Do you know how the wickedest woman in New York got her name? Ann Trow, or as she was better known, Madame Restell, was a prominent abortion provider in the late 1800s. She had no medical training, and yet started a business from the ground up, making medication abortion pills and doing surgical abortions. Her work was wildly successful, but also led to her making many enemies in New York society and even at the national governmental level. Join us this week as we unpack the life of this incredible woman, and learn more about the evolution of abortion at that time!
- Do we have a figure in our society now who we could try to compare to Madame Restell?
- What does Madame Restell’s business success say about her impact on the women of her time? What is your biggest takeaway from her story?
Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!
Ann Trow was born in a small town in Painswick, England on May 6, 1811. She began working as a maid at 15 years old and at 16 was married to a tailor named Henry Summers. They had a daughter named Caroline in 1830 but were struggling financially. A year later, they moved to New York City.
Henry Summers died just a few months after moving to NY and Ann began working as a seamstress to support herself and her daughter. She got remarried in 1836 to a man named Charles Lohman and her and her daughter moved in with him. After they moved, Ann became friends with a man named Dr. Willian Evans who made pills, tonics and powders based on old herbal remedies and sold them to cure all sorts of ailments from baldness to TB.
With no medical training at all, started making pills to cure liver, lung and stomach sickness, making it into a small steady business. Then, a customer came to her and asked for a medicine to end an unwanted pregnancy.
She stopped working as a seamstress and began making medicine full time. Her and Charles rented a nice office space and she started spreading this story that during her travels the year before, she was traveling and learned secrets of safe and effective medication abortions from a famous doctor in Paris. That is when Ann became Madame Restell.
The cost of medication was $100 per rich woman and $20 for poor. Restell would perform a surgical abortions as well. Her office was open daily from 9AM-10PM, and it was always full.
Restell’s first arrest was August 17, 1839, just 5 months after her first ad was published in the papers. She was arrested for providing an abortion before “quickening.” However, the charges were dropped because the patient did not turn up to court.
In 1847, Restell’s enemies finally were able to get her convicted for performing an illegal abortion and she served a year in prison. In 1862, Restell and her husband built a mansion in the most exclusive area in NY. And in 1867, she opened an office in her house.
Anthony Comstock, the US Postal inspector and head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice eventually brought her down. He was pretending to buy abortion pills for his wife, she sold him the pills, and the next day she was arrested. And on April 1 1878, Madame Restell committed suicide, though some theorize that she faked her death and fled to Europe!
Aliano, K. (2022, December 5). Life Story: Ann Trow Lohman, a.k.a. Madame Restell – Women & the American Story. Women & the American Story. https://wams.nyhistory.org/expansions-and-inequalities/politics-and-society/madame-restell/
Aron, N. R. (2018, March 10). The ‘Wickedest Woman in New York’ who made abortion affordable for women in the 1800s. Medium. https://timeline.com/in-1800s-new-york-this-female-abortionist-was-notorious-and-necessary-1e9170ce148a
Madame Restell: From Butcher’s Maid to Butcher of Women. (n.d.). https://www.feministsforlife.org/madame-restell-from-butchers-maid-to-butcher-of-women/
Madame Restell, “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” (2023, March 20). UNSUNG HISTORY. https://www.unsunghistorypodcast.com/madame-restell/
Scully, S. (2020, October 2). Madame Restell: “The Wickedest Woman of New York” | Mental Floss. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/632682/madame-restell-wickedest-woman-new-york
Scutts, J. (2023, February 28). Review: ‘Madame Restell,’ by Jennifer Wright. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/28/books/review/madame-restell-by-jennifer-wright.html
Sneddon, R. (1941, November 8). The City’s Most Prosperous Abortionist, the Notorious Madam Restell. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1941/11/15/the-notorious-madam-restell
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