From Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles, a book about abortion before Roe v. Wade. We can't go back.
A Pre-Revolution Abortion and Trial
Today Pomfret CT is a post card of a New England town with churches, wooden houses, Robert Frost-type stonewalls and ivy-covered brick buildings. In autumn, leaves turn brilliant red and gold. The 40+ square miles covered by Pomfret lacks a town center as such. A graveyard, going back centuries, has the thin stone tombstones typical of Puritan times. Some are askew.
The population in 2014 was about 4,100 people. Selectmen, the New England version of an elected town counsel with equal voting rights, govern Pomfret as they have through the centuries.
Probably most residents today, would not guess that in 1745, 34 years after the village was incorporated and took its name from Lincolnshire, England, it was the scene of one of the first reported and prosecuted abortions in the new world. The University of Connecticut has published trial documents, which is why the information exists today.
As more people immigrated and the new settlers reproduced: growth was constant.
Although settlers found the class system more equal than the societies they had left, life was difficult. There were still poor whites, indentured servants, prostitutes and tenant farmers in comparison to those that garnered more prestige such as ministers, doctors, lawyers and landowners of various degrees of wealth.
Those living in New England faced a rugged climate and topography.
Religion was strict. There were churches that considered an organ too liberal and dancing dangerous. These limitations seeped into the general population influencing daily life. Celebrations did not include the too-Catholic Christmas.
Farmers represented about 90% of the people living in the colonies, although fishing, trapping, tobacco, blacksmithing, ship building etc. were also practiced trades.
In Pomfret, because of its land-bound location and climate, things like commercial fishing, shipbuilding and even tobacco growing were not viable livelihoods. Much farming was subsistence.
One of The First Abortion Trials in The New World
Sarah Grosvenor was lived all her life in Pomfret. By standards of the time, her family was well off. They owned farmland: her father was one of the first selectmen, elected as a village leader, in 1714.
There is no record of how Mary and Leicester Grosevenor felt when their daughter Sarah was born in 1723. They already had one daughter, two-year-old Zerviah. Were the couple disappointed that she wasn’t a boy? I could find no records of other children nor of Mary having miscarriages.
We know little of Sarah’s childhood but at 19 she found herself pregnant by a man eight years her senior.
· Were they in love?
· Did she seduce him?
· Did he seduce her?
· Was it mutual desire?
· Did they make love once or many times?
· Where did they make love?
One of the frustrations with old records, that the many questions they raise have no answer.
We do know his name was Amasa Sessions. Amasa is a Biblical name rather uncommon even in those times. In various documents he was described as “corpulent,” “capable” and “honest.”
In July 1742, sister Zerviah noticed Sarah was acting unwell. She suspected that her sister might be pregnant, but when she asked repeatedly, Sarah denied it each time.
The girls’ mother, Mary, was so concerned about her daughter that she asked a neighbor, Doctor John Hallowell, to look at her. Dr. Hallowell told the family Sarah was not pregnant.
For reasons that are unclear in existing documentation, Dr. Hallowell took her to another house, where Amasa Sessions visited the girl. When she returned home, she confessed she was, indeed, pregnant.
If Sarah had not been forthcoming with her sister, I am sure she did not rush to tell her parents that they might be grandparents. Although there is no record of any conversations, of her parents’ reactions, I can imagine they were not that different from any parent today who finds an unmarried daughter pregnant.
Zerviah was upset that her sister had not told her before, but Sarah had said she’d been “taking the trade” the popular phrase of the time for using herbs to bring on a woman’s period, a common practice when an unwanted pregnancy was suspected.
Unlike today, there seems be no societal arguments about when life begins. Communications took days, weeks, months by letter and horseback or ship, not seconds on the internet.
The mores of the time considered bringing on a woman’s late period with different plants before the baby quickened, not an abortion.
Marriage would not have been an impossible alternative for Sarah and Amasa: they were of a similar class. Session never denied he was the father. He was reported to have visited Sarah several times during the early part of her pregnancy willingly.
Amasa was the third son of Joanna and Nathaniel Sessions. The Sessions ran a tavern out of their house and because the father was involved in village politics, the fortunes of the family must have benefited from meetings held there, perhaps the way President Trump’s company benefits from other politicians staying at his Washington, D.C. hotel. That he was not overjoyed at being a father is a guess based on his reported conversations with John Hallowell.
Amasa expressed his fear that his parents would make the young couple’s lives difficult should they marry, but I could find no explanation of why he thought that.
However, with persuasion, Sarah and Amasa decided to marry and stop any attempt to get rid of the baby, something Sarah was said to be ambivalent about.
Despite that decision, two weeks passed. No banns were announced. Zerviah saw Amasa giving Sarah more herbs to “finish” what had been started. We don’t have any idea of which herbs they were, but they did not work.
The assumption abortion was only after the baby quickened, when the mother feels the baby moving sometime around the fourth month. Until then the loss of a baby was a miscarriage whether it happened naturally or with help. Missing periods could be corrected by bringing the body back into balance using various herbs. Sarah was in her fourth month when the baby quickened making the removal of the fetus an abortion not a balancing of her menses.
According to her friend Abigail Nightingale’s testimony at a trial three years later, Sarah had told she had felt the baby move for about a fortnight when abortion attempts were begun.
Much feminine medical care was general knowledge shared by women. A number of plants that can lead to abortion (abortifacient) were available and were considered effective.
Juniper to create savin, pennyroyal and seneca snakeroot were among the popular plants “to restore balance” and all grew in the Pomfret region. If a book of abortifacient herbs was available to women in Colonial times, I have not been able to locate it.
When the pregnancy continued, Dr. Hallowell surgically removed the fetus, but it took him two attempts over two days. The surgery took place at Sarah’s 30-year-old cousin’s Hannah’s house. Sarah told her friend Abigail that Dr. Hallowell put instruments on the bed and tried to remove the baby.
At one point, Sarah fainted. Zerviah brought cold water into the room to revive her.
Amasa hid out at Mr. Waldo’s the local tavern during the procedures.
Sarah went home that night, but did not miscarry for another two days. The fetus, which fell into a chamber pot, appeared damaged, was wrapped in cloth and buried near the house.
Within ten days, Sarah sickened most likely from infection caused by dirty instruments. This was well before the importance of cleanliness was discovered. Her family called in two other doctors who were unable to save her.
She died 14 September 1742. Court records show testimony by Dr. Hallowell that he said he was responsible for her death.
Why there was no official court action for three years is not explained. Not until 1 November 1745, did two county magistrates issue calls for Amasa, Hallowell, Hannah and Zerviah. Hallowell’s depositions were delayed. He was in a debtor’s prison in Connecticut.
The Inferior Court heard depositions which still existent today.
Hallowell was found guilty of murder. Amasa, Hannah and Zerviah were named as accessories to the crime.
It still wasn’t over.
The Superior Court, in September 1746, charged Amasa and Hallowell, for destroying Sarah and her unborn child. Although a verdict was issued 18 November 1746, a technicality caused the case to be dismissed.
It wasn’t until March 1747 when the king’s attorney tried again. Amasa was released. Hallowell was sentenced to the gallows and lashes on 20 March 1747. He disappeared before either part of the sentence could be carried out.
Amasa married, raised ten children supported by his farm. He seems to have suffered no stigma from his connection with Sarah, served in the militia and died in 1799.
He and Sarah are buried within 25 feet of one another, ironic that they were separated in life.