Jennifer Wright on Madame Restell, Anthony Comstock, and Abortion in the 19th Century
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Jennifer Wright joins Maris Kreizman to discuss her latest book, Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist, out now from Hachette.
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On Anthony Comstock’s deadly crusade:
JW: When Madame Restell started out, she came from Painswick [England] where they had this celebration of the Greek god Pan that kind of just devolved into people having sex in the woods. So Madame Restell was coming from a town in England that had a pretty freewheeling attitude about sex.
I was reading Jonathan Swift’s advice to servant girls because Madame Restell started out as a servant. And he talks about how you’ve gotta stay away from the eldest son in the household because you’ll get a big belly or the clap, but nothing else from him. At least get with the master you might get some money. These are very forthright attitudes about sex that are joking and kind of cavalier, but I’m sure it was not actually fun being a servant and being sexually harassed. Let me make that clear.
But later on you have Anthony Comstock, who really singlehandedly brings about the change toward these attitudes. I think it’s important to note that Anthony Comstock was a chronic masturbator. Most people, if you just love masturbating, you either decide, well, I’m gonna try to stop doing this, or I’m just gonna keep doing this and whatever, it’ll be fine.
And Anthony Comstock decided that he would create a world where there was nothing that aroused his lustful impulses. That turned out to be many, many things, from women wearing low-cut dresses, which he was very upset about, to any kind of commentary on sexual matters, which contained things like distributing information about birth control or abortion or anything to do with reproduction. I think Anthony Comstock has the blood of thousands of women on his hands.
One of the most harrowing things I read about it was after Madam Restell’s time, early in Margaret Sanger’s career. She was working as a nurse and one of the women who had just had a baby was told by a doctor, if you have any more children you will die. And the woman said, well, my husband isn’t gonna stop having sex with me. How do I not have more children? And the doctor just wagged his finger at her in a jovial way and then walked away, and the next year she went back and delivered another child and she died. So, yeah, it’s bad to ban all information about reproductive matters, which again, feels like something that we’re doing now. We’re seeing such a high amount of book banning and the rhetoric in the 1870s was the same. It was about how we don’t want our youth to be corrupted.
On Madame Restell’s great acts of pettiness:
MK: Madame Restell is the heroine of this book, but you are very clear about her flaws. And they’re so fun to read about because she was so petty and loved money so much.
JW: One of the things that really delighted me about reading news reports from this period is that Madame Restell is constantly buying clothes and diamonds and mansions and amazing horses and big carriages and flaunting her wealth at every opportunity. And I thought all the newspapers would read like, “This is so new money, she’s so trashy, this is so gross.” And they don’t. They’re all, “We agree abortion is bad, but this is the best house we’ve ever seen.”
MK: And please take us back and tell us why she built her home on Fifth Avenue in Midtown.
JW: One of Madame Restell’s greatest acts of pettiness. The archbishop in New York had criticized her during one of his sermons. We don’t know exactly what he said—I tried so hard to find it but I couldn’t—but we know that he criticized her. He had wanted to buy a plot of land for a house across the street from where St. Patrick’s Cathedral was being erected. And in response, Madame Restell outbid him by hundreds of thousands of dollars, so much that they could not possibly compete. And then she built this apparently gorgeous mansion on it where she continued to perform abortions in the basement and see patients. It was locally known as Madame Restell’s Home for Lost Children.
MK: She clearly had a lot of money, which is good because she had to pay a lot of bribes.
JW: She did have to pay a lot of bribes. She was always bribing male politicians. She sent everybody gold watches. And yet, four or five times in the space of the book, she is imprisoned…
I think Madame Restell had this idea that many women still have: if I’m rich enough, I’ll be okay. This won’t affect me because I’ll have enough money. I know in my own family when Roe v. Wade was overturned, the first thought was like, we could fly anywhere in Europe, we’ll be fine. But money will not save you. Money will not protect you. Madam Restell thought it would protect her because she would simply be able to buy everybody off. And then Anthony Comstock came along. He was supported by other very, very wealthy people of the period, and suddenly there was a crackdown on everything. And Madame Restell is in no way exempt from that. So, I think whatever Madame Restell’s end of life is, it has to do with her waking up and realizing money isn’t going to make a difference anymore. She cannot continue to live the way she’s living in America.
Jennifer Wright is the author of several pop history books, including It Ended Badly and Get Well Soon (winner of Audible’s “Best History Book of 2017”). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband—fellow writer Daniel Kibblesmith—and their daughter. Her latest book is called Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist.