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Jewish Abortion Technician

After a young woman’s 1871 death, the press took aim at an immigrant from Plotsk

Eddy Portnoy
August 20, 2009

New Yorkers sometimes complain that the city stinks. They have no idea. When New York was a horse-powered town, the stench of manure and urine was gag-inducing, especially in the dog days of summer. It was on one of those steaming days near the end of August 1871 that a rickety trunk was delivered to the baggage room at the Hudson River train depot. It sat undisturbed until a baggage agent noticed an odor so pungent emanating from it that even the city’s general putrid stink failed to mask it.

The contents of the trunk horrified the workers who jimmied it open. Crammed into the 2-foot-8-inch box was a comely, naked young blond. Even while decomposing, the girl was a stunner, if we’re to believe the words of a news pamphlet which described the body. “A tangled mass of the most beautiful golden hair fell in waves over her shoulders, which must have been white as Parian marble, and eyes of blue, that even death’s horrors cannot pale,” it said. “The limbs were white and shapely and the feet tiny and delicate. The arms and hands were faultless in their symmetry, and every feature showed refinement and grace.”

The morgue report was less forgiving. The coroner estimated the girl had been dead for three days. Thought to be around 20 years old, the body showed no signs of having sustained blows. But her “lower parts” were “swollen.” More to the point, the doctor discovered a placenta stuck in her uterus, a sign that she was the victim of metro-peritonitis, hemorrhaging from an abortion gone wrong. He was puzzled over how the 5-foot-2-inch young woman had been pretzeled into the trunk. Rigor mortis would have forced perpetrators to break her limbs to make the corpse fit, leading to the conclusion that the woman was forced in while still alive.

While the hows of her death were solved, the police went about trying to identify the corpse. They tracked down the wagon driver who delivered the trunk to the station. And the driver, in turn, led the police to a 2nd Avenue basement belonging to Dr. Jacob Rosenzweig, who was promptly arrested. A known abortion provider who sometimes operated under the name “Dr. Ascher,” Rosenzweig denied knowledge of the whole affair.

In the meantime, the body was put on ice while a parade of curious gawkers attempted to identify her. A seamstress from Paterson, New Jersey, whose daughter had gone missing a week before, was too upset to see if the festering corpse was her beloved Alice. Instead she dispatched the family’s doctor and dentist, who identified the girl by an unusual vaccination scar and a missing eye tooth.

Everyone in Paterson considered Alice Augusta Bowlsby virtuous, and wondered what kind of malevolent lothario could have possibly put her in this situation. The answer became apparent when Walter Conklin, the son of a well-off alderman and silk mill owner, was denounced by his own mother as Alice’s seducer. In response, Conklin shot himself in the head; in his pocket was a note with the address of one of Rosenzweig’s offices, this one on East 24th Street.

Rosenzweig was publicly excoriated. In papers ranging from The New York Times to The Milwaukee Sentinel, journalists referred to him as a “miscreant,” “devil,” “fiend,” “monster,” “murderer,” “slaughterer,” and, perhaps most devastatingly, a “pirate of human happiness.” Many of these writers had followed the abortion issue for some time—then, as now, it was a hot topic. Less than a week before the trunk’s discovery The New York Times published “The Evil of the Age,” an exposé about the abortion industry in New York City. The crusading reporter, Augustus St. Clair, visited a number of providers, including Rosenzweig, whom he described as “a fat, coarse, and sensual-looking fellow, without any traces of refinement in person or manners and [who] does not bear the faintest appearance of the educated physician. None but the wretched creatures, who, driven to desperation by their condition and the fear of discovery by friends, would place any confidence in his skill.” It probably didn’t help Rosenzweig that when St. Clair interviewed him, the doctor, increasingly agitated by his questions, attacked the journalist, who pulled out a revolver to ensure that he could escape unharmed.

Short and fat, Rosenzweig had curly light brown hair and searing blue eyes; a treacherous, diabolical Jonah Hill. He claimed to have attended medical school in Warsaw (an unlikely possibility for a Jew at that time) and to have received a diploma from an unnamed medical college in Philadelphia, though it was subsequently reported in the Times that Philadelphia was the center of the country’s bogus diploma industry.

Covering Rosenzweig’s arrest, Augustus St. Clair reported that Rosenzweig “claims to be a Russian, but his voice has the twang of a German Jew,” and proceeded to quote him in dialect: “These other fellows are all humpugsh; they bromish to do somting vot they don’t do. I poshitively do all operashunsh widout any danger, and as sheap as anybody.”

In reality, Rosenzweig hailed from Plotsk, a shtetl 60 miles from Warsaw in Russian-ruled Poland. He was married with four children and lived in a house on Second Avenue and 22nd Street. He arrived in the United States in 1865, though it’s unknown what work he did when he got here or how he became an abortion provider. Five years later, the 1870 census lists him as a doctor. As for his nom de travail, Dr. Ascher, Rosenzweig had bought his main office on Amity Place (now 3rd Street) from a man of that name, whose sign Rosenzweig kept intact, leading him, at that office anyway, to answer to the name Ascher. In building a case against Rosenzweig, the Manhattan District Attorney suggested the intermittent ersatz alias was proof this man was the Jekyll and Hyde of abortions.

It’s not clear why Rosenzweig got into the abortion racket. Medicine in the 1870s was fairly sketchy and anyone who put up a shingle reading “Dr.” and paid a $10 “physician revenue tax” was legally recognized as such by the state. This allowed all manner of quacks to present themselves as medical experts and advertise all manner of elixirs, curing everything from cancer to scrofula. One of Rosenzweig’s ads in The New York Herald promised, “Ladies in trouble guaranteed immediate relief, sure and safe; no fees required until perfectly satisfied; elegant rooms and nursing provided.”

Abortion in the 1870s was perfectly legal. Accidentally killing a patient, stuffing her body in a trunk, and shipping it out of state was not. Rosenzweig was tried for medical malpractice and manslaughter. It took a jury less than two hours to convict him and a judge sentenced him to seven years hard labor. Rosenzweig appealed; the court had been swayed by public opinion, he argued, and had disallowed evidence in his favor. After serving a year and a half in Sing-Sing, Rosenzweig won a new trial. Unfortunately for him, in the interim his case had spurred the state legislature to pass a law criminalizing abortion, which meant that now Rosenzweig would be tried for murder.

His attorney William Howe, a man described in the press as “indefatigable,” cried foul, and rightly so, as Rosenzweig’s malfeasance occurred before the new law was passed. In the end, though a second trial never took place; double jeopardy applied and Rosenzweig went free, apparently leaving the country without a trace while journalists like St. Clair were left to hound other well-known practioners like the Grindles and the van Buskirks, two married teams of abortion providers, and the legendary Madame Restell, nicknamed “the wickedest woman in New York.”

Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).

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