Eliza Sowers #pennsylvania #illegaldoctor #20s #19thcentury

SUMMARY: Eliza Sowers, age 21, died on October 13, 1838 after an abortion perpetrated at a Philadelphia boarding house by Dr. Henry Chauncey.

At Mary Kingsley's Boarding House

A Philadelphia boarding house owner named Mary Kingsley reported that on October 4, 1838, a Dr. Henry Chauncey appeared at breakfast time. "He made me make some tea of a powder that looked like black pepper."

The tea was given to 21-year-old Elizabeth "Eliza" Sowers, who until the previous May had been a worker at a paper mill in Manayunk, NJ. She'd been brought to the boarding house -- one of unsavory reputation -- by Chauncey the day before.

Eliza's path to the boarding house had not been one, it seems, of her own choosing. She had left the paper mill to work as a servant in the house of her former supervisor from the paper mill, William Nixon, "a man later accused of forcing his attentions on several of the women in his employ."*

In September, a weeping Eliza broke off her engagement with a young man from Norristown, telling him that she was "unworthy" of him. This is likely because she discovered that she was pregnant, perhaps with Nixon's baby.

Early Attempts at Abortion

Eliza made her first attempts to dislodge the fetus herself via abortifacient concoctions, including magnesia, tansy, pennyroyal, powdered roots, and a bottle and a half of some mystery medicine, "sharp to the taste," that she'd gotten from a local doctor, who said it would "make her regular." When these repeated attempts failed, Eliza ran through them a second time. At night, she would lie in the bed she shared with her sister, begging for help in ending the pregnancy.

Enter Dr. Chauncey

After the failure of her own abortion regimen, Eliza went to Nixon for advice, and he hooked her up with Chauncey, who installed her in Kingsley's boarding house, far from Eliza's home and job, knowing that nobody there would pry into what was going on.

Chauncey styled himself a "botanical physician," so it's no surprise that, after telling Eliza that her "situation could easily be remedied," he began administering various botanical preparations, including ergot, savin oil, and the black powder tea Kingsley had taken notice of. Chauncey told Eliza that under his ministrations, "nature would take its course."

The various abortion attempts had no evident ill effect on the fetus, but were making Eliza progressively more miserable. At around 2:00 the following morning, Eliza called to the boarding house owner. "She said she was very bad. She said, 'I won't take any more of that doctor's medicine; it will kill me.'"

Eventually, the landlady was so alarmed by Eliza's condition that she hunted up Chauncey and demanded that he attend "fix the situation."

The Shining Instrument

Chauncey appeared at the boarding house and went into Eliza's room, carrying something that, according to witnesses, "shined and looked like a knitting needle." Whatever it is he did to Eliza behind the closed door brought forth screams that echoed through the building.

Chauncey later said that Eliza was "the most difficult person he had ever operated on. Said the medicine he gave her was too powerful, and had acted too quick."

Eliza began bleeding heavily, and continued to do so for around a week. Chauncey decided to move her to another boarding house, this one even more disreputable than the first.

More Skilled Care Brought In

Perhaps due to her experience looking after prostitutes, the landlady at this residence was immediately wise to what was going on. She sat up with Eliza as she moaned through the night, frequently replacing the hot bricks warming the young woman's bed. The next day, she summoned a reputable physician named James Rush.

Rush later testified that he knew immediately upon seeing Eliza that she was beyond help. "I found her with a livid face, and wild, staring eyes, sighing, moaning, and exclaiming of agony. Her abdomen was very much swollen and hard and tender to the touch. Her extremities were cold and she was pulseless."

Rush did what he could to make Eliza more comfortable, staying with her and, now assisted by Chauncey, giving her glasses of wine to try to alleviate her mortal suffering. He also got Chauncey to agree to remove Eliza to his home, so that she could die in a less shameful environment.

Too Late

Chauncey arranged for Eliza to be moved to his house the following day, October 13. It was too late, however. Either during transit or immediately upon arrival, Eliza breathed her last.

Chauncey and Nixon went to Eliza's family home that evening to say that she had died of "impacted bowels" and "inflammation due to excessive food and drink and exposure to a damp draft." A second doctor, William Armstrong, had signed a death certificate to that effect.

The Truth Exposed

Eliza's brother heart Chauncey's explanation but was having none of it. He demanded that Eliza's body be exhumed and examined. Three physicians, including Dr. Charles D. Meigs, then chair of obstetrics at Philadelphia's prestigious Jefferson Medical College, noted that Eliza's uterus was twice a normal non-pregnant size. When they cut into her swollen breast, milk escaped. They agreed that Eliza had been at least five months into her pregnancy and had died from "laceration of the uterus caused by an instrumental abortion."

Nixon, who had arranged the abortion; Chauncey, who had perpetrated it; and Armstrong, who had covered it up, went to trial using a defense based on attacking the reputations of Eliza, her family, her fiance, and the woman who ran the boarding house. Chauncey went so far as to deny that Eliza had suffered, saying instead that she had died after "a period of religious ecstasy" during which she joyfully whispered prayers with a placid smile on her face.

Armstrong and Nixon won acquittals. Chauncey faced multiple charges but was convicted only of malpractice, not the double murder of Eliza and her unborn baby.

Eliza's abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

*Violent Death in the City: Suicide, Accident, and Murder in Nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Roger Lane, Harvard University Press, 1979

Philadelphia Public Ledger, Friday, October 26, 1838

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 overall public health 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
Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1838


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