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: 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.

Taste Me, Tempt Me! Or, Linotte Gets Published

So…I have a big announcement! Drumroll! Are you ready?

Tomorrow is the release day for the romance anthology Taste Me, Tempt Me: 8 Tales of Sweet & Spicy Romance. And guess what? I have a short story published in it: “Trouble with Trifles,” by Madeleine Keane.

Cover of Taste Me Tempt Me

Cover of Taste Me, Tempt Me. Image via Amazon.

And guess what else? All proceeds of Taste Me, Tempt Me go to America’s Second Harvest and Food Banks Canada! So what are you waiting for? Grab your copy and help feed the hungry! I would say that’s a win-win right there!

Spooky Stories: The Exhumation of Lizzie Siddal

Since it’s close to Halloween, I thought I would share this morbid little tidbit about Burne-Jones’s fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal and how he had her grave dug up so he could get the book of his poems that he had buried with her.

Rossetti was born into a family that already had a love for literature and the arts. His father was a scholar and his mother was the sister of John Polidori. Many of the children were creative types. Gabriel himself was a painter and a poet and, along with painters Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and other young artists of the day, started the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s self-portrait. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Siddal, on the other hand, was from a working class background. She was employed in a millinery shop and was the daughter of a cutler. Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites found her to be a very striking young woman, and she started modeling for them in 1849. She started taking drawing lessons from Rossetti, and this blossomed into an affair which lasted for years. Elizabeth began writing poetry and painting as well, but Rossetti eventually insisted that she sit only for him, though he continued to sketch other models, such as Jane Morris and Annie Miller.

elizabeth siddal self-portrait

Elizabeth Siddal’s self-portrait. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth’s and Rossetti’s relationship was a tempestuous one, marked by Rossetti’s infidelity and reluctance to marry her and Elizabeth’s ill health and growing addiction to laudanum. In 1860, they finally married, but their happiness was to be short-lived. After a stillbirth in 1862, Elizabeth, who had been pregnant again, overdosed on laudanum. It is unknown whether this was suicide or an accident.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

Elizabeth Siddal modeled for John Everett Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia. Image via Wikipedia.

Elizabeth’s death sent Rossetti on a downward spiral of drug addiction. In his grief, he wrote a book of poems about her, which slipped beneath her hair during the burial. In 1869, Rossetti became obsessed with getting the book back so he could publish the poems. Elizabeth’s body was exhumed so the book could be obtained. The book was in remarkably good condition, as was Elizabeth’s body at the time of exhumation.

During a particularly dark moment, Rossetti destroyed all of the photographs of Elizabeth. Only two are known to have survived.

More reading about Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, and the Pre-Raphaelites: Desperate Romantics by Franny Moyle and Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, by Lucinda Hawksley (the latter was my source).

Book Review: Forever Your Earl, by Eva Leigh

Eva Leigh begins with a promising start to her new Wicked Quills of London series with its first installment, Forever Your Earl. Leigh takes us from the finest houses to the poorest slums of Regency London in this delectable treat of a book.

Cover of Forever Your Earl.

Forever Your Earl, by Eva Leigh. Cover image via Amazon.

Eleanor Hawke, editor of the Hawk’s Eye, one of the most popular scandal sheets in London, is shocked the day the her favorite subject, Daniel Balfour, the Earl of Ashford, walks into her office with a proposition. He and Eleanor come to an agreement: she will accompany him on his many exploits throughout London, identifying him only as Lord Rakehell in her articles. But Daniel’s reasons for this are twofold; he has been searching high and low for his old friend, Jonathan, who has disappeared into London’s slums, and he believes these articles may be just the thing to lure Jonathan out of hiding.

Daniel and Eleanor spend a delightful few weeks as she chronicles all of his scandalous pursuits, from phaeton races to gambling hells to masquerades to nights in Vauxhall Gardens. As she spends more time with Daniel, she begins to see that there is more to him than she thought. And Daniel finds Eleanor’s wit, independence, and humor to be exhilarating. Yet class differences and societal conventions doom their romance, and Daniel will do anything to persuade Eleanor that she is worthy of his love, even though he’s just a commoner and he’s an earl.

Leigh breathes life into Regency London in every word on the page, from simple everyday conversation to descriptions of such grand places as Vauxhall. The couple’s romance progresses as naturally as that between the hero and heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel and is very believable. Much like romantic leads in the other series Leigh has written under the name of Zoe Archer, Daniel and Eleanor come together for their own reasons and realize that they can help each other achieve their own goals. As their relationship progresses, they work together to find some resolution and to bring Daniel’s friend safely home. The couple emerges stronger than they were and you get a sense of how they help each other become better people. And that is how a romance should end – with some sense of a happily ever after.

I received an advance copy of this book in a giveaway hosted by the author.

Book Review: Daughter of Deep Silence, by Carrie Ryan

Part Revenge, part Pretty Little Liars, Daughter of Deep Silence, by Carrie Ryan, is an absolute summer treat. In this delightful melange of suspense and romance, Ryan keeps you on the edge of your seat guessing until the very end.

Daughter of Deep Silence book cover

Cover of book. Image via Amazon.

Four years ago, Frances Mace was pulled from a life raft after the sinking of the cruise ship, Persephone, barely clinging to life and staring at the body of her friend, Libby O’Martin, who has just died. There are only three survivors of the disaster, in which both of Frances’s parents and Libby’s mother were killed. Libby’s father visits Frances just after she was just pulled from the water and asks her about the last days of his daughter’s life. Upon finding out that Frances has been left an orphan, Libby’s father offers her an alternative:  that she assume Libby’s identity and life of privilege. Frances agrees.

After attending boarding school in Europe, Frances returns to the tiny island off of South Carolina that is her home. But she hasn’t come home to just fritter her summer break away on the beach. She has a plan of action, and she’s determined to find out who exactly hired the gunmen who were responsible for the murders of the innocent passengers of the Persephone and discover just exactly how Senator Wells and his son, Grey, survived, and why they’re lying about what happened. Using her identity as Libby, Frances is able to insinuate her way into the Wells home, but even as she finds herself falling for Grey, she is still a girl on a mission: to find out what happened, who made it happen, and make the people responsible for it pay.

Frances is a complex, tormented character, and as her investigation and plan progress, she questions her motivations. As she comes to terms with what happened and how she was never really allowed to process the tragedy and deal with it, she begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She realizes that the people who were responsible for it need to pay somehow, even if it means having to reveal her secret.

Perfect for either a beach read or a dark stormy night, Daughter of Deep Silence will have you flipping the pages until the very end.

I received an advance review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Catherine Eddowes, Aaron Kosminski, and the Question of a Shawl

Imagine my initial surprise and delight this weekend when I saw the headline that Jack the Ripper had been identified as Aaron Kosminski from DNA gathered left on a shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes. Then I read the article and saw the source of the news: The Daily Mail, which, okay, maybe, but then the claim started to look bad when it was mentioned that, oh, yeah, Russell Edwards, the current owner of the shawl, has a book coming out this week called Naming Jack the Ripper.

Ripperologists have known about the existence of the shawl for years. Supposedly, the shawl belonging to Catherine Eddowes was plucked up from the scene by one of the police officers, Amos Simpson, who thought it might make a lovely gift for his wife. It turns out his wife wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of wearing a murder victim’s bloody shawl and the piece of clothing was kept stored away for many years and became a sort of family legend. Edwards acquired the shawl and submitted it for DNA testing at a private lab. The blood tested positive as Catherine Eddowes’s and was matched with mitochondrial DNA from one of Eddowes’s female descendants. There was something else on the shawl, which the lab determined was semen, and that semen, the lab concluded, belonged to no one other than Aaron Kosminksi, one of the men investigators suspected at the time of the murders.

Eddowes - Contemporary Illustration

A contemporary illustration of Eddowes. Image via Daily Mail.

There are many questions about the provenance of the shawl and whether or not this is a true artifact or some elaborate hoax (remember the Maybrick diary, anyone?) or someone with tunnel vision chasing after windmills because he or she can finally prove who Jack the Ripper was. Both author Lyndsay Faye and Ripperologist Melanie Clegg, who have studied the case extensively and penned novels about it, have written that, while the finding is interesting, there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

Faye states:

[L]et’s try to do the best sciencing we can when it comes to the deaths of these innocent women.  They were already used as fodder to sell newspapers during the Victorian Era—let’s just try to be certain we aren’t leaping back on that bandwagon.

Clegg herself takes the same attitude, in her quote from a post below:

For me, the Ripper case is an interesting piece of social history and a chance to really scratch the surface of the Victorian London and see what lies beneath. Unmasking the Ripper is not something I have ever had ambitions to do, but I am, on the other hand, pretty keen to make the names and lives of his victims better known and understood. Even if the case was absolutely and definitely closed today, then I think we would still need to talk about the social history aspect of the murders, because even the most cursory look at the terrible conditions endured by the women preyed on by the so called Ripper, many of whom were on the streets due to the breakdown of marriage, lack of opportunities and estrangement from their families, serves as a reminder of why we need a welfare state to protect and support the vulnerable people in our own society.

Of course, there is no doubt that the results from the DNA tests need to be reviewed and checked for accuracy, and other sources like The Independent are much more cautious when reporting the claims.

To be honest, I myself am not sure of what to make of this new claim. It’s great that we’re able to apply modern science to try and close what really is a Victorian cold case, but we also have to remember that late Victorian law enforcement didn’t have the knowledge of crime scene preservation or even the access to the investigative science that we do now. Development of fingerprinting as an investigative tool was still a few years away and the studies of psychiatry and psychology still had a very long way to go. Many of the crime scenes were contaminated by investigators, curious onlookers, and zealous journalists. Remember how Sherlock Holmes sometimes scolded Lestrade that the police had ruined his crime scene and that he should have been called in earlier? Yeah, think of it like that.

Further, we can only go by the information given to us by the investigators of the time. It’s been over a hundred years, and some of that information may be missing. What we do have may be clouded by the biases and beliefs of the actual investigators, and the information from the memoirs of the investigators might be embellished or inaccurate simply because of a lapse in memory concerning something that happened so many years ago. And it’s been proven that eyewitness testimony can be very hit or miss, so we don’t even know if the information given by witnesses is all that reliable.

I suppose what leads a bad taste in my mouth is the seeming desire of the parties involved in this to try to turn a profit from their supposed findings. It’s one thing to study the case and write a fiction or nonfiction book or two about what you have found and what you’ve theorized so that other people can access this information and come up with their own opinions. It’s quite another thing to have a huge press release in the Daily Mail declaring that you have definitively proven the identity of Jack the Ripper using DNA and the case can be closed once and for all. Sure, those involved should be able to have a forum in which to explain their results and how they came to their present conclusions, because this allows for open discussion and study and might interest other people in the case and its social ramifications…and of course they should be able to profit from it. But there’s a difference between reaping a reward for the time you spent studying something and formulating conclusions and blatantly profiteering from the deaths or five or six women who were just scraping by because people at the time didn’t care enough about those who were on the fringes of society. Like Faye and Clegg have stated, we need to be very careful not to “jump on the bandwagon” and help those who might not have the best motives profit from the senseless murders of five or six women who didn’t deserve to die as they did and who should have had a better chance in the world than what they were given.