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March 20, 2023

Madame Restell, "The Wickedest Woman in New York"

In 19th Century New York, everyone knew who to go to to end an unwanted pregnancy: the French-trained, sophisticated Madame Restell, who lived in a posh mansion on 5th Avenue. In reality, Madame Restell was English immigrant Ann Trow Lohman, and she had never even been to France, but she managed to combine medical skill with her carefully crafted public persona to become tremendously wealthy, while providing a much-needed service. As the legal landscape of the United States grew ever more conservative, Madame Restell did her best to evade the authorities, and then Anthony Comstock knocked on her door.

Joining me this week to help us understand more about Madame Restell is historian and writer Jennifer Wright, author of Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music is part of Twelve Pieces for piano, op. 40, No. 9, Valse in F-sharp minor, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1878, performed by Kevin McLeod, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The episode image is “The arrest of abortionist Ann Lohman (a.k.a. Madame Restell) by Anthony Comstock,” from the February 23, 1878, edition of the New York Illustrated Times; scanned from The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell, the Abortionist by Clifford Browder; available via Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen to. 

On today's episode, we're discussing 19th century abortionist, Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell, sometimes called the Wickedest Woman in New York. Ann Trow was born in the small town of Painswick, a wool town in the Cotswolds of England, on May 6 1811, or 1812. Ann's parents, John and Mary Ann, worked at the local wool mill, and the family was poor. With little formal education, Ann went to work as a maid for a butcher's family when she was just 15 years old. Later in her life when Ann was wealthy enough to employ her own servants, she always treated them well, perhaps remembering her own experience. By the age of 16, and was ready to leave service behind and she married 22 year old tailor Henry Summers. Unfortunately, Henry was an alcoholic, and not up to the challenge of providing for them, so Ann did his tailoring work for him, in the process, becoming quite proficient dressmaker. In 1830, Ann and Henry had their first and only child, a daughter named Caroline, and with another mouth to feed, they decided to move to America in the hopes of finding more success. In 1831, they sailed to New York City and moved into an apartment near the notorious Five Points neighborhood. Henry died shortly after their move, leaving Ann a single mother in a city full of women trying to make a living as seamstresses. Ann befriended a local quack, William Evans. Although he went by Dr. Evans, William had no formal medical training. Evans manufactured pills and tonics, claiming they cured all manner of complaints from baldness to low spirits. Ann began to work for him and learn the tricks of the trade, soon going into business for herself. When a patient asked in for a pill to end her pregnancy, Ann produced one, likely made of ergot of rye and cantharides, which was at least as effective as any other abortifacients of the day. Over time, Ann continued to refine her formulation, and may have used a very dangerous combination of oil of tansy and spirits of turpentine, which somehow did not seem to kill any of her patients. In 1836, Ann remarried, this time to a Russian immigrant named Charles Loman, who worked as a printer for the New York Herald. 

With Charles's help Ann devised a new persona, that's of the French trained, sophisticated, Madame Restell, and she began to advertise her business widely. In just a few years, her business exploded, so much so that Madame Restell opened satellite office in Philadelphia, to provide patients there with pills as well. Abortifacient pills didn't always work to end the pregnancy. And in those cases, Madam Restell provided surgical abortions, using a whalebone. We don't know for certain where Madame Restell learned her technique, but her operations were remarkably effective and safe. Unsurprisingly, not everyone approved of what Madame Restell was doing. In 1839, she was arrested for the then-misdemeanor of providing an abortion before quickening, in this case for providing abortion pills. The case was dropped when the patient failed to testify. But that wouldn't be Madame Restell's last brush with the law. In 1847, a woman named Maria Bodine requested an abortion from Madame Restell, who said that she was too far along for the procedure. Under pressure, Madame Restell eventually agreed to perform the abortion, which led to her indictment for second degree manslaughter. In the end, Madame Restell was found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a year on Blackwell's Island, now called Roosevelt's Island. Despite the generally miserable conditions of the prison, Madame Restell used her wealth to secure special treatment there. in 1862, Madame Restell again flaunted her extreme wealth, this time to build a lavish mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, across the street from where St. Patrick's Cathedral was planned. The neighbors were horrified, especially when she installed a basement office in the home. When Madame Restell's daughter Caroline, married a police officer in 1867, Madame Restell disapproved of the match. While practically disowning Caroline, Madame Restell brought Caroline's children from her first marriage into the mansion to live, and she showered them with gifts, teaching her granddaughter Carrie to be her assistant. 

In 1878, Anthony Comstock, founder of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, visited Madame Restell's office, under the guise of a man seeking abortion pills for his wife. She sold him the pills, and he returned the next day with the police officer who arrested her. Restell said of Comstock: "He's in this nasty detective business. There are a number of little doctors who are in the same business behind him. They think if they can get me in trouble, and out of the way, they can make a fortune. They're envious because I have a fine house in such a splendid location." Madame Restell's trial began on March 29 of that year. After her lawyer filed a petition of not guilty, the case was adjourned to Monday, April 1. But Madame Restell did not return to court. That day, Monday, April 1, 1878, Madame Restell's chambermaid found her dead in the bathtub, where she had died by suicide. Or had she? Soon after her death, people started to theorize that perhaps Madame Restell had faked her death and had fled to Europe. Whatever the case, the Wickedest Woman in New York was no longer performing abortions on Fifth Avenue. Joining me now to help us understand more about Madame Restell is historian and writer, Jennifer Wright, author of Madame Restell: the Life, Death, and Resurrection of old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous abortionist.

Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Jennifer Wright  9:49  
Thank you for having me. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:50  
Yes, I am excited to do this episode. I have known about Madama Restell for a while, but hadn't looked that closely into her life. So this was a fun one for me.

Jennifer Wright  10:00  
Thank you it was an incredible privilege to get to spend the past three years learning about this kind of remarkable and sometimes very infuriating woman.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:11  
Yes, yes. So, talk to me a little bit about your inspiration for writing this book. 

Jennifer Wright  10:17  
Well, I had been reading a lot about abortion for Harper's Bazaar. And I really originally wanted to do a book about how common procedure abortion had been through all of history. And I found it was indeed very common through all of history, but I also found that if I tried to do a book on that it was going to be 1000-page book. So I wanted to narrow it, narrow in a little bit on changing attitudes towards abortion. And I think you see those really clearly, in sort of the mid 19th, to the end of the 19th century in America, when abortion went from being a pretty common misdemeanor to an act that was literally unspeakable after the Comstock Laws.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:02  
Yeah, yeah, indeed. So talk to me about your research then, the the kinds of sources you were looking at how you are piecing together this story?

Jennifer Wright  11:10  
Well, one of the reasons that this ended up being Madame Restell is it's impossible to read any newspapers focusing on abortion from this period, without running into Madame Restell. Her ads are constant, they're everywhere. She was operating in multiple cities, not only New York, but also places like Philadelphia. And if people were talking about abortion, they almost always reference her. And they don't just reference her in terms of "This is a horrible scourge in our city. Women are having abortions. It's so upsetting." They also talk about the party she's throwing, and they talked about her carriage and they talk about how fabulously well dressed she is and how she's going on a magnificent trip to Europe. And it was so interesting for me to see that this woman was a celebrity in her age, especially because she's been largely forgotten by most people today.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:06  
Yeah, yeah. So I want to go back a little bit in her life. So I have watched a lot of Midsomer Murders, like a lot, a lot of Midsomer Murders. And what I have taken away from that show is that every small town in England has pagan sex cults. That's probably not true. But in this case, there is! I was like reading it going: "Wait, this really happened!" So talk to me about Painswick.

Jennifer Wright  12:29  
Like yes, no Painswick is fascinating. Painswick celebrated, at least during Madame Restell's early childhood, the great god Pan. There was a hunting lodge that celebrated him, it turned into some fairly sexual, sexual celebrations of Pan as you might expect. So Madame Restell was growing up in a town where there was a somewhat libertine attitude towards sex, which, of course, is another thing that we're going to see. Attitudes towards that have really changed by the end of the 19th century, where it's assumed that good women do not even have libidos. So that must have that must have been very interesting for Madame Restell to see. Yeah, Gentleman's Magazine in 1787 said that the town's festival was one that would have disgraced most human nations, filled with drunkenness of every specie, clamor, riot and disorder. And they later tried to reinstitute it after it stopped. And it again immediately devolved into a sex party. So Madame Restell had grown up with, that she'd grown up knowing that sex was a part of life, and that people, even people who were unmarried, were probably going to have sex. And that's something that really only would have been reinforced when she moved to New York in the early 1830s. And many, many women had very limited employment opportunities. And if you were a woman with a child, as Madame Restell was when she moved to New York, the main option for you would have been prostitution. So I think Madame Restell still very rightly saw that there was a need for birth control services, and there was a need for services.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:13  
Yeah, I think the other thing that you talk about being so important in her life, the way it sort of plays out is is the fact that she came from nothing. She's was working as a maid at the age of 15, in a society in England that was deeply classist and very difficult to move outside of that role that you had. Can you talk about that piece of her history and how it plays out throughout her life?

Jennifer Wright  14:42  
She's incredibly ambitious; she began life as a butcher's maid. She was very poorly educated. People did say that she was very intelligent from an early age, but she married a tailor. He was an alcoholic, Madame Restell quickly took over his work for him.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:58  
That's also a theme in her life.

Jennifer Wright  15:01  
It's a theme in her life - meeting a man who can kind of do a job, and then immediately doing it better than him and making it her thing. She told her husband after they had their daughter that they were moving to America, there were great economic prospects there. They could be rich in America. And that is a fantasy that appealed to many people and still appeals to people around the world. And unfortunately, when she got to America, her husband died very quickly. She was on the Lower East Side. She was taking in people's laundry and trying to work as a seamstress. But seamstresses made almost no money. It was one of the few jobs that women could do. So so many women were competing to tailor clothing that there was almost no profit to be made from it. So Madame Restell got kind of lucky. She lived down the street from a pill compounder, who made pills that promised outrageous things. There was no oversight in terms of what people were selling then. So she lived down the street from a doctor who promised to sell things like pills that would cure your liver and cure your headaches and give you energy. And some of them worked. Maybe some of them didn't. Madame Restell started making birth control pills that could produce an abortion. And she was using tansy oil and turpentine, which are incredibly dangerous, you should never take them, but they have been used up to fairly recently to induce abortions. Doctors have said that turpentine, it's a kind of harrowing motif when it comes to DIY abortions. So she was using things that would produce an abortion, I would never recommend anyone using them now. But people started coming to her. She started having clients that said: "Yeah, I've taken these pills. They've successfully produced five abortions for me." So as soon as Madame Restell figured that out, I think she realized, like, Okay, this is this is my career now. And she also learned how to perform surgical abortions using a piece of whalebone, which you could find in a corset. It is amazing that she never lost a patient. And that is perhaps the most remarkable part of Madame Restell's story to me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:22  
So she obviously was not trained in a medical school. But that wasn't that unusual, right? Like, compared to other quote unquote, doctors.

Jennifer Wright  17:32  
Yeah, one of one of the fascinating parts of my research here is realizing that medical schools during this period were very bad. And it's especially bad in the 1800s, because during the 1700s, you would basically work on an apprentice system, if you if your father was a doctor, you would follow him around, and you would learn how to set a broken bone in your town. And maybe you'd be a little bit better than him. Or maybe you'd be a little bit worse. But you'd basically just keep on going. But in the 1800s, they opened up these medical schools that were really just lecture halls, classes would go on for about six months. You might never actually see a person who was ill. They would buy a bag of bones, take over a lecture hall. Men would pay to come to these, they would send out letters to men or advertising newspapers saying: "Don't you want to make great money as a physician? Come to medical school, you can be a doctor!" And young men would sign up, they would go. They would never see a pregnant woman, certainly. This was during a time where doctors were told that when they were examining female patients, they should avert their eyes so as not to upset the woman's modesty. So suddenly, you had an incredible surplus of doctors who were remarkably badly trained. That basically if you paid the money to go to medical school, even if you didn't attend most of the classes, you were getting a degree. So Madame Restell was not that much worse off than many of the doctors you might have been seeing during this period. And frankly, the fact that she was a woman and had a basic working knowledge of what female anatomy is, like, probably gave her a very large advantage

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:24  
And had given birth

Jennifer Wright  19:25  
And had given birth, so she remembered that yes.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:30  
Yeah. It's It's amazing to think about and you you talk about this, as medical schools are getting better, not getting better. All of this, this idea that midwives were actually so much better at delivering babies than doctors were.

Jennifer Wright  19:51  
And I think one of the times you hear about that a lot is in terms of Ignaz Semmelweis. That he worked at a clinic where the death rate was so much higher when women were treated by doctors versus midwives at the other clinic that women would opt to give birth in the street or in their own carriages rather than going in and being treated by the doctors if they were assigned to the doctor's clinic. And what Semmelweis figured out was that doctors are working with corpses and then plunging their hands into a woman to pull out the baby. And this theory was rejected because doctors are gentlemen and gentlemen's hands are clean. And Semmelweis was was absolutely right. When he started forcing doctors to wash their hands, the death rate dropped to the same rate that was being seen among the midwives. It's just doctors hated the idea of being told that anything they were doing was wrong. His idea was rejected. And he died in a mental asylum, probably from syphilis. Not like, because he was so sad about this. But yeah, it's, sadly one of those things where many, many lives could have been saved if doctors had been a little more open to trying a new idea.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:11  
Yeah. So Madam Restell, just as well trained, if not better than a lot of the men of the day. Yeah. I think what is remarkable too, though, is not just her medical ability, which she really does have, but her ability to sell her services, her ability to market herself and her services, and especially in a time when this isn't something you're supposed to talk about. So how does she go about doing this?

Jennifer Wright  21:40  
She's incredibly brazen. And part of that has to do with help from her second husband, Charles Loman, who was a printer who worked at the New York Herald, a very popular newspaper of the day. And with his help, she kind of came up with this new persona, where she was born Ann Trow, and she became Madame Restell. And they talked about how her she was trained in Paris, and her grandmother was a famous midwife, and this was a family legacy. And partly, the idea of her being French had to do with the fact that we always think French people are very sophisticated when it comes to sexual matters. But this was also a time known as the Paris Period in medical circles, that medical innovation was really happening in France and in Paris in particular. So the fact that Madame Restell would have trained there would have given her a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of people who were familiar with that. And I think she was also genuinely empassioned about the topic of birth control. She ran amazing articles, which like, some of them are fairly plagiarized from the other thinkers of the time. But she ran these wonderful articles about how women are dying in childbirth, like what happens to a family if a woman has so many children that she dies? Who takes care of them, then what about women who are incredibly sick after they've given birth to babies? Isn't that detrimental to a family? What about families who can't afford to have children right now? Shouldn't they be allowed to be married and live and make enough money to be able to raise a family properly? And I think she's making arguments that we're very familiar with today. The fascinating thing to me is that she's running these articles on Christmas Day and talking about how like birth control is as good as a lightning rod preventing the worst ravages of nature. And I think that would still be a bold move if you did it in 2023. So I love reading Madame Restell's articles. And one of the biggest frustrations of writing this book is that some particularly we don't have any for letters; she not somebody who puts a lot in writing. So there are instances where the newspapers say like then Madame Restell said something unprintable, and, oh, boy, I would love to know what she was saying to people that was unprintable.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:10  
Yeah. So she's passionate about the subject, but she's also of course in this to make money, and she does make a lot of money.

Jennifer Wright  24:19  
She came to America to be rich, and she did it. And she flaunts her wealth; she's not ashamed of the fact that she's making a lot of money. You see a lot of newspaper articles from the time that carry with them this, to my mind, contradictory opinion, that what Madame Restell is doing is horrible. It's just so horrible. It's satanic. All women should want to be mommies. This is so upsetting. And also she shouldn't be doing it for free because it's rude that's she's charging people for this. So she she was charging people; she did work on a sliding scale, and so she charged women who were poor or often who had slept with their employers, much less than she charged wealthy women. But she was making a lot of money. She was also riding through town in a spectacular carriage. She outbid an archbishop for land where she built a mansion, where she continued performing abortions. And one of the things that I also found really fascinating about this was I expected the newspaper reports to be like this woman's nouveau riche; she's trash, like everything she's doing is trashy, and they're not. They're like: "We all agree abortion is bad. But this is the best house we've ever seen. It's perfect."

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:43  
I love it. So she's in this interesting time period, which you mentioned about the shifting attitudes. You know, I think when people if they think about the 19th century at all tend to think about the post Civil War era, they think about like Gilded Age, New York, but she she spans this amazing time period in New York, the antebellum period through into the late 19th century when she dies. And there are tremendous changes during that time. And it seems like sometimes she's really on top of that, and then maybe toward the end of her life, she's not quite as hip to the changing attitudes of the day. So can you talk a little bit about that, that arc?

Jennifer Wright  26:27  
Yeah, no, when Madame Restell came to New York, it was, again, a time when abortion was a misdemeanor, it was not that big a concern to people. And then one of the things that made it much more of a concern was the influx of Irish immigrants later in the period, and this incredible fear that is mentioned by Horatio Storer, a leading anti-abortion advocate of the time, that they're going to be outbred, that there is a great replacement happening, and that only got stronger after the Civil War, when you suddenly have newly freed Black people. There are tremendous concerns that, oh, no, suddenly, you're going to have to compete with Black people for jobs. And a lot of the response to that is okay, Horatio Storer, I think is says that, upon women's wombs the rest of the destiny of our nation. And what they mean is that middle class, white Protestant women should be having more babies, and they need to figure out a way to make those women have more babies. Especially as the suffragette period was just blossoming, you would see in the Seneca Falls convention. And women were starting to want more out of I think you could say that women started wanting more out of life at the same time, Madame Restell was moving to New York, that there is this massive shift in the country that goes from being rural to being urbanized, that women start seeing more job opportunities. They are, they're terrible job opportunities, usually, but there are job opportunities in factories. You could work in a shop in the city. There start being these interesting female writers who start emerging from the period. And women start seeing more opportunities for themselves. And that is also very threatening to men, because one of the opportunities they want is the opportunity to vote and change the country in that way. So one way to push back on all of that is to get white Protestant women to just have so many babies that they have to stay at home and take care of their white non Irish children. And you really see people pushing for that so much more at the end of Madame Restell's life than you do at the beginning. You see articles from the beginning of this period, when they talk about women having abortions. When they generalize about them, they generalize in terms of like, oh, this was probably a poor 16 year old who got seduced by a seducer, and he should be ashamed of himself, that poor, stupid 16 year old. And then by the end, it is this sort of fanciful Disney villain character where it's all like, this woman just wanted to maintain her beauty, so instead of having a child, she just said, I want to wear party dresses all the time, and I can't do that if I'm pregnant. And that becomes sort of the again, both of these are made up constructs by men, but the construct they are making up is very different in 1870, than it is in 1840.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:39  
 Yeah. So we have who I'm beginning to think of as the nemesis of this podcast, Anthony Comstock, who has appeared in episodes before.

Jennifer Wright  29:49  
Oh, he has? And a chronic masturbator! 

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:52  
Yeah, and you know, as you were saying earlier, like what happens to families when a woman dies in childbirth? Anthony Comstock should know the answer to this!

Jennifer Wright  30:00  
Anthony Comstock should to know the answer to that because his mother died in childbirth. And people at the time who wanted to criticize him said that, you know, maybe if Anthony Comstock's mother had gotten some birth control, we wouldn't all have to deal with this guy. But Anthony Comstock was a very conservative individual. He was very religious. He was also very, very ashamed of his sexual urges, which was especially troubling for him because like, virtually everyone in the world, Anthony Comstock masturbated, and his reaction to that was not like, this is probably a pretty normal thing that people do and I'm gonna be fine with it or just stop masturbating. His idea was that he could construct a world where there would be nothing that would make him feel any lustful urges. So, you see Anthony Comstock, and the Society for the Suppression of Vice labeling everything well, many, many kinds of art, everything that might inspire lustful desire as obscene. And, of course, banning any mention of abortion, any mention of birth control, those are all categorized as obscene now, and under under the Comstock Laws of 1873. So it's not just that you could be arrested for performing an abortion, you could be arrested for giving someone information on how to perform an abortion.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:29  
Or how to stop from getting pregnant in the first place.

Jennifer Wright  31:32  
Exactly, yes. And that really takes us more to Margaret Sanger and her refusal to obey the Comstock Laws. And her column What Every Girl Should Know that was shut down. It gave women information about how to avoid pregnancy and also STDs. And when it was shut down, there's a great little quote from the paper that says. "What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing, by order of the US Post Office." But Madame Restell was just at the beginning of Comstock's rise. Comstock had started to get himself some very wealthy allies. At the beginning of Comstock's career, he was really just seen as a pest, that he would go to places that sold pornography, he would buy it, and then he would take it to the police offices and bring the police officers back and arrest a person selling pornography. Now he had to use his own money to do this. So he was running out of money. And that was when he started looking to other influential individuals that would help him on his quest to purify society. And they were able to get a lot of donations, but it became trickier, so they really needed a big headline. So he decided he was going to go after Madame Restell. And he went in disguise to Madame Restell, he said that he had a lady friend who couldn't have another child. He needed help. Madame Restell was was very patient and polite with him. She gave him two pills. She said these should work by Thursday, but if they don't bring her back, and we'll go from there. and Anthony Comstock did come back, but he came back with police officers. Madame Restell is completely calm when the police officers come in.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:23  
Well, this isn't the first time she's tangled with the law. 

Jennifer Wright  33:28  
I think she tells Anthony Comstock that she really thought he'd be taller, that's why she got tricked. And she makes the police officers sit with her she has a lunch of oysters before she goes off with them. She tells him she's gonna go to the police station in her own beautiful carriage. And so Madame Restell handles this arrest at least initially pretty well. And her lawyer also thought this was a fairly clear case of entrapment, so he was pretty sure he could get her out of it. And then for reasons that I am very suspicious of Madame Resetell becomes extremely hysterical and starts running around telling everyone she's suicidal. And a body was found in her bathtub a few days later. And there was question at the time about whether or not that was really Madame Restell's body because everybody who identified it was a member of her household. And her estranged son-in-law told the police that there was a plan to get her out of the country. So a lot of her jewels and clothing were found missing from her house. And they were reports later that people had seen her in Paris. So, and her granddaughter and grandson who she was very, very close to also didn't wear any mourning when they went to hear the will. And for the next decade they went off to Paris for a few months every year. So I always like to think that Madame Restell kind of looked at where the country was at and decided like, I'm not doing this anymore. I am old. I am going off to Paris where things are going to be a little bit nicer for me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:08  
Do you think there's any way we can solve this mystery?

Jennifer Wright  35:13  
I mean, you know, DNA is amazing. I don't want to tell people to dig up her corpse to see if we can check on it. I do not have the scientific knowledge to know if that's even a possibility. But, you I I think you can take it either way you want it at this point? I think Occam's razor says like, okay, she just got really upset and she killed herself. And that that is a very reasonable explanation. Or, if you like a little soupçon, of conspiracy theory in your stories, and you have, as I have, fallen a little bit in love with Madame Restell, you can say, oh, no, she was she was off in Paris. She was drinking champagne and just watching this American tragedy unfold.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:02  
I love it. This is an incredible book, I loved it. How can people get the book,

Jennifer Wright  36:08  
I hope you have a local bookstore that you enjoy. I am very, very excited to be on the Indie Next List for March. So it should be available at a lot of local bookstores. But you know, if you're also listening to this podcast at 11:00 at night, I would go on Amazon and I would order it there. So that is always a valid option.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:30  
And there's an audiobook, too.

Jennifer Wright  36:32  
It's an audiobook. And it's narrated by Mara Wilson, who just does such a fabulous reading and was such a gift to get to do the audiobook.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:41  
So I do want to ask, before we wrap up, you talk a little bit at the end about your own experience being pregnant. So I want to ask you were writing this book while you were pregnant and then while you had a baby. And so how did that inform your writing of the book?

Jennifer Wright  36:56  
It's so interesting, because I think, I had wanted to be pregnant for so long, my husband and I had been trying for years, we'd gone through three rounds of IVF by the time it finally worked. And I think it worked almost exactly the same day that I sold the book, so it was within a week. And I did have this fear of, I strongly believe in a woman's right to choose. But I was also afraid that pregnancy and childbirth might shift my views on that topic, and maybe it would be harder to write about an abortionist. And look, I was I was in love with the idea of my daughter from the moment I knew I was pregnant. But it did not change my views at all. If anything, I think it made me realize how difficult pregnancy and childbirth are. And how, to my mind also beautiful that is. I, I write about it in the book, that my experience of childbirth was very difficult. It was still the best day of my life because I got to meet my daughter. But there is no other situation where you will be ever, ever be told: "Okay, well, you need to keep somebody else alive. So you've got to sacrifice half the blood in your body; we're going to operate on you. Maybe we're going to have to remove your womb, maybe we won't Fingers crossed." And that doesn't happen to men ever. There is no situation where a man will be told: "All right, well, Joe from work needs a kidney and you're a match. So we're going to take your kidney buddy, sorry about that you'll be fine." And I think there is something beautiful about this choice that you're making if you have a child, that you are willing to risk your health and your life to have a child. But that isn't a decision that should ever be forced on anyone.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:49  
Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Jennifer Wright  38:53  
Gosh, I think you've covered it so well. Yeah, I feel I feel like we got-- Oh, she did kidnap a child. Should we talk about how she kidnapped a child?

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:02  
Yeah, why don't why don't you?

Jennifer Wright  39:05  
Yeah, it's it's kind of a low point for Madame Restell. And it's why I always worry that if this ever gets made into a movie or a TV show, which boy, I hope it will, that she will be cast as the saintly heroic figure who was just taking care of women in the way that she needed to. And I really think that reading of her as just a wonderful feminist heroine, discounts the time that she kidnapped a woman's child because the woman's father was paying her and said: "Okay, my daughter wants to give birth but like we don't want that baby around. You need to, once she gives birth, you need to take that kid and you need to get rid of it." And Madame Restell seemingly without blinking does this and then when. The woman in this case, Mary Applegate, is obviously hysterical. She spends the rest of her life trying to track down the child. And when the father kind of bows on it later and goes back to Madame Restell's, like, actually, I want to know where the baby is. Maadame Restell says: "Well, not here. I gave it away a long time ago, if you pay me $5,000, I can try to track it down like a detective." But that would have been an obscene price that nobody can pay. So I think it's important to remember that I would never call Madame Restell a girl's girl, like Madame Restell is in this business, because she's making money. The people who are paying her are largely men. The people she's friends with are men; the politicians she's bribing are men. The people who work for her and support her are her husband and her brother. They're men. I've never found, with the exception of her granddaughter, who she trains as an apprentice, a woman that Madame Restell seems really, really close to. So I think, I am always a little hesitant to sort of sort her into this wonderful pantheon of feminists that are helping and uplifting other women all the time. But you know, she was performing a very necessary service that still helped a lot of women and probably saved a lot of women's lives.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:13  
Yeah, she's complicated.

Jennifer Wright  41:15  
She's a complicated figure.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:17  
Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for speaking with me. This is a great book. I really enjoyed reading it and it was so fun to talk to you.

Jennifer Wright  41:24  
Thank you. This was lovely.

Teddy  41:53  
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Jennifer WrightProfile Photo

Jennifer Wright

Jennifer Wright is an author of history books, television writer, columnist, podcaster, and speaker.

Her books include the new She Kills Me (Abrams, 2021) and upcoming Madame Restell (Hachette Books, 2023), as well as It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Break-Ups in History, the Audible bestseller Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and The Heroes That Fought Them, and We Came First: Romantic Advice From Women Who Have Been There.

She is the former political editor-at-large for Harper's Bazaar and her work can be seen in places like The New York Times, The New York Post, The New York Observer, Time Out New York, and some other publications that don't have “New York” in the title, like The Washington Post.

She was a cohost of the book-to-screen podcast The Popcorn Book Club on iHeartRadio.

Jennifer is also a frequent speaking guest and panel moderator for schools, museums, and networking events — speaking on the subjects of how societies, past and present, address women’s issues, reproductive rights, love, and of course, plagues.

She is represented by Anna Sproul-Latimer at Neon Literary.

She is married to writer, Daniel Kibblesmith (her favorite person) and is a mother to a daughter (her other favorite person).

You can follow her on Twitter at @JenAshleyWright.