Women and Their Doctors Found Many Pregnancy Solutions in Old Cincinnati

Abortions were an open secret and a life-threatening procedure during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the Victorian Era, there was no legal method to avoid or end a pregnancy in Cincinnati. There were, however, several ways to do both that were common, readily available, and openly advertised. Each option was dangerous and often fatal to the woman.

Annie Florein’s Sanitarium advertised assistance for a variety of feminine complaints, but its true service was as “The Woman’s Friend” assisting with unwanted pregnancies.

Williams Cincinnati City Directory (1907), digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Thaddeus A. Reamy, a distinguished physician and surgeon, called out his colleagues during a meeting of the Academy of Medicine of Cincinnati. According to The Cincinnati Gazette [June 25, 1874], Dr. Reamy asserted:

“There are members of the regular profession in this city, otherwise of high standing, whose hands are bloody with the guilt of the crime of abortion, and abortion is committed by the wives of respectable citizens who are taught to do so by their family physicians.”

Feigning shock, the Academy convened a special tribunal to ascertain whether to toss Reamy out of the organization. From testimony collected, it’s obvious that he wasn’t lying; the Academy was distressed not because his charges were unfounded, but because he said the quiet part out loud. Thaddeus Reamy was no isolated crackpot. He was a professor in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine who was also appointed to the university’s board of trustees. At his inquest, nearly a dozen doctors testified they had knowledge of regular physicians directly involved in abortions, while others reported hearing about doctors passing along information on how to induce abortions.

“Dr. L.A. James stated that he knew of a case where by the confession of the physician, a member of the regular medical, he was thoroughly satisfied that said physician had effected the abortion. The woman operated upon was married, of good family, but became pregnant during the absence of her husband. It was to escape the shame of the circumstances that induced her to have the operation performed.”

Dr. A. Calvin advertised not only advice on birth control, but methods to terminate pregnancies if his advice failed.

Cincinnati Daily Press (1860), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Dr. Louis Peron openly advertised his ability to prevent and terminate pregnancies in Cincinnati newspapers from 1862 to 1890. Since the procedure was most definitely illegal, he and his colleagues employed coded phrases in their advertising to communicate the services available. On such ad appearing in The Enquirer [August 8, 1871] is typical:

“Dr. Peron’s Periodic Mixture is warranted to remove all obstructions of the menses. It has been used with unqualified success in thousands of cases during the last ten years, and may be used when all other means have failed.”

The key words are “obstruction” and “remove,” because what usually obstructed menstruation was a fetus that Dr. Peron’s Periodic Mixture would remove. Such herbal and medicinal abortifacients, usually involving chemicals like mercury or botanicals such as pennyroyal, tansy, or savin, were less immediately hazardous than surgery but still often led to convulsions and liver or kidney failure.

Pennyroyal pills were commonly advertised in Cincinnati for obvious intent.

Cincinnati Enquirer (1884), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

An analytical chemist was brought in to analyze the composition of powders and pills prescribed by Dr. Christian Hausmann in 1875. His findings were summarized by The Enquirer [July 30, 1875]:

“The chemist stated further at the conclusion of his report that oil of tansy, pennyroyal, and probably savin, which constituted the fluid he analyzed, have the reputation of being abortive, and are very seldom used internally for any other purpose.”

Dr. A. Calvin, with offices on Vine Street between Fifth and Sixth, advertised “Madame De Croix’s Female Monthly Pills” in The Cincinnati Daily Press [June 19, 1860] by overtly explaining exactly what the pills did:

“Ladies should not use them during pregnancy, as they will cause miscarriages.”

Physical procedures to remove a fetus from the uterus in these pre-antibiotic days often resulted in hemorrhage and death. The birth and death records collected by the City of Cincinnati between 1865 and 1912 include more than 100 reports of women who died from bleeding or infection caused by abortions, often self-inflicted. County morgue records for the 1887-1930 period detail additional cases, while newspapers of the time record hundreds of other examples.

It’s obvious that all of these fatal consequences represent a small percentage of the abortions successfully performed in Cincinnati and that abortionists, though often arrested and tried, regularly returned to business as soon as their legal troubles were dealt with. A widow named Parthenia Sullivan provided abortion services from several addresses in downtown Cincinnati while dodging criminal charges, and she apparently had many satisfied customers. Cincinnati society trembled when The Enquirer reported [August 12, 1873] a case in which a woman named Isabella Hitch filed suit over an abortion she’d procured through Sullivan in cooperation with Dr. Philip T. Williams.

“It is said that her friends, many of whom move in exceedingly respectable circles, are using every effort to induce her to abandon the prosecution, as the testimony is likely to uncover many unpleasant disclosures.”

In the case of Dr. Reamy, a physician named Charles Woodward deponed that he knew a woman who had induced 17 miscarriages on herself, using instruments and information procured through her family doctor.

While it appears that Parthenia Sullivan and others offered only abortions, Cincinnati supported several full-service “maternity hospitals” that provided standard birthing services but also out-placement for unwanted infants and, usually, abortions. Among the most notorious of these was a Seventh Street facility run by “Doctor” Annie Florein, whose medical qualifications were highly questionable. (She claimed to have earned a medical degree in Calcutta, India, when she was only 16.) Florein advertised assistance for a variety of feminine complaints—including irregular menstruation, womb troubles, cancer, and piles (hemorrhoids)—but her true service was as “The Woman’s Friend,” according to her advertisements.

Samuel Hopkins Adams, in an article titled “Quacks And Quackery” in Collier’s Weekly [July 14, 1906], assailed publications that allowed Florein to advertise:

“Medical directories can be conducted so as to take a profit of quackery. ‘Dr.’ Annie Florein, whose hospital is most widely, if not most favorably, known as an abortion resort, has been at least once convicted for illegal practice.”

Although Florien was convicted, that conviction was overturned. On appeal, charges against her were tossed out due to a technicality. To avoid offensive language, Ohio’s laws in 1896 were so ambiguous in regard to abortion that it was difficult, if not impossible, to convict anyone for violating the law as it was written.

Since Ohio law could not stop her or her competitors, Annie Florein continued to perform abortions in Cincinnati until she retired in 1926. Clothed in the secrecy of societal shame, it’s impossible to estimate how many abortions were performed in her sanitarium.

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