Rummaging around in the bowels of the internet one day, idly researching family history, I stumbled across an extraordinary, if somewhat ghoulish, document: The Register of Dead Bodies Taken to North Sydney Morgue Between 1881 And 1908. Inscribed entirely by hand, in two volumes and over eleven hundred pages, it offers a fascinating insight into life (or more accurately, death) in Sydney at the time. The North Sydney Morgue, located at the bottom of Argyle Place in Circular Quay, was described as little more than “an old tin shed” (“a less suitable building could scarcely be imagined”, harumphed the Evening News 17/6/1901). It was one of two morgues operating in Sydney for much of that period – the South Sydney Morgue closed in 1901 to make way for the construction of Central Railway Station. Trawling through the pages of this register, I began to notice certain types of deaths recurring with regularity: drownings in Sydney Harbour (no one could swim, of course); wharf labourers falling to their deaths into the holds of ships; deaths as a result of violence, domestic or otherwise; deaths attributable to alcoholism. But most startling and horrifying is the number of newborn babies and foetuses listed within these pages. Between 1901 and 1903 alone, I counted fifty-eight newborns and thirty foetuses brought to the morgue. The few details supplied are pitiful: “the body of a newly born female infant wrapped up in some brown paper, a piece of old bath towel and a sock”, “found in a low level sewer”, “found on the doorstep of Mr James Chemist, supposed left there by some female”, “on the beach at Manly, wrapped up in a piece of towel with a stone tied in it,” “in the Ladies Lavatory of no.5 platform, Redfern Railway station, wrapped up in a copy of the Daily Telegraph.” And this: “foetus lying on the footpath in Victoria St, Darlinghurst, the body evidently trodden on by some passer-by during the night.”
Page after page, these newborns and foetuses appear. It takes a moment to process what you’re reading. Babies given birth to and then abandoned, tossed into the harbour or smothered or strangled or stabbed or left to die in a paddock. A hundred-odd years ago, in my own city, this was commonplace. What desperate circumstances prompted these horrifying acts? And foetuses – the pathetic product of an agonising, mortifying and highly dangerous procedure that likely
took place in a darkened room somewhere – trodden on or stumbled across by a passer-by.
Just as shocking to the modern reader is the steady succession of young women who
appear in the pages of the Morgue Register, dead of septicaemia or peritonitis brought on by backyard abortions. Consider this selection, ten women dead in a period of just over nine months:
12/11/1903: Florence White, 19, domestic servant, “at the lying-in home of Nurse Charlotte Binder as the result of a miscarriage.” (“Death due to septicaemia following a certain event, brought about by someone unknown.” Maitland Daily Mercury 18/3/1903.)
8/12/1903: Alice Leighton, 28, domestic servant, “from peritonitis…resulting from a recent miscarriage, but the cause of the miscarriage is unknown.”
5/12/1903: Elizabeth Booth, 28, married. (“Death was due to septicaemia, following a certain event.” Sydney Morning Herald 12/12/1903.)
16/12/1903: Fanny Foster, 19, “septic peritonitis.” (“Died from septicaemia following upon a certain event.” Sydney Morning Herald 18/12/1903.)
27/4/1904: Clara Throlfo, 26, found dead in bed at the house of Nurse Jeffries. (“acute septicaemia following an event which had been partially caused.” Maitland Weekly Mercury 7/5/1904.)
19/6/1904: Ellen Prendergast, 27, domestic servant, “the foetus of a child found amongst her blood-stained clothing.”
28/6/1904: Clara Farmer, 26, domestic duties, “at residence of Nurse Brown.” (“died from septic peritonitis.” Daily Telegraph 30/6/1904.)
23/7/1904: Dolly Whiffen, 24 , domestic servant, “blood poisoning caused through an illegal operation.”
24/7/1904: Margaret Dawson, 23, single, domestic servant, “the result of an illegal operation.”
28/8/1904: Amelia Lynch, 26, single, dressmaker, “at the house of Nurse Ruby Mayne…from septic peritonitis and haemorrhage following a miscarriage.”
They’re all so young. I think of my own daughters in their early twenties, out in the world and sexually active, and my heart thuds in gratitude for the miracle of contraception. And so many of these young women were domestic servants! It’s not difficult to imagine the predicament these young women had found themselves in: pregnant and unmarried in a time when this combination bore a shameful stigma, the danger of losing their livelihoods a certainty if they didn’t do something quickly. What did they do, one wonders, how did they go about seeking help? And perusing the back pages of the newspapers of the day, in the columns headed “Medical”, you begin to get an idea, because there are rows of brief, cryptically worded advertisements:
Ladies – My New Female Pills Restore Regularity instantly, no matter what has failed. Post 5s.6d. Prof.W.W.Garfield, Collins St, Melbourne.
Dr. Rock’s Reliable Female Pills Never Fail: They act like Magic. 5s 6d per box. Extra strong 10s. 6d. Post Free, under cover from 436 Oxford St, Paddington.
NURSE RAY receives Patients for Medical Surgery and Midwifery. Doctors attend daily. Beauchamp, Edgecliffe road, Woollahra. Tel. 18 Wav.
LADIES- For safe and successful treatment in all cases, call at Nurse Pender’s Reg. Lying-in Hospital, 142 Glenmore Rd, Glenmore. Bus passes door.
LADIES. Your Troubles at an End by Applying to MADAME ORME, M.D., SYDNEY’S ONLY LADY SPECIALIST, for a list of her REMEDIES and genuine testimonials, FAILURE IMPOSSIBLE….279 Elizabeth St, Hyde Park. (Evening News, 10 March, 1900.)
As hopeful and reassuring as these advertisements must have sounded to a nineteen-year-old in trouble, the reality was, of course, very different. “Many a girl, more sinned against than sinning, has cause to regret that she ever read of the “magic female pills” or the “regularity restored without pain” business,” railed Truth newspaper (12 August, 1900). “The pills contain either ergot, tansy, iron, cottonweed, permanganate of potash, or pennyroyal, and science teaches that none of these things…will wreck the course of nature of themselves. It’s all a fallacy and women should be taught to know it.”
If the magic pills failed, as they did invariably, what next? What of the kindly-sounding nurses, offering safety and “success,” even convenience (“bus passes door”), in the privacy and comfort of their homes? Many of these nurses appeared again and again at the inquests of those who had died from the effects of abortion. Nurse Ray (“receives patients for medical surgery and midwifery”) was called at the inquest for Alice Hutchinson (aged 19, domestic servant), who died of “acute pleurisy and heart failure,” or at least so stated her death certificate. When the Coroner got wind of the fact that an illegal abortion had taken place, he had the funeral stopped, the body returned to the morgue and a post-mortem conducted – it was found, unsurprisingly, that the young woman had died of septic peritonitis following an abortion. And the illustriously-titled Madame Orme M.D., Sydney’s Only Lady Specialist (real name: Rosaline Brown), had only a couple of weeks prior to the publication of the advertisement above, appeared at the inquest of Elizabeth Billington, a widow with five children, found dead after apparently administering to herself an injection of fluids. A box of powders, an instrument and printed material bearing the name of Madame Orme M.D. had been found in her bedroom. At the inquest, Rosaline Brown underwent the following interrogation:
“The Coroner: What is the meaning of “M.D.”?
Witness: There is no special significance in the letters “M.D.” They are used more for attraction than anything else.
The Coroner: Have you ever studied medicine or drugs of any kind? For instance, can you tell me anything about permanganate of potash?
Witness: No, sir. I have studied medical books.
The Coroner: Have you had any special training?
Witness: No, sir.” (Truth 11 March, 1900)
Madame Orme M.D. was just twenty years old and had started her business at the age of seventeen.
Given the grave physical danger associated with undergoing an abortion at that time, it’s not surprising that some women with sufficient means sought out that rare creature, a qualified doctor who was willing to perform what was, of course, an illegal procedure. The NSW Crimes Act 1900, still in effect today, states that supplying “any drug or noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever” for the purpose of procuring an abortion is punishable by imprisonment for up to five years. (The woman herself could face a prison term of ten years.) Consequently, these doctors did not, of course, advertise themselves. How did these women find them? It must have been almost entirely word of mouth. For going back to that list of ten women who died in a period of just over nine months in 1903/1904, four of them – Elizabeth Booth, Fanny Foster, Ellen Prendergast and Amelia Lynch - had been treated by Dr Frederick Marshall, a respected Sydney doctor with rooms on Macquarie Street.
My interest piqued by the recurrence of Dr. Marshall’s name, I dug a little deeper and found, to my mounting horror, that in the space of just over four years, between 1901 and 1905, Dr Marshall was implicated in the deaths of eight women and faced serious charges in the cases of another two women who had almost died – all from the effects of abortion. On every occasion but one, juries failed to convict him of wrongdoing.
Pause here to stare at a photo of Dr Marshall, which the internet obligingly offers up. He cuts a dashing figure, sporting a dark moustache – his expression (am I imagining this?) a little arrogant, even disdainful. With a track record of so many deaths, each well-publicised in the newspapers, why did women continue to go to him? More to the point, given, at the very least, the legal peril he faced so regularly, why did he continue to offer abortions? Was it financially lucrative? (It was. “The cash gains are enormous, and the risk is ridiculously small,” declared the Australian Star 8/6/1888. “It is no secret that practitioners are known to make yearly thousands by this species of industry.”) Or, to take a more charitable view, was he simply unable to say no to a woman who came to him in trouble?
The first case in which Dr. Marshall found himself in significant difficulty was in in April, 1901, when a young woman named Florence Treffeny made a dying deposition as she hovered between life and death in Prince Alfred Hospital. She claimed that Dr. Marshall had unlawfully used an instrument with intent to bring about that overworked euphemism, “a certain event”. He was promptly arrested and taken to the hospital.(Incredibly, when a witness had given a dying deposition, the accused was afforded the opportunity to cross-examine her). En route Dr. Marshall became suddenly unwell, necessitating a stop at a hotel for a couple of fortifying brandies. (One can’t help but marvel at how obliging the accompanying detectives were to accommodate this request.)
“He was taken to the girl’s bedside, and said to her, “Did you ever see me before?” Miss Treffeny replied, “Yes, at the surgery, 229 Macquarie St.” After leaving the hospital, accused said, “No, I never saw her; she is telling lies. She has a bad chin.” (Truth, 6/10/1901.)
Presumably, in this golden age of phrenology, a “bad chin” was a sign of poor character. Eventually Dr. Marshall conceded that he may have treated her for catarrh.
Florence Treffeny did not die, however, and when she was finally well enough, some months later, for the case to go to trial, she showed a sudden reluctance to co-operate. Her answers to questioning were almost inaudible; sometimes she would barely shake her head in response.
“His Honor: What is it that is frightening you?
Witness replied that nothing was frightening her…
His Honor: You have sworn to tell the truth and the whole truth. It is time I warned you. You must not hold anything back.
Witness remarked that her memory had not been good since her illness.
Mr Wade: What illness?
Witness: The illness after Dr Marshall attended me.” (Telegraph 4/10/1901.)
Dr Marshall’s barrister, Mr J.C. Gannon, “in the course of two hours vigorous speech, ridiculed the idea of a medical man of Dr Marshall’s standing jeopardising his position and liberty… He asked the jury to weigh the clean, highly-skilled experience of the doctor with the hysterical statement of an unfortunate girl who now could not remember what she had said. There was no evidence of miscarriage, and if there had been it might have been occasioned by the girl toying with herself.” (Truth 6/10/1901.)
In his summing up, the judge warned the jury that it would be a very dangerous thing to convict Dr. Marshall without corroboration of events. After a brief deliberation, the jury found Dr. Marshall not guilty.
“I know I refused to examine her unless in some friend’s presence,” Dr. Marshall said in an unsworn statement at the Florence Treffeny trial. “It is dangerous for a medical man to do so sometimes, although I know eminent medical men in Sydney who would rather be alone when examining a woman in order to avoid a blackmailing conspiracy that might be trumped up if there were a witness present.” (Truth 6/10/1901.)
Well, Dr. Marshall would know: he had himself very recently scraped through a blackmailing attempt by an angry husband whose wife had just died.
Emily Ritchie, aged 40, mother of five, died in June 1901, from a haemorrhage after an extended period of being treated by Dr. Marshall. Her husband, unable to pay for the funeral, had demanded £500 of Dr Marshall, knowing full well that the Florence Treffeny case was at the time hanging over his head. “Go to the devil; I will not be blackmailed by any d------- scoundrel,” retorted Marshall, adding that he’d have him arrested if he called upon him again. (Evening News 16/7/1901.) The newspaper articles covering the inquest make fascinating reading for the oblique detail they provide on Marshall’s modus operandi, in testimony from Emily Ritchie’s married daughter, Winnifred Helton, who had accompanied her mother on her visits to Dr. Marshall:
“At the end of April, Dr. Marshall examined her mother, who paid him £2 2s. Witness was present during the examination. They remained only about five or ten minutes altogether. They went to see the doctor three days later, when, in answer to an inquiry, her mother told Dr. Marshall that she was not getting on very well and felt very bad. Witness then described what she saw the doctor do. She accompanied her mother to the surgery about a week after that, when Dr. Marshall gave her certain instructions, and told her to call and see him again if a certain thing did not happen. Four days later, witness went once more with her mother to the surgery, but Dr. Marshall was not there. They waited for four hours, then went away without seeing him. That was on a Saturday. On the following Monday she went with her mother to see the doctor again. He said he was in a hurry then and asked her mother to come and see him by-and-bye. They returned the same night but did not see the doctor. On the following morning they went to the surgery again, when Dr. Marshall used the same instrument on her mother as before.” (Evening News 16/7/1901.)
Shortly thereafter, Emily Ritchie became gravely ill. She asked her daughter to get Nurse Mayne, who Dr Marshall had recommended if he was unavailable. “Dr Marshall came a little later and whilst he was examining her mother she groaned very much with pain. Once the doctor said to her mother, “Hold your d------ tongue: do you want the neighbours to hear you?” and the nurse slipped some of the bedclothes over her mother’s mouth in order that she would not make a noise.” (Evening News 16/7/1901.) Within a day or so, Emily Ritchie was dead.
Unable to sleep at night thinking about her mother’s terrible death, Winnifred finally told her father what had transpired. He immediately seized the opportunity to try to extort £500 from Dr. Marshall, and this prompted a panicked visit to Winnifred in the middle of the night:
“Her husband and she heard a knocking from about 2 o’clock to 3.30 a.m. At last her husband went to the door, and as it was opened Dr. Marshall came in. He said he wanted to see witness, and he was shown into the room where she was in bed. He complained about her father having made a noise about the case, and said to her, “If you stick with me, I’ll stick to you.” He asked her not to give any information about the instrument to the police if they came to her…. Before finally leaving the place, Dr. Marshall asked her not to mention to anybody – not even her father – that he had been there.”
(Reading this, one can’t help wondering if Florence Treffeny had received a similar pre-dawn visit from the doctor, hence her sudden unwillingness to testify.)
“The Coroner: You say the doctor treated your mother twelve months ago?
The Coroner: What was that for? Witness: The same thing.
The Coroner: Did the doctor ever treat you?
The Coroner: Mind, you have been cautioned: you need not answer any question you think might incriminate you.
Witness: I must speak the truth….
The Coroner: Well, what did he treat you for?
Witness: The same thing.
The Coroner: How long ago was that? Witness: About eight months ago.
The Coroner: Did you pay him anything for it?
Witness: Yes; five guineas.” (Evening News. 16/7/1901.)
Ultimately, despite what seems like plenty of corroborative evidence from Winnifred Helton, the jury was unable to agree upon a verdict and was subsequently discharged. The Attorney-General declined to pursue the matter further and Dr Marshall continued to practise.
In fact, his business appeared to be booming.
“There were 13 or 14 persons waiting – all of them being either young girls or middle-aged women. On no occasion when they visited the place did witness see any men waiting about.” (Evening News 16/7/1901.)
So Winnifred Helton described the crowd in Dr. Marshall’s waiting room. Perhaps one of these women was Clara Chivers (27 years), who died weeks later of blood poisoning, having been treated by Dr. Marshall. At her inquest, the jury delivered an open verdict. Another of his patients, May Palmer (30 years) died in December, 1902, at the home of the previously-mentioned Nurse Mayne. (Although married, Dr. Marshall admitted to occasionally residing at Nurse Mayne’s place.) “The jury found that death was due to septicaemia following upon a certain event, but whether that event was brought about naturally or artificially the evidence did not enable them to state.” (Australian Star 22/12/1902.) A year later, in December 1903, Elizabeth Booth (27 years, married with 3 children) died, having been attended by Dr. Marshall, apparently in the very house where he lived in Rushcutters Bay. Once again, the jury brought an open verdict, and Dr. Marshall was free to continue practising.
Within days of the Elizabeth Booth verdict, nineteen-year-old Fanny Foster died. On discovering that she was pregnant, a friend had recommended that she see Dr. Marshall, but her mother (who must have read the newspapers) strongly advised her against it. Fanny managed to get hold of ten shillings and went to see Dr. Marshall anyway, but she was turned away after being told it was not enough money. Somehow, she must have got hold of the required amount, because ultimately Dr. Marshall did treat her and three weeks later, she was dead. “The jury returned a verdict that death was due to septic peritonitis, following on a certain event, but how that certain event occurred they were unable to say.” (Australian Star, 18/12/1903.)
Less than three months later, Dr. Marshall was back in the newspapers. “MEDICO MARSHALL: IS HE AN ABORTIONIST?” demanded Truth (6/3/1904), finally asking what everyone surely had already concluded. Dr. Marshall was charged with having unlawfully used an instrument with intent to procure a miscarriage on Elsie Burgess, 22 years old, recently arrived in Sydney from a convent in Bathurst. Elsie had tried pills first, but when they failed, she had gone to see Dr. Marshall:
“He said, “You won’t tell anyone if I do something for you?” She said, “No, certainly not.” Witness got on a couch, and he told her to turn well on her left side. He then used an instrument which felt like a pair of pincers…. She saw him the following Saturday in the evening. She said she had been vomiting, and he said, “Take a good dose of salts and use a syringe.”… She paid the accused 16s 6d.” (Truth 6/3/1904.)
Elsie’s condition worsened and finally she was admitted to Prince Alfred Hospital, suffering the effects of an incomplete abortion and blood poisoning. She was operated upon and eventually recovered. It appears that a police detective may have talked her into giving evidence against Dr. Marshall, but without warning her that she might herself be prosecuted. She was also required to give her sexual history in court:
“She had known the man three weeks when intercourse took place. He met her in the street, said he had just come from Melbourne, and thought he knew her. Intercourse with him took place in the Waverley Park on the second occasion on which she went out with him. It was the very first time any man had had intercourse with her.” (Truth 6/3/1904).
Dr. Marshall declared himself to be “absolutely innocent”. In yet another unsworn statement, he divulged that Elsie Burgess had “asked him to do something for her. Witness was annoyed, and cleared her out, quick and lively because he had a crowd of patients waiting, and he did not like to be asked to do such a thing. His Honor said that if the jury had a reasonable doubt they must give the benefit of it to the prisoner. The girl was unquestionably, according to her own evidence, an accomplice, and it was quite open to them to refuse to believe her because she was a criminal herself.” (Truth 10/4/1904.)
The jury acquitted Dr. Marshall. As to what happened to Elsie Burgess, I have not been able to discover if she was ever charged or convicted.
“There were about thirty people in the hall – nearly all women.” (Truth 6/3/1904)
So Elsie Burgess described the waiting area at Dr. Marshall’s surgery, and one’s heart sinks at the thought that, if waiting room attendances were a reliable measure, Dr. Marshall’s business seemed to have doubled. Far from scaring women off, perhaps this regular succession of inquests worked as a means of advertising his services. For within three months, Dr. Marshall was again implicated in the death of a young woman in “mysterious circumstances.” Ellen Prendergast was 27 years old, and worked as a servant for the McPherson family, of Glebe. When the young man of the household heard her groaning in pain at three in the morning, he gave her brandy and sent for her mother. Ellen told her mother that she had seen Dr. Marshall “for her leg,” but that she did not know what was the matter with her. Too ill to make her way back to his surgery, telegrams were sent to Dr. Marshall, but he failed to come. The next day, Ellen somehow found her way back to him. At the inquest, Dr. Marshall gave the following testimony:
“Of course, I could see from her appearance that she was ill,” he continued, “and I took her pulse, which was very feeble, put the stethoscope on her heart and found it was weak, and from the symptoms I came to the conclusion that she had haemorrhage….I could see she had lost blood , so I said, “If there is anything wrong with you, you must give me the whole of the symptoms before I can proceed to treat you.” She then told him certain things, and he had reason to believe she might have had a miscarriage…. He asked her if she had been under
any medical man or nurse. “She answered me evasively,” he continued, “and told me she had taken drugs.” He told her he would not treat her unless she went to a hospital or lying-in home, and he gave her the address of Nurse Starkey, “a good little nurse”, in Macquarie St. “As the woman was dying on her feet… he thought it was only an act of humanity to see what he could do for her.” (Australian Star 22/6/1904.)
Somehow, with her feeble pulse, “dying on her feet”, Ellen Prendergast managed to get to Nurse Starkey’s house. She told Nurse Starkey that Dr. Marshall had sent her, and that he would be around shortly. “When the doctor arrived, he said something about what the deceased wanted done to her, and a nurse said she had a certain thing for the purpose…. the doctor did something and left.” (Australian Star 21/6/1904.) Ellen Prendergast was dead within hours.
When the police called upon Dr. Marshall to inform him of Ellen Prendergast’s death, he remarked that “women did certain things and came to him when they were nearly dead, to be cured.” (Australian Star 21/6/1904.) Reading that, I wondered if it was true, and if this explained his high mortality rate. Had Ellen Prendergast gone elsewhere for the abortion, or even “toyed with herself”, thus inducing a haemorrhage and leaving Dr. Marshall having to attempt to curette her in “an act of humanity”? I suppose it’s possible. But then I remembered that Ellen had told her mother she had been to see Dr. Marshall “about her leg.” And in fact, Dr. Marshall would often use this as his defence: that he was simply mopping up as best as he could after somebody else had wrought all the damage.
After a very brief deliberation, the jury delivered an open verdict at the Prendergast inquest. And with sickening predictability, three months later Dr. Marshall was back in court. This time, it was over the death of Amelia Lynch, the seventh of the eight women in whose deaths he was implicated. But this time, evident especially in the testimony of other doctors, there seems to have been a will to finally convict the man.
Amelia Lynch (“Millie”), 26 years of age, a dressmaker from Young, had travelled to Sydney on the 8.30 a.m. train, ostensibly to do some dress-making work in the city. Within a week or so, her brother Arthur, who lived at Enfield, received a telegram that his sister was ill, and to go to Nurse Mayne’s house. There Millie told her brother that she had fallen and hurt herself, and not to send word home as she was feeling much better. Arthur asked Nurse Mayne if he could get another doctor in to see her, but Nurse Mayne assured Arthur that Dr. Marshall was treating her and that she was getting every care and attention.
“Next morning, he received a wire, “Sister dying. Nurse Mayne.” The time on the telegram was 9.15. When he arrived, his sister was dead, and when he asked at what time she had died, he was told 9.15. Witness said, “At exactly the time you sent the telegram.” She replied, “Yes.” He had instructed Nurse Mayne to send for him should any change take place, and to call in another doctor. He asked her why she had not done as he desired. She said she had knocked up three doctors, but none would come. Dr. Fred Marshall was with her for two or three hours. Nurse Mayne gave him Dr. Marshall’s certificate of death… she said Dr. Fred Marshall was a legally qualified medical man, and they could not question the certificate.” (Australian Star, 30/8/1904.)
On the death certificate, Dr. Marshall had stated that Amelia Lynch had died from septic peritonitis following a miscarriage. The Coroner regarded this certificate very dubiously:
“They had been told by Dr. Marshall himself that septic peritonitis was more often the result of criminal efforts to secure an abortion. What were his reasons in giving a certificate? Was he afraid that a public inquiry into the circumstances of her death would get him into trouble?” (Sydney Morning Herald, 9/9/1904).
Well, yes, he was afraid, and he had good reason to be this time. The post-mortem had revealed that Amelia Lunch suffered a serious perforation to the uterus.
Dr. Marshall’s panic is evident in his attempt to have the inquest postponed as “his wife was in such a critical state of health that he might be called to her bedside at any moment.” (Australian Star, 2/9/1904.) The City Coroner showed a marked reluctance to accommodate this request and demanded more evidence of Mrs Marshall’s condition. In the meantime, he heard testimony from Nurse Mayne, who stated firmly that she did not receive cases that were the result of abortion. And here the ghosts of May Palmer and Emily Ritchie rose up to disprove her, for she was reminded of her involvement in the deaths of these two women by the Coroner.
The next witness called was a young woman named Elizabeth Pound, a paying lodger at Nurse Mayne’s house at the time. Elizabeth Pound is an interesting witness, as she was sharing a house in Rushcutters Bay with Dr. Marshall at the time of the death of Elizabeth Booth, only eight months previously – in fact, she gave evidence in defence of Dr. Marshall at that
inquest. “She had known Dr. Marshall for seven years… Dr Marshall had helped her in her studies as a nurse. She was studying from books, and the doctor took her out to three accouchement cases.” (Australian Star 2/9/1904.) Dr. Marshall went on to marry her in March 1906.
Elisabeth Pound gave evidence that she had shown Amelia Lynch to her room when she first turned up at Nurse Mayne’s house:
“She was very white and said she was cold. She asked for a glass of milk or a cup of tea. She looked ill, and weak and pale, but it did not appear to the witness that she had recently given birth to a child.” She described how Dr. Marshall had visited over ensuing days, and that Amelia had taken a bad turn in the early hours of Saturday morning. “Witness ran out for doctors at half past one on Saturday morning. She ran to College St, and rang the bell of the first house, but got no answer. She then rang the bell of another house but got no answer there. She did not know the names of the doctors whose bells she rang. Then she went to Dr. Marshall. She did not see him but saw Miss Marshall and she said that she would send the doctor down. Dr. Marshall came at 2.” (Australian Star 2/9/1904.)
And at this point, the inquest was adjourned, as the Coroner had received confirmation that Mrs Marshall was very seriously ill. However, when the inquest was resumed a week a later, the Coroner was clearly furious that the adjournment had been granted on false pretexts. “All I know is that the statement made then has since been discovered to be without foundation, and if I had known as much then as I know now I should not have called the adjournment.” (Australian Star 8/9/1904.) It seems that Mrs Marshall was not to so critically ill as she had been made out to be. (In fact, she died six months later.)
Nurse Mayne was promptly recalled:
“The Coroner: You first discovered the existence of peritonitis on the Wednesday. Did you communicate the fact to Dr. Marshall?”
Did he examine her? – Yes.
And did he say anything as to the existence of peritonitis? – He said he did not think it was anything serious…
In answer to further questions, the witness said that Dr. Marshall did not use forceps.
The Coroner: On this point you have made three different statements. First, you said that he did; then you said you did not know whether he did or not; and now you say definitely that he did not. These are three different statements. Now which is true? – He did not use the forceps.” (Australian Star 8/9/1904.)
The evidence is a little hard to make sense of at times as the newspapers are coy about naming the instruments referred to. “Frederick William Marshall, re-called, denied having used a certain instrument on the deceased. He produced the instrument that he had used on the Saturday and said that he did not use any other instrument.” (Australian Star 8/9/1904.) Possibly the instrument he produced was a flushing curette, a surgical hand tool with a small scoop at the end, used for uterine scraping of ‘retained products’; that is, placental or fetal tissue remaining in the uterus after a miscarriage or abortion.
Whichever instrument was used, Amelia suffered a devastating injury. Dr. G.H. Taylor, Government Medical Officer, described the perforation to her uterus as “about an inch in diameter. It was fairly circular with ragged edges. The wound could have been caused by the instrument produced. The interior appeared to have been scraped …. The perforation showed that an unusual amount of violence had been used.” (Sydney Morning Herald 9/9/1904.) Dr. Sydney Jamieson, a physician of over 16 years’ experience and a specialist in pathology, stated that if the organ was septic, “it was bad treatment because it was recognised that there was a danger of perforation in using an instrument. If it was not septic, great force must have been used to cause the wound.” (Sydney Morning Herald 9/9/1904.) He went on to say that any medical man would know if he had made a perforation, and if he didn’t, it showed a great lack of skill. He should then have got the patient to hospital, his failure to do so constituting “gross inattention.”
This was the first time that other doctors had openly criticised Dr. Marshall’s ability, and they did so vehemently. The idea of violence and force used against this poor, weakened young woman (her request for a glass of milk or a cup of tea particularly poignant) must have resonated. The jury returned a verdict that Amelia Lynch had died from septic peritonitis following a certain event, and that her death was accelerated by the gross carelessness and unskilful treatment of Dr. Marshall.
“The Coroner (to the foreman): Did you understand my definition of malpractice?
The Foreman: Yes.
The Coroner: Then you find Dr. Marshall guilty of manslaughter?
The Foreman: Yes.
Dr. Marshall was then committed for trial.” (Sydney Morning Herald 9/9/1904.)
Dr. Marshall’s manslaughter trial commenced later that same month, but not before he was hauled over the coals at the District Court for having attempted to do a runner. Arrested by the bailiff for having “ignored certain court procedures” (what these procedures were is unclear, but one wonders if he was unable to cough up his £300 bail), Dr. Marshall had told the bailiff he was ill, and needed to go to the lavatory. He then “slipped away”, evading arrest for some time. “The court cannot be played with in that way,” thundered the judge. “The bailiff should not have been deceived in that fashion.” (Evening News 26/9/1904.) Clearly things were beginning to seriously unravel for the doctor. On the first morning of the trial, his barrister, the beleaguered Mr. Gannon, failed to show because he had not yet received his money.
The trial lasted several days, with various leading specialists brought in to give their professional opinions. Dr Joseph Foreman, a Macquarie St specialist in women’s diseases, stated that the wound to the uterus “indicated gross carelessness or ignorance on the part of the medical practitioner responsible.” (Daily Telegraph 28/9/1904/).
“(His Honor): If an ordinary medical man made that puncture, that rupture, would he have known it? – Certainly.
If he did not know it, what would it show? – Ignorance.
What kind of ignorance? – Culpable ignorance.” (Australian Star 27/9/1904)
Even more damning was the following statement by Dr Sydney Jamieson:
“Witness said that he thought the organ must have been septic for the instrument to have perforated it, unless the curetting instrument had been used by a grossly ignorant or intoxicated person.” (Daily Telegraph 28/9/1904.)
Dr Marshall made a lengthy statement from the dock:
“He had studied in Edinburgh, Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Budapest and London… He had been for three years district surgeon of the Sydney Hospital, having treated 16,700 cases there. On Saturday, August 20, Nurse Mayne had sent for him to see a patient…he found a girl suffering from severe bleeding. There was no time to send for another medical man and the only thing he could do – and it was an act of humanity – was to stop the haemorrhage… On the following Tuesday he saw her, and he noticed indications that there might be septic trouble. He used a douche but did not curette… On Wednesday she seemed to have improved. She did not exhibit any septic trouble until Friday August 26… On the Saturday morning, continued the accused, he was called to see the deceased at 2 o’clock. She was very hysterical but seemed better when he left her. Her pulse was then normal. The next information he got was at 9 or 10 o’clock on the telephone, it being stated that she had collapsed and died at 9 o’clock… It would be impossible for him, with his experience, to have made that puncture. “I am inclined to think,” said the accused, “that the puncture may have been caused during the post-mortem.” (Daily Telegraph 29/9/1904.)
The idea that the puncture could have been caused during the post-mortem was promptly shot down by Dr Taylor and Dr Palmer, both recalled separately by the Solicitor-General. In response to another question, they answered that it would have been impossible for Amelia Lynch to have had a normal pulse at 2 a.m. on the morning of her death, but that it would have been rapid, a characteristic symptom of septic peritonitis. Dr. Marshall had either not known this fact or ignored its significance, because at that point, if not earlier, the young woman should have been taken to hospital.
Locked up overnight, the gentlemen of the jury could not agree on a verdict, and the next morning assured the judge that there was no possible chance they would ever agree. They were subsequently discharged. The case was set for a re-trial in November, but in fact did not go ahead until June of the following year.
In the second trial, the medical experts – clearly desperate for a conviction - pulled no punches:
“Mr Pollock: After such an injury had been caused, what should a medical man do?
Dr Foreman: Assistance should be called in to see what could be done, and an operation should follow…
Supposing that he knew what had been done and did not take this course, what would that show? – A great want of humanity, and disregard for the life of the patient.”
And this from Dr. Jamieson, who had previously hinted that perhaps Dr. Marshall had been intoxicated:
Mr Pollock: What did such an injury on the part of the operator indicate?
Dr Jamieson: Either gross ignorance of the anatomy of the part, carelessness, or, to be more charitable, one might say that a man producing it was under the influence of a drug, and not in possession of his senses.” (Evening News 7/6/1905.)
Dr. Marshall - desperate to stay out of gaol – let out all stops in his statement from the dock:
“I was called in after midnight,” said the accused, “By Nurse Mayne to go and see a patient in her house at Palmer Street. Being her family doctor, and having attended cases with her on many occasions, I went there without asking any questions. When I got there I found a young woman lying in bed…. I thought that I should enjoy the privilege and honour of saving her life, thinking I was serving the best interests of humanity. I pulled off my coat, rolled up my sleeves, and tried to save that woman from death – from imminent death…
“And,” went on the accused, “because I risked my liberty to save a life, I am persecuted by these trials at a time after I had met with a serious accident and had suffered from spinal meningitis. When I came back, it was only to see my wife die, and in three or four weeks – nay, not so much as four weeks – I am called upon after her death to present myself to this court to be tried on a charge of which I am entirely innocent...” (Evening News 8/6/1905.)
It took the jury two hours to find Dr. Marshall not guilty of manslaughter, and he was accordingly discharged. And almost unbelievably, just five months later he was back in court, this time charged with murder. Martha Walker, head nurse at Gladesville Asylum, engaged to be married, had died of septicaemia. Before she died, she made a dying deposition in which she described her difficulty in seeing Dr. Marshall, owing to the police presence now maintained outside his premises. Instead, she had rented a room at the home of a nurse, Mrs Steppe, and sent a telegram to her fiancé, Andrew Moorhead, asking him to fetch Dr. Marshall. They paid Dr. Marshall £10 in two £5 notes. She was six months pregnant. At the trial, the judge deemed the dying deposition inadmissible on a technicality – a copy of it had not been presented to Dr. Marshall upon his arrest. Once again, he was acquitted.
And here the brutal tally comes to an end, or at least as far as I can tell. Just after his acquittal in March 1906, a small, sinister advertisement appears in the Sydney Morning Herald (!9/4/1906), under Professions, Trades Etc:
“Dr Fred Marshall has resumed practice at Bengal House, 23 Jamieson St, nr Hunter St.”
But - perhaps mercifully - shortly thereafter he was declared bankrupt:
“His bankruptcy was caused by falling off of his business, caused by being prosecuted on several occasions for manslaughter, and other offences, and police having been stationed in front of his place taking notes of everyone who came to him. He had a big practice amongst the Chinese, and the Chinese refused to come to him when they saw the police in front of his place.” (Evening News 6/6/1906.)
He died in December 1906, of epileptic seizures. He was forty-eight years old.
Of course, I feel no sympathy for Dr. Marshall. Reading through all those inquest details, I have formed the impression that he was in the game for money – separated from his first wife, he seemed to have several households to support, and the abortion trade was known to be highly profitable. I have a sneaking suspicion that he may have been an opium addict, and I wonder if that is what Dr. Jamieson was alluding to in his remarks at the Amelia Lynch trial. But in any case, it’s plain to see from the way he spoke to Emily Ritchie (“shut your d-------mouth”) and the terrible injury that he wreaked upon Amelia Lynch that he was rough and careless at best and treated these women with contempt. And how chillingly cavalier it seems to lurch from inquest to inquest, one dead girl after another, only apparently ever lamenting the eventual drop-off in his business. These women died in agony, awash with blood. Why did he not stop?
And why was he not stopped? Why was he never convicted, despite at times overwhelming evidence against him? Why all those open verdicts and acquittals? Why did the police have to ultimately resort to maintaining a presence outside his premises, armed with notebooks, in the hope of deterring would-be patients? “It is almost impossible to get a conviction, even in the most flagrant cases” lamented Australian Star (8/6/1888), ‘because the bars to the proof of the technical case are almost insuperable.” And certainly, the fact that the women often told stories to conceal the true cause of their sufferings did not help matters. But even beyond the onerous burden of proof required to convict, perhaps something else was at play. This small quote from the inquest into the death of Emily Ritchie, in the testimony of her daughter, Winnifred Helton, sheds some light on the matter:
“Her mother told her she thought she would be all right, but if she did not recover she wished witness never to say a word against the doctor.” (Evening News 16/7/1901.)
After all, Dr. Marshall had given her an abortion before, successfully; he’d given Winnifred Helton an abortion. He had told Emily Ritchie to shut her d------- mouth when she groaned with pain, but she still wanted to protect him – even though she must have suspected by then that she wasn’t going to recover. The fact is, he was providing – albeit ineptly and dangerously – a necessary service. His waiting rooms were filled with anxious women guarding their shameful secrets. All they had to do, apart from hand over the necessary cash, of course, and pray that it turned out all right, was promise him that they wouldn’t tell anyone. The risk was worthwhile, it seemed, when the alternative was disposing of a newborn in a sewer or a drain.
“It is all very well for grim lawyers and stern moralists to shriek at the deeds of the abortionist, but the public, from whom the juries are drafted, look at the terrible amount of shame and ruin and heartbreak and suicide and hellish-cruel bastardy that is spared by abortion, and it is a very hard thing to find twelve citizens of this advanced age who will convict the abortionist.” (Truth 5/3/1899)
First published in Choice Words: A Collection of Writing About Abortion. Edited by Louise Swinn. Allen and Unwin, 2019.