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.

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.