The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell

The dubious title of “wickedest woman in New York” could probably go to any woman who has crossed the line somehow or who has done something so abhorrent in the eyes of the public that they can’t even bear to mention her name. And for years afterward, whenever anyone would mention the wickedest woman in New York, everyone would automatically know who that person really was. During the nineteenth century, this person was Madame Restell.

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Ann Trow, aka Madame Restell, the “wickedest woman in New York.”

Madame Restell, whose real name was Ann Trow, was born in England in 1812 and came to the United States with her husband in 1831. Her brother found a job in a pharmacy in New York City, and by the end of 1839, she “was advertising to ‘married women’ a ‘simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy’ to families ‘that [increase] in size beyond’ the ability of the parents to support them: ‘preventive powders’ and ‘monthly pills.’” (1)  These were marketed as patent medicines, and the advertisements were widely circulated in the newspapers and penny press, which reached all kinds of women. In an article about Madame Restell, Cynthia Watkins Richardson says:

Because women were often unskilled and dependent , the specter of poverty caused by unplanned pregnancy was very real to fertile women…Women sought the sympathetic “Madame Restell” to help them with gaining control over their precarious lives… Living in the city was a new experience for many; and the city of New York was filled with former rural women unacquainted with the perils of urban life. Repelled, threatened, and frightened by a way of life they did not understand, many middle, and even upper-class women sought to shore up their social boundaries by curbing family size, a preferred strategy for the maintenance of financial and social security.

While Madame Restell and others at this time were providing a much-needed service for the women who sought them out, it is also important to note that there was a danger that came with it. The powders and pills were little more than patent medicine, and there was little to no regulation of patent medicines at the time. Surgical abortions, which Madame Restell’s advertisements promised as a “painless operation” were, like all operations at the time, quite dangerous and painful because of the lack of anesthetic and sanitary measures. There was always a certain risk that the medicines or operations could be fatal, but the women seeking them were willing to take the risk in order to avoid the stigma and shame that came with the birth of an illegitimate child. (2)

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Madame Restell’s 5th Avenue mansion.

When Madame Restell’s business was at its height, there was a much more permissive attitude toward abortions; they were generally legal or unregulated, usually until there were signs of “quickening.” (1) However, in the mid-1800s, this attitude began to change. The recently formed American Medical Association took the position that “formally educated doctors knew better than women how to determine pregnancy and how to take care of pregnant bodies.” (1)  By the mid-1800s, there were laws on the books which made abortion illegal. Nonetheless, Madame Restell kept providing her services, if not a little more discreetly.

Soon, though, Restell became a target of religious activist Anthony Comstock. In winter of 1878, Comstock went to Restell on the pretext of obtaining some contraceptive powder for his wife. After obtaining the powder, he returned four days later with the press, eager for the story, at his side. Madame Restell was later arrested and charged with “selling abortive and contraceptive devices.” Even though she had excellent attorneys, Madame Restell did not wish to see the end of the court trial she had faced, On April 1, 1878, decked out in some of her finest jewels, she slit her own throat with a “pearl-handled knife” while in the bathtub. Comstock declared that her suicide was “a bloody ending to a bloody life.” Her–perhaps ill-gotten estate totaled one million dollars. (2)

So was Madame Restell a pioneer in providing women’s health care, or was she an opportunist who profited from providing a service that many women at the time needed? One might say that she was both; while she was able to provide these services, she also knew that some of the methods used would be dangerous, yet both she and her patients were willing to take the risk. And some of what could be considered dangerous or risky was the reality of taking any patent medicine or undergoing any surgery at that time. But Madame Restell amassed quite a fortune from her business ventures and began to only take wealthier clients after the first time she was imprisoned, and her prices went up. Hers was essentially a for-profit business, and we can only speculate if there was any concern for the safety of her patients or the effectiveness of her products when there was so much money to be made from them and there were so many people who were desperate for them.

However, laws against abortion did not prevent Victorian women from seeking them out, even when the results could be fatal. Now, with the advances made in medicine, abortions and contraceptives are much safer than they were in the mid-1800s. The case of Madame Restell is a perfect example of the reasons why abortion and contraceptives must remain safe and legal. Outlawing abortions is not going to stop people from seeking them out; rather, it drives women to risk their lives dealing with practitioners who may not be at all concerned with the safety and well-being of their patients. And it opens the door for profiteers like Madame Restell to take advantage of the need for it and use such needs for their own gains.

Sources:

1). Ludlow, Jeannie. “Reframing Compassionate Care: Of Madame Restell and Other Outlaws.” On the Issues Magazine. Winter 2012. <http://ontheissuesmagazine.com>

2). “Madame Restell.” Scandalous Women. 8 April 2008. <http://scandalouswomen.blogspot.com>

3). Watkins Richardson, Cynthia. “In the Eye of Power: The Notorious Madame Restell.” <http://umaine.edu>

This piece was originally posted on Persephone Magazine.

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Book Review: A Lady’s Code of Misconduct

 

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Once a villain, always a villain, right? Or can a ruthless, conniving young man consumed with ambition and a lust for power suddenly change with a snap of the fingers, or in this case, with a blow to the head? In the new novel A Lady’s Code of Misconduct, by Meredith Duran, rising political star Crispin Burke’s life changes overnight when he is attacked in the dead of night and suffers an injury that leaves him with no memory of the past few months. He doesn’t even remember marrying his lovely young wife, Jane Mason, the niece of one of his former allies in Parliament. Despite his memory loss, he is determined to his best foot forward and become the great politician he had hoped to be before his unfortunate accident. And who better to help him than the woman he trusts most, his young bride, because after all behind every great man is a great woman, right?

Rewind, though, because not everything is as neat and tidy as it seems. Jane isn’t really Crispin’s wife…not technically, anyhow. Before Crispin’s little mishap, Jane, desperate to avoid marrying her cousin who wants nothing more than to inherit her substantial fortune, makes a deal with Crispin: he will obtain a false marriage license for her in exchange for whatever information she can glean from eavesdropping on her uncle’s conversations. She’s so close to freedom…if she can find a man willing to marry her and then part ways. But Jane isn’t so lucky, and upon hearing that Crispin will most likely not survive the attack, takes matters into her owns hands and signs his name to the marriage license. When Crispin wakes up with no memory of the past few months, Jane knows she eventually has to tell him the truth. But she never thought that she would start to have feelings for him…or that he would start to have feelings for her and rely upon her as his partner and helpmeet, despite the circumstances of their marriage.

As Jane and Crispin begin to grow accustomed to their new life together, Parliament still beckons. Crispin is shocked by the harsh prison reform bill he had supported before his attack, and with Jane’s help, he seeks to set things right and withdraw support from the bill. But as he and Jane investigate his past dealings, they begin to see that there are other forces at play behind the politics. And the more they uncover, the more danger they find themselves in. The only way they can get through this is together, and events threaten to test their blossoming love for one another.

Duran captures the domestic and political intrigues of mid-Victorian London perfectly, from the deals made in back offices over brandy and cigars to the show put on in glittering ballrooms in between dances. The best part of the book is the relationship between Crispin and Jane, and how they transition from young bride and groom to a supercouple determined to use their power and influence for the common good rather than for their own gain. A Lady’s COde o my Misconduct has not only the romance that so many love, but provides some reassurance that there are people who enter politics with the honest desire to make a difference and do some good for those who need it.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Ready, Set, Rogue, by Manda Collins

Just how much trouble can a broken wagon axle lead to? Plenty, as the very handsome, slightly rakish Quill Beauchamp, Marquess of Kerr, discovers on his way to Kerr House, the home of his recently deceased aunt. And it just so happens that the beautiful, brilliant Greek poetry scholar Miss Ivy Wareham is headed in the same direction. After a chance encounter at an inn, they end up traveling to Kerr House together.

Ivy is excited about the opportunity that the late Lady Celeste Beauchamp, who had been quite the scholar herself, has offered her and three other young bluestocking ladies: to stay at the house for a year and pursue their studies, and, should they be successful, each inherit a portion of the fortune. Quill is shocked at this provision in his aunt’s will, and he would prefer to keep Kerr House in the family, as it was a favorite retreat for himself and his cousins. But Ivy’s discovery of a letter written to her by the dying Lady Celeste changes everything. Lady Celeste feared that someone was poisoning her, and she charges Ivy with the task of finding her killer. Quill and Ivy must put aside their differences and join forces to bring the dear old woman’s killer to justice…but neither one of them expected that they would fall in love while putting their heads together to solve the mystery.

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Ready, Set Rogue is the first book in Manda Collins’s new Studies in Scandal series. Collins blends a fast-paced mystery story together with witty characters and a very sweet romance. The first kiss that Ivy and Quill share is one of my favorite parts of their romance, as we see that they are both very clever, passionate people who are very well-suited for one another. The minor characters in the book are lovely too, especially the exquisite, plainspoken mathematician Lady Daphne Forsyth and the handsome, dashing Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, who reminded me a lot of Sir Percy Blakeney. The first book in the series is a wonderful read which I highly recommend, and I will definitely be reading the second book when it’s released, as Daphne and Maitland’s romance is the next one to be featured.

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy from Netgalley in exchange fo rmy honest review.

Book Review: Shady Hollow, by Juneau Black

Looking for a fun, light read that is part Beatrix Potter, part Twin Peaks, with just a little bit of Midsomer Murders thrown in? Then Shady Hollow, by Juneau Black, is right up your alley!

A murder investigation casts a dark shadow on the sleepy little town of Shady Hollow, and nearly everyone is a suspect. Otto Stumpf, the local curmudgeonly toad, has been found dead in the river. Vera Vixen, reporter for the town’s newspaper, is on the case. Vera is quick and cunning, and she is able to track down leads even more quickly than the local police force. Not to her surprise, the murder has brought some of the townspeople’s secrets to light – secrets that many of them would like to remain hidden. As Vera follows the clues on the killer’s trail and comes closer to discovering the culprit’s identity, things start becoming dangerous. Someone wants her dead, and she’s sure it’s connected to the murder. Undaunted, she presses on, eager to get tot he bottom of the story, no matter what it takes.

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Cover of Shady Hollow. Image via Amazon.

 

The novel is a light, cozy mystery with a bit of fantasy, even though things become darker as the tale progresses. The revelation of the murderer completely caught me off guard. The author did an excellent job of bringing other suspects to the reader’s attention, and the twists and turns of the plot led to a thrilling and satisfactory conclusion. I expect that there will be other books, as it is a very promising beginning to a fantastical cozy mystery series.

Shady Hollow is perfectly safe for younger readers, though adults will enjoy it as well, just as I did.

I received an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Book Review: Hot Shade, by Tamara Lush

Just how much trouble can a crush lead to? We find out in Tamara Lush’s new adult romance Hot Shade. Young journalist Skylar Shaw is about to find out. While covering the story of a plane crash on a Florida beach, Skylar meets the handsome, mysterious young Italian man who rescued the survivors – and is hooked.

Luca Rossi has been hiding at his uncle’s house in Florida, trying to escape the ghosts of his past. Exposing the mafia’s secrets back in Italy ended his own career as a reporter, and he has been in fear for his life ever since. Romance was the last thing on his mind, until he met the attractive young reporter who seems just as interested in him as he is in her.

 

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Cover of Hot Shade. Image via Amazon.

Even though both Luca and Skylar know that it would probably be better if they stayed away from each other, they just can’t seem to. Soon they both grow attached to one another, and gradually each one reveals their secrets to the other: Skylar divulges her past abusive relationship with an older man, and Luca finally tells her why he has left Italy to hide in the United States. But Luca’s past comes back to haunt him, and it could not only endanger him, but the woman he has grown to love. And as the suspense builds, the two of them have to turn to each other. Skylar is no damsel in distress, and she is as protective of Luca as he is of her, even when things grow to be life-threatening.

Lush draws on much of her own personal experience as a journalist in Florida, and she uses the setting to her advantage. The characters’ romantic relationship progresses naturally; even though they intuitively know that it would be better for the both of the to stay away from one another, they decide to become involved anyhow, just for a little bit. And of course their attraction develops into deeper feelings, though both are a little hesitant to tell one another about them. As attracted as she is to Luca, Skylar is very reluctant to jump into a relationship or even a fling with him. Luca is very understanding of Skylar’s cautiousness, and he does what he can to make her feel comfortable with pursuing the relationship. And Luca is hot…and such a great guy (no alpha male/abusive boyfriend tropes in this!). And the sex scenes! Can we say hot, and full of enthusiastic consent? Which is a HUGE reason for anyone who is specifically looking for romances with hot, consensual sex scenes to check this book out!

Book Review: The King and the Courtesan, by Angela Walker

Angela Walker takes the trope of alpha male billionaire plucking a girl from the gutter and introducing her to a life of riches and turns it on its head in her debut novel The King and the Courtesan.

Melissa Thatcher is a drug-addicted prostitute living in the Metro slum of Zinya City. Her life looks pretty bleak, until Ezekiel, one of the city’s leading drug dealers, approaches her with a proposition: if she becomes his escort, he will change her life forever. That means living with hi I his posh apartment in a better part of the city, access to money, new clothes, trips to places she only dreamed of visiting, and an endless supply of the substance she abuses. Melissa figures that it can’t be as bad as the life she’s currently leading, so she accepts the proposition. Little does she know that things won’t all that Ezekiel has promised they will, not by a long shot.

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Cover of The King and the Courtesan. Image via Amazon.

Ezekiel is ruthless and extremely calculating, traits that have only helped him to keep a grip of iron over his drug empire. All of the people in his employ are somehow indebted to him, to the stylist who takes care of Melissa’s wardrobe to the upstanding bodyguard who is working for Ezekiel in exchange for money for his wife’s cancer treatments. Ezekiel soon has Melissa in his stranglehold, and she is careful not to cross him, until she finds out how dangerous he really is when she breaks one of the many “rules” of their business arrangement. She becomes desperate to escape him, but she knows that only one of them will make it out of the arrangement alive, and she fully intends to live.

Walker is brutally honest about the realities of sexual trauma, addiction, poverty, and what constitutes abuse, even though she avoids explicit depictions of sex. We are able to understand the effects of such things on not only Melissa, but on others around her. In other works, Melissa’s situation might be romanticized, and Ezekiel, who came from a horrible family life as well, would have been seen as a tortured hero who can somehow be redeemed by the heroine. Walker is careful to avoid glamorizing the situation; she shows Ezekiel to be exactly the sociopath that he is. There is no way he can be redeemed because he does not view himself as being in the wrong.

Melissa’s situation also allows herself an opportunity to think about what it is she wants out of her life and she finds out that she is a much stronger person than she ever believed she was. She is a survivor, and somehow we know that once she is out of all of this, she is going to be okay.

I received an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Book Review: Crazy, Sexy, Ghoulish, by G. G. Andrew

Nora Travers has spent her last few Halloweens working in a haunted house, playing witches and zombies and practically every monster in between. But she can’t always hang up her costume and take off her makeup after she gets home from work. Nora sometimes considers herself a monster of a different kind, one that many of us encountered, known as the “mean girl.” She is at the point in her life where she realizes that she was very horrible to a lot of people…and she regrets the way she treated them and feels genuine remorse for the things she did.

Crazy, Sexy, Ghoulish cover. Image via Amazon.

Cover of Crazy, Sexy, Ghoulish. Image via Amazon.

When horror blogger Brendan tours the haunted house she works at, she’s shocked when she realizes that he’s the geeky boy she tormented in junior high….and that he has become so hot. She’s determined to give him the scare of a lifetime so that he’ll give the haunted house a good review on his blog…until she realizes that he finds her just as attractive as she finds him.

Without divulging who she is, Nora flirts with Brendan, and he flirts right back. She finally decides that she needs to reveal who she really is…even though he might never have forgiven her.

Crazy, Sexy, Ghoulish , by G. G. Andrew, is a funny, smartly written new adult novella about the second chances we so seldom get when we grow up and realize what we could have done differently and what we can do to make up for it. And sometimes the monsters that we’re most afraid of aren’t the make-believe ones, but the ones we try to run from within ourselves.