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In the Eye of Power: The Notorious Madam Restell

by Cynthia Watkins Richardson

Madame Restell
Figure 1

     Madame Restell was a woman before her time. Living in New York between 1830 and 1877, she led a notoriously public life despite her best efforts to conduct her livelihood without interference. As a female health practitioner and abortionist she was victim to the sharp swift change of public opinion about the practice which took place in the early 1840s. A discussion on the relative morals and merits of abortion is not the subject of this paper, although the topic deserves serious and sensitive study. Rather, the focus is on the process of Madame Restell's increasing notoriety, her agency in that notoriety, and its implications for the social constructions of gender, and the role of a woman's conduct in public as it relates to business, the press and privacy. Madame Restell's life story provides visual images illustrating the interlocking relationships between a person and the press's agency in shaping both her public and private life. She looms large as an example of a nineteenth century woman in public: one who, under the observing gaze of the media, took care of other women and was publicly chastised for it, but was nonetheless successfully employed at it for her entire lifetime. In the process she successfully managed to contradict the norm of domesticity for women. Moreover, she acted as an affront to those in the media who repeatedly tried to ensnare her in their nets in their roles as the moral policemen of the "greatest city in the world," New York.
     Born as Ann Trow on May 6, 1812 or 1811, in Painswick, southeast of Gloucester in Gloucestershire England, she was the daughter of John Trow, a laborer. At the age of 15, she became a maid in a butcher's family, and at age sixteen she married Henry Summer of Wiltshire. Together they spent three years in England, and in 1831 they emigrated to New York. In New York her husband succumbed to yellow fever. As a result, Ann began work as a seamstress. This was hard and marginal work in a growing city at a time when widowhood was synonymous with impoverishment.

Poor woman and child
Figure 2

     In 1836, she married Charles Lohman, another immigrant, born in Russia of parents of German descent. Lohman had emigrated and was in New York by 1829, where he had become a compositor for the Herald. Presumably it was his profession as a printer which led him to meet and become friends with George Matsell, publisher and seller of the Free Inquirer, a radical journal begun by Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright. An avowed freethinker, Lohman maintained his beliefs throughout his life, and his influence over Ann Lohman provides an interesting topic for further research, especially since Lohman was involved in publishing, with Matsell, Robert Dale Owen's Moral Physiology; or, a Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question (1831) as well as Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Young Married People(1831).

Book title page
Figure 3

     Soon after her marriage to Charles Lohman, Ann Lohman began selling patent medicines, marking the beginning of her career as a healer and caretaker for women. We can surmise that Ann collaborated with and learned pharmacy work from her brother Joseph, who had also emigrated to New York and was clerking in a pharmacy when Ann's first husband died. It is probable that she entered a partnership with her husband and brother to create the birth control products which she advertised as being produced by "Madame Restell."
     One of her advertisements reads in part:

                                ADVERTISEMENT
To married women: Is it but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate? In how many instances does the hard-working father, and more especially the mother, of a poor family remain slaves throughout their lives, urging at the oar of incessant labor, toiling to live, living but to toil, .... Is it desirable, then, ....for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well-being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control?

Because women were often unskilled and dependent, the specter of poverty caused by unplanned pregnancy was very real to fertile women. Her burgeoning family relied on the sole support of a husband, who at any time might grow ill and die, be gone for months in search for work, or, worse still, decide he has had enough of toiling for his family and leave for a possibly better life elsewhere. Many families could relate to this predicament. Women sought the sympathetic "Madame Restell" to help them with gaining control of their precarious lives.

tennement house
Figure 4

     Restell's success in her practice reflected tensions inherent in the social life of New York. 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- or 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. It was from the more genteel, middle- and upper-class reading public that Madame Restell sought her clientele.

The penny press was instrumental to the success of Restell's advertising, and as such, provided a forum not only for advertising her business, but also one which was to open her to censure by the public eye. The proliferation of similar kinds of advertisements is testimony to its effectiveness as a vehicle for reaching customers. There were many others who provided the same services of abortifacent medicines and abortions. They competed through their advertisements, each claiming greater effectiveness, better safety, and more confidentiality than the others.
Horace Greely's house
Figure 5
     Reporting on this flourishing business was the publishing industry itself, a group whose powers of observation and description were keenly focused on the activities of this tightly knit community of printers, pill vendors and medical practitioners who flourished in a regulation-free atmosphere which is difficult for us to imagine today. Over time, the role played by the mass-circulation newspapers in New York's cultural life grew in complexity, and not only did abortion advertisements dot their pages; but the newspaper editors, in their battle for increased circulation, transformed abortion into sensationalist news.
     Madame Restell was one object of this news. Her practice was the subject of Horace Greeley's self-righteous editorial tirades against abortion and quack medicine advertisements.
     Hurling epithets from his editorial command post at the Tribune, Greeley focused public attention on the advertisements of people such as Restell and her free-thinking husband Lohman, and avowed his hatred of them.
Horace Greely
Figure 6

     Timothy Gilfoyle tells us that the "sporting press" that thrived after 1840 made the newspapers and penny press look tame: The Rake, The Whip, and Flash were published from 1841 to 1843. The most successful, the National Police Gazette, flourished from 1845 to 1933. These weekly journals covered the urban underworld and other forms of "sport." Like the penny press, sensationalist journals, and certain moral reformers, the sporting press defended its unprecedented coverage of salacious topics by feigning objectivity. As one newspaper, The Rake, claimed, "Our part is to hold the mirror up to nature, to show vice in its own image."


Figure 7
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