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.


One of Many Lucys- Sign up now !

July 16, 2022

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The Canal that Never Was…

July 16, 2022

In the 1870s, Ferndale resident Harry Nieber, using the nom de plume “White Alder,” started writing what he hoped were persuasive letters to the Humboldt Times, advocating for a canal to move goods and people more quickly and efficiently between the Eel River Valley and more populated communities to the north. Others advocated for a rail line but Nieber pointed out that railroad from Singley’s Ferry (near Fernbridge) to Eureka would cost upwards of $150,000 (or about $3.3 million in today’s dollars), while he believed a canal cut between the Eel River and Humboldt Bay would cost about a third of that. Freight costs, he predicted, would be cheaper, too.

When some argued against the idea, Nieber dismissed their skepticism as “silly nonsense.” At the time, steamers traveling from the coast into and out of the Eel were slow and subject to the weather and tides. A canal, Nieber argued, could move timber and people efficiently and be used all year. 

By 1880, Eel River Valley farmers joined the call for a cheaper, faster and easier means of transportation. Moving timber was expensive and transferring produce from wagon to steamer to wagon and more took time, which meant damage, a shorter shelf life and lost profits. While some supported rail, others pushed for a community owned steamboat to make regular trips to San Francisco.

White Alder stubbornly pushed for a canal, convinced it would allow Eureka businesses to “join hands with the farmers of Eel River and … speedily build up a new standard of prosperity.” Nieber’s persistence finally paid off when he convinced a powerful ally. Of all the transportation projects that had been proposed, the Humboldt Times finally conceded in January of 1880 that building a canal around Table Bluff was the most feasible. In February, the Ferndale Enterprise publicly agreed.

Citizens organized and in December of 1881, the Humboldt Times reported that a petition advocating for the canal had been sent to Congress “but Congress had other fish to fry.” The community defaulted to rail and by November of 1883, grading for the new line between Field’s Landing and Springville (Fortuna) was all but complete and workers were making the “hole through the bluff” (now known as the Loleta tunnel). 

It wasn’t until the steamer Weott was “bar bound” in the Eel River in October of 1895 that support for the canal reemerged, no doubt pleasing Neiber. The Humboldt Times reminded readers that a canal would allow loaded vessels from the Eel and Salt rivers to reach Eureka — and the sea with markets north and south all year long. The savings in transportation costs could pay for the canal within a few years, the editorial said. The idea gained no traction, though, until 1904, when a letter from a Port Kenyon resident appeared in an issue of American Lumberman.

 “You may not be aware that by building a small canal, less than 2 miles in length, connecting a slough from Eel and Salt river with Humboldt Bay at Fields Landing it is possible to increase commerce … at a comparatively little outlay, and at a saving in freight and fare for the inhabitants of a large part of this county…” the letter said. A canal would also shorten the trip from Arcata to Ferndale by 20 miles, the writer added, and could be cut with a suction dredge. 

This time the idea took hold and in 1905, another Ferndale resident took up the cry. Otto Neuhaus argued that salmon and other Eel River Valley goods went to waste lacking easy transport to larger markets. He also pointed out that quicker, cheaper freight costs would drive down the price of goods in Ferndale – which were generally higher than those same supplies bought in Eureka and Arcata.

By 1906, these arguments convinced the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce and Humboldt Chamber of Commerce to form a joint committee to explore the idea but they decided driftsand, construction costs and other barriers made the project infeasible. When Nieber died Sept. 13, 1906, at age 73, he must have thought his dream was dead, too.

But the Ferndale Chamber had not given up. In January of 1909, when Congressmemember W.F. Englebright visited the county, chamber representatives pushed the idea and in March, Englebright’s congressional office shared the “great and glorious news” that the recently passed river and harbor bill included a provision to survey proposed dredging of the Eureka-Arcata channel, the South Bay channel and the Eel River canal.” Quoting Nieber’s dismissed prediction of 40 years prior, the Humboldt Times noted that a canal would allow ranchers of the Eel River valley to ship produce direct to Eureka more quickly and with less expense. This time the idea was endorsed by “prominent local people,” the county’s many chambers of commerce and more.

But alas …

In April of 1909, Col. Biddle, chief of the government engineering corps for the district, and Capt. H. L. DeMerritt, Biddle’s “right-hand man,” arrived from San Francisco and Eureka Mayor H. L. Ricks and President B. F. Stern of the Chamber of Commerce brought them to Table Bluff to look over the proposed route of an Eel River canal. The officials were convinced the project had merit and initiated surveys that summer.

Unfortunately, the region’s hopes for an Eel River/Humboldt Bay canal ended permanently in October of 1909, when the Humboldt Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Col. Biddle declaring the canal infeasible “not on account of its impracticability” but because of its cost. Without significant infrastructure, currents in the Eel River during “freshets” (seasonal floods) would wash too much debris into the bay and make the river too swift for navigation. Valley farmers and ranchers were left with the county rail system and hard-to-navigate dirt roads until 1914, when the Northwestern Pacific Railroad finally bridged the transportation gap, and linked Humboldt County with the rest of the state.

By Lynette Mullen

Originally printed in The Enterprise July 14, 2022


Booths for Ladies in Wildwood, 1920s

July 7, 2022
Source: Cal Poly

It is always a bummer when people break the law and/or are charged with a crime, but it does give us some awesome high-quality historic photos. On the back of one of the these it says ‘Wildwood, Hum. Co., Calif.”; ”no. 11924 Stefano Barti (?), plaintiff, vs. Angelina Del Carlo, defendant, defendant’s exhibit E” but I can’t find any info on the case. Barti did have his “resort” in Wildwood closed in 1923 for violating the Prohibition Act and perhaps it was related…

Please click on the photos to see some truly great details.


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


Buildings We Have NOT Lost …

June 17, 2022
Source: Cal Poly Humboldt

So often when I walk through old town I get sad when I look at all the (ugly) parking lots and imagine the grand old buildings that used to be there. Buildings like the Western Hotel , The Revere, the incredible old courthouse and a number of other Victorian structures .

But finding this great photo helped me realized that many of our architectural treasures are still out there- and ready to be enjoyed and admired every day. How fortunate for us….


Fire Guts the Gross Building – in 1923

June 8, 2022

It turned out to be relatively easy to find information on the fire in the photo above – because “The Kandy Kitchen” provided a great clue. In the article published on April 14, 1923, the Humboldt Times reported on the “most expensive fire loss yet sustained in Eureka.”

The Red Cross Pharmacy, Mathew’s Piano House and the Toggery men’s store were among those impacted and the Bon Boniere candy factory (located in the basement of the building) reported that their stores of chocolate and sugar had been soaked by what some complained was excessive water use by the fire department. The fire chief, naturally, defended his crew and resented the criticism. Please check out the story below to read more about the fire and all the tenants housed in the Gross building, which still sits at the corner of 5th and F Streets.

While I agree that the trees and other greenery planted along our roads enhances our community, it can be rather frustrating when lining up old and current photos.


One of the Boldest Crimes (Scotia 1904)

June 1, 2022
San Francisco Call (another Saloon Robbery 1903)

Previously Printed in The Ferndale Enterprise, by Lynette Mullen

“Heavily masked and armed to the teeth, three men held up the Emerson saloon and brothel near Scotia Sunday night … Outside of a brief exchange of shots, the daring stand and deliver game was quietly played. Slipping away in the darkness, no trace of the perpetrators of one of the boldest holdups in the criminal annals of this county has yet been found …”  Humboldt Times, Jan. 19, 1904

No one noticed when the two men wearing red bandanas over their faces with holes cut out for their eyes entered “Dad” Emerson’s saloon and brothel located about half-a-mile from Scotia. And when the strangers interrupted the evening’s cheer to demand the patrons to put their hands up and face the wall, most of the Pacific Lumber Co. mill workers and loggers that made up the usual Sunday night crowd thought they were joking. And then they saw the six shooters. The sounds of revelry faded as the customers reached for the sky and gathered at the bar.

According to a story published later that week in the Humboldt Times, a third accomplice stayed outside to guard the entrance while one inside covered the terrified crowd with his pistol, and another took the “highwayman’s toll.” The bartender and his wife alone gave up $30. One man lost $5O and another $30. Smaller amounts were gathered from the less prosperous patrons and $47 was taken from the till.

As organized as the robbers were, they did make mistakes. When the initial cry went out that there was a hold up, quick thinking 21-year-old Bert Leenters grabbed the leather money pouch in his pocket containing $47.26 and dropped it on the floor, then used his foot to quickly cover it with sawdust. When asked to empty his pockets, he offered the 75 cents remaining in his other pocket and the robbers moved on. The women in the room were also saved from financial loss by the “modesty or gallantry” of the robber who stopped short of searching the ladies’ stockings, where many of them stored their funds.

The crime was interrupted only once when a woman in the adjoining brothel opened the door, assessed the situation, and shouted a warning to the others in flagrante in the rooms behind her. “Come out here and join the rest of the bunch,” commanded the masked men but the woman responded, “Not on your life,” and slammed the door. That same door opened a moment later and gambler and brothel customer Frank Wolford shot his “bulldog pistol” at the man collecting the funds. He missed his target by several feet. “Quick as a flash” the man guarding the crowd shot back, but Wolford retreated, unharmed. The robbers then turned their attention back to the crowd and collected between $2OO and $3OO. Perhaps anxious to escape before Wolford tried again to stop them, the men failed to search the rest of the saloon, where another $l,000 was hidden.

Exit

To ensure their safe retreat, the robbers gathered six men in a line and forced them outside, according to witnesses, warning those left inside that they risked “pain of death, terrible and instantaneous,” if they moved or sounded an alarm. The bandits then marched their hostages down the railroad track about 100 yards. “You may go your way and we will go ours,” one of the robbers reportedly said after vowing that if any of the six made noise or sudden moves, “bullets would be sent speeding after them.” The desperadoes then disappeared into the darkness and the six returned to the saloon.

Investigation

Once all the victims were reunited, some insisted they give chase immediately. Others disagreed and reason (and perhaps a reminder that the outlaws had been heavily armed) prevailed. News of the robbery reached Sheriff Brown’s office about midnight that Sunday and the next day a man was sent to investigate. Witnesses, including the clever Leenters, could offer only limited descriptions of the perpetrators — that both the inside men were large and that one had a “queer shambling gait,” but there were no other “marked peculiarities.” The accomplice who kept watch outside had stayed shrouded in darkness and witnesses could offer no description of him at all. While many felt the robbers must have been familiar with the area and known the men working in the company town had just been paid, none of the three had seemed familiar. Investigators initiated a systematic search for the “trio of daring highwaymen,” going miles around Scotia, and Constable Brown of Scotia began working “tooth and toenail to unearth them.”

On Monday, word got out that a man named Carter, an acrobat who had recently performed in Scotia, resembled one of the robbers and he was arrested coming off the afternoon train. Carter denied any involvement and insisted he had an alibi. After the arresting deputy confirmed with a local constable that Carter had spent Sunday night in Loleta, he was forced to release him.

Wednesday’s Humboldt Times reported no progress in the investigation. Officials acknowledged they had little to go on “except the well authenticated fact that the saloon was actually raided and robbed in the manner before described by the press.” The descriptions given of the men were far from satisfactory, the paper lamented, and were in fact no descriptions at all. Officials also believed the three had fled the county, making capture especially difficult. The sheriff’s office confessed to having little hope of solving the case and this proved prescient. The three were never captured.

Following the Scotia robbery, robberies by three masked men were reported throughout California. Their 10-minute foray into Scotia had netted them almost $10,000 in today’s dollars and was so well planned there can be little doubt the men were experienced. And would rob again ….


What Happened to Bustling Rohnerville…?

May 26, 2022
Source Humboldt Cal Poly Special Collection

In the 1880s, Rohnerville, which lies south and a bit east of Fortuna, offered residents and visitors two liveries, a couple of hotels, saloons, brothels and even an opium den. The town also featured the violence and mayhem that usually go with those establishments.

And yet today all that remains of the town’s central district is a couple of dilapidated commercial buildings and some older homes.

I wondered what happened.

And then I found out… In Denis P. Edeline,s book Place Names of Humboldt County, California, A Compendium: 1542-2009, he says Rohnerville started declining when the railroad was rerouted through Fortuna and that may been true. But the fire that took out most of the commercial district in August of 1895 certainly didn’t help…

Before Henry Rohner named it Rohnerville, the area was known as “Eel River”. This is a VERY early pic of the area…

Source: Humboldt Cal Poly Special Collection

The Rosary and… – Eureka, c. 1925

May 12, 2022
Source: County of Humboldt

I was initially drawn to this photo because of the church and rectory (?) [nope, see update below] to the left – oh, and look ! There’s the Eureka Inn in the background (just click to enlarge the photo). But then the tiny houses caught my attention. The most important element, however, was the little building on the bottom right. The Rosary, it turns out, has nothing to do with the church. But it did help me date the photo….

May 1925, Humboldt Times

Update: According to Walter Fletcher (in a comment on Facebook)

…the rectory is on the other side of St Bernard’s Church on H Street and is not visible in this picture. The building on the corner behind the church is The Knights of Columbus Hall.

The building beneath the Eureka Inn was originally a hospital then The Travelers Hotel. There is currently an office building in that site.

*

Thanks Walter !