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: Blood Diva, by V. M. Gautier

What if one of Paris’s most elegant, most sought-after demimondaines lived the life of the girl about town as a vampire in modern-day Brooklyn? V. M. Gautier dares to ask that question and has spun a very believable tale of the life Marie Duplessis might live as one of the undead in her slickly written new novel Blood Diva.

Alphonsine Duplessis lay dying of consumption in 1847 when she was approached by a stranger who offered her the gift of immortal life, for someone as brilliant and beautiful as she was, the stranger said, shouldn’t die before her time. Alphonsine takes the gift and never looks back, sustaining herself on the blood of mortals throughout the years. She has become what the other vampires call a diva, specially chosen because, to them, she was a singular creature, someone who deserved to be counted among the ranks of their kind. Alphonsine has been able to travel the world and has borne witness to history as it unfolds, and as time has passed, she has become as familiar with the different subtleties in the tastes of human blood as she once was with those of wine:

No two people tasted the same – not father and son, nor brother and sister, not even twins. This she knew from her own experience. Children’s blood had a sweetness like the candied grapes young men once brought her as tokens between acts at the opera. There was a freshness to young blood, like apples picked in the summer at a perfect moment of ripeness. Teenaged girls tasted of secrets, and boys of lust. Women, pretty ones, whose hearts had been broken had a certain tenderness and resignation, especially if you came to them when their looks were fading, and there wasn’t much hope. There were men who had an edge like a wine with a bitter after taste, while others were warm and smooth. The old, whom she wasn’t fond of, tasted of sadness, disappointment, and defeat, though they would certainly do when convenient. Human blood, like the human voice, had different timbres. Some had the richness and depth of a bass-baritone while others were light but agile like a coloratura soprano.

 

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Cover from the novel. Image via Amazon.

Alphonsine meets the young writer Dashiell at an art show, and the two are inevitably drawn to each other and embark on a passionate affair. Even though she tells herself that she must not become too emotionally attached and keep the affair short and sweet, Alphonsine falls in love with Dashiell. The longer she is with him, she begins to see certain similarities between Dashiell and her beloved Adet, Alexandre Dumas fils. She begins to believe that maybe she has somehow been given a sort of second chance with Adet, and that Dash could be Adet’s reincarnation. Even though she has yet to tell Dash the truth about what she is and why she doesn’t go out during the day and prefers only to eat vegan food, she still proceeds with the relationship, eventually accepting his marriage proposal. She strikes a deal with her vampire benefactors to perform one more job for them, and after that, she will be free, financially secure, and able to marry Dash. She decides to go even further so that she can live a human lifetime with him and be happy, but when it looks like everything is going to work out, Alphonsine’s past catches up with her, and the lies she has been telling begin to fall apart.

Blood Diva is almost a retelling of Camille, for Alphonsine is determined to do whatever she can to ensure Dash’s happiness, even sacrifice the life she has built for herself and her immortality. But Gautier takes many of the true elements of Marie Duplessis’s affair with Dumas fils and juxtaposes them with the unfolding affair with Dashiell. Dumas fils knew exactly who Marie was and what she did for a living, and though they loved each other passionately, Dumas fils was unable to come to terms with his role in Marie’s life as the amant de coeur, and so he ended the relationship. Alphonsine seizes the possibility of a second chance at love with Dashiell, but she must lie to him and keep him from discovering the truth about what she is, or else she might lose his love. This begs the question of what is better: a brief love affair based on the cold, hard truth, or the chance of a lifetime of happiness and love all while knowing that your love is based on lies? Further, Alphonsine’s love for Dash motivates her to make the bid for independence she has always wanted, for she has lived much of her life as a vampire under the direction of the leaders of her kind. It is known that part of the reason why Marie Duplessis became a courtesan was her desire for independence and to be able to live her life on her own terms. Alphonsine wishes to break away from the influence of her benefactors and do the same.

Blood Diva is really the story of a so-called bad girl trying to make good and seize the opportunity for love, and also the story of a young woman who is trying to assert her independence and gain a foothold in a world that has changed drastically while coming to terms with who she has become after all this time. Alphonsine has done all of this before in her mortal life and takes the chance to do it in her immortal life. To be honest, I think the real Marie Duplessis would be very pleased with it.

The novel does contain some rather graphic scenes, no worse than anything in an Anne Rice novel or A Song of Ice and Fire. However, since scenes of sex and violence can be triggering for some people, it’s better that they know ahead of time.

I received an advanced review copy of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.