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19th Century Anti-Abortion Laws Enforcement in the Rural United States

By Madeleine Boesche

In late December, I took two trips to southeastern Indiana on my Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship, awarded by the history department to help fund archival research for my senior thesis. I was interested in writing my thesis on the ways in which 19th century anti-abortion laws were enforced in rural parts of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, a topic that until now has been largely unexamined. Most historians have focused on abortion practices in big cities. However, in 1880, 70% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas: it seemed to me that this was where I needed to do my research.  

While conducting a rudimentary search in Vassar’s library of newspapers from the 1870s-1890s, I came across an intriguing newspaper article from 1879 in the National Police Gazette, a New York City tabloid. The story involved a young woman named Eliza Francis Levesay, who came from a poor farming family, living in Decatur County, Indiana. Eliza had an affair with a young man from a much wealthier family and became pregnant. A few weeks after learning of the pregnancy, her lover drove her to the nearby town of Greensburg, where Eliza underwent an illegal abortion in the office of a prominent Greensburg dentist. She became ill after the procedure and the doctor treating her contacted authorities to report the abortion. Because abortion was illegal in Indiana in 1879—as in all other states—the state conducted a thorough investigation and brought charges against both William Miers, her lover, and Dr. C. C. Burns, the local dentist who provided the abortion. The Gazette was infamous for publishing exaggerated stories of debauchery and vice, so I couldn’t tell how much of the story had been fabricated by the paper and how much of it was true.

I spent months trying to locate local newspaper coverage of the trial but I found barely any supporting evidence of the trial. Either the trial never occurred, or local news editors were trying to suppress the story. I planned use the Clark Fellowship to travel to Greensburg and search for more newspapers and trial documentation. I had a lot of questions: were abortions as easily accessible to farm women as their city-dwelling counterparts? Did rural women seek abortion for reasons similar to those given by urban women? And how did rural women find abortion providers? When I got to Greensburg, I found much more than I had anticipated.

The Greensburg Public Library housed two newspapers—The Greensburg Standard and The Decatur Journal—which contained some of the only coverage of the abortion trial. More importantly, however, while in the library I met the Decatur County Historian, Russell Wilhoit. When I told him about my project he pulled out maps, obituaries, and books of local history. He told me that the criminal trial records were stored in the courthouse basement and I probably wouldn’t be able to get access to them—not because they’re classified, but because they’re stored in a basement full of mold and mildew. However he offered to go down and look for them. When I returned to Greensburg two weeks later, Russell met me with over 70 pages of trial records: they had been sealed in boxes in 1879 and had until now, never been opened.

The trial documents and accompanying newspaper articles told me that the trial had in fact taken place in the fall of 1879. However the jury could not reach a unanimous decision—ten jurors thought the men were guilty and two did not—and the case was dropped and never retried. The documents included warrants, affidavits, legal motions, maps, and most interesting, a hand-written copy of Eliza’s deposition, taken a few days after doctors reported her abortion to state authorities. It took me over a month to read, transcribe, and order the pages of the deposition (which were completely out of order), but the results were astounding. In past work by historians of abortion, women’s voices have been absent from the available evidence. Public trials offer historians some of the only opportunities to understand the practice of abortion in the United States. Because most of these trials resulted from a woman’s death, firsthand testimony typically came from husbands, lovers, or friends, not the women themselves. This case is unique because Eliza Levesay did not die: in fact she lived to tell her story to state investigators, and her testimony sheds light on the experience of a rural woman having an abortion. The Clark Fellowship gave me the opportunity to access a set of rare primary documents, integral to my thesis research, and provided me insight into a topic that few historians have examined. Further, my research in Greensburg expanded my own understanding of the different roles that abortion has played in American men and women’s lives.