Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Mystery From the Time When Abortion Was Illegal and Dangerous

The first week of April, 1983, in the small city of Somersworth, New Hampshire, a couple started to do some house cleaning. One thing they needed to get rid of was an old steamer trunk a woman had asked them to store for her. She had long since moved and they couldn't return it. Opening the trunk they were shocked to find five mummified skeletons of babies wrapped in newspapers. They called the police.

The newspapers dated from the late 40s and early 50s. The trunk had been bought from Hirsch's Department Store in town about the same time. I knew old Mr. Hirsch and used to shop at his store but we never discussed the case.

The woman who owned the trunk was in her 60s in 1983. The papers say she was called a "pillar of the community" when she lived in the area. People who remembered her said that at the time the babies had been killed she often appeared to be pregnant but she never had children. The authorities found her but she wouldn't say anything about the trunk. I don' t know of any legal pressure put on her to talk. The fact that there were five corpses of infants wrapped in newspapers from different years certainly suggests serial infanticide, not a misdemeanor in anyone's book.

Knowing a member of the Somersworth Police force at the time, I heard that they suspected a "professional baby snuffing ring" was involved with the case. An account I read online said that it's possible that it involved phony adoptions arranged for unwed mothers, something I didn't hear back then. The policeman told me that they were warned that if they pursued the case too far they could end up dead. They had been warned that people involved still lived in the area and could make good on that threat. He also told me, and the newspapers reported, that the disappearance and presumed murder of a Visiting Nurse in the early 50s might be related to the case.

After a rash of articles the story died. I don' t know if reporters came to a dead end or if they had threats too. I don't know what happened to the woman who owned the trunk or if anything else was ever discovered in the case. My acquaintance on the police force has died so that source of information is closed too.

You should keep in mind that in 1983 New Hampshire was a solidly Republican state with an officially anti-abortion political and media machine in control. They seemed to be oddly uninterested in solving the case and bringing murderers to justice.

No doubt you know where this is leading. When abortion is illegal this kind of thing happens. "Baby snuffer" was a phrase I'd never heard before this case but which was common enough to develop it's own term in pre-Roe America. There are accounts of infanticide for profit through out recorded history. Ancient papyri dug up in Egypt have instructions from a husband ordering his pregnant wife to kill the baby if it turns out to be a girl. It happens today.

Given that the United States has the most primitive and ineffective contraception program in the developed world; indeed, many third world countries do a much better job, a needlessly high abortion rate is entirely acceptable to the religious and political leaders who oppose effective promotion of contraception. Remember that most contraception was also illegal or actively discouraged at the time these murders took place.

Given that this kind of trade existed in pre-Roe America, professional infanticide wasn't considered too high a price to pay either. And that is apart from the vastly more common trade in fatally dangerous, illegal abortions. Unless Roe is protected everywhere it is certain that these will make a comeback. It wouldn't be shocking to find that they already had in some places.

What is it they hate so much about women having control of their bodies that they think this is worth the price? And Why do we put up with these depraved, dishonest and delusional people having any say in the matter?

The Boston Globe and Foster's Daily Democrat (a solidly Republican paper) were consulted for this post. Some of the details found on a website don't match what I remember so I will not give a URL, though it's been more than twenty years since I heard some of this.

Weird story.
Growing up in eastern PA in the 50s-60s, we all "knew" the story of the doctor "somewhere north" (where the Poles, and other eastern Europeans, for whom we had other names, who worked the mines lived) who provided safe - and one imagined, but one never knew how to ask - expensive abortions. It was a real, but small hospital, with nurses. I've always wondered if it was true.

Keep in mind, that particular part of PA was very very conservative. And, while it was spoken of in the proverbial hushed tones, it seemed to be accepted.

On second thought, maybe all it was, acceptance-wise, was money talking, i.e., if you could afford it, well, you were just "special" and (ahem) deserving.

pand, it certainly could be that there was some big money behind this operation. The police in Somersworth got more nervous the farther they got, even my gossiping aquaintance would clam up after a few hints. I suspected that it involved someone with political ties to the Republican establishment but that's only because the wall descended on the story pretty solidly. I've always wondered why it wasn't taken up by a writer or TV news magazine, it seems like a story made for them.

But we may never know.
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