Madame Restell was the name Ann Trow Lohman gave herself, but to New Yorkers she was known as “The Abortionist,” “Madame Killer,” and “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” Vilified as she was, she and her husband built a mansion on fashionable Fifth Avenue, proof that many wealthy clients used her services.
Restell started her business in New York during the 1830s, and by the 1840s she had franchised women’s clinics that sold her “remedies”—concoctions in pill or powder form, across the country. Abortion was not clearly legally defined and was not necessarily considered a crime.
Madame Restell advertised her medical services in penny presses and legitimate newspapers, spending an estimated $60,000 in one year alone. One ad brazenly addressed the married woman : “Is it desirable, then, for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well-being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control?” Restell was unsuccessfully indicted six times between 1839 and 1845, as eyewitnesses did not volunteer to come forward. One case, however, finally went to trial and Restell was found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to one year on Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island). Although she was provided with luxuries for her time in jail, Restell vowed she would never go back.
One of the many accusations against Restell that she sold babies was never proved. When the battered body of Mary Rogers, a popular “cigarette girl” who went missing, was found in the Hudson River, inevitably rumors circulated that Restell was behind the death to hide a botched abortion. In the end, she was not charged with the crime as there were many other suspect abortionists.
Anthony Comstock, the dreaded head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, finally entrapped Restell. As was Comstock’s wont, he paid a call in disguise, seeking pills and instruments necessary to perform an abortion. Unsuspecting, Restell sold Comstock a bottle of white powder and a syringe. Comstock left, obtained a warrant for her arrest and returned with the police, and a search revealed evidence of the illegal instruments and she was arrested.
Released on bail, Madame Restell was good to her word that she would never return to prison. She was found dead in her marble bathtub where, adorned in diamonds, the wickedest woman in New York slit her throat. Restell was laid to rest in an ostentatious mausoleum decorated with a carved figure of a sleeping infant in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery overlooking the Hudson River.
Browder, Clifford. The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell the Abortionist. Hamden: Archon, 1988.
Homberger, Eric. Scenes from the Life of a City: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
There is a comprehensive chapter on Madame Restell and the history of abortion in New York.
Keller, Alan. Scandalous Lady: The Life and Times of Madame Restell. New York’s Most Notorious Abortionist. New York: Atheneum, 1981.
“The Female Abortionist.” Madame Restell is portrayed as a villainess in the National Police Gazette, 1847.
Smith, Charles. Madam Restell: An Account of her Life and Horrible Practices, Together with Prostitution in New York, Its Extent, Causes, and Effects Upon Society . New York, 1847.