Tuesday, June 02, 2020

78. Jeannie's Demise: Abortion on Trial in Victorian Ontario

Jeannie's Demise: Abortion on Trial in Victorian Ontario. Ian Radforth. 2020. [October] 258 pages. [Source: Review copy] [adult nonfiction; history]

First sentence: Growing impatient, Lovell took an axe and broke open the box. Inside he found some straw, a white chemise, and the naked body of a young woman. A few hours later, Coroner E.C. Fisher held an inquest nearby at Mrs. Mantle’s Robin Hood Hotel on Dundas Street. Two physicians, who had already performed a post-mortem examination of the body, reported that the deceased was an otherwise robust and healthy woman whose death was caused by a violent abortion. The jury at the inquest concluded that there had been a wilful murder of “an unknown woman” by some “person or persons unknown.”

Premise/plot: Jeannie's Demise is an up-close-and-personal, behind-the-scenes glimpse at abortion on trial in Ontario Canada in 1875. In the summer of that year, Jeannie Gilmour got an abortion and died as a result of complications. That fall and winter her two abortionists--husband and wife--went on trial. This news story was covered widely and broadly. (Though for the record, the two were on trial for murdering Jeannie and not for murdering the unborn child.) The book chronicles the case in great depth giving background and context.

My thoughts: I love a good true crime book occasionally. This one fits into that category nicely enough. It is a detailed accounting of three trials: the first trial being that of the two accused abortionists (abortion was illegal in 1875), the second trial being that of the accused seducer, the third being that of a man accused of helping dispose of the body via a coffin in a wagon. Readers get a glimpse of how the police department worked the case, how the prosecution and defense handled the case, the evidence, the testimonies and witnesses. One also definitely got a glimpse of how the media reacted to the case AND influenced the case. One also saw some statistics.

If the book had kept this a book about the past, it perhaps would have set better with me. One could read about the facts of the case--in the past--without trying to moralize, preach, or reveal a modern AGENDA to the case.
It wasn't until the last page or possibly two that the pro-choice cause is championed and glorified. He leaves readers with a warning that there are some in the United States that want to rob women of their oh-so-human right to have access to abortions.

I think both pro-life and pro-choice readers can agree that illegal abortions can be dangerous and risky to women. But to be fair, in 1875 legal or illegal abortion would have been risky. As was childbirth itself it 1875. There was so much about germs and bacteria and care that doctors, midwives, nurses, the general public did not know that lives were put at risk. Medicine has come a long way since the nineteenth century. 

© 2020 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


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