SUMMARY: Frances Collins, age 34, died May 6, 1920 from an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Warner in his Chicago office.


The year was 1920. Frances Collins was a 34-year-old homemaker mother of a 16-year-old and a 6-year-old when she discovered that she was pregnant. She informed her husband, Jerome, then asked a friend where to go to procure an abortion. The friend recommended Dr. Warner, telling her, “Go over and see him. He might be able to fix you up.”

Frances went to Warner's office on West Polk Street in Chicago some time in early April, where he did something with an instrument to have “her womb opened up.”

After returning home, Frances summoned Jerome from his job as a printer and told him she was “unwell.” She must have indicated that the illness must have something to do with her pregnancy, because Jerome later testified that he asked her, “Natural?” She told him no, which Jerome knew meant that she had undergone an abortion, as she had, by her own admission, “done many times” before.

Frances rested afterward, and seemed to have recovered, but by the end of the month she was bleeding vaginally, “pretty hard,” as Jerome put it. He called her mother to come and care for his wife. Her condition continued to deteriorate, with Frances developing vomiting and chills.

Jerome testified that Frances never gave him any details about the abortion – but nevertheless was able to summon Warner as the doctor who had performed the abortion. Warner came to the Collins home two or three times to look after his patient, with no improvement in her condition. Finally, at the end of April, somebody summoned Joseph T. Woof, the family doctor, who hospitalized her. He testified that he knew that she'd sought abortions in the past, against his advice.

Frances died on May 6. During the autopsy, it was discovered that Frances actually had an ectopic pregnancy. Her "many" prior abortions made her high-risk for this dangerous condition, so in a way the previous abortions probably contributed to her death as much as the final one. Given the state of medicine at the time, it's unclear how likely France was to survive an ectopic pregnancy had she sought obstetric care rather than an abortion, but her efforts to have her already doomed baby killed certainly hastened her death.

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 1920s.

During the first two thirds of the 20th Century, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality, including mortality from abortion. Most researches attribute this plunge to improvements in public health and hygiene, the development of blood transfusion techniques, and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.

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

Source: Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime

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