Madame Restell: The Abortionist on Fifth Avenue

Without benefit of medical training, Madame Restell spent 40 years as a “female physician.”
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Victorian-era women experiencing “female trouble” could pick up a daily newspaper, scan the advertisements and translate the euphemisms. A dash of “uterine tonic,” an application of a “female wash,” a brushing of “carbolic purifying powder” or any product with “French” in the title promised to prevent conception, while a “female regulator,” “rose injections” or a dose of “cathartic pills” could alleviate “private difficulties” and “remove obstructions.” They knew the key ingredients—pennyroyal, savin, black draught, tansy tea, oil of cedar, ergot of rye, mallow, motherwort—as well as the most trusted name in the business: Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, whose 40-year career as a “female physician” made her a hero to desperate patients and “the Wickedest Woman in New York” to nearly everyone else.

Restell, like many self-proclaimed physicians of the time, had no real medical background. Born Ann Trow in May 1812 in Painswick, England, she had little formal education and began working as a maid at age 15. A year later she married a tailor named Henry Summers. They had a daughter, Caroline, in 1830, and the following year sailed for New York City, where they settled on William Street in Lower Manhattan. A few months after they arrived, in August 1831, Henry died of bilious fever. Ann supported herself as a seamstress, doing piecework at home so she could look after Caroline while she worked, all the while longing for something better. Around 1836, she met 27-year-old Charles Lohman, a printer at the New York Herald. He was well-educated and literate, a habitué of a bookstore on Chatham Street where the city’s radical philosophers and freethinkers gathered to debate, and he began publishing tracts about contraception and population control.

Read more on the Smithsonian Magazine blog.