Humboldt’s Grisly History of Illegal Abortions 

January 19, 2023

BY LYNETTE MULLEN

Originally printed in the North Coast Journal– January 19, 2023

Oakland Tribune, 21 July 1905

George Landgren was not a good husband or father. In 1913, he abandoned his wife, Alma, and their two little boys, and headed south. When the local sheriff forced him back to Humboldt County to care for his family, he spent just enough time with them to avoid being charged with desertion — and to impregnate his wife with their third child. When Alma died after an illegal abortion on Oct. 31, 1913, instead of grieving that evening, Landgren attempted to extort the man he thought responsible, threatening to accuse him of murder if he didn’t pay up.

By 1910, Alma Landgren seemed to have known where her marriage was headed and had been working as an apprentice in a Eureka drugstore, but having two young children in quick succession likely made working difficult. When she found herself pregnant again in 1913, the prospect of having another child must have been terrifying but the solutions weren’t much better. Women had few job opportunities and a single mother even fewer. A third child would have made employment untenable, so Alma sought an abortion. “Illegal operations,” as they were often called, were dangerous and against the law. Alma sought help from 76-year-old Edward Goyer. A graduate of three medical colleges, Goyer had practiced medicine for more than 30 years, but his reputation had been marred by suspected ethics violations, and “nervousness” ended his professional medical career in 1901. By 1913, his health was declining and he boarded in a Eureka rooming house.

Alma’s death made the news when Goyer was charged with murder, suspected of committing the abortion that ended her life. According to the Humboldt Times, which followed the court proceedings in November and December of 1913, it was the first case of its kind in Humboldt County.

An autopsy and inquest had revealed that sometime the week of Oct. 27, 1913, Alma had an abortion — and the blunt instrument used in the procedure had punctured her uterus, creating a hole about the size of a quarter. She then suffered “untold and constant agony” for days before dying of peritonitis, a bacterial infection and common cause of abortion-related deaths before antibiotics were available.

Goyer’s trial and weeks of damning testimony followed his arrest, but when Alma Landgren’s housekeeper told the court that Alma had performed her own abortion, prosecutors stalled. With no one to speak in the young woman’s defense, all charges against Goyer were eventually dropped and he was set free.

Because it was Illegal

At the turn of the 20th century, those who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy included married couples struggling to feed already hungry families, young women tricked or pressured into compromising their “virtue” after a promise of marriage, and victims of rape and incest. While an abortion was a risky gamble, the consequences of an unwanted child were often certain: shame, ostracism, financial struggle and regret. Death, a Colorado journalist argued in 1890, might be a “happy refuge” for “fallen” women and the risks of abortion preferable to becoming “the mother of an infant, who for life would be branded with the most hateful epithet in the English language.” In other words, a bastard.

The illegal procedures were offered by doctors, men pretending to be doctors, midwives and caring relatives hoping to help a young woman move on to live a “respectable” life. While many undoubtedly cared about their patients, too many were only after money. And there was plenty to be made. While some abortionists charged as little as $25 in the early 1900s, many wanted $100 or more, the equivalent of $3,000 to $4,000 today. It was a steep price for a single girl or young couple struggling to make ends meet, but many raised the funds.

A Woman from Humboldt

In May of 1921, a judge dismissed the 32nd felony charge against San Francisco doctor George W. O’Donnell, who had been accused yet again of performing an “illegal operation.” His patient? A woman from Humboldt. Something must have gone wrong to catch the attention of law enforcement, but the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him.

O’Donnell had been a drug dealer and opium user for years. By 1921, he had also been performing illegal abortions for more than a quarter-century. Women found him through word of mouth and ads in the San Francisco and Oakland newspapers promising to skillfully and painlessly treat “private diseases peculiar to women,” including “suppressed menstruation” and “the unfortunate.”

O’Donnell first made the news in the spring of 1895 when Sacramento resident Lizzy Mae Burke was seduced (or raped) by a local businessman and became pregnant. She hid her condition from her parents and traveled to San Francisco and O’Donnell’s home for an abortion. When her parents finally tracked her down at the doctor’s residence, Lizzy was desperately ill. They took her to St. Luke’s Hospital, where she died from the “effects of a criminal operation.”

The 26-year-old doctor was charged with murder but was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. It would be the first of at least two murder charges O’Donnell would escape without a conviction.

O’Donnell had followed in the footsteps of his father, Dr. C.C. O’Donnell, who was first accused of performing a similar procedure on Mary Nolan in 1890. Nolan, thankfully, survived. In that instance, the elder O’Donnell, like many abortionists, was acquitted because, as a reporter for the Coronado Mercury noted at the time, there were seldom any witnesses except the doctor and the victim. And if the woman lived, the reporter added, she could refuse to testify to avoid self-incrimination and her own criminal charges. In the Nolan case, the girl bravely testified but the judge ruled participant testimony insufficient for a conviction.

By June of 1921, the younger O’Donnell had been accused of performing 34 abortions and, in August of that same year, a 35th charge was also filed and then dropped. The man continued to practice at least until 1930 and it is impossible to know how many women were harmed and ultimately died under his care.

Cover Up

Clearly, the risks of illegal abortions by unregulated providers were immense. Many abortions were done in hidden clinics and secret backrooms. Accidental punctures of vital organs were not uncommon and sometimes inexperienced abortionists left fetal or placental material behind, which then became septic. The 1916 Journal of the American Medical Association recounted one incident in which a practitioner used forceps to extract fragments of placenta after an abortion and instead pulled out a loop of the woman’s intestine.

Because the procedure was illegal, providers faced with complications or a maternal death often focused on self-preservation. In 1897, after Pearl Bryan died of an abortion in Illinois, Scott Jackson confessed to working with at least two other men to decapitate the woman and bury her head in a sandbar alongside a river, all in an attempt to thwart her identification and avoid prosecution. In 1910, after San Francisco doctor Robert Thompson performed a fatal abortion on Paso Robles school teacher Eva Swan, he poured nitric acid on her body and buried her in his cellar. Though Humboldt County readers were spared many of these stories, in 1914, the Humboldt Times ran a wire service story about a Pennsylvania abortion clinic known as the “House of Mystery.” Officials believed an untold number of women died at the facility from botched abortions and their bodies were burned in the basement furnace. Because illegitimate pregnancy was so stigmatized and abortion illegal, women seldom told their family or friends of unplanned pregnancies or plans to end them. As a consequence, many women who died of abortion complications were never identified and their families never notified.

And So it Continued …

While there continued to be individual practitioners, abortion “rings” with statewide networks were gaining popularity in California by the 1930s. In 1939, Margaret Sanger, a pioneer birth control advocate, estimated at least 8,000 women were dying every year from abortions, a majority of them married and already parenting three or more children. In 1965, outcomes were no better. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare reported that of the 1,189 total maternal deaths per 100,000 reported that year, 235 — almost 20 percent — were caused by complications arising from illegal abortions.

By 1967, California lawmakers had had enough and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the state’s therapeutic abortion law, which made the procedure legal in cases of rape and incest, or when the pregnancy presented a danger to mother’s physical or mental health. The state Assembly ordered the state Department of Public Health to evaluate the impact of the new law and, in 1968, the department reported there had been minimal change in the number of legal abortions performed. In the two months evaluated, 254 women received abortions under the new guidelines: 18 because of rape, seven because of incest, 214 due to mental conditions and 15 to avoid risks to the mother’s physical health. As proof that California had not turned into an abortion mill, the report added, only four of the women receiving services lived outside the state. The number of Illegal abortions being performed, on the other hand, was harder to gauge. At the time, the department estimated 20,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions were still occurring in the state each year. In 1969, women in California finally secured the right to legal abortions when the state’s Supreme Court found (in People v. Belous) that women have a fundamental right to choose whether to bear children under both the California and United States constitutions.

Roe V. Wade

In May of 1970, “Jane Roe,” an unmarried woman who wanted to safely end her pregnancy, filed a lawsuit against Texas District Attorney Henry Wade claiming that abortion laws were unconstitutional. Though the case took two and a half years to resolve, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe’s favor, declaring women had a constitutional right to abortion under the 14th Amendment.

This milestone event paved the way to better and safer universal abortion access, though the challenges were not over. Though many doctors estimated legal access to abortion reduced maternal mortality by 50 percent, anti-abortion activists continued to protest access and many — especially conservative and/or isolated communities — had limited or no access to care. These barriers, however, gave rise to some unexpected pro-choice supporters. On Oct. 24, 1976, the Times-Standard reported that Rosalynn Carter and President Jimmy Carter, both ardent Christians, supported the right to choose after they witnessed the effects of illegal abortions in Georgia and “saw women whose bodies were permanently damaged by illegal operations in abortion mills.”

History Repeats

Rove V. Wade was overturned on June 24 and many states have taken advantage of the ruling. According to the New York Times, as of Jan. 6, 13 states had fully banned abortion and Georgia limits access to women who are less than six weeks pregnant. These recent changes have ignited concerns that maternal deaths will rise again as desperate women turn to now-illegal, unlicensed and unregulated abortion providers.


Opium Dens and Morphine Fiends…

June 17, 2022

I am very pleased to have my story about early opioid addiction featured in this week’s North Coast Journal.

Opium Dens and ‘Morphine Fiends’, Humboldt County’s current opioid epidemic parallels its first can be found HERE


The Housing Famine

April 18, 2022

c. 1925 (Source HSU Special Collections)

Business Sense | Lessons learned from past housing crunches

Reprinted from The Times Standard

By LYNETTE MULLEN |

April 17, 2022

The full scope of Humboldt County’s resources is finally being understood. Realtors, builders, mechanics, and laborers are busy, and strangers continually arrive looking for homes, employment, or investment. Unfortunately, one of the best indications of this prosperity is the scarcity of housing, or so said the Humboldt Times on December 2, 1882.

More than a century later, we’re having the same conversation. A year ago this month, Realtor.com listed Humboldt County as the nation’s 13th hottest housing market and by October of 2021, we’d jumped to number three. In October, we were also the only California county listed. Some of the recent demand is most likely driven by the crazy cost of housing elsewhere in a state where the median price of homes is predicted to rise to over $800,000 this year. But we also have a number of new and exciting developments and opportunities in Humboldt, including Humboldt’s transition to a Polytechnic, the offshore wind project and Nordic Aquafarms facility planned for the Samoa Peninsula. Folks are coming in and everybody’s looking for housing.

“California is confronted today with the gravest shortage of housing in its history,” said a report submitted to the governor by the State Commission of Immigration and Housing ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO. The report then analyzed reasons for the “dwelling-famine” (which will also sound familiar). These included an increasing population (still true in Humboldt, at least), a decrease in the relative number of new residential buildings (yep) and the high cost of building materials, transportation, and labor (which seem to be rising daily in 2022).

“The usual surplus of housing, which must exist if rents and prices are to be controlled by competition, has been wiped out,” the 1920 report continued. There’s clearly no surplus today either and we are definitely seeing the impacts. According to Dan Walters in his CalMatters story published last December, California has the second-lowest rate of homeownership in the country, just ahead of New York. Historically Humboldt’s housing has been more affordable than the state on average, but the local housing shortage is changing that too. According to realtor.com, Humboldt’s housing prices have jumped over 20% in the last year. Zumper.com says that rents have also increased 45% in the same period, a hard-to-fathom increase. The resulting lack of quality, affordable housing has affected our area’s ability to attract and retain workforce, which impacts everything from the availability of desperately needed plumbers to timely access to health care. Home-grown young adults are being priced out of the market altogether.

Today’s crisis has prompted desperate officials to seek solutions and while new projects are in the works, there is clearly more to be done. Fortunately, the 1920 study also offered solutions. While some may also sound familiar, others may be worth considering today.

Use input from housing industry experts, labor leaders, realtors, bankers, and more to imagine new, more imaginative housing solutions

Form more building and loan associations that offer an extension of “easier terms.”
Form community housing associations linking banks with builders and contractors to enable the purchase of homes at lower cost, with smaller “down” payments and longer time to pay. These associations, the report added, “operating on a sound business basis and influenced by community spirit” would allow California to become a “homeowning state.”

“The present acute condition,” the 1920 report concluded, “is due to abnormal times.” Yeah, apparently not so much. But we are not without hope. While recent housing projects have engendered controversy, at least housing is on the radar and developers are initiating projects at this critical time in our community. We also need to stay open to new and innovative ideas to increase housing. The long-term health of our community and our economy may depend on it.


Humboldt’s Oil Lands, 1908

October 19, 2021

The text (which I’ve enlarged below the map- just click on it) gives a detailed history of early oil exploration in Humboldt…

Source: HSU Map Collection


Environmental Damage in 1880 ?

May 6, 2021

So I’ve always thought of environmental awareness and activism as a relatively recent phenomenon, but as early as 1880, there were local folks that believed there was damage being done by the over and uncontrolled harvesting of our timber….

Source: Into the Redwood Realm, 1893

Humboldt State University Special Collection

The following is another article quoted from: LAND USES ON HUMBOLDT BAY TRIBUTARIES (Salmon Creek, Elk River, Freshwater Creek and Jacoby Creek), which was compiled by Susie Van Kirk in February 1998

DHT (4 April 1880) Eureka, Eds Daily Times:

Much has been said about Elk River–about the booms and logs and farms there.  And is it any wonder?  At the present time Elk River valley is in a worse condition than ever before.  When I came to be an owner of some land on Elk River about four years ago the banks of that stream on the back line of my land were about sixteen feet deep, while today they are no more than nine feet deep.  What is the cause of this great change if the boom and the logs placed in the river are not?  Any man who thinks he can make me believe that these booms and logs have not been the cause, I will say in a very few words, he is a fool.
        …Why is it that certain men have been given a priviledge to boom Elk River?…

If these men can boom Elk River and not become responsible for the damage they may occasion by so doing, it may be very fine for them, but I can assure you it is not fine for others…

By the first freshet [another word for flood] in December, 1879, most of my improvements on my land were washed out.  There were five inches of water in my house, my stable and horses were afloat, and I lost some seven tons of carrots and two thousand feet of lumber–and don’t forget that the booms and logs in the river were the cause of it.  Then I made up my mind to sell out to these gentlemen for something—and the answer I received to my offer from D.R. Jones was that he had done no damage; and H.H. Buhne tells me that I had no business to buy the place…B. Glatt


Once Inhabited by the Festive Clam… (1892)

May 5, 2021

Over the years, much of Humboldt’s wetlands have been diked and converted to pasture. We’ll talk about negative environmental impact another day (it is extreme). Today I’ll just share the history….

The Arcata Land Imp. Co.’s Dredger, Arcata (1893?)

The following was published in LAND USES ON HUMBOLDT BAY TRIBUTARIES (Salmon Creek, Elk River, Freshwater Creek and Jacoby Creek)– Which was compiled by Susie Van Kirk in February 1998

Arcata Union (18 June 1892)

The Harpst and Spring Dike…starts in on the bank of Butcher Slough just beyond the town [Arcata] line and follows the course of the slough as near as possible to the bay.  Here it follows along the edge of the mudflats for a mile or more and crosses Flannigan and Brosnan’s railroad at the edge of the bay.  It then goes down along the bay comes up and crosses the big slough by the draw bridge where a flood gate will be put in, and follows down the further bank of the slough to the mouth of Jacoby Creek.  From there it follows up the bank of the creek till it gets out of the reach of the highest tides and there ends…
        The first owner who took up this marsh as swamp and overflowed land never dreamed that this large stretch of country, from Arcata to Jacoby Creek, inhabited only by the festive clam and the busy little crab would some day be pasture for hundreds of cattle… [emphasis added]


The Londons on a Houseboat in Humboldt Bay, 1911

January 31, 2021

During writer Jack London and his wife Charmian’s VISIT and TOUR of Eureka in 1911, they were apparently invited to stay on former Eureka Mayor H.L. Ricks’ houseboat, the Harbor Rest, which was moored on Humboldt Bay. I had no idea there were ever houseboats on Humboldt Bay, especially over 100 years ago…

London Collection, Huntington Library

The Ricks family often used the boat for entertaining…


Jack & Charmian London in Eureka

January 30, 2021
Jack and Charmian London, Huntington Library

The fight between celebrated writer Jack London and Stanwood Murphy, son of Pacific Lumber Company owner Simon Murphy, at Eureka’s Oberon Grill in 1910 (or 1911) is the stuff that local legends are made of. According to a letter written by eye witness Hap Waters, the fight started over politics and ended with both men in the hospital recovering from their wounds.

Stories of the fight fail to mention that London’s wife Charmian had traveled with him to Humboldt and that Eureka was only one of many stops the adventurous couple made along the west coast during that time.

The Huntington Library has an amazing collection of London’s photos, including many from Humboldt County. More coming soon….


What’s for sale in Eureka in 1881

January 9, 2021

I ran across this ad researching information for my recent post on Mathews Music Store (and more)– and thought it might be fun for folks to see what was up for sale in Eureka on August 11, 1881

Block image

Ione Building becomes Woolworths and then the Ritz

December 10, 2020
Original Ritz Building (source: HSU Special Collection)

Yet another accidental find….

I knew the Ritz Building (240 F Street, Eureka) was a significant building- and I found it listed as one of the Historic Sites and Points of Interest in Humboldt County but had no idea it had been through such drastic changes. It was built in 1885, altered 1913 (to accommodate a Woolworth store- who knew?!?!) and then completely redesigned in Streamline Moderne in 1947 to become what we see today,

Grand Opening of Woolworths (Source: theclio.com/entry/96794)
And today…