Monday, November 4, 2013

The Wickedest Woman of New York - My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

Ann Lohman 
(Madame Restell)

Ann Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, was the most notorious abortionist in New York in the late 1800’s. She was born in GloucestershireEngland to working class parents. When she was sixteen, she married Henry Summer. Three years later, they immigrated to the U.S. Not long after they arrived, Henry fell ill and died of yellow fever. Nearly destitute, Ann struggled to survive and found menial work as a seamstress.

In 1836, Ann met and married a printer by the name of Charles Lohman, a radical, free thinker, and a man who owned a controversial press. Charles had a brother who worked in a pharmacy. In partnership with her husband and brother-in-law, Ann developed an interest in women’s medicines and cures and birth control under the name of Madame Restell. Her business started so simply at first – via mail order, she sold pills made from opium and herbs that promised to relieve an obstructed womb and suppress menstruation. A clear and clever warning on the ads or pill containers clearly stated: Not to be used when pregnant as miscarriage may occur.” Her small mail-order business thrived. She grew rich and expanded into Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. She scandalously drove her fine carriage through Central Park. A celebrity of the times, the press followed her movements, writing about her wardrobe, her silk and velvet gowns, her elaborate hats, and ostentatious five-story house, with its lush gardens and stables.

With so much money coming in, she could afford to expand her business even more. In case the pills did not work, Lohman soon offered procedures in her offices charging anywhere between $20 to $100, depending on the ability of the woman to pay. Her office became a place for poor, pregnant women to find help or refuge, where babies could be delivered or placed for adoption, and where they could be educated about birth control or sex education. As her notoriety grew, so did her business and fame. Her clientele increased and many women of the upper classes became regular customers. Increasingly, she found herself under attack by the newspaper of the time. Many refused her advertisements.

Lohman’s wealth and unrepentant behavior made her a tabloid favorite. The newspapers called her a hag of misery or a modern thug of civilized society and the lady of the death’s head and marrow bones. Angry protests turned into riots as the tide of popularity turned against her. A mob surrounded Lohman’s house chanting, “Hanging’s too good for her!” and “This house is built on babies’ skulls.” Ann Lohman’s nemesis was a religious crusader by the name of Anthony Comstock. He made it his mission in life to fight against abortion. He persuaded Congress to prohibit the sale or distribution of materials that could be used for contraception or abortion, or the sending of such materials by mail. As a special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock entrapped Lohman by posing as a husband seeking abortion services for a lady. When she provided him with some tablets, he returned and arrested her — accompanied by two reporters. She faced years in jail.

Comstock arresting Restell
Zealous prosecutors began to pursue her despite the fact that abortion laws were weak and violations difficult to prosecute, but witnesses were reluctant to come forward and early pregnancy could not be proved. Between 1839 to 1877, Lohman was arrested at several times and kept in jail for months at a time without bail. Rumors said that there was a special sewer she had built between her house and the Hudson River to dispose of bodies. They even blamed her for the famous unsolved murder of a cigar girl. But all her arrests resulted in only one conviction and she served 1 year in the penitentiary on Roosevelt Island on misdemeanor charges. No one knows for certain, but it is believed that she escaped harsher punishment by threatening to reveal the names of her patients — the mistresses, daughters and wives of the rich and powerful.

Ann Lohman in her prison cell

Her published letters suggest that she was passionately committed to the idea of providing reproductive health care to women. No woman was ever proved to have died at Lohman’s hands. Indeed, testimony in her trials suggested that Madame Restell was a professional who cared deeply for her patients, staying with them overnight and nursing them with kind words.

Despondent, fearing the shame that would come upon her family during a long trial and convinced that another stint in prison would kill her, Lohman climbed into her marble bathtub on the April morning her trial was to start, and slit her own throat. She was 66.

“A bloody ending to a bloody life,” Comstock commented upon hearing of her death. The newspapers echoed his sentiments. “The end of sin is death,” wrote The New York Tribune, and The Times editorialized that Lohman’s death was “a fit ending to an odious career.”

Lohman’s death did not put an end to abortion, nor to the battle fought over it. The murder of Dr. George Tiller will not accomplish those ends either.

Ann's Grave


My Notorious Life
Kate Manning

Book Synopsis

A brilliant rendering of a scandalous historical figure, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is an ambitious, thrilling novel introducing Axie Muldoon, a fiery heroine for the ages. 

Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day. 

In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.” 

When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear. 

Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” My Notorious Life is a mys­tery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present.

My Review

This book is a must read for every woman. It is a story that takes us into our past; a tale loosely based on the life of a woman who dedicated her life to address the adversities arising from childbirth issues. This rag to riches, fictionalized accounting based on the story of Madame Restell, a notorious abortionist in New York City gives readers a peak at what it means to be a woman during the late 1800’s.

The story begins with Axie Muldoon who is an extremely poor child struggling to survive on the streets of New York. She is rescued by a reverend of the Children’s Aid Society and soon finds herself taken in by a local doctor and his wife. It is here that Axie learns about female remedies and midwifery skills.The story unfolds vividly, realistically, and takes us into the seedier side of New York and the options women had available to them regarding pregnancies, wanted or unwanted and its prevention.

I highly recommend My Notorious Life as a wonderfully poignant novel about a woman who chose a controversial path in life to come to the aid of needful women. It is a shocking portrayal of the hardships women once faced regading their bodies, their sex lives, and the impact of child-bearing. Excellent biographical historical fiction! 

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