Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist
“This brightly written biography of a fierce woman lost to history will appeal strongly to feminists.”
When Archbishop John Joseph Hughes in 1850 announced plans to move the old St. Patrick’s cathedral from the Lower East Side to a magnificent new building uptown on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-First Street, the infamous and wealthy abortionist Madame Restell saw a wonderful opportunity for a snub.
For about $1 million in today’s money, she bought the plot of land—across the street from the new church site—where the archbishop had intended to build a residence for himself.
While uptown Manhattan was largely unpopulated, the new cathedral anticipated the needs of the city’s burgeoning Irish Catholic faithful. Now, every Sunday parishioners would look out at the ostentatious home of a renowned abortionist.
In this timely, admiring biography of one of 19th century New York’s ballsiest providers of abortion (with pills or with surgery), Wright makes clear that Madame Restell (she was not French—one of many deceptions) took great pleasure in sparring with moralists who attacked her.
The moralists were men.
Restell became “one of the era’s savviest businesswomen, writing editorials in the big city newspapers and publicizing services her competitors merely whispered about, writes the author. “Her adversaries were at least as upset about the idea of a woman making that much money and consuming that much attention as they were about the very idea of abortion.”
She adds: Restell “made men really, really mad. She deserves a place in the pantheon of women with no fucks left to give.”
Born poor in England, Ann Trow (her real name) entered domestic service at age 15, married, and went to America in 1831. Her husband died when she was 21, leaving her with the care of a toddler. She began working as a seamstress mending clothing for neighbors.
She soon met Dr. William Evans, a nearby pill-maker who taught her his trade. She was manufacturing pills on her own for various ailments when a woman asked her for a medicine to help induce a miscarriage. She mixed the needed dangerous ingredients and launched her career as an abortionist and birth control provider.
Advertising in New York newspapers under the fictitious persona of Madame Restell—a French physician with many lovers who understood the needs of women—she built a thriving practice, with many repeat customers, and began offering surgical abortions (once again, apparently learning from Dr. Evans).
Wright details Restell’s controversial clashes with newspaper publishers, her many arrests by the police (she was imprisoned in New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island penitentiary, where she was treated royally), and her “infamous but ladylike” ways on her frequent jaunts to Europe.
She was beautiful, always decked out in expensive clothes and jewelry, but she had far more than a merely business interest in abortion, writes Wright. Madame Restell had grown up in poverty and saw all around her how poor women struggled to provide for children. Her sensible, lifesaving services won the praise of clients: “God bless you dear madam,” wrote one woman, “you have taken off the primal curse denounced upon Mother Eve in Eden.”
Her devotion to the wellbeing of unmarried women in need of abortions and birth control allowed her to save thousands of lives, says the author. “Despite having no formal training and a near-constant stream of women knocking at her door, she never lost a patient.”
Her celebrity, wealth, and certainty that she knew what was best for women prompted her spiteful action against the archbishop when St. Patrick’s Cathedral opened on Fifth Avenue. She lived with her husband and grandchildren in the striking mansion she had built across the street until Anthony Comstock, the anti-vice activist renowned for push antiabortion laws, came calling in 1878.
Posing as a married man worried about his wife’s health—she had already had too many children—Comstock bought some miscarriage-inducing pills from Restell. The next day he had her arrested under the newly enacted federal Comstock Act. On the eve of her trial, unable to bear the thought of prosecution and imprisonment, she slit her own throat in the bathtub. She was 67.
Wright tells the famed abortionist’s fascinating story against the background of the broader history of abortion. (“The first clear written description of abortion dates back to 1550 BCE,” she writes.) Throughout, she makes a strong case for the right of every woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
This brightly written biography of a fierce woman lost to history will appeal strongly to feminists.