Madame Restell: the abortionist of Fifth Avenue

In 1831, a young British woman named Ann Trow moved to New York City.

With no medical training at all, she rechristened herself “Madame Restell” and began placing newspapers ads selling her “female monthly pills” and “preventative powders.” 

These pills and powders weren’t just birth control. The labels coyly warned that the products might induce a miscarriage. And Madame Restell herself performed abortions on poor and rich women alike for decades in the mid-1800s.

She quickly became a very rich woman, with morality crusaders denouncing her while society watchers noted the elegant clothes she wore.

She made enough money to build herself a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. And she was so notorious that “Restellism” even became a euphemism for abortion.

Eventually Anthony Comstock, head of the very 19th century Society for the Suppresion of Vice, arrested her in 1878 (illustrated at right) after posing as a man who needed birth control for his mistress. 

She never went on trial though. Released on bail, a maid found her dead in her bathtub one morning. Adorned in diamonds, she committed suicide by slitting her throat.

While many women the city certainly used her services, she was mostly despised.

The day after her suicide, The New York Times wrote that she “made an attractive part of the finest avenue in the city odious by her constant presence,” according to Crimes of New York, edited by Clint Willis.

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4 Responses to “Madame Restell: the abortionist of Fifth Avenue”

  1. Josie Says:

    I wonder if some hypocrite killed her and made it look like suicide, to keep her from telling on them for using her services.

    • addie Says:

      I did not think of that, but it makes sense because cutting her throat did seem odd.
      If she had clothes on, not just a lot of jewelry that would be good to know because being dressed. in the tub, speaks more to murder, maybe.
      Of course she also may have known she had no chance at trial and wanted to avoid all kinds of whatever.

  2. jaye ramsey sutter Says:

    Sure. Despised by male headline writers and Comstock and (male) doctors. Comstock also busted Margaret Sanger for distributing “obscene materials” i.e. pictures explaining the female form–which no doubt made Comstock uncomfortable. No woman who needed her when facing an unwanted pregnancy really despised her. They may have despised themselves, but probably not her.

    Good point Josie. They may have needed a witness against her or were afraid she might be pressured into naming names.

  3. Nabe News: September 7 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] Madame Restell, an abortionist from the 1800s who lived on Fifth Avenue [Ephemeral […]

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