While the reporting of abortion deaths in Colorado did not see a significant uptick in the early 20th century, charges brought against doctors and other providers did. According to the December 23, 1903, issue of the Rocky Mountain News, Dr. C. D. Fitch was found to be responsible for the death of Mrs. Belle Allen due to septicaemia from an abortion performed at 510 Sixteenth Street in Denver. Fitch appeared to have left town following her patient’s death, but eventually stood trial and was released by the magistrate court for lack of evidence. Dr. Fitch promoted herself widely in the newspapers for healing with electricity and clairvoyance. She was soon after rearrested for practicing medicine without a license. After spending time in the state penitentiary, she returned to Denver and continued to promote herself as a clairvoyant and chiropodist under the name “Mrs. Lewis.” This drew the attention of the Rocky Mountain News who, in 1914, outed her as part of their “Crusade Against Quacks.”
In 1923, Denver City Councilman Dr. Daniel R. Lucy was charged in the death of Mrs. Katherine Stange of 1134 South Pearl Street due to septicemia, resulting from an illegal abortion. Dr. Lucy claimed to have treated her, but denied having used any surgical instruments. Stange, however, made a statement to investigators preceding her death that indicated an instrument had been used. After the coroner’s inquest, Dr. Lucy was released on $7,500 bond, and the story soon disappeared in the Denver press. For years, Dr. Lucy is mentioned in his role as city councilman, with no mention of any trial, let alone a conviction. The year after Lucy was charged, a cement worker J. R. Wilson, who went by the alias Dr. J. R. Coleman, faced similar charges in the death of Mary Burnick. Unlike Dr. Lucy, Wilson pleaded guilty and was given a 25-year sentence. On November 22, 1926, however, Governor Morley pardoned Wilson.
In 1929, while abortion prosecutions were still making the rounds in newspapers, the Colorado Assembly was passing House Bill 295 to make it legal for physicians to consult married couples regarding birth control. Such dissemination of birth control materials was made illegal by the 1873 Comstock Act. After heated debate, the bill was killed in the Colorado Senate. As the 1930s got underway, local media and the public at large showed more and more interest in the reproductive debates going on in the Soviet Union (USSR) and Nazi Germany. The USSR had moved to make divorce nearly impossible and succeeded in banning abortion. Meanwhile, Germany eventually settled on banning abortion only for “Aryan women.”
As the U.S. entered World War II, Denver law enforcement appeared to have entered its own war against abortion. On January 26, 1947, the Rocky Mountain News published an exposé by famed journalist and columnist Frances Melrose entitled “Smashing Denver’s Abortion Racket” that dug into the issue’s prominence in the preceding decade. The article claimed that, prior to 1941, Denver had been known as the abortion capital of the nation, but had since become one of the “cleanest” cities in the country. Credit was given to the unceasing efforts of District Attorney James T. Burke and his lead investigator Ray Humphreys. According to Humphreys, over one million American women would undergo the procedure yearly.
Humphreys said this focus on abortion started in 1941 when a man called him regarding his sister, who was admitted to Denver General Hospital after a botched abortion. The procedure had been performed at the apartment of Dr. Roy Ferguson, who had been arrested five times prior on similar charges. After talking to the hospital superintendent the same year, Humphreys discovered that the hospital had admitted at least 500 women over the prior five years suffering from complications related to illegal abortions. The hospital said they had not reported these admissions because they felt law enforcement would not be interested. On the contrary, the records were all seized by authorities and a grand jury investigation began.
After seeing such pressure applied to Denver General, reports began coming from doctors at other hospitals reporting abortion patients to authorities in compliance with state law. Some women had found abortionists through coverage in the newspapers. Others were referred by someone, but never knew the actual practitioner’s name. Some women would receive a call to meet at a hotel in Denver or Boulder at a specific time for the procedure. An interesting part of this 1947 Rocky Mountain News exposé is the sympathetic way that Melrose lays out the horrific outcomes of abortion bans while not directly attacking the law.
“Most illegal abortions are performed on wives, not delinquent girls, as might be thought. These are women who, usually for financial reasons or a desire to escape the inconvenience of pregnancy, place themselves in the hands of an abortionist. Through ignorance of the dangers of abortions and abortionists, these women may be killed, permanently deformed or made sterile when they submit to the operation. Many abortions are performed by midwives, quacks or ‘doctors’ uninstructed in expert technique.” Rocky Mountain News, January 26, 1947
By June 1947, District Attorney Burke suggested that Denver had become “too hot” for abortion providers. Since he took office in 1941, 55 cases had led to arrests. Seventeen people pleaded guilty, eight were found guilty at trial, and four pleaded no contest. Six were acquitted. One of those found guilty was Dr. Julius Wolf, who was convicted as part of what Burke called a “million dollar abortion ring.”
As the 1960s brought tumult in politics to the forefront, one could see even greater shifts in the cause of reproductive rights. In Colorado, the abortion scandals reached new depths of absurdity, epitomized by an osteopath named Dr. Lawson Palmer. Palmer first made headlines in 1958 for running a diploma mill for fake universities out of his office. His own lawyer, John J. Gibbons, claimed his law degree was from Palmer’s fictional Evergreen University. The same year, a woman who worked for Palmer was found dead in his home from an overdose of sleeping pills. In 1960, Palmer was charged in an abortion case after the patient began hemorrhaging. In 1961, he was accused of performing a fake abortion on a woman he had falsely told was pregnant in order to extract $200 from her. Palmer skipped bail in 1963 and was eventually arrested by the FBI in New York after returning from Argentina. He was convicted of performing illegal abortions and running a con-game to extract payments under false pretenses in 1965.
Two years after Palmer’s conviction, the Colorado legislature recognized the minefield placed upon women seeking reproductive care and sought to liberalize Colorado’s abortion laws. By early 1967, 23 state legislatures had put forth bills to liberalize abortion. A reform law shepherded by State House Representative Richard Lamm was passed on April 25, 1967, but the results were highly problematic. While discretion had been somewhat left to doctors to determine if an abortion was required prior to the law, the new law expanded the situations that would permit an abortion, but left that determination to a board comprised of three doctors. Of the first cases to test the law was that of a 12-year-old, mentally disabled girl who had been raped. Because the assault had happened in a vehicle, there was a question whether the rape had occurred in Denver or Boulder. Neither district attorney was comfortable declaring a rape had likely occurred in their jurisdiction. The issue was unresolved until the last minute, when the girl's pregnancy would be too far advanced to permit an abortion.
Olga Curtis of the Denver Post reported that, while 1,500 Colorado women had obtained legal abortions over the 33 months following the law’s passage, an estimated 20,000 had sought abortions through dangerous, illegal means due to the expense and bureaucratic hurdles involved in following the law originally meant to open abortion access. Even the laws champion, Richard Lamm, lamented the results,
“We tried to change a cruel, outmoded, inhuman law. And what we got was a cruel, outmoded, and inhuman law.” - Denver Post January 11, 1970
The early 1970s was a period in which courts in state after state began decrying the unconstitutionality of abortion prohibitions until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 finally enshrined a woman’s right to abortion care for the five decades that followed. The time of women sneaking across state lines and relying on questionable medical practitioners had ended. And then, on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court dismantled Roe and left the past as prologue for a new generation of women and girls.
Note: These are only those victims reported in the press. While abortion deaths were heavily covered by the press, many others were likely not reported by coroners, doctors, and family members.
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