Elizabeth Hellman #oklahoma #30s #1950s #infection

SUMMARY: Elizabeth Hellman, age 35, died February 6, 1952 after an abortion perpetrated by lay abortionist Jane McDaniel White.

Elizabeth Barbara Hellman was the 35-year-old wife of an Air Force major who had been stationed in Tokyo for over a year. Evidently Betty found the separation lonely, for she became pregnant while he was away.

On January 28, 1952, Betty was admitted to the Tinker Air Force Base hospital in critical condition, suffering from pain and low blood pressure. Her red blood count was very low, and her white count very high, indicating infection. She admitted to having undergone an abortion on January 25.

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Jane McDaniel White arrested
When questioned by investigators on January 31, Betty said that friends had referred her to a woman named Jane. She was shown a photo and identified the woman in it, 43-year-old Mrs. Jane McDaniel White, as her abortionist. She gave White's address as the place she had gone for the abortion.

Betty said that White had put her off for several days while she got over her fear of undergoing the abortion. She promised White $100, but only paid her $50. White initiated the abortion with some kind of packing and sent Betty home.

Betty became very ill, and called White, who with her daughter came to Betty's home and "scraped her out".

After Betty gave her statement, police raided White's home. White and her daughter, Mrs. S. B. Anderson, Jr., were nowhere to be found. Police eventually tracked the pair down and arrested them for murder and procuring an abortion.

White said that Betty had indeed come to her home, asking for Jane, and saying that she thought she was pregnant. White told investigators, "She said she had been taking medicine and she was vomiting. She also said she had been taking white capsules and shots." (Betty said that the medicine and shots had been in anticipation of travel to Japan to join her husband.) She said that Betty had asked who could perform an abortion, and insisted that she'd told Betty she "was not in the business."

However, White said, she treated Betty for ptomaine poisoning, which she believed was what was causing Betty's vomiting. She admitted to visiting Betty at her home, but said that she had only given her a laxative to treat ptomaine poisoning. White admitted to having no medical training, and said that she "had no right" to diagnoses whether or not Betty was pregnant, but she was qualified to diagnose the ptomaine poisoning because she'd had a bout of it herself.

Betty died on February 6, from peritonitis. Her husband had managed to rush home from Tokyo in time to see his wife before she died. An autopsy verified that an abortion had been performed and had caused Betty's death.

The criminal case against White went well until the defense managed to have the Betty's deathbed statement, given on January 31, inadmissible because it couldn't be proved satisfactorily that Betty believed herself to be near death. With the deathbed statement thrown out, the case was dropped.

This had been White's third arrest for abortion charges. She had been convicted in 1947, under the name Jane McDaniel, and sentenced to seven years, but the conviction was thrown out on a technicality based on how advanced the girl's pregnancy had been. A new trial had been scheduled, but it never took place because the main prosecution witness had left the state or died. White was clearly operating as an abortionist, since an operating table, fashioned from an old restaurant table, and surgical instruments had been sized from her home at the time of her arrest -- "enough instruments and medicine to stock a small hospital." She was charged again in 1951 but the main witness had vanished and the case had been dismissed.

Betty's abortion was unusual in that it was performed by an amateur, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.

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During the 1950s, we see an anomaly: Though maternal mortality had been falling during the first half of the 20th Century, and abortion mortality in particular had been plummeting, the downward trend slowed, then reversed itself briefly. I have yet to figure out why. For more, see Abortion Deaths in the 1950's.

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

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Photo courtesy of Gateway to Oklahoma History