In the Eye of Power: The Notorious
by Cynthia Watkins Richardson
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,"
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.
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
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."