Delia Mae Bell #alabama #1880s #abortifacient #19thcentury

Summary: Delia Bell, age 14, died March 25, 1889 after using an abortifacient she had obtained from barkeeper George Foule in Birmingham, AL.

The Weekly Age Herald of Birmingham, Alabama, tells the sad tale of the March 26, 1889 death of 14-year-old Delia Mae Bell:

At 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon a hearse and a carriage drove up to the main stairway of the Jackson block.... A few men and boys gathered to see what it was there for. Some of the rented rooms on the third floor brought down a casket and placed it in the hearse, and some weeping women got into one of the carriages. Then the simple procession moved slowly toward Oak Hill. There was something peculiarly pathetic about it all. Yet those who gave it a hasty glance did not appreciate the painful story that lay behind it all -- did not know how in that unostentatious casket lay the frail figure of a mere child, whose wrecked life was brought to a close in the throes of maternity, and in all probability the victim of the most heinous of murders.

A few hours before Coroner Babbitt had called six solemn-faced jury men to the side of the coffin where the dead girl lay. Even white in death she was comely. Her lips were parted and all trace of pain had gone out of her face. The frail figure was clad in white, and in the marble hands were blossoms, even whiter, while a cross of heliotrope lay on the dead breast.

"You do each of you solemnly swear to inquire for the State of Alabama into the case now pending -- who she was and how she came to her death, and a true verdict make, so help you God," said the coroner, as he raised his hand; and the six bowed assent.

A few stifled sobs came from the room adjoining. They were from the dead child's grandmother, and a mother's voice said, "My God, has it come to this."

DeliaBellTimes_Picayune_Wed__Mar_27__1889_.jpgDelia had been the product of her mother's first marriage, in Texas. After a divorce, she had moved to Alabama and married a Mr. McDermott. She separated from him, suing for divorce on the grounds of adultery, and set up a small dressmaking shop that she ran with Delia. The two of them lived with a Mrs. Bell, who I presume was Delia's maternal grandmother.

Evidently the women in that house were not of the highest repute, and neighbors reported an unseemly coming and going of men. When Delia took violently ill on a Sunday morning, the neighbors were suspicious. The first doctor called to the scene was L.G. Woodson. He arrived about 6:30 and found Delia in convulsions. He gave her a subcutaneous morphine injection then went to breakfast. When he returned, he found her once again convulsing, so he sent for Dr. W.C. Foster. He took note of the convulsions, and of a suspicious bottle. He called in yet another physician, Dr. W.E. Morris. "All the aids known to medical science were tried without avail, and about 3 o'clock in the afternoon it was decided to resort to an operation." Morris believed, based on his observations during his time there, that Delia's mother knew that she was pregnant, but her grandmother didn't. "There were hurrying feet in the hallways, and then came a hush over the place. The girl was dead." This was Monday, March 25.

The doctors notified the coroner and turned over a bottle to him that had contained an abortifacient traced to a man named George A. Foule of East Birmingham. Foule was a saloon keeper. He called his potion a treatment for "blood diseases and feminine troubles" -- a code for abortifacient.

He had first seen Delia when summoned by her grandmother. "He had talked to the dead girl about the character of her malady several times," and said that she'd told him she'd fallen down the stairs. "He claimed not to have known that the girl was in a delicate condition," though there were sufficient rumors going about for him to have reason to suspect so.

I have no information on overall maternal mortality, or abortion mortality, in the 19th century. I imagine it can't be too much different from maternal and abortion mortality at the very beginning of the 20th Century.

Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

For more on this era, see Abortion Deaths in the 19th Century.

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


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