By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Earlier this month, the FDA finalized a regulation allowing Americans to obtain a prescription for milepristone-misoprostol, also known as the abortion pill, at a pharmacy. Back during the 1890s, Elmirans could get abortion pills at their pharmacies too. In 1892, the Elmira Advertiser ran a series of ads for Chickester’s English Diamond Brand Pennyroyal Pills, which promised to provide safe and reliable relief for women, but never flat out said what kind of relief. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is an herb native to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, but is now found across the world. It was first described as an abortifacient and emmenaogue by ancient Greek physicians over 2,000 years ago, but likely was used long before that to both cause miscarriages and promote regular periods. In her 1895 book Talks to My Patients, local physician and women’s health expert Dr. Rachel Gleason recommended against such nostrums and female pills due to the potential dangers. Pennyroyal is, after all, toxic and causes symptoms ranging from vomiting and dizziness to organ failure and death. Modern abortion medication, on the other hand, is safe and over 90% effective when taken in the first 10 weeks.
Ad for Pennyroyal pills from Elmira Advertiser, December 5, 1892
Historically speaking, women have always sought abortions to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. Surveys conducted of middle class women in several states in during the 1920s found that 10 to 20 percent had had an abortion at one point. A survey conducted by Margret Sanger of 10,000 working-class women at her birth control clinics during the same period found that 20 percent of all pregnancies had been intentionally aborted. By the 1960s, approximately 1 million abortions were being performed annually in the United States. This is despite the fact that prior to the Roe v Wade ruling in 1973, abortion had been illegal in most states since the 1820s.
New York State first made abortion a crime in 1829. Under the law, abortions performed after quickening, i.e. when the mother first felt the baby move or about four months after conception, were felonies. This was in keeping with a larger movement within the country beginning with Connecticut in 1821. New York was the first state to amend their abortion laws to include exceptions to save the life of the woman. All of these early laws were targeted at abortion providers, rather than women who had had an abortion. In 1845, New York became one of just fifteen states to criminalize women who had obtained an abortion, prescribing a sentence of three months to a year, but few women were ever actually prosecuted. In 1872, abortion at all stages of pregnancy became illegal, except in cases where the woman’s health was in danger. In 1970, New York passed a law decriminalizing abortion, three years prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade which decriminalizing the procedure nationwide. Despite the repeal of Roe in 2022, abortion remains legal in New York.
Over all, considering the large numbers of people obtaining abortions, few people were ever actually successfully prosecuted for the crime. Most abortions were performed in secret and few women came forward to either admit to their crime or accuse the abortion provider. Most prosecutions occurred only when something had gone seriously wrong. Based on my research of local newspapers, only 6 people in Chemung County were ever successfully convicted of abortion, although several more were charged with it.
During the 1910s, there were two high-profile abortion cases tried in local courts. The first case was against Dr. Daniel G. Carey, who was alleged to have provided Miss Mae Cunningham of Columbia Cross Roads, Pennsylvania, with an abortion in late December 1912. According to the prosecution, Cunningham had come to Elmira Heights to stay with her cousin Mrs. Maude Bennett who took her to Carey. The young woman developed complications from the procedure and died in Arnot-Ogden Hospital on January 5, 1913 after explaining exactly what happened to her attending physician. Dr. Carey was charged with manslaughter and abortion. Although the local papers initially assumed it was a slam-dunk case, it was subsequently thrown out by the judge after Miss Cunningham’s ante-mortem testimony was deemed inadmissible.
The next case occurred in 1916. Sweethearts Lillian Stiles and Earl Stevens were engaged to be married in June and decided to engage in some pre-marital sex. Stiles got pregnant and decided to obtain an abortion rather than move the wedding up. The couple went together to Dr. Frank Flood, respected local physician and former mayor, who allegedly performed an abortion. She was admitted to Arnot-Ogden Hospital on March 30 and subsequently died on April 6, 1916 due to complications. She and Stevens were married on her deathbed, shortly after she named Flood as the abortionist. Both he and her new husband were arrested after her death and charged with manslaughter and abortion. As with Carey, Flood escaped prison, not because the case was thrown out, but because he died of cancer of the jaw before it could go to court. Stevens plead guilty to his role and was sentenced to state prison.
Dr. Frank Flood, 1916
In 1945, Dr. Maurice Miller of Elmira was found guilty of abortion and manslaughter after his patient, Mrs. Florence Lee, died of an infection following her abortion. Dr. Miller claimed that he’d provided the abortion on legitimate, therapeutic grounds as Lee had suffered an incomplete miscarriage and had an infection, but the autopsy refuted that. Miller was sentenced to 24 years in prison, but, in November, the verdict in the manslaughter case against him was reversed after Mrs. Lee’s dying declaration was thrown out. In December, Miller plead guilty to abortion and was stripped of his license to practice medicine and sentenced to four years in prison.
In addition to doctors, local women also were known to perform abortions. In 1932, Mrs. Eva Doud of Elmira Heights was convicted of proving 19-year-old Charlotte Mix with an abortion at her home. Unlike in earlier cases, Mix survived and even testified at the trial. In 1943, a married couple, Fitzhugh and Jennie Miller of the Town of Southport were caught up in a sting operation by the State Police after a former patient accused them of providing her abortion. The couple were both found guilty of both abortion and attempted abortion. In 1946, Mrs. Mary Vickery was charged with providing an abortion to Miss Mercedes Strickland, the first woman in Chemung County to be charged for her own abortion, although neither were ever convicted. Unlike the doctors charged with abortion, all of these people’s patients survived.
Looking at the history of abortion in Chemung County and, indeed, the country as a whole, it is clear that people who do not wish to be pregnant will seek abortions whether or not they are legal. Studies show that the only effective way to reduce abortions is through increased sex education and access to reliable birth control.