Today, when we see the word "madam" in the headlines we think of a few names, specifically Anna Gristina. But what if the word "madam" had a different meaning in the mid 1800s. The word would be used as an aliases of one of the most hated and despised woman in New York City. Her name was Ann Trow Lohman, but to the citizens of New York City she was Madame Restell. The work of Madame Restell was well known during her times and would be targeted by every group in the city. But what could this "madam" have been doing? It is still one of the hot button topics in America today, and she was in some cases a pioneer in this field, but still public enemy number one.
Let me start out by just clarifying something, I am in no way supporting the actions of Madame Restell, or expressing my opinion on the subject. I genuinely find the Madame and her story as an extremely obscure, sinister and unmatched piece of history. Ann Trow was born in 1812 in Painswick, England. At 16 she married Henry Summer and in 1831 immigrated to New York. Her husband passed away and Ann was left to fend for herself in this new city making a living as a seamstress.The Madame wouldn't come into existence until her second marriage in 1836 to Charles Lohman, a freethinking radical.Now theres two more pieces to the puzzle that would turn Ann into the most hated woman in perhaps New York City History. The influence from the books, Moral Physiology; or, a Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question by Robert Owens and Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Young Married People both influenced Ann as both books where pro birth control. This coupled with her brother working in a pharmacy, sparked Ann's interest in women's health especially in birth control and the practice of abortions.
The Madame Restell was the best at her work. So good she was, she was the go to for women's contraceptives and well, smushsmortions. The problem for the Madame was she had no problem flaunting the profits from her questionable business. She placed ads in newspapers for "Preventive Powders" and "Female Monthly Pills." In fact these "preventive measures" were known to cause miscarriages amongst the clientèle. Yet regardless, selling her birth control was not the problem but it was the ending of unwanted pregnancies that really made her the biggest villain in the city. She serviced women of every class of New York City society, from the poorest of the poor living in the overcrowded slums to the richest of the rich living up and down Madison and Fifth Avenues. She was also known for having a secret maternity ward in the basement of her 52nd Street Mansion, which when a pregnancy was too far along, she would let a woman give birth and then the Madame would make a lucrative profit by selling the infant to some of New York's wealthiest childless couples. However, the end of the road was around the next corner for the Madame.
There was an ever growing opposition to the work of Madame Restell. From law enforcement groups, the Catholic Church & other religious organizations to your everyday 19th century do gooder groups, people were out to end the Madame's work and growing bank account. What really pissed off the residents of New York was her flamboyance. The Madame had no problem showing off her wealth. Form her home to her clothes, her cash flow seemed endless. She was even known to have taken an illustrious, four horse drawn carriage complete with personal driver and doorman. But in July of 1841, the Madame became public enemy number one. The body of Mary Rogers was found on the banks of the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. Now Mary Rogers is a story in herself, she would inspire an Edger Allen Poe story and become one of New York City's greatest murder mysteries, but those are stories for another day. Reports from both the police and local newspapers made claims she had died due to a botched abortion, so you can see how the blame landed squarely on Madame Restell. The Madame was then put on trial several times for the murder. She was even jailed once in 1848 and her imprisonment was nothing short of then a 19th century version of the Goodfellas dinner in prison scene. It was such an embarrassment to the New York Penal System that she was released from prison. However after the Rogers case was solved, she was murdered by her finance, Restell's business was on a downward slope. Her career and her life where nearing an end.
New York outlaw abortions and the practice Restell built her empire on. Even the public tried to erase the stories of and abortions and laws were made that also made it illegal to report stories or place advertisements in relation to the subject of abortion or any of its "tools." Seeing the end of her career and potential threat of real prison time or even worse death, Madame Restell had to make a choice after an arrest in February of 1878. That choice was suicide. In the April of 1878 Madame Restell was found with her in her bathtub, where she had slit her throat. In one last display of diffidence or just sheer ostentatiousness, Madame Restell adorned herself with not just a pair of diamond earrings, a diamond necklace and three diamond rings but also her nightgown was held together, I kid you not, by diamond studded buttons. It was estimated at the time of her death that Restell was worth upwards of $600,000 which today is close to $14 million dollars. Madame Restell has gone down as the most evil, wicked, terrible, immoral woman in the history of New York City. But today she is nothing more than barely a footnote in Women's History, or Herstory for my feminist readers. The debate of abortion still rages on today, as it has since the practice was created. Yet it is important that Madame Restell's story be told as she is a key part of the History of Women, especially in the story women's health and its history.