Category: Lest We Forget

Susan X

Dr Harvey Lothringer is a doctor who served four years in prison for performing an illegal abortion on a 19-year-old  woman who died during the procedure. He dismembered her body and flushed it down the toilet.

Imagine being 18, pregnant scared to death-it was very different In those days. I had abusive parents and no one to turn  to. Another doctor referred me to Lothringer after confirming my pregnancy.

A lot of people In those days did abortions. Most were greedy people who didn’t know what they were doing, but some were  concerned people with good reputations. Lothringer was there for the money and was totally unconcerned with what happened to his patients.

He charged me $400, which he made me pay up front. We went there in the evening. He wouldn’t let my boyfriend stay.

Lothringer and I proceeded to the operating room. He gave me a shot to put me out. As I was fading, I saw him come into the  room, stripped to the waist, with his German shepherd. I always assumed it was to dispose of the evidence, but I have tried not to think about it.

When the anesthetic wore off, I was crying and yelling and he was telling me to shut up. He couldn’t give me any more  anesthetic, because I had to be out of there as soon as he was finished. I got up and was not really feeling too terrific and he  said, “You have to leave.” My boyfriend had not come back yet, but he showed me the back door and said to go.

He had scraped so much of the lining of my uterus that I didn’t have a period for a year. Very soon afterwards, I read  about Lothringer murdering a girl. Knowing how he operated, I Iways assumed he was responsible. He was very strange.  Cutting her up and flushing her down the sewer! I remember acing about it and thanking God I got out of there alive.

It scares me when I read about saving the unborn babies cause the rest of the equation is the desperate young girls. I  as in no position to have a child. I had nowhere to go. I want no one else to ever have to go through this.

Emma Goldman

Thanks to Marilyn Cole-Greene for sending the article “Immigrant Women and Family Planning: Historical Perspectives for Genealogical Research” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, DBRS, from which this excerpt was taken. It appeared in the June 1996 “National Genealogical Society Quarterly. “

Women uneducated in modern scientific methods of birth control had few alternatives. New mothers prolonged the lactation period. Abstinence. coitus interruptus, and delayed marriage were the common pre-pregnancy options for limiting family size. For husband and wife, “sleeping the American way” meant separate beds, if not separate bedrooms. If living quarters were cramped, as was often the case in urban, ethnic tenements, the girls might sleep with their mother and the boys with their father to further encourage an abstinent relationship. The dilemma for the immigrant woman was clear. As one historian concluded, “The way to keep your husband, then, was to avoid pregnancy, and the way to avoid pregnancy was to avoid your husband – which was also likely to drive him out.”

Historians also have concluded that abortion was simply a form of contraception for many, if not most, immigrant wives of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries . . . Margaret Sanger the pioneer of the birth control movement, recalled from the beginning of her career the formative impression she had as she “watched groups of 50 women [in New York’s Lower East Side], shawls over their heads, line up outside the office of a $5.00 abortionist.” . . New York City coroner’s records for the early 1900s show an average of three deaths a month from abortion, while other officials estimated “about 100,000 abortions performed there every year.”

Emma Goldman described the desperation she observed among the female patients: “Most of them lived in continual dread of conception; the great mass of the married women submitted helplessly, and when they found themselves pregnant, their alarm and worry would result in the determination to get rid of their expected offspring. It was incredible what fantastic methods despair could invent: jumping off tables, rolling on the floor, massaging the stomach, drinking nauseating concoctions and using blunt instruments”

Immigrant Women and Family Planning

“Like her urban sisters. the frontier woman (from 1880 to 1920) frequently used folk remedies to bring about a delayed menstrual period, regardless of the cause. Due to laws against distributing contraceptive products and information, menstrual “regulators” were advertised in rural newspapers like the “Nebraska Farmer,” making abortifacients easily obtainable through the mail. Women also exchanged advice with friends and neighbors about home birth control and abortion “remedies.” For example:

To prevent conception, (a woman should) eat the dried lining of a chicken’s gizzard (or) take gunpowder in small doses for three mornings . . . A woman who wants to put an end to her childbearing must throw the afterbirth of her last baby down an old well or walk directly over the spot where the afterbirth was buried. (She should) drink a tea made from rusty nail water, or rub (her) navel with quinine and turpentine morning and night for several days: each of these remedies can induce abortion.

Doctors prescribed heavy does of purgatives to cleanse the system and induce menstruation. “American Folk Medicine” lists three pages of remedies for “obstructed menses,” recommended by physicians and midwives practicing from about 1830 to the 1930s; some of these concoctions proved to be deadly to the mother herself . . .

From: “Immigrant Women and Family Planning” in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, June 1996

Gerri Santoro

[Lest Picture] Once anonymous, this woman found dead from an illegal abortion on a motel room floor in June, 1964, has been identified by her sister. She was Gerri Santoro of Connecticut, a mother of two facing her third pregnancy. Santoro and her two daughters had been victims of an abusive husband/father. Santoro’s sister, Leona Gordon, revealed Santoro’s story in the Jane Gillooly documentary, “Leona’s Sister Gerri,” presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in March, 1995. WCLA was given a copy of the photo, which came from the NYC Medical Examiner, in 1972.

The Bad Old Days

By Polly Rothstein

In Connecticut, where I grew up, birth control was illegal. Feminists had lobbied to repeal the law for decades, but lawmakers refused. I wondered how women-in-the-know avoided pregnancy. Some men used condoms (where did they get them?), but many women had shotgun weddings or hid out in homes for unwed mothers. Some got illegal abortions (pregnancy tests took two weeks – after you had missed two periods). One who graduated from high school with me in 1954, her belly-of-shame to big to hide and no ring on her finger, was scorned. I still feel for her.

In 1958, fresh out of college and unworldly, I moved to Cambridge to get a job and share an apartment with my friend X.

Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts, too. X announced that she was pregnant and that neither her psychiatrist nor her gynecologist would arrange a therapeutic abortion (essential for mental or physical health).

Barely able to utter “abortion,” we said, “get rid of it,” and saw no alternative. X called acquaintances for “a name,” any name; qualifications were low priority. One referred us to Dr. Robert Spencer in Ashland, Penn, instructing X to complain of a vaginal discharge. We missed the humor of going from Cambridge to coal country for a vaginal discharge. Dr. Spencer told us the procedure would take two visits, what motel to call, and where to park.

Dr. Spencer’s office was weird – walls and ceilings brimming with souvenir plaques from the gift shops in places like Lake George. One was a drawing of a vase that became the silhouette of two people when you stared at it. We avoided eye contact with the others in the waiting room, all of us too scared, unwilling to swap how-I-got-here stories, seek or give solace, or make small talk. X and I whispered to each other.

Dr. Spencer was white-haired and kindly, but couldn’t ease our fear. He packed X’s vagina with something to dilate her cervix and told us to come back in the morning. I have no memory of the evening. In the morning, I was fearful when Dr. Spencer installed me in a tiny room to wait it out and took X with him. The room had a chair, cot, afghan, and a black paperback, Crimes of Passion. I fantasized telling X’s parents where we were, and why, and that she was dead. Eventually, Dr. Spencer came in with X over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, out cold. He gently unloaded her on the cot, her eyes rolled back so the whites showed. After she came to and had rested, he checked her and gave her post-op instructions and antibiotics. The entire charge was $50.

Dr. Spencer was the beloved town doctor, protected by the police, and a hero to women around the nation. He’s in all the books about illegal abortions, and is the subject of a new documentary, “Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town.” His file of requests from desperate women and thanks from women he helped (some still put flowers on his grave) is an education in itself. We realized how lucky we were when we heard horror stories: the difficulties amassing the huge fees the butchers charged, being driven around blindfolded so as not to know where the deed was done, forced sex with the abortionist before he’d get to work, the tied hands and the mouth stuffed to muffle the cries of pain from abortions without anesthesia, the soiled equipment, the hemorrhaging, the lies to the hospital emergency room, and the newspaper reports of women who died trying not to become a mother.

I was married in NY in 1959. Though illegal, birth control was available in NYC, where I had a traumatic visit to Planned Parenthood, which required a doctor’s note affirming I was getting married. Feeling like a loose woman and a liar, I also brought my newspaper engagement notice. If you’re stunned at that, a friend’s story tops it. After being fit for a diaphragm, she watched the doctor poke a hole in it so she could use it only for insertion practice, and return for a new one a day before her wedding.

My question about Connecticut women was answered in 1965 when I volunteered at the Port Chester Planned Parenthood, which had been established so they could beat the system. They took the train to Port Chester, walked to the clinic for an exam and “supplies,” and boarded the train home with the bootleg diaphragm in a plain brown bag.

Also in 1965, the Supreme Court threw out Connecticut’s contraceptive ban, interpreting the Constitution to give married women the right to privacy in such matters. (yes, 1965 and married women only.) In 1972, the Court let single women in on it, and a year later, January 22 1973, ruled in Roe v. Wade that the privacy right included abortion.

Are you surprised at the stories, and how recent reproductive rights are? Do you know that the anti-abortion religions and their legislative accomplices have already limited women’s control over their pregnancies? Do you know you can save our rights by electing pro-choice candidates?