Photo of court case transcript discussing the average length of a woman's womb

Manslaughter or Necessary Operation? Abortion and Murder in Early 20th-Century Missouri

In April 2021, I was part of an exciting experimental conference, hosted by Dr. Courtney Thompson through Mississippi State University: Archival Kismet. In “Archival Kismet: a Manifesto,” Dr. Thompson outlines the goals of and thinking behind the conference. For me, the conference allowed me to reach out to other scholars to discuss sources that were a bit outside my usual field of research, helping me build confidence that my reading of my sources was not wildly off-base.

In my presentation “Abortion on Trial: the State v. Goodson, St. Joseph, Missouri,” I introduced attendees to a fascinating and tragic murder case in St. Joseph, Missouri, a medium-sized city approximately thirty-five miles north of Kansas City. In 1920, authorities arrested Fenton Goodson, a local Black physician, for the murder of an unidentified woman, later identified as Bernetta Coleman, a 26-year-old Black woman in town visiting her family. The case hinged on the prosecutor’s allegation that Goodson performed an abortion on Coleman who died due to a hemorrhage, probably from uterine atony, a problem in which the uterus does not contract thus allowing blood vessels to bleed freely. The jury quickly convicted Goodson of manslaughter, the standard charge for such a crime. Yet, in 1923 the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the conviction after the judges interpreted the statute and the evidence involved in the case in a unique way. The Court placed burdens of proof on parties in a different way than was standard by the early 20th century, asserting it was the state’s responsibility to prove that a) an abortion was definitely performed and b) that the abortion was not medically necessary, which would have made an abortion legal despite Coleman’s death.[1]

Fenton Goodson, a local Black physician, pictured in the St. Joseph newspaper while on trial for abortion
Photo of Goodson, appearing in June 25, 1920 edition of St. Joseph Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri, page 1)

Finding out about the case of Goodson and Coleman was, indeed, kismet. I was perusing the files in the local Black Archives at the St. Joseph Museum Center in order to gauge their usefulness for students in my African American History course when I found the medical certificate of a gentleman I had never heard of: Fenton Goodson. He earned his degree at Meharry Medical College, a historically black medical school in Nashville, before returning to St. Joseph. I mentioned my find to the curator of exhibits, who informed me that Goodson was a known murderer and drug dealer. He had been convicted of manslaughter, had gone to prison for selling heroin to patients, and had lost his medical license in 1953 for performing an illegal abortion before dying in 1956.[2] Unfortunately, no additional records were available at the Museum Center. Thus began a bit of a goose chase as I visited the local courthouse to find out more. Their records of the case were destroyed during one of multiple fires and the genealogical center turned up just a handful of documents. Luckily, local newspapers revealed a great deal about the case, piquing my interest largely because the state’s Supreme Court stepped in on a case involving a Black victim and a Black perpetrator.

The case would not leave my mind. I am not a legal historian, nor does my previous research focus on abortion. In the past I have examined Black women’s health activism in the late 20th century and the various forms of coalition-building between activists of color within the women’s health movement. But the case caught my attention. I have a fascination with true crime – indeed, I wrote a piece about the genre for Nursing Clio, and this was close to home. As a scholar of race, gender, and health, this case combined a number of my research interests even though it was not closely related to my previous research. In particular, I wanted to know why the court decided to overturn the case; in 1923, what could convince an all-white court in a former slave state to side with a Black defendant?

Photo of a page from a court case transcript, discussing whether various illnesses would cause miscarriage.
Marginalia in the court records from the abortion case of the State v. Goodson. (Photos courtesy of the author).

On a whim, I contacted a clerk at the Missouri Supreme Court who found and photocopied for me the entire case records. Suddenly I had hundreds of pages of documents including all the filings, the original trial transcripts, and the decision of the Court. In a wonderful twist, I also had access to the marginalia of one of the justices, although it is not clear whose notes they are. I now had all the details, all the evidence, the Supreme Court’s decision, their reasoning, and a sense that the court did something unique in Goodson’s case.

The state Supreme Court released their ruling on June 11, 1923. The ruling in State v. Goodson is surprisingly straightforward given the salacious details the local press regularly published regarding the case. After recounting the basic facts–including that Bernetta Coleman’s body was found in a local lake fastened to bed rails, that her head was removed, and that she was likely pregnant before her death–the court began outlining its decision. They agreed with coroner Dr. Wisser’s testimony that Coleman likely underwent an abortion, although they acknowledged that the evidence was “insufficient to support the conviction.” Per the Court, the only evidence against the defendant was “that he saw the victim as a patient, that a man similar to defendant took a package into the areas where the victim’s skull was found, similar wire to that with which the victim’s body was fastened was found on defendant’s porch, and that defendant sent several blankets to be laundered which were bloodied.”[3] Per the Court, while circumstantial evidence was admissible, it was not sufficient here to support a conviction.

Photo of court case transcript, discussing the 10 year prison sentence the defendant stands to serve
Marginalia in the court records from the abortion case of the State v. Goodson. (Photos courtesy of the author).

From here, the Court’s ruling becomes far more important in the history of abortion law in the country. The Court opinion argued therapeutic abortions were legal in Missouri and they discussed potential issues with Dr. Wisser’s autopsy report. While he was able to definitively rule that blood loss caused Coleman’s death, he could not say for certain whether the blood loss was due to decapitation, a natural miscarriage, or an illegal and medically unnecessary abortion. This alone made it difficult, per the court, to prove that the abortion led directly to Coleman’s death. They then placed the burden on the State “to show, affirmatively, that no abortion was necessary to save her life or that of the unborn child.” They continued, “it was not only necessary for the State to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the deceased died from an unlawful abortion, but it likewise devolved on it to show, beyond a reasonable doubt that the death of deceased was produced through the criminal agency of the defendant.”[4] Here, the Court appears to be launching a logical defense of Goodson, that the prosecution had not proved that an abortion had taken place, let alone that an abortion led to her death.

This is a significant departure from court rulings in other states in this period. Historian James Mohr, in his seminal study of US abortion laws, convincingly argues that by the late 19th century, courts dramatically shifted their thinking on abortion cases. By 1880, courts across the country “placed the burden of proving that an abortion had been necessary to save a woman’s life upon the person indicted for performing it. Prosecutors would thereafter be required to prove only that an abortion had taken place.”[5] Unless there was extraordinary evidence to the contrary, the courts assumed that the procedure was unnecessary. In State v. Goodson, the Missouri Supreme Court placed the burden on the state to prove that the abortion was not necessary. This is not a case in which there was simply confusion over whether an abortion had taken place in the first place; the Court deviated from other states that were placing that burden on practitioners.

Newspaper article with headline "Woman's Body in Lake Contrary"
Clipping from 17 June 1920 The Chanute Daily Tribune (Chanute, Kansas, page 1)

Many state courts were so hostile to abortion providers that prosecutors “would no longer have to prove that an alleged abortee had actually been pregnant.”[6] A multi-decade battle against abortion forced states to become harsher in their prosecutions of abortion-related deaths. In Goodson’s case, however, the Court acted mercifully, giving Goodson the benefit of the doubt that testimony suggesting Coleman claimed she was “not feeling well” might be evidence enough that an abortion was necessary. It should be noted, however, that the Court never fully addressed why Goodson would then remove her head and dump her body in the local lake. Since he was not charged with desecration of a corpse, the Court did not see fit to remark on such an issue and the prosecution did not spend much time providing the jury with possible reasons for these actions.

This is only one of the fascinating elements of the case, which ended up being cited by the Missouri court in a number of later cases also overturning manslaughter convictions for abortions. I plan to continue my research into this case, developing my arguments based on feedback from conference attendees. Ultimately, what Archival Kismet taught me was that we should not fear moving outside our comfort zones. You never know what you may find when you are not looking.

Notes

    1. State v. Goodson, 252 S.W. 366, 1923 Mo. (Supreme Court of Missouri, Division No. 2 June 11, 1923, Decided).
    2. “Dr. F.N. Goodson,” News Press. April 2, 1956, B10.
    3. State v. Goodson
    4. State v. Goodson
    5. James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origin and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (Oxford University Press, 1978), 234.
    6. Mohr, Abortion in America, 236.

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One Comment

Andy Okapal

Well done, young lady. I remember a newspaper column from The Toledo Blade (circa 1950s& 1960s) entitled, and I am not kidding, “Things I learned on the way to looking up something else”! Ask Jim about the book on “Stagger Lee”.

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