The Death of Hannah Toppin

The Death of Hannah Toppin

Yesterday afternoon, Lieut. Spear, of the Tenth Police District, received an anonymous letter stating that the body of a young lady was lying in a house in Jefferson Street, below Second, and intimating that the death was caused by vio’ence.

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 8, 1859

Hannah Jane Toppin’s body lay on a bed in a third floor room in Martha Hudson’s Philadelphia home. She suffered for days before finally dying on March 7, 1859 — her nineteenth birthday.

Martha knew Hannah’s death would not stay a secret for long. She packed her bags and was out the door of her Jefferson Street row house a few hours after the young girl took her last breath.

The following day Hannah’s father, Henry Toppin, went to the Hudson home after he heard a rumor that his missing daughter had died there. He identified the body as Hannah’s and the police were called. They arrested John Hudson but could not locate his wife.

Hannah was a first generation child of Irish immigrants. Her father worked as a weaver. Hannah and her three brothers attended school as youngsters, but once they reached their teen years they worked to help with the family finances.

Hannah worked in a hat store on Second Street where she met a mechanic named Robert Dunlap. They began spending time together and soon Hannah feared the worst — that she was enceinte. She hid her fears from her parents but confessed her worries to a cousin. Unable to keep the secret, the cousin soon spilled the beans to Hannah’s parents.

Henry and Jane Toppin informed their only daughter that they knew her secret. Hannah told them she had a plan to visit Mrs. Hudson’s herb shop, where she’d heard she could get a natural remedy to end her pregnancy.

Her parents forbade her to leave the house but two weeks later she was gone. She spent the next four weeks at Martha Hudson’s house.

Dr. S. P. Brown performed a postmortem exam on Hannah’s body. He testified at the inquest that the membrane around Hannah’s bowels had been perforated by an instrument and was “highly inflamed.” Her death was the result of peritonitis due to the perforation of her bowel. Jane Fletcher, a woman who lived with the Hudsons and who nursed Hannah before she died, testified that her death was slow and agonizing.

Dr. Brown also stated that Hannah was not pregnant when she died. Whether she’d had a miscarriage earlier or whether the pregnancy had been a false alarm was unknown, however Dr. Brown stated that, in his opinion, Hannah was mistaken in thinking she was pregnant.

The inquest verdict was that Martha Hudson caused Hannah’s death while trying to induce an abortion. John Hudson and Robert Dunlap were held as accessories before the fact. Martha, however, was still missing.

In late March a New York City policeman saw a woman leave a dry-goods store “laboring under great excitement.” He thought she might be a shoplifter so he followed her to a house on West Thirty-First Street and spoke to the man who rented her a room there. The man told the officer that her name was Mrs. Brown and that she was in “great disquietude due to family difficulties.” The officer told him to keep an eye on her and left. Later he read in a newspaper about the death of Hannah Toppin and the search for Martha Hudson. He thought “Mrs. Brown” might be Martha Hudson, so he returned to the house and spoke to her. She confessed to being the wanted woman.

Martha was returned to Philadelphia where she was held on a charge of murder in the second degree, meaning intentional murder without premeditation, but with malice aforethought.

At the trial Dr. D. S. Brown (not the Dr. Brown who performed the postmortem) testified that Martha called on him two days before Hannah died and begged him to come and see Hannah. At first he refused but eventually he agreed. Hannah told the doctor that Mrs. Hudson had operated on her because a drunken woman hit her in the stomach. She said Mrs. Hudson had been very kind to her. Dr. Brown testified that her condition seemed to have improved when he saw her the next morning. The following night she died.

Martha’s attorney presented no defense. She was convicted of second-degree murder on May 3, 1859. She was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Featured photo: “Mrs. Hudson, Abortionist” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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