February 22, 2024

She chose the name because it sounded French. When she published her first newspaper ad in 1839, she sought to cultivate an aura of mystery and sophistication. Over time, her moniker, Madame Restell, would be endowed with a backstory for the women who sought her services. Clients were informed that The Madame had been trained in Europe, specifically at renowned maternity hospitals. She had been taught by her French midwife grandmother, and her “preventative powders” had been in use in Europe for decades. However, none of this was true – the woman known as Madame Restell was actually Ann Trow, born in rural England, and she never received any formal medical training. Despite her humble origins, her clients continued to consider her magnificently qualified. They turned her into one of the most affluent and infamous businesswomen in New York City, seeking her services to get abortions.

“The Trials of Madame Restell,” a novel by Nicholas L. Syrett, a gender historian at the University of Kansas, follows Restell’s career of almost forty years as an abortion provider in nineteenth-century New York, tracking the rapid developments in the fields of medicine, ethics, and pregnancy law. Syrett’s deeply detailed account follows another biography, “Madame Restell,” authored by historian Jennifer Wright, which discusses the moral implications of Restell’s public life. Together, the books provide a snapshot of an impressive woman navigating an era that, in several critical aspects, bears an unsettling similarity to contemporary times.

Abortion in 1839 greatly resembled its current form. At that time, just like now, most abortions occurred in the first trimester and were typically not surgical procedures but rather medicinal. Additionally, in an increasing number of regions, abortion had recently been outlawed. By 1829, ten years before Restell started her practice, New York State had enacted a law criminalizing abortion and making it a felony to perform a late abortion and a misdemeanor to induce an early one. New York was amongst several states that introduced abortion prohibitions in the early nineteenth century, even though abortions and midwives had initially been closely intertwined. Often, it was challenging to determine if a woman was pregnant or not. During this time, pregnancy tests did not exist, and early pregnancies were ambiguous, leading to the proliferation of abortifacients and emmenagogues.

Speaking of Restell’s emmenagogue sales, she operated from her residential office at 148 Greenwich Street, which at the time was in a modest and less glamorous neighborhood. She formulated and offered these drugs in the form of pills, powders, and tinctures. As part of her practice, Restell manually induced miscarriages and provided a range of midwife services, along with treating S.T.D.s, offering various contraceptives, and arranging secretive deliveries of illegitimate babies. Initially, Restell mainly sold her own concoctions, which included ingredients like pennyroyal, ergot, oil of tansy seed, and turpentine resin. In the rapidly evolving world of medicine, urbanization and mass media emerged as a burgeoning market for medical providers who were not necessarily experts and often peddled poorly manufactured products.

Part of Restell’s early success could be attributed to the safety of her products, as none of her patients died due to her abortions. Her success also occurred because she openly advertised her services at a time when practitioners were usually covert about their abortion services. Although news outlets attacked her, Restell’s business thrived, with her having an arrest in August, 1839 – facing the first of many over nearly a decade. Despite her run-ins with the law, her business continued to prosper.