Monday, January 23, 2023

A Brief History of Abortion in Chemung County

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.


Monday, January 9, 2023

The Duck that Laid the Golden Cure

by Monica Groth, Curator

An Illustration Satirizing Medical "Quackery" in the March 1867
edition of The Herald of Health medical journal .

The medical world of the 19th century was chaotic. Physicians were only beginning to understand that bacteria and viruses caused disease, and different doctors had different ideas about what constituted a wonder drug and how much of it was a poisonous dose. As a patient of the 19th century you might be treated with calomel (which contained toxic mercury), cocaine injections (used to treat afflictions from eye ailments to in-grown toenails), or heaping tablespoons of the herb “Indian tobacco” (popularized by Samuel Thomson, who later faced murder charges due to the results it had on his patients). If you were interested in the reform-minded “Eclectic” medical movement, to which Elmira’s Drs. Rachel and Silas Gleason belonged, you might try various botanical and natural cures as well as novel electrotherapy treatments (using electricity to treat the body). The Gleasons primarily promoted clean air, exercise, and water treatments (which chiefly meant putting patients in baths of varying temperatures and salinities) at their Water Cure on Elmira’s East Hill (check out some objects from the Water Cure on display at the Museum now).

The 19th century was also the century of quack remedies – cures hawked by peddlers in get-rich-quick schemes. The popularity of such remedies coincided with a growing resolution among the lower and middle classes to shun the elitist medical establishment and be one’s own doctor in a democratic America. Numerous patent “formulas”, “syrups”, and “tinctures” contained dangerous herbs or metals dissolved in hefty quantities of alcohol or morphine. In 1868, The Herald of Health, a New York medical journal warned, “The quacks are generally a wide awake business set of fellows… If there is one species of dishonesty that is more wicked than any other, it is the attempt to thus play with those who are sick.”

One little-known and interesting treatment patented and publicized after the Civil War was Dr. Keeley’s “Gold Cure”. Dr. Leslie E. Keeley was an Army Surgeon who’d witnessed fellow soldiers become dependent upon alcohol. Against the backdrop of temperance movements across the country, questions swirled around what could be done to effectively “cure the inebriate”. A Herald of Health essay by J.B. Fuller Walker, director of the Cleveland Ohio “inebriate asylum”, attempted the use of Turkish baths and Swedish vibratory treatments, but admitted the difficulty in treating those who suffered from alcoholism and addiction. At the time, people were inclined to consider alcoholism a moral failing – not a treatable disease.  As put by the Elmira-published medical journal The Bistoury in 1877, “The moral aspect of intemperance is abundantly preached, while the medical bearing of the vice is seldom broached.”

Keeley broached the topic, and his treatment was soon to reach The Bistoury’s city. He famously announced that alcoholism could be treated, along with other addictions – by medicinal gold. After early experiments (of dubious success) conducted with temperance lecturer Frederick Hargreaves, Keely marketed his cure and established a “Gold Cure” institution in Dwight, Illinois where patients could come for treatment. While the chemical compound bichloride of gold was reportedly the key to the treatment, it was mixed with “mystery” ingredients to make a tonic, a teaspoon of which was taken by the patient 4 times a day. The “mystery” cure was then a closely guarded secret, but is now believed to have contained the toxic alkaloids strychnine and atropine, along with willow-bark, ammonia, and coca. In 1886, Keeley introduced the injectable version of his cure which, according to scholar April White, “left a reassuring golden stain on the upper arm” [1]. Patients lined up in “the shooting gallery” at the cure to be injected with a custom cocktail of blue, white, and red liquids.

Opinions on whether Keeley’s cure was genius or sheer quackery diverged. Some “graduates” of the cure swore to its efficacy, while others denounced it. Some thought laws should be established making the cure compulsory and government-funded. Keeley’s treatment spread rapidly, eventually leading to the establishment of over 100 affiliated “gold cures” across the country. Gold Cures directly affiliated with Keeley's Dwight Institute were established across New York State in Westfield, Binghamton, Geneseo, Babylon, and White Plains (this last establishment being infiltrated and investigated by the famous journalist Nellie Bly). Many more “imitators” opened their own cures inspired by Keeley’s treatment. Throughout the last decade of the 19th century, the Elmira Star-Gazette announced the opening of independent gold cures in Corning, Seneca Falls, Bemus Point, Wellsville, and in New Athens and Blossburg, Pennsylvania. The administration of a course of the Keeley treatment at the Soldier’s Home in Bath in 1894 was also publicized in the paper. It wasn't long before the gold cure arrived in Chemung County. 

The Elmira city coroner Dr. J. A. Westlake and associate Dr. Frank A. Flood established a branch of the Monroe Improved Gold Cure of “the vogue at Bemus Point, Chautauqua Lake” at Coroner Westlake’s Sanitarium on Lake Street in 1892. There, the gold cure was offered amongst other treatments until it was discontinued a year later “owning to the objections raised by ladies” who appear to have disapproved of the patients attracted to the cure.

But shortly thereafter, in 1894, a new gold cure arrived in Elmira. It was known as the Telfair Sanitarium after its parent institution - established by Dr. William Telfair in Rochester, NY. Dr. Telfair had sent a representative, a Mr. Jackson, to Elmira, and Jackson’s efforts and people’s interest soon led to the opening of Elmira’s own branch of the cure at 52 S. Main Street. Operated by Dr. Nathaniel Love and managed by the aforementioned Jackson, the cure appears to have been a success. One 1894 advert in the Star Gazette announces, “The success of the Telfair Sanitarium in Elmira is phenomenal. Why? Because they are making happy homes by their successful cures of those addicted to liquor.” The patients reportedly left the Sanitarium “changed individuals” and an 1895 article highlighting Dr. Love’s work deemed it “unequalled”.  

Advertisement for The Elmira Sanitarium Gold Cure in the Star-Gazette, Feb. 4, 1896

However, in 1895, Dr. Telfair announced he was breaking with the Elmira branch. As often happened in the world of treatment schemes, disciples became hated “imitators” when they became rivals and quickly lost favor with their early colleagues (just as Telfair had deemed himself superior to Keeley years before). The Telfair Sanitarium of Elmira however, despite losing its connection to Rochester, continued to promote its gold treatments, renaming itself the Elmira Sanitarium Gold Cure and advertising its services through the last years of the 19th century.

The gold cure could be dangerous, and death announcements in the Star-Gazette attest that patients hoping to be cured often perished under treatment. One Elmiran succumbed at a Corning Gold Cure in 1893. Whether this was due to the gold injections, his poor health upon arrival, or both, is impossible to say. At least two other deaths were reported that year to have taken place at the gold cure in Blossburg, Pennsylvania.

Though Keeley’s tonics and injections weren’t medically sound, his institutes left an enduring legacy. Patients at the cures socialized and talked with each other about their habits and resolutions and after completing the cure the so-called “graduates” formed clubs to hold each other accountable and seek sobriety together. An Elmira branch of the Gold Cure Club was founded in 1896 and raised money to send those who wanted to take the cure to the Sanitarium. Many credit these organizations as forerunners of discussion based programs continued by Alcoholics Anonymous today.

[1] White, April. Inside a Nineteenth-Century Quest to End Addiction. JStorDaily 2016.