next day and to pay for the damage to the mattress.” Mrs. Long never saw any of the men after that.

"Fred Ware, a young man working in the house, said he had heard the sounds of hurried footsteps in Gray's room during Saturday night. Sunday morning he stepped into the hall, attracted by the noise of men tramping up the stairs. A terrible sight met his gaze. At the foot of the stairs lay an open coffin. Halfway down were two men bearing in their arms the naked corpse of a woman. Not even a sheet had been put over the poor dead body for decency's sake.”

Police Alerted

There were already suspicions about Harry Gray, who had vanished from his home town of Lincoln. Gray hd brought Clara home with him from a trip to Salt Lake city and ensconced her in a hotel. Clara got a job at the home of Lincoln resident John Landis. On September 11, the two of them left town together on a train, ostensibly to attend a fair in Sacramento.

When Gray returned to Lincoln without Clara, Mr. Landis asked Gray where she was. Gray told Landis that Clara was dead. "Landis was astounded, and pressed the young fellow for an explanation. He said that Clara had been taken with a sudden hemorrhage on Market street near Lotta's fountain. She was carried into an adjacent drug store where, he said, she died."

The story was so fishy that Landis went to the Marshll, Edward Hill, and asked him to look into the fate of hs vanished empoyee. Marshall Hill told Gray that he was going San Francisco to investigate. Gray went with him. When they went to speak to Chief Crowley at the police station, they leanred that a Lincoln physician had already contacted the police, relaying suspicions about Clara's disappearance.

A patrol officer alerted Detective Hogan to the mysterious visit of undertaker Charles Metzler's wagon to Mrs. Long's house. Hogan went to the boarding house to investigate. He found the floor of the room stained with blood, and the bloody mattress in the back yard.

Hogan found no death certificate for a Mrs. Gray at the health office, but there was one filed for the C.B. Metzler undertaker, signed by Dr. E.P Driscoll. The cause of death was listed as septicemia, the woman's name as Clara Mathews, and her marital status as “Married.” That was when Hogan ordered Clara's body to be exhumed.

At the Cemetery

“I had gone out to the cemetery,” Hogan said, “and picked out the grave. This was a hard thing to do, as there had been no mark put up, not even an envelope on a stick. When we reached the cemetery the grave had been opened and the coffin removed.

NastyCoffin.jpg“And what a coffin it was.," Hogan told reporters. "I never saw a more worthless thing. Why, even the paupers are buried in better ones. It was split open on the top. When the lid was raised the coffin was found to be filled with sand." The coroner described the coffin as "a disgrace to humanity." It was made of 5/8” redwood slabs, with the wood cracked in several places and a gaping opening about an inch wide in the lid. A board had been chopped roughly with a hatchet and nailed over the gap.

When the coffin was opened, Hogan said, “It was a pitiful sight we saw. There, lying in that shell of a box, was what was once a lovely girl. The sand had filled the box and defiled the long dark tresses, which hung far below the hips. The body was attired in an old Mother Hubbard gown, a soiled chemise and black stockings. They were all the clothes she had worn in life."

“The body was put on an operating table improvised at the edge of the grave of two planks and two carpenter's horses. When the clothing was removed to permit the surgeon's knife to reveal the secret of the woman's death, it was discovered that the body had been given none of the usual preparations for burial. It had evidently been dropped into a box and put out of sight as hurredly as possible.”

The undertaker, Charles B. Metzler, admitted, “The body was not cold when I buried her.”

The autopsy found Clara to be 26 years of age, about 5'6” and 140 pounds. “She was a beautifully proportioned woman and well nourished.”


Detective Hogan knew from the death certificate the name of one of the three men who had been with Clara when she died. Hogan arrested Driscol (pictured), who said, “On Wednesday night, September 14th, Dr. [Joseph] von Werthen sent for me to help him. He had a patient very low from belladonna poisoning. The drug had been applied as an ointment, he said, and had been absorbed. The case was of a married woman suffering from a miscarriage. When I entered the room the patient was unconscious. We worked from 6:30 till 11:30. For an hour she ceased breathing entirely. During that time she was kept alive by artificial respiration.”

He'd been called back, he said, when Clara had begun to hemorrhage. After her death, he signed the death certificate, fudging it to protect von Werthen. “I thought the woman was married at first and her trouble natural. Of course, I learned that an abortion had been performed before the thing was over. I had nothing whatsoever to do with it, though.”

He'd learned about the abortion, he said, after getting a letter from Dr. Finney of Lincoln, Gray's home town, asking him if he had anything to do with the case. Finney said that "there is a great deal of mystery in regard to the matter," and asked Discol if he knew Dr. Heppinger. Nobody had a clue who the myterious Dr. Heppinger might be.

Setting the intrigue back in Lincoln, Hogan hauled Driscol over to von Werthen's home. "Rejoiced that neither [doctor] had taken flight, he gently invited them to accompany him to the city prison."

vonWerthen.pngVon Werthen (pictured) said that Gray had fetched him to treat Clara for “blood poisoning brought on by an attempt to produce a miscarriage.” Von Werthen said he'd performed an abortion on Clara to try to save her life. He denied using any instruments until Hogan confronted him with some abortion instruments found in von Werthen's house.

Von Werthen told reporters, “Gray came to me Tuesday and said he had got a girl in trouble and wanted me to help him. I refused absolutely. Then he begged me with tears in his eyes. I had known his father and he had been my friend. It was hard to say no, yet I did it.” He added that Harry had reason to fear being turned out by hs father if Clara's condition should be discovered. Von Werthen insisted that he'd only tried to help Clara after she'd taken ill from an abortion somebody else had attempted.

When Gray first sough his help, von Werthen said, the couple had been staying at the Ahlborn House. Von Werthen had instructed Gray to relocate to Mrs. Long's lodgings, and said he'd attend to Clara there. He insisted that Driscoll had nothing to do with any of it. “If I go down I don't want to drag any innocent person with me.”

Harry Gray's Story

Harry Gray, who wouldn't talk to reporters, made a statement to Hogan. He said he'd met Clara when she was a waitress at an Idaho hotel. She 'd moved on to Salt Lake City, then Sacramento, then Lincoln, where he had “paid her some attentions.” The two of them then traveled together to San Francisco.

Gray had arranged to have von Werthen do the abortion for $25, and he'd rented the room on Mission Street at von Werthen's suggestion. That night, von Werthen had examined Clara and given her medication. When Clara took sick, von Werthen summoned Driscoll, an old school mate. He also thought that Driscoll being an Irish Catholic would somehow help them if things went wrong.

Clara began hemorrhaging on Thursday night. The doctors worked on her. On Saturday night she realized she was dying and asked Gray to go to her rooms and get her jewelry and money to send home to her family in Atchison, Kansas. Clara died about 4 a.m. on Sunday. Gray and von Werthen went to Metzler's. Since Gray had no money, von Werthen paid the $17.50 undertaker's bill.

Though Gray admitted to arranging the abortion, he insisted that he was not the baby's father, that he had never had sex with Clara.

Hogan concluded that von Werthen had performed the abortion, assisted by Driscoll. All three men were charged with murder.

Shifting the Blame

Gray's father, L.G. Gray, of course, came to his son's defense, saying, "It is the woman who is guilty, ifany one is. She knew he was good-natured and got him to help her out of trouble which she had brought on herself." He said also that Harry hadn't sent for him; he'd come of his own accord after reading about his son's arrest in the newspaper.

Harry changed his story after his father's arrival, telling reporters, "I have had plenty of time for reflection. I think now that if there is any guilt in this matter it lie with the girl. She wanted the abortion performed, and the testimony of the doctors would show that her attempting to do the work herself had caused her death."

The San Francisco Chronicle, however, had wasted no time in checking Harry Gray's background. He had lived in Lincoln, the same town von Werther hailed from. "He has had several positions in different firms in the place and his dismissal on more than one occasion has created town talk of anything but a pleasant nature. His father is well to do, however, and has come to his aid time and again. .... Gray's father had threatened to turn him out of doors if he gave him any more trouble, and that was the plea he made to the physician when h asked him to do the work which has already cost one life and may end where neither the other two care to discuss."