by Tim Gilmore, 8/25/2018
In 2003, Dr. Daniel Mishell, professor and chair of ob-gyn at the University of Southern California, recalled for The Los Angeles Times his hospital residency and early medical career in the 1950s and ’60s, when he treated patients of illegal abortions whose practitioners had used such means as knitting needles, coat hangers, bicycle pumps, fertilizers and drain cleaners. In residuals of Comstock laws, numerous states still considered information about contraception “obscenity.” Such enforced ignorance could lead to situations like Dewey Dell Bundren’s in William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, when a pharmacist’s assistant accepts the young girl’s ten dollars for an abortion, then performs the supposed medical procedure by raping her.
On Thursday, June 14, 1951, six men deliberated for 23 minutes in the criminal trial of Dr. Alvah Weathers, finding him guilty, “with a recommendation of mercy.” Weathers’s newest attorney, Donald DeHoff, sought to file a motion for a new trial, with sentences for Weathers and Ziegler deferred.
County Solicitor P. Guy Crews announced he might drop charges of manslaughter and criminal abortion against Weathers if his conviction as “principal in the second degree” in the criminal abortion case of Evelyn Kriston, the TU-described “comely” girl and “tall, attractive blonde,” resulted in a “substantial sentence.”
Crews told the press his main concern was “to cure an evil that existed in this county.” If Weathers spent the next several years behind bars, he said, “My purpose will be served and the public and society will be protected.”
The initial charges in the deaths of Althea Whitford and Martha S. Carver had been relegated to backstory, the case against Weathers’s abortionist Herschell Baxter—who’d already been convicted of “practicing medicine without a license” in Florida and “performing an abortion” in Georgia—had vanished with Baxter’s disappearance from the state, all mention of Whitford’s father’s damages suit had gone silent, and Weathers was sentenced for an offense different from the one with which he’d first been charged. DeHoff threatened to make the latter discrepancy the basis for an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
The following morning quashed uncertainties. Judge William T. Harvey sentenced Dr. Alvah Weathers—who’d once pled insane, whose legal representation then argued he was physically unfit to stand trial—to seven years of hard labor at Raiford State Prison, then sentenced Walter Ziegler to five.
On Sunday, July 22nd, Walter Ziegler “collapsed in his Jacksonville jail cell,” according to the Associated Press, and died. An autopsy the following day would determine the cause.
While herbal abortifacients like wormwood and pennyroyal are as old as civilization, most methods of illegal abortion at pre-Roe American establishments like Springfield Hospital have, to this day, never been made public.
American political discourse since the late 1800s has treated the subject of abortion less in terms of health and safety than morality. Abortion might well be the most complicated and controversial topic in contemporary American politics and policy and the subject treated most superficially and simplistically.
Back on May 24th, R.R. Bellinger, head of the Florida Bureau of Narcotics, told reporters he’d found a “little black book” at the home of “male nurse W.W. Wininger” (Walter W. Ziegler), listing “two or three hundred names of persons all over Florida and Georgia.” While the specifics of the evidence detailed nothing more than names in an address book, perhaps illicit, perhaps not, Bellinger insinuated hundreds of abortions at Springfield Hospital.
Said “little black book” also contained a quotation from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 16. For at least a century, maybe longer, readers have fought over what Ezekiel’s 16th chapter might say about abortion, if anything at all. Some archaeologists connect the chapter to ancient practices of child sacrifice. Ezekiel 16:20 and 21 ask, “Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children?” Anti-abortion activists hear these verses as God’s voice speaking to a contemporary matter, calling abortion murder and the women who undergo abortions “whores.”
Wininger / Ziegler had written verse six in his “little black book”—“And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, live.”
How did Wininger / Ziegler interpret this verse and its blood? How did Weathers’s assistant who turned state’s evidence translate this injunction? Were placental blood and the uterine system of nutrient dispersion and regulation of heat, wastes, and gases elements of the mother’s “own blood”?
Crickets scraped and stridulated, in daytime heat and dark-night humidity, in trees and houses damp and buckled.
“The elderly Weathers” told United Press reporters he’d not once “taken a drink” in all his years, the “only morally perfect man.”
No decision more crushing. No words. None. She should have been stronger. Or should have done it and never looked back. No words. She loved her though she never knew her. She knew her though she never knew her. She loved her. No words. The only thing appropriate to say. Not one word.
Rain falls, easily at first, on Springfield Hospital, the hardwood structure of the original house at 647 East 27 th, house within house, outside walls pebbled stucco, history hidden inside history, wherein the answers to questions are deeper questions, puzzles that unlock puzzles, all the way down.
Most stories never surface. Most that do don’t last long. No story becomes fully told. Every story branches across and roots through the land and time in unchartably intricate self-mappings. At its most true and fully told, any story becomes too strange, too bizarre, to be believed. Always, all that’s left is where things have been. Had been. Took place. As though place can be taken, measured, understood. As though every place weren’t haunted by all the holes in the story. It’s in those holes we worm our way, live our lives, become encased, are reabsorbed.
An unnamed physician who’d amputated Walter Ziegler’s right leg in 1948 assumed the arteriosclerosis from which Ziegler suffered for years had finally killed him in his jail cell. County Medical Examiner R.Y.H. Thomas, who’d first declared Althea Whitford’s death due not to tetanus, but fulminating septicemia and “incomplete abortion, criminal,” pronounced Ziegler’s death from a heart attack, with fibrinous pericarditis, edema, and lung congestion “contributing factors.”
Ziegler never once made bond and it was Weathers whose attorneys pled psychological and physical instabilities.
Tuesday, January 19, 1952. Alvah Weathers lost his appeal. The Florida Supreme Court ruled not on whether Weathers could be convicted for an offense other than the one for which he’d first been charged, as his final attorney had threatened the previous summer. Instead the appeal concerned, as the United Press explained it, whether “a man” were “convicted of a crime as soon as a court judges him guilty even though he may not be sentenced at once.”
The argument considered Ziegler, now dead, “the actual abortionist,” and argued Weathers couldn’t be considered “accessory” until the courts settled Ziegler’s charge.
In his statement of decision, Florida Supreme Court Justice Elwyn Thomas wrote, “How can it be logically said that a man is innocent because he has never been punished? The finding by jury and adjudication by court settle the fact of guilt; the punishment when meted out is simply the penalty for established misconduct.”
Weathers died two years later, suffering, officially, a heart attack, in Raiford State Prison.
Stairs climb the sides of clapboard houses. Broken windows punctuate tree shade. Signs on wooden fences shout Biblical messages: “WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE” / “PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.” A rotten tree bears a municipal notice of demolition, official language barely legible after seasons of scorching sun, intermittent freezes, and rains risen from the nearby ocean battered down into the city.
When paved roads lay long enough neglected, the detritus deposited from leaf fall and storm and compost returns them to dirt roads that have always dead-ended at railroad tracks.
Vines and palms and weeds plunge bright and dark green up bricks that rise from old abortions, from decades-old desperations of young women who knew not what to do with the full-fledged panic that burgeoned through their wombs.
Who are the women whose names, whose terror, whose despair we’ll never know, who died here in dangerous operations? Which of the bones found buried here 70 years ago were stillbirths? What abortions yet lie buried in the soil that absorbs the rain now falling harder?
And what full lives fanned complete across the North American continent, across Western Europe and Scandinavia—in Altoona and Saskatoon, New London and London, Scotland and Nova Scotia, Oslo and Ottawa and Oklahoma City—full of laughter and love, sprung from a lie on a birth certificate scribbled upstairs in the stinking dark at Springfield Hospital all those lost buried decades ago?