by Tim Gilmore, 8/25/2018
In 1873, United States Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, whose name became synonymous with the excesses of Victorian prudery, successfully pushed Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Laws, specifically targeting “Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The same Comstock Laws that banned American publication of The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights made punishable by five years of hard prison labor any article of “obscenity” such as printed information about abortion or contraception and led to the arrest of Margaret Sanger in 1914 for distributing her newsletter The Woman Rebel, which advocated “birth control” and first popularized the term.
On Thursday, May 24th, the T-U reported the trials of Weathers “and his accomplice in manslaughter and abortion” delayed, due to Weathers’s health. His blood pressure had soared, he suffered dizzy spells, and he had difficulty breathing. A physician named S.S. Sisson feared Weathers might be in danger of a stroke.
Just as Sisson testified, the medical examiner’s office announced bones unearthed Tuesday afternoon by homicide detectives from the garage behind Springfield Hospital to be “those of two human babies.”
The late-May UP story called Springfield Hospital an “abortion mill,” reported the finding of the “bones of at least two babies,” and quoted Dr. Alvah Hovey Weathers describing himself as a “morally perfect man.”
“When we first moved our offices there to East 27th,” says Ron Cogburn, “I was taken aback when a stranger from the neighborhood laughed and said, ‘Just don’t go digging around there. No telling what you might find.’”
Before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in all states in 1973, American women seeking terminations of pregnancy frequently traveled to Mexico, where abortion was illegal and dangerous but accessible. Wealthier women flew to England or Sweden or Japan, where abortions were legal and safe. Poorer
women sought out disreputable doctors, some with degrees and training, some without—men like Alvah Weathers. Hospitals frequently contained septic wards, where women suffering from “fulminating septicemia,” and “incomplete abortions” performed elsewhere, often died. Illegal abortions that didn’t kill or injure women sometimes left them infertile.
When Ron Cogburn purchased the old wooden building in the early 1980s to house his company’s offices, he’d never heard of Dr. Weathers or Springfield Hospital, not until his wife noticed the new business address matched the one listed on her birth certificate.
When Celia Settle finally homed in on finding her biological father, after more than two decades of searching, she met with Ron Cogburn, who walked her through the building. Celia knew she’d been born at Springfield Hospital, but everything else was blurred. Her birth certificate listed her as a boy. She’d received a second certificate, since she and a boy born there at the same time had received the same fake birth certificate number. Both children were reported, fictitiously, born to the same mother.
Celia’s experience of walking through Springfield Hospital buried inside this new pebble-walled stucco was uncanny. She walked the halls, entered various offices and storage rooms once operating rooms, and stepped into the front sleeping-porch long ago enclosed at the front of the house.
“There had been several different owners since Weathers was there,” Celia says, “but it still looked like a house on the inside.”
Even stranger than the coincidence that Celia Settle and Faye Cogburn were both “Weathers babies” was the fact of their shared birthday. Celia Settle, she of the two birth certificates, first listed as a boy, came into the world at Springfield Hospital the same day as Faye Cogburn. Six decades later, the two women had their DNA tested to find out if they might be twins. They’re not.
The trial, originally scheduled for March 23rd, began on June 11th, having been delayed due to a physician’s concerns Dr. Weathers might have a “diseased kidney” and otherwise be in danger of suffering a stroke.
Just days before the trial began, Dr. Weathers’s attorney Robert E. Hucker withdrew his services, the third attorney to do so since Weathers was arrested. The T-U reported Weathers’s case in disarray, the Duval County Solicitor’s Office not having “definitely indicated which of the several cases” against Weathers and “Wininger” would be “presented” at the start of the trial.
The next day the T-U reported Wininger had turned state’s evidence and pled guilty, sworn in as witness against Weathers. The trial centered on a February 5, 1950 abortion the two men were accused of performing at Springfield Hospital on Evelyn Christian, whose real name was Evelyn Louise Kriston. The T-U called her “the Christian girl, a comely blonde.”
Dr. Weathers appeared with his fourth attorney, James Riley, who moved that Weathers was “physically unable to stand the rigors of a trial,” presenting a physician’s diagnosis of angina pectoris, indicating a diseased heart. Riley’s motion also stated Weathers had not spent sufficient time with any one of his four sequential attorneys, nor been able to locate and interview four “material witnesses” for his defense.
Since County Solicitor P. Guy Crews noted, in his objection, that the motion appended no medical documentation, officers of the court transported Dr. Weathers to two physicians at 225 West Ashley Street who pronounced their “united opinion” that Weathers was able, both psychologically and physically, to withstand even a long and extended trial.
Judge William Harvey denied Riley’s motion, saying he “couldn’t let the court be trifled with,” whereupon James Riley withdrew immediately from the case, the doctor’s fourth attorney to do so, leaving Weathers to act as his own counsel in initial interrogations, a six-man jury having just been empaneled.
“The building was being held together by termites,” Faye Cogburn says. Cogburn Brothers Electric, Inc. had just begun remodeling the wooden 1915 structure at 647 E. 27th.
At Faye Cogburn’s sister-in-law Barbara’s baby shower, Faye took her original birth certificate from her wallet. Her mother had recently given it to her on her deathbed.
“I pulled it out to show some of the women what so-called ‘old’ birth certificates used to look like. Someone said, ‘Where were you born?’ I’d always thought I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital on Eighth Street, but when I looked at the address, it said 647 E. 27th Street, with Alvah Weathers listed as physician.”
Faye later had a long discussion with her older sister, who told her the nurses at Springfield Hospital “all told my mother, ‘You need to leave her with us. She is so pretty and you have so many children already.’”
Back in the early 1980s, an elderly black woman who lived behind Cogburn Brothers told Faye authorities had closed Springfield Hospital “because Dr. Weathers was selling babies.” Faye understood Springfield Hospital to be the place “people went when they didn’t have any money and didn’t want to keep the baby.”
Since adoption records remain sealed, Celia Settle says, “Getting information from the state is like pulling teeth.” When she learned from the State of Florida she was “a Weathers baby,” she hit a wall, finding nothing else.
“Searching for your biological parents,” Celia says, is “emotionally exhausting,” hard to sustain. In the more than 20 years she’s searched, she’s learned she can “only go so far,” then has to “back off” and regather strength.
Celia finally found her “birth father” a year ago. Though Weathers’s patients came from all around Florida and Georgia and sometimes further, Celia and her father had both lived in Jacksonville, without knowing about each other, for almost 70 years. She couldn’t believe he was still alive.
This late in her life, Celia nevertheless felt terrified her father wouldn’t accept her, that somehow she “wouldn’t measure up,” though she knew not to what.
“He was just a kid himself” when her mother sought desperate sanctuary at Springfield Hospital, she says, “and I was raised by an established couple as an only child.”
When Celia learned her father had spent almost a century not even knowing he had a daughter, she feared her very existence would prompt his rejection, if not regret, disappointment, anger. Instead, her father kept apologizing for never having known. Her existence shocked him more than his shocked her. And he loved her. And something completed itself in Celia’s heart and soul.
On Wednesday, June 13th, Donald DeHoff took over from Weathers himself as the doctor’s sixth attorney (if you include self-counsel). Dr. William (or sometimes Walter) Wininger revealed his real name to be Walter W. Ziegler, no M.D., said he’d earned $100 a week at Springfield Hospital and was present at “the essential actions” performed.
The T-U reported that “the Kriston girl, a tall, attractive blonde,” testified she’d come to Springfield Hospital, having been separated from her husband, for a pre-arranged abortion. Ziegler testified Weathers had instructed his one-legged assistant “to take the girl ‘upstairs.’”
When asked in cross-examination whether he’d performed abortions before Kriston’s, Ziegler said, “Under threats.” He said Weathers “held over his head” charges the two of them had faced for practicing medicine without a license in 1948 in a case Weathers settled out of court. He didn’t explain why such a threat wouldn’t equally endanger the doctor. Evelyn Kriston’s abortion cost her $95. Weathers had charged her $150, but accepted her spoken promise to pay the rest when she could.
“I was a shock,” Celia says. “My father never knew about me, never guessed I existed.”
Her father, she says, “told me who my birth mother should be.” She contacted, communicated with, and finally met the woman who should be her sister. The women agreed to have their DNA tested, and Celia waited in complicated emotional mixes of hope, regret, love, desuetude, courage and despair.
Her father had been wrong. Her sister’s mother was not hers. Her sister was not her sister. Almost 70 years after the first time, she’d been abandoned yet again.
Historical records, with critical specifics obscured, even in and around one place in time, can, within generations, become as unreadable as astrology. For now, and perhaps until the end, Celia’s happy she’s found her “birth father” and that “the family has accepted me.”