Madame Restell – a moralist drove her to her death
When conception was considered obscene
Ann Trow was born on 6 May 1812, and opinions of her could not be more diverse: while some thought she was evil personified (‘the wickedest woman in New York’), others termed her a helper and pioneer (‘a woman before her time’). At a time when contraception and abortion were illegal, she became famous under her pseudonym, Madame Restell, by selling ‘female pills’ intended to cure ‘suppressed’ or ‘blocked’ menstruation. These pills’ main ingredients were herbs presumably mixed with some opium; Ann’s brother Joseph worked as a pharmacy assistant and was a good source of information. For marketing purposes, Trow adopted the name Madame Restell, which suggested origins in France, the ‘land of love’.
In 1820, New York had become the largest city in the United States, and it was the country’s most important harbour and trade centre. By the mid-19th century, the metropolis was attracting residents of farms and small towns who were looking for work and a better life, joined by two million immigrants, most of them from Ireland and Germany. In many cases, pregnancies represented a catastrophe, particularly for young, inexperienced girls and poor families.
In the event that her pills failed to have the desired effect, Madame Restell and her second husband, Charles Lohmann, offered abortions from the 1840s to the 1870s, charging poor women 20 dollars and wealthy clients up to 100 dollars. Pregnant women could live at her house until after they gave birth, thus hiding their condition from family, friends and society at large. They worked as midwives, arranged adoptions, and served as sources of information about fertility. For this purpose they published a book with the seemingly endless title “The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion: embracing the treatment of menstruation, or monthly turns, during their stoppage, irregularity, or entire suppression. Pregnancy, and how it may be determined; with the treatment of its various diseases. Discovery to prevent pregnancy; the great and important necessity where malformation or inability exists to give birth. To prevent miscarriage or abortion. When proper and necessary to effect miscarriage. When attended with entire safety. Causes and mode of cure of barrenness, or sterility”.
Charles Lohmann, originally a printer, adopted the name Dr Mauriceau, a reference to the famous doctor François Mauriceau (1637–1709). An obstetrician at the French court, he introduced the reclining position for giving birth.
The Lohmanns quickly became rich and famous, moving into a luxurious house on Fifth Avenue and opening franchises in Boston and Philadelphia. Madame Restell was eventually so widely known that the term Restellism became a synonym for abortion. But she was operating on dangerous ground, as abortion was illegal. Her bitterest enemy was the American politician and moral crusader Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He was behind the Comstock Act, passed in 1873 to criminalise the transportation through the mails of ‘obscene, lewd, or lascivious’ materials such as books, flyers, pictures, and ‘indecent’ publications. To Comstock’s mind, contraception represented the greatest obscenity of all.
In 1878, he had Madame Restell arrested. She had gone through this before, but was unable to buy her way out of it this time. The night before she was to appear in court, she slit her own throat. Madame Restell’s fortune was estimated at $500,000 to $600,000, which would be worth about $12 to $14.4 million today. Her grave lies in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.