Family Secrets

Family Secrets

Note: I’m breaking with my usual blog routine. This is a story about a possible crime that happened in my own family.

Family secrets tend to lurk, like rotten apples, in family trees. But eventually they have to fall on the ground. One of the best-kept secrets in my family was the fate of my grandfather’s sister, May Plowman Moody.

May died on November 4, 1913 at the People’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. She was 27 years old when she died. According to her death certificate she moved to Chicago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa in April 1913, about seven months before her death. Her husband, Frank Moody died of natural causes in Cedar Rapids in May 1912. The couple had two small sons at the time of Frank’s death.

On the night of November 3, 1913, May, suffering from intense abdominal pain, was taken to People’s Hospital in Chinatown, several miles south of where she lived. She suffered intense pain throughout the night and died the next morning.

According to Hugh Cameron, the informant on her death record, May lived at the Valencia Hotel in Chicago and worked as a cashier before she died. Located at 1311 Michigan Avenue, the hotel is listed in the 1910 Chicago city directory, but it’s not listed in any later directories. It was probably more of a boarding house with aspirations than an actual hotel. The building was torn down decades ago.

May Moody death

Cameron, a life-long Chicago resident, was old enough to be May’s father. Though he spelled her first name incorrectly, he knew her well enough to correctly provide her father’s name and country of birth, along with her precise date of birth for her death certificate. I never figured out how they met, but it’s possible it was on a visit Cameron made to Cedar Rapids in March 1913. The details of their relationship remain a mystery.

Evidently Cameron knew how to get in touch with May’s father, because her body was sent back to Cedar Rapids. My grandfather and his brother paid for her burial. End of story? Not quite.

An unexplained death necessitates an inquest. The inquest into May’s death was held at People’s Hospital the morning she died. I. Clark Gary, the founder and physician in charge of the hospital, testified that May’s doctor brought her to People’s Hospital the night before her death. She was admitted, but for some unexplained reason she was given no treatment at the hospital.

Cameron’s inquest testimony tells a different tale than the one he told for her death certificate. He claimed May lived with him in a flat at 61 E. 12th Street, a block and a half from the Valencia Hotel. The area, close to the railroad tracks, was then full of industrial buildings and warehouses. The building where they lived would have been just west of two famous Chicago landmarks, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, though neither was there in 1913. 12th Street was renamed Roosevelt Road in 1919 and 61 E. 12th Street succumbed to the wrecking ball years ago.

Cameron also stated that at the time of her death, May worked as his “house keeper.” He gave his occupation is “restaurant keeper.” However he’s listed in Chicago city directories from that time working as a bartender.

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1910 Rand McNally map (detail) of Chicago with locations flagged

McEvers-1-4

Albert McEvers in 1916.

The doctor treating May before she died was Albert McEvers. His office was located at 1201 Wabash, just a few steps away from 61 E. 12th Street.

McEvers was listed as a veterinary surgeon in the 1912 Chicago city directory, but by 1913 he was listed as a physician in the city directory. The Official Register of Legally Qualified Physicians,  lists McEvers as having graduated from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery in 1912.

With the goal of serving working class patients, Peoples’ Hospital was a block and a half west of the notorious vice neighborhood—the south side Levee District. According to Chicago as a Medical Center the hospital was “well supplied with operating rooms.” After undergoing several name changes it closed in 1991 and the building was torn down.

Shortly after she died Dr. Joseph Springer performed a postmortem on May’s body at the hospital. Springer found that she bled to death after her “tubular” pregnancy ruptured. When a tubal (ectopic) pregnancy occurs, the embryo implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. When the embryo grows too large the tube ruptures.

Springer

Dr. Joseph Springer in 1914

Timely surgical intervention might have saved May’s life. By the early twentieth century, surgical treatment of ectopic pregnancy was well accepted and available in a large cities, provided the patient was taken to a good hospital with experienced diagnosticians, surgeons and operating rooms. If the intention had been to try to save her life, May could have been taken to St. Luke’s Hospital at 1439 S. Michigan Avenue. It was a large hospital with operating rooms that was very close to where she lived.

The inquest was carried out by the Cook County Coroner’s Office, which was then headed by Peter M. Hoffman. Hoffman, who would later be elected sheriff of Cook County, was indicted on corruption charges and served a month in jail in 1925. However Hoffman was not present at the inquest. It was handled by one of his deputy coroners, William Ostrum. Ostrum falsified the statements of Hugh Cameron and two other witnesses, Arthur Goldstein and John McCambridge, by writing their statements and signing the men’s names himself.

According to Cameron’s statement May was “operated upon” by Dr. McEvers about a month before her death. Cameron claimed that May had not had her period (“her visitors”) for six weeks before her death, making her about eight weeks pregnant. Nonetheless he stated he was satisfied that May was “not aborted.” He was not a medical expert, so presumably this comment was included to shield him from suspicion that he tried to obtain an abortion for her. Abortion, of course, was illegal at the time. Cameron was the only witness whose statement included a mention of abortion.

Arthur Goldstein (who I was unable to find in any Chicago city directory) was listed in the inquest as a “waiter.” He attested to the truth of Cameron’s statement, though his relationship to Cameron and May, if any, was not explained. McCambridge, a police officer, gave his opinion that May died a “natural death and no foul play to the case.” The officer also claimed there were no other witnesses to the case.

Since Ostrum wrote out and signed the statements of the three men, it’s impossible to know how accurate their testimony was.

The three doctors—McEvers, Gary and Springer—wrote and signed their own statements. The statements were brief and amounted to affirming that May had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured, resulting in her death.

The inquest jurors, some of who could barely sign their names, appear to have been men who were patients at the hospital.

The inquest leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Why did Ostrum fill out some of witness statements and sign them himself, including the signature of his boss, Hoffman? Why did May have no belongings, not even clothing (other than a “shield” or menstrual pad), according to the “effects and estate” evidence sheet? She must have been wearing something when she arrived at the hospital.

Dr. McEvers didn’t mention in his statement any treatment he provided to May. What was the operation a month he performed before her death? Was it an abortion? A doctor who performed an abortion and got caught would lose his license and might even go to prison. (Search on the word “abortion” for case examples.)

Being an inexperienced physician, possibly McEvers didn’t realize May had a tubal pregnancy—a condition that would have made an abortion unsuccessful. Maybe when she had abdominal pain a month after he aborted her, he tried a second abortion. Or possibly he realized then that the pregnancy was tubal and, fearing that the earlier abortion would be found out, he took her to People’s Hospital.

History of medicine and surgery and physicians and surgeons of C

Why did May receive no treatment at People’s Hospital? It seems unlikely to have been because she had no money, since the hospital was created to treat people from the working class. Was it a place where women who had undergone an abortion and were dying could be taken, for a fee, with no questions asked? If so, the decision to take her there was a death sentence.

May had two small children to support and her family was not in a position to help her financially. Where did she meet Hugh Cameron? Did she relocate to Chicago because Cameron told her there was a good job waiting for her there? Did she work as a cashier and live at the Valencia Hotel or was she Cameron’s live-in housekeeper/girlfriend? Was Cameron the father of her unborn child? Did she hope to marry him? If so she was in for a disappointment. According to the 1913 Chicago city directory, Cameron had another home on Commercial Avenue, 11 miles south of 12th Street. He also already had a wife and a child. According to the 1920 census, his oldest child, Hugh Cameron, was born in 1911.

May’s children, Robert Sanford Moody and Wesley Walter (Moody) Ward were raised by their paternal aunt Jessie Moody Ward. Wesley was officially adopted by Jessie and her husband, Charles Ward, and changed his surname to Ward. Robert, the older son, was not adopted and kept his original surname.

My grandfather never talked about his only full sister (he had two half sisters). We have no photographs of May or her children. My family had no contact with her two sons, even though Robert and Wesley lived in Chicago about a mile from mom’s family during the 1930s. My mother didn’t even know she had an aunt or cousins. You know how genealogists are: they love a mystery and a challenge, which makes it hard to keep things hidden. I found out my grandfather had a sister and I assumed she’d gotten married, but I didn’t know her married name. I discovered it through a careful search of the 1910 census, using her first name and the fact of her father’s birth in England and her mother’s birth in Missouri to narrow my search results. I got four hits and figured she was the one who lived closest to Cedar Rapids. Bingo—there she was, living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with her husband and two young sons.

Then I found her death certificate and, hoping to understand what happened, I wrote to the Illinois State Archives for a copy of the inquest record. It took months but eventually I was sent the file. I was very lucky, because since then inquest files dated later than 1911 seem to have vanished.

I know more now than I did before I started digging, but more knowledge has brought more questions. Now I may never find out exactly what happened to my great aunt, because everyone who knew her has passed away.

Rotten apples leave a sour smell, you know?

To read the 11-page inquest, here’s a link to download the PDF: May Moody Inquest

Featured photo: 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1915. Photos of Springer and McEvers from the Chicago Daily News.

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.