Almost a week after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the New York Times has a poignant op-ed column today about the death of Ann Lohman. Lohman died in 1878, and she technically did so by her own hand, but she was by far the most famous casualty of the anti-choice forces before the passage of Roe v. Wade. The op-ed, written by Kate Manning, skillfully highlights that the fight over abortion in this country and the vitriol therein is not something limited to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
To summarize Ann Lohman’s life, which is laid out in more detail in the Times column, she was an English midwife who emigrated to New York, called herself Madame Restell, and sold herbs and pills that were designed to terminate pregnancies:
The medicines — mostly herbs, perhaps some opium — promised relief from an “obstructed womb” and “suppressed” menstruation. “Not to be used when *******,” declared one of the many coy ads she placed, “as miscarriage may occur.”
She charged on a sliding scale depending on her patient’s ability to pay, and also taught sex education classes, delivered babies, and provided adoption services. Like Tiller, she was not a person who could be reduced to merely an “abortionist”. Lohman grew increasingly wealthy due to her practice, and became a high-profile target for the mudslinging journalists, but it is worth noting that not one woman is known to have died at her skillful hands. She was noted for her exceptionally kind bedside manner and was dedicated to providing all manner of reproductive rights to the women of New York City.
Lohman was arrested multiple times over the years, often being held for months in jail without bail. Because of the convoluted laws against abortion that made the procedure difficult to prosecute, she was convicted only once. It was Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who proved to be her downfall. Comstock entrapped Lohman by purchasing abortifacient medicines and then had her arrested. (Comstock also clashed with Margaret Sanger, and arranged for the arrest of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin.) Lohman feared that she would not survive more time in prison so, before she could stand trial, she committed suicide at the age of 66 by slitting her throat in her bathtub.
The tabloids, predictably, had a field day:
“A bloody ending to a bloody life,” Comstock commented upon hearing of her death. The newspapers echoed his sentiments. “The end of sin is death,” wrote The New York Tribune, and The Times editorialized that Lohman’s death was “a fit ending to an odious career.”
Manning sees past the sensationalism of Lohman’s story and demonstrates how her death, as well as Tiller’s, illustrate the hurdles that those practitioners dedicated to reproductive rights can face deadly persecution. She also reinforces the truth that the deaths of abortion providers will not eradicate abortion itself. “Lohman’s death did not put an end to abortion, nor to the battle fought over it,” Manning writes. “The murder of Dr. George Tiller will not accomplish those ends either.”