Madame Restell: The Wickedest Woman in New York

Madame Restell ArrestedMadame Restell was a flamboyant 19th century abortionist whom history remembers as  “the wickedest woman in New York” —but had she been? Victorian Gothic takes a critical look:

The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources now available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in the voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

[Full Article at Victorian Gothic]

, , , , , , , ,

  • 5by5

    The entire article is an argument for just how wonderful modern scientifically viable and safe contraception and medical abortion really is, not to mention how important it is for women to have true equal rights. Truly liberating women from being victimized by a variety of serious douchebags.

    When you hear the utter crap that women in the 1800′s had to endure as a result of that patriarchal BS, it really is mindblowing that they all didn’t just rise up and pull a collective Lorena Bobbit.

    • Haystack

      Looking at the anti-abortion movement in the 19th century really made me appreciate how much the issue still has to do with social control and sexual morality. I can respect the beliefs of those who think that abortion destroys a life, but it’s often these same people who want to substitute real sex education with teaching about abstinence, etc. When the pro-lifers are given a choice between upholding traditional sexual morality and taking pragmatic measures which will reduce the number of abortions that happen, more often than not they choose the former–which makes me question how concerned they truly are for “life.”

      When the women’s suffrage movement got going in the early 20th century it really was a collective Lorena Bobbit–they were smashing windows, destroying artwork, getting into fights with police, etc. The suffragettes were a pretty badass lot.

  • 5by5

    The entire article is an argument for just how wonderful modern scientifically viable and safe contraception and medical abortion really is, not to mention how important it is for women to have true equal rights. Truly liberating women from being victimized by a variety of serious douchebags.

    When you hear the utter crap that women in the 1800′s had to endure as a result of that patriarchal BS, it really is mindblowing that they all didn’t just rise up and pull a collective Lorena Bobbit.

  • Haystack

    Looking at the anti-abortion movement in the 19th century really made me appreciate how much the issue still has to do with social control and sexual morality. I can respect the beliefs of those who think that abortion destroys a life, but it’s often these same people who want to substitute real sex education with teaching about abstinence, etc. When the pro-lifers are given a choice between upholding traditional sexual morality and taking pragmatic measures which will reduce the number of abortions that happen, more often than not they choose the former–which makes me question how concerned they truly are for “life.”

    When the women’s suffrage movement got going in the early 20th century it really was a collective Lorena Bobbit–they were smashing windows, destroying artwork, getting into fights with police, etc. The suffragettes were a pretty badass lot.

21