An Analysis of Abortion and Infant Death in Nineteenth-Century America



            Abortion was largely looked upon as murder in nineteenth century fiction; likewise, the natural death of infants was seen as extremely painful and unfortunate for would be parents.  Infanticide was depicted as even worse than abortion although, both being considered murder, not significantly worse.  Despite this attempt to stigmatize abortion it occurred quite frequently, often in secret or in shame.  This secrecy was somewhat necessitated by the American Medical Association’s drive to outlaw abortion, as it was in every state by 1875.  Abortion had not been deemed a serious crime prior to quickening before the nineteenth century.  A change in viewpoint may have occurred as the popularity of abortion increased.  The attempt of writers to stigmatize abortion is apparent both in literary works and in editorials of the time.

            Edgar Allen Poe’s detective story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is based on the true story of Marie Rogers.  Mrs. Rogers had informed her mother and her fiancé of her intentions to spend the day of her disappearance at an aunt’s house.  Her body was discovered floating in the Hudson River six days later, and she was assumed to have been murdered.  It was eventually determined that she died from a botched abortion.  As Poe wrote his version prior to this discovery, his story is a murder mystery.  His tale does not even consider the possibility of her death having been from any means other than murder.  Her deception of her family as to her whereabouts shows clearly that Mrs. Rogers did not make her impending abortion known even to them; in fact, it was likely known only to her and the abortionist.  Poe describes her intimate relations with two others, although she was promised in marriage to a third.  Poe concludes from this that she is murdered by a secret lover from the Navy.  Her abortion may have been an attempt to cover up a pregnancy by one of her other relations from her fiancé.

            Several editorials and letters to the editor of the New York Times also demonstrate the general disapproval of abortion and abortionists in the nineteenth century.  An editorial by an unknown author was printed in the New York Times on August 31, 1871, entitled “The Daily ‘Go-Between.’”  This article accuses the New York Harold of supporting the “vile traffic” of abortion by publishing the ad of an arrested abortionist, Dr. Ascher.[1]  The author says that the public views abortion as a terrible crime.  He states, “it will scarcely be believed, but is a fact” that the Harold published the ad.[2]  The article also attacks the Harold for being hypocritical by attacking abortion in its editorials while allowing the advertisement to be published.  The New York Harold is portrayed by the writer as being as “guilty” of abortion as those who perform the actual operations because it “advise(s) foolish women.. to go to Ascher’s.[3]

Another article with an unknown author later appeared in the New York Times on June 1, 1872, entitled “Hope for the Murderers.”  The article discusses the case of Ann E. Burns, accused of and indicted for abortion.  According to the author, she had long been suspected of running a house for abortions, but there was no solid proof to use against her in a court of law, until one of her previous employees came forth and offered to testify against her.  She was accused and convicted, but pushed for an appeal on grounds of possible irregularity in the choosing of the jury.  She was allowed a retrial, but the sole witness testifying against her, Anne Brice suddenly disappeared.  The author of this editorial suggests that there is no evidence anyone is looking for the girl: “Have the police been called upon to seek out Ann Brice? Has an award been offered for her arrest – has even an ordinary effort been made to discover her whereabouts? If there has been, nothing appears to prove it.”[5]  The author states that the judicial system has not been willing to enforce the laws created by the legislature to “make the penalty for the crime of abortion as severe as needs be.”[6]  That the New York Times would publish this as an editorial may be seen to suggest that the paper had no reason to fear a backlash for using such strong language against the “vile trade” of abortion.

            A letter to the New York Times entitled “The ‘Evil of the Age’” and signed “Civilization” was published on August 27, 1871.  The author expresses an agreement with the Times and appreciates its anti-abortion views.  In his opinion, “all good and well-informed persons of both sexes… deeply lament” the acts of abortion which “hang like a pall over our whole land.”[7]  That he believes all informed persons share his opinion is further emphasized by his signing the letter as “Civilization.”  He feels that abortion specifically is the great evil of the age and a crime against civilization itself.  According to him, abortion always occurs in shame but remains successful because the abortionists happily cater to the desired secrecy of the women who go to them.  He considers abortion a sin against God and the commonwealth.  He in fact believes abortion is a sin against the very woman who seeks to have one.  “Civilization” states his opinion that the solution to this terrible evil is for all the educated (who would clearly be against abortion) to teach the uneducated about how terrible abortion is.  These editorials and letters in the New York Times show first that abortion was widely criticized in newspapers and by the vocal public; and second that despite this, abortion was apparently rather prevalent.  Abortions may have been done in secret and even in shame, but they were done scarcely less than they are now that secrecy and shame are not seen as necessary.  The articles several times mention the luxury in which the abortionists live and further suggest that many women are “foolish” or easily persuaded enough to make themselves victims of the “seductive” abortionists.  This feeling that the women seeking abortions are foolish may merely be a sign of sexism; however, it could also be due to the high death rate caused by abortion and the feeling that women are foolish to take such a risk.

            Poetry and other nineteenth century American literature scarcely seem to touch upon abortion itself, but deal more often with the related topic of infant death.  A poem by William Peabody entitled “On Seeing a Deceased Infant” relates the horrible sorrow of the parents on seeing their child die just after having been born.  The poet tells them to take comfort in knowing that he has gone straight to heaven and is at least spared from seeing and experiencing the evils of the world.  A slightly longer poem entitled “On the Death of an Infant” by George Horton has a very similar theme.  The poet says of the child’s death, “the Seraphs have rocked it to sleep.[9]”  The parents are again left crying, but the author encourages them to think of the joy of the child’s soul at being unblemished and in heaven.  In this poem the author also identifies with the parents – when he sees the child born, “with pleasure I thought it my own[10]” but the child’s life is then snatched away from them.  Washington Alston’s poem “Group of the Angel and Child” was originally published in 1850.  It depicts another newly born infant dying of natural causes – “its little ‘dream of human life’ had fled.[11]”  The author says that he sees one who is not among the dead, but rather just joining the living in an eternal rest.  The life leaving the body of the infant is compared with the exhaling of a breath, and to the author the breath that gives life to the infant is still existent, but merely away from the body.  These poems all show the grief of parents who have unwillingly lost an infant.

            George Henry Calvert’s poem “Ellen: A Poem” is on the same subject, but does not so much discuss the death itself.  The poem describes a young woman, Ellen, who has “in younger days.. lost an infant boy.[12]”  In Ellen’s mind the child continues to grow and develop as she imagines he would have had he lived.  The short poem ends with Ellen overcome with grief upon meeting a young man named Horatio in whom she sees her grown son.  She treasures her son so much that she is unable to let him die in her mind.  Thomas English’s poem “The Widow’s Christmas” tells the sad story of a widow.  Her husband died last Christmas when she had been pregnant.  This Christmas she is completely without her husband, and her child has died upon birth in the time in between.  The widow feels that “life is a state forlorn” without both her child and her husband.[13]  These poems again show the high value that was placed on infants in nineteenth century culture.  In the widow’s case, the child is a piece of her deceased husband – until the infant too, passes away.

            Two poems by Ella Wilcox from the late nineteenth century discuss abortion directly.  Like the previously discussed works, these poems explicitly oppose abortion.  In “War Mothers,” she tells of “barren wives” receiving the Eucharist from priests.[14]  She says that if only the priests could see the phantoms of the wives’ aborted children hovering around them, they would withhold the sacrament.  She depicts the unborn infants as accusing their mothers and blaming them directly for their deaths.  Wilcox states that the women have committed a mortal sin, which should completely preclude them from receiving the sacraments.  In “The Revealing Angels,” Wilcox shows the women who have had abortions alongside their husbands and those who have performed the abortions before angels.  The angels tell them that abortion is the greatest sin of all, the only one that cannot be forgiven.  In her description, God makes sex enticing specifically to ensure the creation of new persons.  Thus, to “steal” the pleasures of sex and then avoid the “price” of giving birth, these people have made a mockery of God’s plans.[15]  Wilcox, like many others who wrote about the topic in the nineteenth century was strongly against abortion; however, unlike many of the other writers she did not see the women as victims but as fully guilty of the worst of all evils.

A picture of ideas about abortion in nineteenth-century America can be developed from these works.  Abortion was criticized by many in public circles, but apparently occurred in private frequently despite eventually being outlawed.  As many of the poems help to show, a large number of infants died naturally at or shortly after their birth.  This inability to prevent the loss of a child in many cases could have largely been the cause of a general public feeling of horror at anyone who would actively choose to destroy her own child.  Those seeking abortion may have been seen to in a sense be ungrateful for the chance they had, one which others may have had sorrowfully taken away from them.  In addition, abortion was at that time very unsafe itself and may have thus been seen as somewhat reckless, increasing the sense of perceived ungratefulness as well as the perceived foolishness.  The rising call of the American Medical Association and many writers of the time to both illegalize and stigmatize abortion may also have been caused by the increased number of deaths as abortions popularity increased, and family sizes dropped.



[1] New York Times (1857 – Current File). August 31, 1871. “The Daily 'Go-Between.'” ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[2] Unknown. “The Daily 'Go-Between.'”

[3] Unknown. “The Daily 'Go-Between.'”

[4] Unknown. “The Daily 'Go-Between.'”

[5] New York Times (1857 – Current File). June 1, 1872. “Hope for the Murderers." ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[6] Unknown. “Hope for the Murderers.”

[7] Civilization. New York Times (1857 – Current File). August 27, 1871. “The 'Evil of the Age.'” ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[8] Civilization. “The ‘Evil of the Age.’”

[9] Peabody, W. B. O. “On Seeing a Deceased Infant." Spring Field, MA: S. Bowles, 1832.

[10] Peabody. “On Seeing a Deceased Infant.”

[11] Allston, Washington. Art and Poems: Group of the Angel and Child. New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850.

[12] Calvert, George Henry. Ellen: A Poem. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1869.

[13] English, Thomas. American Ballads: The Widow’s Christmas. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880.

[14] Wilcox, Ella. Poems of Problems: War Mothers. Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1898.

[15] Wilcox, Ella. Poems of Problems: The Revealing Angels. Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1898.

[16] Wilcox. “The Revealing Angels.”