SUMMARY: Cora Sammis, age 21, died on February 11, 1879, in Brooklyn, NY from complications of a criminal abortion perpetrated by lay abortionist Bertha Berger.

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A Father's Shock


On February 11, 1879, 65-year-old Henry Sammis of Northport, Long Island, got a dispatch from Inspector Murray of the Brooklyn police to go to Brooklyn immediately. His daughter, 21-year-old Cora E. Sammis, a Sunday School teacher from Northport, Long Island, was deathly ill.

Mr. Sammis, a coal and lumber dealer, boarded the next train with his wife. About halfway to New York, he got a copy of the morning paper. There he read that his daughter had already died from the results of a botched abortion.

"I was almost paralyzed with horror, and count not believe the story to be true," he told the New York Herald. Fearful of upsetting his wife, Mr. Sammis kept his composure. Pretending to be adjusting the window on the car, he let the newspaper fly.

Once they got to the home of Mr. Sammis's sister, he broke the news to his wife. Leaving her in the care of friends, he went to the police station and was given the address where his daughter had died.

The Dreadful Reality


"The old man's eyes were red with weeping" as he left the police station. He was escorted to the upstairs front room where Cora, "clad in a blue merino wrapper, lay on the bed on which she had died."

Cora had been a lovely girl, with "luxuriant dark brown hair." But when her father saw her body, "Her features had become so shrunken and emaciated that he hardly knew her. He stooped and kissed her forehead, and, controlling himself, arose and looked at her for a long time in silence.

Cora and her Betrothed


The police asked him about Frank Cosgrove. Mr. Sammis said that the family knew him well. He had been courting Cora for about two years, and the couple had become engaged and had planned to marry before the spring. Cosgrove, who worked in the shipping business, had seemed to have honorable intentions, and Cora had seemed to be of a chaste disposition. A resident of Newport said, "She was the last girl in the village that I could have suppose could be tempted."

However, in November of 1878, Cora had gone to Brooklyn to visit her aunt, and Cosgrove spent a lot of time in her company. Her parents believed that it was during this time that the liaison took place which had resulted in Cora's pregnancy.

Cora's body was taken to the coroner's office, where an autopsy was performed "which showed conclusively that death had resulted from malpractice."

The Abortion and its Aftermath


Cora's aunt, Mary D. Betts, testified that Cora and her "alleged seducer," Frank Cosgrove, had met at her house and from there went to the home of 35-year-old Bertha Berger.

About two hours after they arrived at the house, Berger perpetrated the abortion. Cora was to convalesce there but instead grew increasingly ill. Cosgrove, who sat up with Cora every night, grew more and more worried. He found an ad for Dr. Whitehead, who advertised that he practiced midwifery, and offered him $100 to take over Cora's care.

A Doctor's Duty


Upon examining Cora, Whitehead found that she had a raging fever from a uterine infection. He declared that the case was hopeless. Berger offered him $50 to provide a death certificate but on the advice of his attorney Whitehead refused, instead notifying the authorities.

Police came to Berger's house to question Cora, who was told that she was dying. With frequent rests she was able to give a deathbed statement, occasionally stopping "to lament her unhappy fate." As the detective bent close to hear her, Cora clasped him and asked him to pray for her and to "Spare my Frank." Her primary concern was that no harm would come to her fiance.

Cora said that she and Frank had rented the room for the express purpose of having Berger perpetrate the abortion. In fact, the Berger house was an abortion house. All but one of the other occupants of the house were arrested along with Berger.

The Other Associates of the House of Infamy

Maggie Steele

At the time of the raid, Maggie, a 19-year-old bookstitcher, was in Bellview Hospital but confident that she would recover. "She spoke unreservedly of her trouble to a Herald reporter, but carefully concealed the name of her seducer." She said Berger wouldn't even admit her into the abortion house until she had given her $50. She was snippy with the police about releasing her name. "I was getting over the effects of the treatment I received at Mrs. Berger's, when the latter came to me on Monday night and said, I should leave the house as Miss Sammis was dying. The Madame said I would get two years if I was found in the house."

Margaret McLymond

The wife of a gardener in Westchester County, came to the house for an outpatient abortion for a fee of $20. She returned for another try a few days later. She was arrested when she came to the house to keep an appointment to pick up some medicine. She said she hadn't been afraid to have the abortion until she'd seen Cora's coffin being removed. "Being a married woman, you know, I didn't think it was any harm."

"During the above dialog," the New York Herald reported, "Mrs. McLymond was self-possessed, and spoke freely of what she had done as if it was an ordinary occurrence."

Margaret was described by the New York Herald as "a small, wiry-looking woman."

Emma Johnson, "Colored Servant of Mrs. Berger"

"A young woman named Miss Steele was taken away from here in a carriage last Wednesday evening. I didn't know what was the matter with her, as I am here only a week. I had my suspicions of the house, though, as the door bell used to ring almost incessantly through the night and used to keep me awake. I was kept in the kitchen, and was seldom brought up as far as the parlor floor."

She described a "big fat man" named Mr. Wilkeson, whose portrait hung on a wall in the house, and "who used to open the door and admit visitors; he used to sleep upstairs in an end bedroom."

"When they knew I was aware of what was going on in the house they let me up stairs; I saw the poor girl that is dead, and I knew that she was going to die; I told the Madame so and she said, 'Well, you go up and take care of her, and I'll give you a nice present if she gets well.' Oh, she won't get well, I said, I know it by her hands; you'd better send her to her parents; I did all I could for the poor dear child, but I knew she would not live."

Emma said that Berger told her that Whitehead did the abortions then sent them to the Berger house to recover.

*

The police had come to the house before Cora's death because Dr. Whitehead had gone to the authorities after attending to Cora. The police had observed that Cora "grew violent and delirious shortly before she expired. She jumped from the bed and ran to the head of the stairs," where she was restrained by two police officers. The policemen and Emma Johnson, the servant, remained with her until her death.

*

When Bertha Berger appeared in court, she first apologized to the jury for her imperfect English. She said that she had advertised for lady boarders, and that on February 4 Cosgrove, using the name Frank Wilson, had chosen a room among the three Berger had to offer, paid $20 in advance for two weeks, then spent the night there with Cora.

Berger's defense was to pin the blame on Dr. Whitehead, claiming alternately that he had perpetrated the abortion elsewhere then sent the ailing woman to Berger's house to die, and that he had come to the house and perpetrated the abortion in Cora's room. Albert Wilken, who lived as a "boarder" at the Berger home, testified at Whitehead had come to the house with a case of instruments.

Other boarders at Berger's house testified that they'd seen Cora about the house, at first in good health and then keeping to her bed.

Testimony for the Coroner's Jury

The coroner's inquest was "quite a sensation," and the room was packed with eager spectators.

Burger attended the inquest in the company of her daughter, Mrs. Rachel Davis. Cosgrove, described by the New York Herald as "the picture of misery. He is a slim young man, with sharp, narrow features, a prominent nose, dark brown mustache and retreating forehead."

The Testimony of Mary Betts, Cora's Aunt

Cora had been staying with her aunt for two weeks. She left on Tuesday, February 4, saying that she was going to visit a friend. Cora went to her uncle Richard Berry's house in Brooklyn. Aunt Mary didn't see Cora again until 9:00 the evening she died. Cora was unconscious. Aunt Mary hadn't known that Cora had been pregnant. She also hadn't heard anything about the goings-on at Burger's house until she was summoned there and found her niece dead.

Mary and an unidentified sister of hers, along with Mary's son, "preserved a remarkable composure" during the proceedings, according to the Herald. Cora's aunts "were tall, matronly women, dressed in mourning."

The Testimony of Ellen "Nellie" Whalen aka Tessie Williams.

The New York Herald described 18-year-old Nellie as "blithe and attractive." As she attended the inquest, "This young woman, by her coquettish behavior, relieved the proceedings of that solemn and sombre character which the tragic nature of the case inspired. She chattered incessantly, while her mobile features were wreathed in smiles, with an affable officer, who apparently was gratified with the favorable impression he had produced on the susceptible Tessie or Nellie, as the case may be. Both of these were seated side by side."

When called to the stand, "She was a willing witness, gave her testimony glibly and seemed on the whole to relish the situation."

She had moved into the Burger home three weeks before the hearing, occupying the room over the parlor. She saw Cora and Frank Cosgrove arrive. Cora's room was the only one on the top floor of the house. Cosgrove came to the house one night and asked Minnie Hummell to come upstairs with him. He went out briefly, and when he returned Minnie went back to her room. Nellie visited Cora once during her sickness but didn't know what was wrong with her. At some point Berger told Nellie that Cora had come to the house for the purpose of having an abortion. Berger told Cosgrove that if he wanted a doctor to see Cora he'd have to take her to see one because Burger didn't want any physicians to come into the house.

Testimony of Melinda (or Belinda) Cullum aka Minnie Russell

She had lived at the Burger house for two weeks. The morning that Cora moved in, Melinda saw her at breakfast. The evening before Cora died Cosgrove asked her to sit with Cora for while he went out for a while. Cora was delirious at the time so she didn't tell Melinda anything. Berger told Melinda that Cora had come to the house to have an abortion.

Cora's Deathbed Statement

A Dr. Miller testified at the coroner's inquest about Cora acknowledging that she was moribund before making her statement.

"I am going to die. I have no hope of recovery. .... Mrs. Berger living in the house and who had just left the room performed an operation on me that night with an instrument about a foot long; it was sharp and hurt me; .... I was about three months pregnant."

The Coroner's Jury Results

"Cora Sammis came to her death from an abortion performed upon her by Mrs. Berger ... on or about February 9, 1879, and we hold that Frank Cosgrove was an accessory to the same."

The Trial Testimony

Testimony of Bertha Jacobson

Bertha Jacobson said she had known Burger since arriving from Germany about six years earlier. The Tuesday before Burger's arrest, Bertha had visited her and found her in bed. She sent Bertha upstairs to see if Cora, identified only by the room she occupied, was awake. Bertha said that Cora was awake and she asked Burger what was wrong with her. "Don't ask me any questions and you will hear no lies," she replied.

Testimony of Dr. Kral Keog

Keog testified that he had been to the Burger house only on one occasion, February 9. He found a woman in bed, being attended by a man she identified as her husband. He gave her a prescription and left. The woman wasn't Miss Steele.

Burger's Testimony

Bertha Burger, about 35 years old, described by the New York Herald as "a squat and corpulent figure" and "not by any means unattractive in appearance," didn't plead the fifth. She testified that Cora and Cosgrove had indeed come to her house to arrange a room, and had chosen one from among three that she had shown them. The $20 was just for the room and board for two weeks. When Whitehead had come to see Cora, Cosgrove was there and sent Burger out of the room. Whitehead had come and second time and seen Cora in her room. She swore, with hand uplifted, that she didn't even know what a certificate from the Board of Health was and had not offered Whitehead $20 to obtain one. She denied reports that she had identified Whitehead as the abortionist.

She said that her husband didn't live with her, "He left me, said he did not want to work with me." Since then she'd had Wilkens as a boarder and general errand-runner who also placed ads in the newspaper for her.

When the judge declared a recess at the end of her testimony, Burger threw up her hands and "in loud tones declared that she was an innocent woman."

*

Whitehead later admitted that he'd "been concerned in several malpractice cases" and had been arrested five times, testified that he'd never been convicted in an abortion case. The police evidently believed Whitehead's story, and called him as a witness against Berger.

When the trial came, however, he pleaded the fifth when asked if he had been in Brooklyn Penitentiary from November of 1873 to July of 1875. A court clerk was then brought to the stand who testified that Whitehead had indeed been an inmate during that time, tried for "sending improper instruments through the United States Mail."

*

Cosgrove was arrested as an accessory. He plead guilty and sentenced to four years. After hearing his sentence, Cosgrove "returned to the Tombs in high spirits, and said he should never serve it, because his friends would procure his pardon."

Evidently Cosgrove had reason for optimism. "It is reported that strenuous efforts are being made to secure the pardon of Frank Cosgrove, of this city, the son of a wealthy Burling slip broker, who pleaded guilty to an indictment as a participant in the Cora Sammis malpractice case. Sentence was suspended and he is now in the Tombs living in comparative comfort. Governor Robinson has delayed sentence for two terms pending an investigation."

Eventually, though, Cosgrove did end up in prison. During his incarceration, Berger, who had been sentenced to 12 years, got her sentence reduced to five years.

Cora's death "created a deep feeling of compassion for her parents, and bitterness toward Cosgrove, in the village of Northport. The funeral of the unfortunate girl, from her father's residence, was largely attended.... The interment took place in the village cemetery. The stores were closed and the streets presented a solemn appearance. Almost every one in Northport was personally acquainted with the hapless girl. .... Her coming marriage with young Cosgrove and the preparations therefore had been widely canvassed. The people are full of charity for her. The high respect entertained for her father and the exemplary character of her mother draw toward them the sympathy of the entire community."

Sources

"Before the Court," The Lockport Daily Journal, Jan. 15, 1879
"Cora Sammis' Fate," New York Herald, Feb. 4, 1879
"Mme. Burger's Victims," New York Herald, Feb. 13, 1879
"A Vile Trade Broken Up," New York Daily Tribune, Feb. 13, 1879
"Infamy," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 13, 1879
"Cora Sammis," The Brooklyn Union and Argus, Feb. 13, 1879
"Abortion," The Chicago Tribune, Feb. 14, 1879
"The Funeral of Cora Sammis," Brooklyn Union and Argus, Feb. 15, 1879
"Cora Sammis' Death," New York Herald, Mar. 29, 1879
"Cora Sammis' Death," New York Evening Telegram, Apr. 1, 1879
"News in Brief," Brooklyn Union and Argus, Mar. 29, 1879
Untitled clipping, Brooklyn Union and Argus, Jul. 9, 1879
Untitled clipping, Brooklyn Union and Argus, Mar. 23, 1880
Untitled clipping, Brooklyn Union and Argus, illegible June date, probably 1879
Untitled clipping, Brooklyn Union and Argus, Apr. 1, illegible year, probably 1879
"A Father's Great Grief," Salem Weekly Review, date illegible
"Madame Berger's Trial," New York Daily Press, undated clipping
"Cora Samiss's Death," New York Evening Express, undated clipping

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