SUMMARY: Doris Alexander, age 30, died April 20, 1938 from an illegal abortion performed by Dr. Clinton May in San Francisco, CA.

Clinton May
Dr. Clinton E. May had crossed paths with the law when he harbored John Dillinger. In an apparent attempt to keep a low profile, he relocated to California after his release and didn't bother to get licensed to practice medicine, but rather set up housekeeping, and an abortion practice, with a woman in San Francisco using the aliases Cy Dalton and Miss Ralston, Sometimes May introduced "Miss Ralston" as his sister.

On April 12, 1939, a woman called St. Joseph's Hospital and anonymously told a doctor there that a woman had suffered uterine damage in an abortion. The doctor said to send the woman to the hospital immediately.

The woman, 30-year-old Doris Jeffreys Alexander, arrived at the hospital in a taxi. She was in critical condition. There, she told hospital staff, her husband, and the police about the abortion. Based on the information Doris had provided, police raided Clinton May's apartment the following day, finding a makeshift operating table, abundant surgical instruments typically used in abortions, and parts of a human fetus of about three or four months of gestation that was not Doris' fetus. (The court records do not explain who it was determined that the fetus was not the one from Doris' abortion.) Inexplicably, the prosecution never followed up on the obvious abortion that must have been perpetrated in order for May to have had the fetus in his apartment.

May was arrested and taken to the hospital, where Doris tentatively identified him. She never mentioned a woman being involved in the abortion.

Frances Zoffel
Doris died on April 20, and police arrested a woman named Frances Zoffel, whom they said was the mysterious "Miss Ralston."

May maintained his innocence of the abortion charges, though he admitted to conspiring with a nurse to practice medicine without a license, though he said that the nurse in question was Evelyn Fontaine and that he didn't even know Zoffel. He said that he was promoting a "feminine hygiene tablet" and treating patients for sexually transmitted diseases.

He said that on April 12 a woman had come to his apartment seeking aftercare for an abortion that another doctor had committed, and that he'd sent the woman to the hospital.

May and Zoffel charged with murder and conspiracy. May was convicted of second-degree murder, Zoffel of conspiracy. Zoffel was able to get a new trial on the grounds that she was not "Miss Ralston" and that there was no evidence linking her to May's practice, although she had been implicated in abortion rings in the past and would be implicated again in the future.

May, left, and Zofell, right
Mrs. Alexander's abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

Keep in mind that things that things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future. For more about abortion in this era, see Abortion in the 1930s.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

  • "Crime Doctor Held in Death" The Oklahoman, Apr. 21, 1938
  • "Dillinger Doctor, Nurse Convicted," The San Antonio Light, Oct. 27, 1938
  • "Dillinger Surgeon is Indicted in S. F.," San Mateo Times, May 4, 1938
  • "Doctor Sent to San Quentin," Oakland Tribune, Oct. 29, 1938
  • "Dillinger Doctor Faces Prison," Oct. 27, 1938
  • "Dr. May, Woman To Be Charged," Oakland Tribune, Apr. 21, 1938
  • "Aid to Dillinger Doctor Sought," Oakland Tribune, Apr. 15, 1938
  • People v. Zoffel, Crim. No. 2052. First Appellate District, Division One. October 20, 1939




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