Historical essay
“Immoderate Menses” or Abortion? Bodily Knowledge and Illicit Intimacy in an 1851 Divorce Trial

“Immoderate Menses” or Abortion? Bodily Knowledge and Illicit Intimacy in an 1851 Divorce Trial

In 1851, four years after actress Josephine Clifton’s death, she was named as one of Edwin Forrest’s adulterers during the American actor’s divorce trial. Forrest was an established transatlantic celebrity who exemplified rugged American masculinity in both his roles and celebrity persona. In 1849, Forrest’s rivalry with English thespian William Charles Macready inspired the deadly Astor Place Riots in New York. Clifton had been a direct contemporary of Forrest’s. She emulated his nationalist celebrity but struggled to overcome sexual scandals and demonstrate her virtuous character, vital to female stage presence.1 This history played into the Forrest divorce. Even in death, Clifton’s private character was put on trial.

During Forrest’s divorce trial, witnesses endeavored to show that Clifton’s “unbecoming familiarity” with Forrest during their 1842-43 tour was tantamount to adultery. The accusations raised questions about acceptable realms of familiarity between a married man and a then-unmarried woman, however professionally connected. They also involved competing interpretations of Clifton’s reproductive biology.

Josephine Clifton. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the trial, physician John Hawks and his wife Laura Hawks testified about meeting Clifton in the “saloon car” of a train. Clifton was in severe physical distress, with much “groaning [and] twisting of the body.” Forrest attended Clifton, who took some opium pills. Then he asked Laura to leave the otherwise empty car. The pills provided relief. However, Laura was shocked when she learned that the couple were not married, which led John to suspect that Forrest had helped Clifton administer an abortion.2 Clifton’s physicians countered that during her lifetime she suffered during her menstrual periods. This was such an occasion.

Competing claims about what occurred on the train spoke directly to a growing contest over gynecological medicine in the United States. During the 1840s and 1850s, a visible commerce in abortifacients and popular medical literature began to receive more push-back from regular physicians, trained and affiliated with medical colleges and societies. These battles over sexual knowledge also intersected with questions about legitimate realms of intimacy between men and women. In the trial, the intimacy between Clifton and Forrest was read as a sign of adultery, which supported the Hawks’ suspicions of abortion.

“Gross Habits” and “Immoderate Menses”

The pills that Clifton took that day may indeed have been opium, a common treatment for menstrual complaints. Clifton’s physician, Robert Pennell, testified that her “monthly illness was always very difficult.”3 He treated her, following Galenic principles to maintain a balance of bodily humors. Pennell used “blood letting, leeches, warm baths, [and] opiates” to “relieve…the effects of the flowing of blood.” He probably would have warned Clifton against catching chill, long associated with suppressed or painful menses. A healthy menstruation required that women pay attention to the temperature of their environment, food, and moods.4 Irregular or sectarian physicians offered similar cures, though their legitimacy was then being hotly challenged by regular physicians, who founded the American Medical Association in 1847 in an effort to standardize and control medical practice.

Advertisement for Beecham’s Pills in Los Angeles Herald, July 20, 1893. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pennell also connected Clifton’s “difficult…monthly illnesses” to her physiology and “gross habits.” She was unusually tall, which had enhanced her effect on stage, but later in life she grew heavy. Pennell described her as a “very large, athletic woman” weighing “over two hundred pounds.” A popular medical guide published by “Dr. A. M. Mauriceau” in 1847, written by the husband or brother of New York abortionist Madame Restell, warned that painful menstruation was common in “subjects with an irracible [sic] and sanguineous temperament,” while “immoderate flow” afflicted women of “full habit” and “ruddy countenance.”5 In this line of reasoning, Clifton’s body and her lifestyle as a touring tragedian predisposed her to such complaints.6

If Clifton’s suffering, use of opiates, and “floodings” could be explained by a severe menses, why would anyone assume an abortion had taken place?

French Female Pills

Abortifacients proliferated in the patent medicine trade of the 1830s and 1840s as part of a highly contested commercialization of reproductive knowledge. This trade existed in a gray zone overlapping emmenagogues, or medicinal treatments used to bring on menstruation. Women had long used emmenagogues such as pennyroyal and savin to maintain regular periods or treat menstruation suppressed by “irregularities” from chill to mental excitement. In stronger doses, however, these same decoctions could cause abortion.7

Title page from The married woman’s private medical companion. (Archive.org)

Euphemisms abound in medical literature and patent advertisements from the time. Mauriceau’s Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion promoted “Portuguese Female Pills” for treating suppression of the menses, but warned they could “produce miscarriage, if exhibited during pregnancy.”8 Dr. La Croix directed readers of his medical treatise to write away for French Female Pills but warned that they not be taken by “married ladies” who “believe that they are in certain situations.”9 Anatomy lecturer Frederick Hollick warned readers of his Marriage Guide about the risks of miscarriage from ergot.10 Readers could draw their own conclusions.

The physicians testifying about Clifton, including John Hawks, presented themselves as legitimate authorities over women’s bodies aligned with regular medicine.11 They were likewise participating in a shift then underway as regular physicians joined a growing chorus of men working to criminalize abortion, including the American Medical Association founded in 1847.12 This was part of a larger bid for legitimacy in a crowded field of medical practice. Hoping to break the association of “women’s doctor” with abortionist, the members of the AMA blamed irregulars for the prevalence of abortion while asserting their authority to care for women’s bodies.13

Clifton might have taken any of the readily available pills that, notwithstanding their actual effectiveness, nineteenth-century Americans believed could induce abortion or at least bring on menses. But the most damning evidence of adultery leading to suspicion of abortion had less to do with her physical symptoms than Forrest’s involvement. Theirs was, as the judge acknowledged, an “extraordinary…intimacy.”14


It was hard for observers of the trial to imagine that Clifton and Forrest had not been engaged in an affair. Witnesses reported that the touring thespians slept in rooms with a shared parlor, were seen coming and going from each other’s quarters and promenading arm-in-arm on a nighttime steamboat. Forrest’s counsel asked the jury to frame this “familiarity” in terms of the actors’ “long friendly intercourse” or at least to consider the “different” norms of stage people. And even if Clifton had been suffering a miscarriage, abortion was a “monstrous assertion” without the “slightest proof.”15

Opposing counsel turned the question around, asking why “a single lady, laboring under the circumstances described, should request a married gentleman to ask a mother, an elderly lady who was sitting with her” — a reference to Laura Hawks — “to leave the saloon, that she might be alone with the gentleman, in order that a matter of some kind be performed.”16 Legitimate realms of bodily knowledge operated at the intersection of gender, age, marital status, and expertise, hence Laura Hawks’ tactful aside that she “had been a mother previous to the time,” which made her knowledge and discussion of matters of reproductive health legitimate—though only her husband used the word “abortion.”17 To opposing counsel, it was absurd that Clifton would prefer privacy with Forrest, a married man, to Laura Hawks. This intimacy violated norms of heterosociality and gendered knowledge. It became the sign that led John Hawks to “mak[e] up his opinion as to the real sickness” Clifton suffered, rereading a “laborious menstruation” as an abortion.18 Forrest could only have been privy to Clifton’s illness if he was in some way implicated.

It is hard not to read in John Hawks’ transparent logic a distant echo of the suspicions of abortion that today increasingly follow women suffering miscarriages. But it was in fact during the 1840s that regular physicians led the way in reframing abortion as a crime committed by women against a fetus, rather than a form of family limitation widely, if tacitly, practiced. They would also reject the longstanding benchmark of quickening, when a pregnant woman begins to feel movement inside her, hitherto used to distinguish a criminal abortion. It is worth asking how the testimony in Forrest’s trial might have differed had Clifton been alive. It seems unlikely, given the historic shift underway, that counsellors would have been satisfied with her testimony of embodied experience only.


  1. Sara Lampert, Starring Women: Celebrity, Patriarchy, and American Theater and Culture, 1790-1850 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press: Forthcoming 2020). Return to text.
  2. Report of the Forrest Divorce Case (New York: Robert M. DeWitt, [1852]), 86-87. Return to text.
  3. Other accounts of the trial identify him as Richard Persell, but other contemporary sources indicate Pennel or Pennell to be correct. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 128. Return to text.
  4. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 128; Brodie, “Menstrual Interventions,” 41. Return to text.
  5. Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 230-31; A. M. Mauriceau, The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion (New York: Joseph Trow, 1852), 19-22. Return to text.
  6. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 128. Return to text.
  7. Janet Farrell Brodie, “Menstrual Interventions in the Nineteenth-Century United States” in Regulating Menstruation: Beliefs, Practices, Interpretations, eds. Etienne van de Walle and Elisha P. Renee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 46, 48. Return to text.
  8. Mauriceau, The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion, 16. Return to text.
  9. M.B. La Croix, Dr. La Croix’s Physiological View of Marriage, (Albany: P. L. Gilbert, 1864), 160. An earlier edition, titled Dr. La Croix’s Private Medical Treatise, is advertised in the newspapers that featured the trial transcriptions. Return to text.
  10. Frederick Hollick, The Marriage Guide, or Natural History of Generation (T. W. Strong: New York, 1850), 310. Return to text.
  11. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 86. Return to text.
  12. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), chapter 9. Return to text.
  13. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Abortion Movement” in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 233. After the Civil War they would join forces with evangelical churches, leading to the infamous Comstock Law of 1873. Return to text.
  14. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 128 Return to text.
  15. The Forrest Divorce Case. Catherine N. Forrest against Edwin Forrest. Fully and Correctly Reported by the Reporter of the National Police Gazette… (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1852), 100. Return to text.
  16. The Forrest Divorce Case, 104. Laura was in fact forty-three at the time of the trial, which would have made her thirty-five when she met Clifton, hardly “elderly.” This was clearly a rhetorical move designed to enhance suspicion of Forrest and Clifton’s tête-à-tête. 1850 U.S. Census, East Boston (Boston Ward 4), Suffolk, Massachusetts, roll M432_335, page 72B, image 151; digital image Ancestry.com. Return to text.
  17. Report of the Forrest Divorce, 86. Return to text.
  18. The Forrest Divorce Case, 104. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Title page from The married woman’s private medical companion. (Courtesy Archive.org)

Sara Lampert is Associate Professor of history at the University of South Dakota, where she also coordinates the women, gender & sexuality studies program. Her book manuscript, Starring Women: Celebrity, Patriarchy, and American Theater and Culture, 1790-1850 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press: Forthcoming 2020) uses the stories of itinerant female entertainers from Europe and the U.S. to map the shifting structures and gender politics of entertainment in the early U.S. This project reflects her larger interests in 19th century women’s & gender history, sexuality, celebrity, and popular entertainment. Lampert has also published on female platform performance in the mid-19th century and on the career of African-American singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.