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date: 26 January 2023

Lohman, Ann Trowfree

(06 May 1811–01 April 1878)

Lohman, Ann Trowfree

(06 May 1811–01 April 1878)
  • Stacey Hamilton

Lohman, Ann Trow (06 May 1811–01 April 1878), abortionist, also known as Madame Restell, was born in Painswick, Gloucestershire, England, the daughter of John Trow, a laborer; her mother’s name is unknown. Lohman received very little formal education, and at age fifteen she took a job as a maid and at sixteen married Henry Summers of Wittshire, a 23-year-old tailor. In 1830 her only child, a daughter, was born. In 1831 the family immigrated to New York City in search of wealth and opportunity. In August of that year, however, Henry Summers died of “bilious fever” and left her alone with a young daughter to support, which she did by becoming a seamstress.

In 1836 Ann Trow met Charles Lohman, a printer. The couple were soon married, and both considered themselves freethinkers and atheists, bound by no particular religious admonitions. Eager to become rich, they began selling patent medicines for birth control and pregnancy termination, though it is a mystery how Ann Lohman learned to perform surgical abortions, a procedure she began offering soon thereafter. Charles Lohman, clever and well read, wrote the advertisements that began appearing about 1839 in the New York Sun, which instructed women to visit “Madame Restell” at 160 Greenwich Street. (Lohman tried, usually in vain, to disassociate herself from the persona of Restell, never admitting that she was the notorious abortionist, just her spokesperson.) These commercial notices asked prospective patients if it was “moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control” (quoted in Browder, p. 9).

It was a precarious time to begin a practice marketing abortion and birth control, as great debates were brewing over the topics throughout the United States. On one side were the moralists, who believed that preventing pregnancy amounted to tampering with God and Nature. They worried that women’s easy access to contraception and abortion would make them less virtuous, for there would be no preventing them from being unchaste. On the other side was Ann Trow Lohman. She and her husband began mailing circulars that promoted Preventive Powders and Female Monthly Pills, which Charles Lohman maintained could cure anything from “derangement of the stomach” to “deathly, sallow, and inanimate complexion” but which probably were composed of substances either ineffective (oil of tansy) or dangerous (turpentine). When the pills did not work (and they often did not), Lohman’s patients were told to return for a “simple and painless” operation, which usually involved using a wire to pierce the amniotic sac and which would cost them from $20 to $100, depending on their financial situation.

Publicity paid off for Lohman, and she soon became quite well known throughout the city. Her fame made her rich, but it also made her a target of attack by conservatives and moralists. Samuel Jenks Smith, the editor of the New York Sunday Morning News, proclaimed that her practice made the “institution of marriage a mere farce.” The Lohmans responded to their critics with literate and sometimes eloquent defenses, declaring that birth control allowed men to marry earlier, perhaps before they were financially able to support a family, and that many women’s lives were saved by abortions. Her first arrest in 1839 did not lead to a trial; the case against her, like many cases against abortionists and birth control advocates, relied on witnesses who were either dead or too ashamed to come forward.

In 1840 Ann Lohman expanded her business by opening a hospital in which single pregnant women could give birth. In 1846 a young woman alleged that Lohman had stolen her newborn baby from her after delivery. Cleared of the charges in court, on her return home Lohman faced an irate mob that dispersed only after New York City mayor William Havemeyer promised to have her imprisoned. Rumors of Lohman’s stealing and selling infants persisted, as did gossip that she occasionally murdered babies and/or their mothers. Some stories even claimed the existence of a special sewer running directly from the abortionist’s office to the Hudson River, which would enable her to dispose of the evidence.

The 1845 Abortion Law made abortion of a quickened fetus manslaughter, and little more than two years passed before Lohman was charged under the new legislation. In 1847 her sensational trial for performing an abortion on Maria Bodine, an impoverished young woman six months pregnant who was sent to Lohman by her lover, a widower who was also arrested, made numerous headlines and drew even more curiosity seekers. Though Lohman escaped the more serious manslaughter charge, she was sentenced to one year at Blackwell’s Island, New York City’s penitentiary, for the misdemeanor of performing an abortion on a fetus that had not quickened. During her stay at Blackwell’s Island (1848–1849), Lohman, evidently buying her way out of incarceration’s unpleasantries, slept on a feather bed, ate fine food, and managed to sew herself a few silk dresses. On her release in mid-1849, she returned to a more expensive house on what is now West Broadway. After vowing never to return to prison, she resumed her practice.

The 1850s were relatively quiet for Lohman, as authorities, probably paid off handsomely, toned down their surveillance of her property and scrutiny of her business. In 1857 the Lohmans bought property farther north and soon constructed a grand house on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street, in which they took up residence in 1864. Lohman never hid her wealth, and her mansion in this fashionable neighborhood appalled the neighbors (the houses on each side of her remained unoccupied). She entertained lavishly, and in 1867 she moved her office to her residence. Her clientele, always predominantly affluent, now became almost exclusively rich women (many married) who wanted to avoid the shame or inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy; some reportedly paid up to $2,000 per case at a time when the cheapest abortionists were charging the paltry sum of $10.

In 1871 the New York Times, flush from the recent success of its injurious stories on William “Boss” Tweed, printed an electrifying exposé of abortionists after a reporter visited several, Lohman included. Then, to add to her problems, Charles Lohman, her husband, publicist, and business manager, died in early 1877. In late January 1878 Lohman crossed paths with Anthony Comstock, who had spent the preceding few years crusading against and seizing medicines used by abortionists, “obscene” books and pictures, and “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes,” among other items. Serving as an agent to the post office and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and working under the authority of the Comstock Law of 1873, which made it a crime to sell or advertise obscene material or anything that could prevent or terminate a pregnancy, Comstock visited Lohman, and she sold him contraceptives. Armed with a search warrant, he returned on 11 February and, after a search of her house, arrested her for possessing medicines used for “immoral” aims. Lohman spent the next few weeks in and out of jail, becoming increasingly fearful and paranoid; she believed that the relatively minor charge against her would lead to more serious convictions and that she would die in jail. At home on 31 March, Lohman received word that her case had been transferred to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, a higher tribunal. Sure that her worst fears were coming true, in the early morning of 1 April Lohman lay down in her bathtub and sliced her throat from ear to ear with an ebony-handled kitchen knife. When word of her suicide reached the courthouse that morning, Comstock (and many others) at first believed it was all an April Fools’ joke, but he later took credit for driving the abortionist to suicide, calling her death a “bloody ending to a bloody life.” She left her family an estate valued between $600,000 and $1 million.

Ann Trow Lohman’s fate made the perfect nineteenth-century morality lesson: apparent evil was punished by a horrific end. But what the reformers failed to foresee, as evidenced by the weekly Puck’s cartoon showing Fifth Avenue four years after Lohman’s death as teeming with infants and toddlers, was that the death of Madame Restell did not end the demand for safe contraception and abortion. Labeled the “wickedest woman in New York,” Lohman was greedy, vain, flamboyant, and, most importantly, a quack. Perhaps if she had been less ostentatious, with her mansion, diamonds, and team of horses, she might have escaped the wrath of the moralists. But, for the most part, New York society was willing to tolerate her, probably because she performed a service that middle- and upper-class women either used or at least felt more comfortable knowing was there if they needed it. The problem with understanding Lohman is that she left no record of her motives or convictions. All we know of her is what her adversaries thought of her, enemies sometimes more concerned with the “purity” of the woman than the life of the unborn child. An early voice in an ongoing debate, Lohman played an important role in legitimizing the discussion of birth control and abortion.

Bibliography

Ann Lohman left no papers. For biographical details, see Clifford Browder, The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell, the Abortionist (1988). Most histories of New York City refer to her; for example, see Eric Homberger, Corruption and Conscience in Old New York (1995). Lohman is discussed briefly in Amy Gilman Srebnick, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers (1995); Rogers was a young New York City woman who died in the early 1840s, probably as a result of an abortion (not performed by Lohman). Information on Lohman and her practice can be found in New York newspapers around the times of her trials. Obituaries are in the major New York newspapers, including the Tribune and the Times, 2 Apr. 1878.