Last week I gave a presentation on “Talking about Abortion in the Age of Trump” for a panel for the Sigerist Circle at the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine.
I discussed a public history project I did for the Isham-Terry House, a historic house museum in Hartford administered by Connecticut Landmarks. I started by explaining,
“What is Public History?”
The National Council on Public History (NCPH) “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.” The NCPH mission is to “inspire public engagement with the past and serve the needs of practitioners in putting history to work in the world by building community among historians, expanding professional skills and tools, fostering critical reflection on historical practice, and publicly advocating for history and historians.”
The NCPH blog, “History@Work” provides “an online venue where people from around the field of public history could share ideas and news. Like the field itself, the blog aims to blend scholarly, professional, and civic discussion arising from the practice of presenting history in public.”
The theme for this year’s NCPH annual meeting in Hartford was “repair work.” This theme invited us to consider the various ways in which public historians labor to mend, to rebuild and reclaim, and to heal.
International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
One of the highlights of the meeting was the plenary session on Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford. Coltsville preserves and interprets the factory, worker housing, and owner residences associate with Samuel Colt, known for his innovations in precision manufacturin and production of firearms
The plenary was led by Sarah Pharaon from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which is a global network of historic sites, museums, and memory sites that connect past struggles with today’s movements for human rights.
A Site of Conscience is a place of memory – such as a historic site, place-based museum or memorial – that prevents the erasure of a historic event in order to ensure a more just and humane future.
Not only do Sites of Conscience provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories, but they enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues.
Coltsville commemorates a time when manufacturing provided jobs for Hartford residents, but it’s also located in a city with a long history of gun violence and an hour’s drive from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Women’s history sites of conscience include the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum and the Women’s Rights National Historic Park
The ICSOC website offers resources for historic sites to engage in community dialogues. Front Page Dialogues are designed to serve as models to help our members generate conversations about relevant issues as they emerge. As rapid response tools, they are intended to help Sites of Conscience respond to community needs in a timely manner, providing a guide for engaging visitors in dialogue and action on pressing events in real time. Their newest dialogue model offers thoughts on how to engage visitors in discussions surrounding the recent Women’s March on Washington and women’s rights more generally.
The Isham-Terry House and the Hartford Heritage Project
The Isham-Terry House is a historic house museum in Hartford administered by Connecticut Landmarks, described as “The lone survivor of a once vibrant Hartford neighborhood, the Isham-Terry House is a time capsule of the genteel lifestyle of turn-of-the century Hartford.” In 1896, Dr. Oliver Isham purchased the 1854 Italianate house for his medical practice and as a home for himself, his parents and his three younger sisters.
Two of his sisters, Julia and Charlotte, lived in the house until their deaths in the 1970s and fiercely resisted the “urban renewal” that destroyed the rest of the neighborhood to build interstate 84 through the city. Their interest in historic preservation led them to donate their family home to Connecticut Landmarks. The sisters also carefully preserved Dr. Isham’s medical office, with surgical instruments and medicines. Connecticut Landmarks has adopted the International Sites of Conscience dialogues as a platform for community outreach.
The Isham-Terry House is one of the sites used by the Hartford Heritage Project for its place-based education (PBE) initiative. PBE takes the place where a school is located and incorporates it into the curriculum. Thus, museums, historical societies, parks, community centers, care facilities, local businesses, government agencies, and other valuable community resources become extensions of the classroom. This gives students a practical and local context for knowledge learned in their courses, and it makes the school a vital part of the life of the community.
The nursing faculty at Capital Community College uses the Isham-Terry house as part of their clinical experience. The purpose of this experience is to:
- Highlight medical/nursing care in the late 19thcentury/early 20thcentury and compare to modern day care.
- Discuss early 20th Century bioethics and medical law and relate to contemporary health care.
- Explore the implements, archives and treatments of late 19th century/early 20th century medical practice.
- Experience the history involved in the Isham Terry House.
- Participate in Capital Community College’s Hartford Heritage Project
At the end of the experience the students are asked to write a reflection discussing
- the evolution of medical/nursing care from 19th century nursing practice to modern day medical/nursing practice in relation to the concepts of wellness, prevention and infection protection.
- The ethics and morals as relating to ethical dilemmas in medical/nursing practice.
About a year ago, the director of the Hartford Heritage Project, the CCC nursing faculty, and the museum educator from Connecticut Landmarks asked me to do research into criminal charges against Dr. Isham for performing abortion. The museum educator told me that despite the adoption of Sites of Conscience dialogues, the executive director at Connecticut Landmarks was “not ready for us to touch the abortion issue” and instructed staff not to mention it on tours. The nursing faculty were already aware of the abortion issue because they had found newspaper articles and brought it up with the staff at Isham-Terry House. The house did not have any interpretive materials pertaining to the abortion issue so they asked me to do research into this and provide some guidance for the nursing faculty on how to present the topic in an accurate and sensitive fashion.
I wrote this report for the nursing faculty and suggested they could use this to open up a conversation about abortion with nursing students.
Doctor Oliver Isham and Abortion in Early Twentieth-Century Hartford
The charges against Dr. Isham occurred at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States. Prior to the mid nineteenth century, abortion was legal until “quickening,” or the period when the mother could feel the fetus moving inside her. By the 1880s, all states, including Connecticut, had passed laws outlawing abortion entirely. The only exception was a “therapeutic abortion” was deemed necessary to save the life of the mother. Nevertheless, women continued to seek abortions, and these procedures were regularly performed in by midwives, physicians, and lay women. The domestic location of medical care, as evidenced by Dr. Isham’s practice, helped keep abortion an “open secret” in the early twentieth century.
During the Fall of 1904, the Hartford Medical Society Board of Censors received a complaint from one of their “most respected members” that Dr. Isham “was indulging in improper and criminal practices.” The Board let the matter drop after Dr. Isham submitted a written statement that “he was not guilty, nor would he ever be guilty as long as he was a member of this Society.”
A year later the Board received more complaints and became “convinced beyond any possibility of a doubt” that Isham had “engaged extensively in criminal abortions for the past several years, and that by so doing he has been an embarrassing disappointment to those who helped him in his early life; a blot upon the reputation of the Alumni of the Hartford Hospital; a disgrace to the medical profession and the Medical Society of this city, and source of dangerous menace to the moral welfare of this community.”
The Board added, “It would not be proper, in fact we have no right, to bring to you the names of his victims or the names of their relatives, or those who have informed us of his acts. It would incriminate those whom we have no desire to injure.” Based on this report, the HMS voted to expel Dr. Isham from the organization.
In 1910, Dr. Isham was charged with performing a “criminal operation” on Hope R. Buck, a twenty-year old stenographer who had recently been fired by the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company for embezzlement. Miss Buck’s testimony suggests she may have tried to use some kind of drug or poison to induce a miscarriage and/or had an incomplete or botched abortion from another provider. In his defense, Dr. Isham claimed that he did what any other physician would have done under the circumstances to save the girl’s life. This trial ended in a hung jury, possibly because Ms. Buck admitted to lying during her initial police report. Her social position may also have been a factor: she had been a foster child and an inmate at the Home of the Good Shepherd for Delinquent Girls in the city.
Seventeen years later, in 1927, Dr. Isham was again charged with performing an abortion on twenty-year-old Marjorie Cipley Saunders, who had become pregnant after running away from her foster home. The girl’s foster mother had brought her to Dr. Isham and the operation was performed in the home of Dr. Isham’s nurse. This time, Dr. Isham was found guilty and received a fine of $300 and ordered to serve four months in jail. The foster mother and nurse were also arrested for the crime of abortion but the charges were dropped. The State revoked Dr. Isham’s license to practice medicine. Two years later state legislature passed a special act to restore Dr. Ishams’ medical license. He then continued to practice medicine in the state until his death in 1949. His obituary makes no mention of his criminal conviction.
My conclusion for the nursing faculty was that Dr. Isham’s case reminds us of the ethical issues faced by health care providers and their patients in an era when abortion was illegal. I also told them the case was interesting because the sentence was so light. This indicates Dr. Isham’s social position – he had friends in high places as they say – and he quickly recovered his professional reputation.
The curriculum unit for nursing students has gone very well. The Isham-Terry House has yet to incorporate the abortion story into the house interpretation. It could be they just find the topic too controversial.
It’s not impossible to have a Site of Conscience that includes discussions of abortion and reproductive rights. The Matilda Joselyn Gage Center for Dialogue on Social Justice Issues in Fayetteville, New York is a good model for how to do this. The Center uses Gage’s historic home to engage the public in a number of contemporary social issues that can be tied to Gage’s work for social justice.
The Gage Center has a “Who Chooses” project, funded by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience that brings together diverse individuals for structured dialogue on the highly contentious issue of reproductive rights. This included having historical experts examine Gage’s words alongside those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to correct misinformation about suffragists’ position on reproductive rights. This type of historical expertise is important for correcting the historical record since Feminists for Life has appropriated Stanton as “poster child” for pro-life feminism.