Procuring an abortion was a serious crime in the Regency period and when illegal abortionists were caught, the newspapers were relatively free with the details.
The papers were full of reports in the regency period and they followed a pattern with some variations; a servant, away from home and without any family support is seduced and made pregnant by a gentlemen or cleric; often a relationship is started but the asymmetry of power between the two parties makes the relationship fail, even if success was ever part of the plan. Sometimes the man would procure and abortion or even attempt it themselves; if the women were expelled from the house when they became pregnant they would try to poison themselves. Sometimes they would keep the pregnancy a secret, leave their employ at the last moment and then have the child in a dismal lodging house.
Liza Ann Layton was a servant who found herself away from home in Ipswich working for a James Robertson or Roberton . She was seduced by Robertson during the course of her employment and Robertson suggested to her, according to Layton, that he would procure an abortion “by the application of surgical instruments which, he stated, would not produce as much pain as a day’s illness”. There were two failed attempts one afternoon in 1816 when Layton was about four or five months pregnant, leaving Liza desperately weak and bleeding in bed. A few days later Liza’s mother saw Robertson in the bedroom with her daughter with his hands under the blankets and later smuggled a bundle out of the room in his greatcoat.
This was not the only time Robertson procured an abortion for Liza, and of course himself. The relationship continued after the first termination but the details are hazy; Robertson moved to London and Layton followed him and there was at least one more abortion when she became pregnant again. There was another period of estrangement when Layton was addicted to laudanum, but this was a relationship of sorts and Liza was not abandoned by Robertson when she became pregnant.
When the law caught up with Robertson he was charged under the 1803 “Ellenborough Act” which had made abortion after about 20 weeks a felony which carried a maximum life imprisonment. This new law was first specific English law that made abortion an illegal act; earlier the procedure had been covered by common law and the belief that the soul came into the foetus at about 16- 20 weeks and banned abortion after that date. It seems that women had regularly used methods of abortion in the first months of pregnancy for centuries and this was deemed as merely regularizing the menstrual system, not destroying a life.
Robertson’s alleged attempt had been made at “ four or five months” into the pregnancy and was therefore illegal under the new Act and the previous common law. Robertson strongly protested his innocence and so impressed the onlookers that four individuals offered sureties of £1000 to add to Robertson’s own bail of £2000.
He absconded before his trial at the Old Bailey, running away to Holland via Gravesend. The story goes cold at this point; it would be hard for Robertson to continue his trade in Holland after the publicity; the most shocking part of this story was that he was a medical doctor, a surgeon to the Middlesex Militia, a member of the Royal College of Physicians and lecturer in Midwifery.
Not all women had the benefit of a medical man to botch an abortion for them. In 1811, Rebecca Holden, in the curious wording of the newspaper report “poisoning herself with a poisonous drug” to end her pregnancy. This may have been arsenic or a quack medicine that coyly promised to cure “female obstructions”. (See above)
Widow Welch’s Pills were a well known abortion inducer well into the twentieth century and would have contained a natural abortifacient such as pennyroyal. The advertisement hides its main aim with a torrent of other ailments, but it is particularly good for “female obstruction” which could be interpreted as inducing the onset of menstruation in a young woman or moderating the menopause, but actually meant abortion
Other methods were available. In February 1812, Eliza Counter was accused of libelling the Honourable Basil Cochrane by saying that he organised a steam bath for his mistress to procure an abortion.
The Reverend William Jennings was accused in 1812 of administering calomel to his maid Sarah Weeks in an attempt to poison her with mercury. Sarah then gave birth to a dead child while suffering from symptoms that sounded exactly like mercury poisoning, including excessive salivation and an immense swollen tongue that were symptoms of toxic amounts of calomel.
On 12 January 1813, in Bushley Park, Worcestershire, the servant Judith Beale ( “Spinster , 17”) took advantage of her mistress’s absence by inviting her boyfriend James Foster over for the night. She subsequently became violently ill in the mornings afterwards, and James, fearing the worst, procured mercury for Judith, assuring her that he knew of several people who had taken it without a problem. Judith believed him, took three- fourths of the mercury and died.
Savin- an extract of the poisonous tips of juniper – was used by Phoebe Sparrow, 22 of Dudley in 1813 by her cohabitating partner after four months of pregnancy. Phoebe took no more poison after that, perhaps she was pressurized into taking the original dose, but delivered her baby dead after eight months due to the weaknesses caused by this juniper based poison. It was this active ingredient that gave gin the reputation as an abortion inducer. It was “ mother’s ruin” in more ways than one.
Many thousands of abortions were arranged successfully but anonymously in this period by trusted local women who only ever appeared in the newspapers when the process was unsuccessful. Occasionally, women away from home with no contacts fell into the hands of what we could call quack doctors. Dolly Rosthorn used the services of a John Buckley of Bolton in 1814 to abort a child that many papers suggested he was the father of. He botched the abortion so badly and caused so much pain that the jury considered this to the capital crime of murder; he was doing it deliberately, so was hanged at Lancaster gaol on March 19th, 1814.
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