The Unlawful Operation

The Unlawful Operation

SYDNEY.—In the Darlinghurst sessions on Thursday, Harold George Hooper, 34, picture show installer; Thomas Bernard Hooper, 39, agent; Michael Sayegh, 26, formerly a medical student; Nancy Cowman, 18, picture show attendant, and Vera Crichton, 23, married woman, were charged with having conspired together for the purpose of the performance of an unlawful operation.

The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), July 11, 1924

It was a stuff up from start to finish, (that’s a “screw up” in America) beginning with the age-old story of boy meets girl, falls in lust with girl, gets girl pregnant. However the boy in this case was a 34-year-old man who was already married and had no intention of leaving his wife, so what to do? His plan was to spirit his 19-year-old girlfriend off to the big city where the pregnancy could be ended with no one the wiser. But you know what they say about even the best-laid plans, and these certainly weren’t in that category.

Isabella Higgs

Mug shot of Isabella Higgs, 21 February 1924, Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

The story begins in Braidwood, a small town 175 miles southwest of Sydney, Australia. The year is 1923 and Harold Hooper, known as “Dick” to his many friends, went to Braidwood from Sydney to set up a “picture show,” (aka movie theater). Dick and a local girl, Isabella Higgs, met by chance one day in August and struck up an acquaintance. Isabel, described in the news as a “sturdily-built country girl,” came from a poor Braidwood family and worked as a servant.

Soon Dick and Isabel were seeing a lot of each other. According to an account of the case in The Truth, a scandal sheet newspaper, “She met him almost every night, and each time they defied conventions which prescribe that it is wrong for a single miss to dally in company dangerous to her chastity.” In plain language, they had sex, a lot of sex.

In late September Isabel told Dick she thought she was pregnant. Dick brought her a box of pills and told her to take them and they would take care of the “problem.” The pills didn’t work and soon “she found her condition reaching a serious stage.”

Dick ran back to Sydney where, he claimed, he had pressing business obligations. He asked a friend, Michael Sayegh, to go to Braidwood for him, partly for the picture business but also to meet with Isabel. Michael, a Syrian immigrant, was a commercial traveler, however he’d been a medical student at the University of Sydney. He’d dropped out of medical school in his fourth year due to financial difficulties, but he still had some medical instruments and told Dick he knew how to perform an “unlawful operation.” This operation was illegal in Australia at the time.

Michael met with Isabel and confirmed that she was about three months pregnant. Then he broke the news to her that Dick was already married and had a young son. He told Isabel that if she would go to Sydney he would perform an operation on her. Isabel wasn’t convinced this was a good plan, but she also wasn’t thrilled about telling her father about her predicament.

Vera Crichton

Mug shot of Vera Crichton, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

Dick, always ready with an excuse, said he had kidney trouble and couldn’t travel to Braidwood, so he sent his brother, Thomas Bernard “Burn” Hooper, age 39, and Vera Crichton, a 23-year-old married woman, to talk Isabel into coming to Sydney. Vera told Isabel she’d had the operation herself and it was entirely safe. Isabel agreed to the plan but only if she got to see Dick before she had the operation. It was now late January 1924.

The group set off in a hired car that broke down several times. In addition to Burn, Vera, and Michael, Nancy Cowman, an 18-year-old picture show attendant described as “young and pretty, with pouting red lips” came along on the trip. After many stops and starts due to car trouble the travelers finally made it to Sydney.

None of the news articles explained why Michael, Nancy and Vera got involved in the project. Maybe they owed Dick a few favors. Burn was Dick’s brother and evidently he was motivated by family loyalty.

Meanwhile Isabel’s family had no idea where she’d gone so they reported her to the police as a missing person. They were concerned that she’d been kidnapped or, worse, that she might be dead. The police began to search for Isabel.

In Sydney Michael rented a room for Isabel on Surrey Street in Darlinghurst, a neighborhood then known for razor gangs, sly-grog houses (that’s a speakeasy if you’re a Yank), drug dealing and prostitution. If someone were looking for a place to perform an operation with no questions asked, Darlinghurst would be a perfect choice. Nancy and Isabel stayed together in the room several days with Dick popping by nightly to reassure Isabel that the operation would be fine. Michael stopped in a few times with powders for Isabel to take, but he didn’t perform the operation. He was probably hoping the drugs would cause a miscarriage.

A few days later Michael was finally ready to begin the operation. But before he started, Nancy showed up and told him that Vera and Burn had been arrested and interviewed about Isabel’s disappearance. They’d given statements to the police that Isabel was alive and well but the darned police wanted proof. They wanted Isabel in the flesh. Michael packed up his instruments and the three of them bolted.

Dick took Isabel and Nancy to a parsonage in Maroubra, a beachside suburb of Sydney. The parson was a friend of Dick’s who didn’t ask a lot of questions. (Where did Dick get such devoted friends?) The girls hid out in Maroubra for the next ten days. Dick promised Isabel that if she kept her mouth shut that after she had the baby he would give her a pound a week until the child turned 14. Generous Dick.

The police told Vera and Burn they couldn’t have bail until Isabel was located alive and well. On February 20, 1924 Isabel, Nancy and Dick turned themselves to the police. The now-famous mug shots of Nancy, Isabel and Vera were taken the following day. Unfortunately the mug shots of the men apparently didn’t survive.

Dick, Burn, Vera, Nancy and Michael were charged with “conspiracy to bring about a result by the illegal use of an instrument.” In those days no one ever dared utter the word “abortion.”

No charges were brought against Isabel. She returned to Braidwood, where she had the baby. She brought the baby to the trial of the five conspirators in July.

The cowardly Dick claimed he wasn’t the father of the baby. He insisted he was just trying to be a Good Samaritan by bringing Isabel to Sydney where she could secretly have the baby. The jury must have had trouble keeping a straight face.

Dick, Burn and Vera were convicted but the jury couldn’t agree on Nancy and Michael. Dick and Burn appealed their convictions and were retried. Burn was acquitted but Dick was convicted again, however he was released without being sentenced to prison. Vera also appealed and got a new trial but for some strange reason it never took place and she was released from custody. At the second trial of Nancy and Michael, Nancy was acquitted. Michael, the Syrian immigrant who was described as being from a “highly-respected family and who had been a brilliant scholar while at the University” was convicted and sentenced to 12 months hard labor. His sentence was upheld on appeal.

The story was reported all over Australia, including in some articles that were illustrated. Though it’s a tragic tale it had one positive outcome — it left us with a group of fascinating mug shot photos. They’re in the collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum in Sydney, which has generously scanned and uploaded them to their web site, along with others taken around the same period. The photos are so interesting and unusual that they’ve been used and abused all over the Internet, so it seemed to me like a good idea to tell the story of the real people and try to set the record straight. Then everyone can go back to colorizing them, drawing them, putting them on coasters, using them as avatars, whatever.

If you want to read more stories of the people in the Justice &​ Police Museum mug shot photos, I highly recommend the book Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle.

Featured photo: Mug shot of Nancy Cowman, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.