The Tragic Tale of Alice Bowlsby

Alice Bowlsby

Had it not been for the foul stench, Robert Vandervort, baggage master of the Hudson River Railroad, would never have opened the trunk labeled as freight to Chicago on the hot afternoon of August 27, 1871.  Inside was the naked corpse of a young woman, bloody and rotting.  Dr. Cushman, who performed the autopsy, could still tell that the nameless victim had been comely, with blond hair, blue eyes, and skin “as white as Parian marble.”  Cushman discovered she’d had an abortion; whoever had performed it had botched the job, and she’d died in excruciating pain.  Cushman noted that her mouth still bore the marks of an agonizing death scream.

Even before the police ascertained the victim’s identity, they had a suspect.  Through the cartman who’d delivered it to the station, the police tied the trunk to Dr. Jacob Rosenzweig.  He did not look the part of a doctor; one reporter noted Rosenzweig was “a fat, sensual looking fellow, without any trace of refinement in person or manners, and does not bear the faintest appearance of the educated physician.”  Appearance matched reality.  The “Dr.” before Rosenzweig’s name was little more than an honorific, purchased for $40.00 from a Philadelphia medical institution, and costing nary a minute of study.  Before setting himself up as a doctor, Rosenzweig tended bar in a dive saloon and worked a brief stint as a butcher, which provided a cursory understanding of anatomy and little else.

As if being one faux doctor wasn’t enough, the police discovered that Rosenzweig ran an abortion parlor on South Fifth Avenue under the name Dr. Ascher.  Further victims turned: Mary Carroll, true name unknown; Rosenzweig had convinced the undertaker to list dropsy as the cause of death; Agneta Dumague, who had come to the city and promptly disappeared.  A gentleman who preferred to remain anonymous identified Rosenzweig as the man he’d kicked down the stairs after he’d almost killed the gentleman’s wife through medical ignorance.  The police suspected Rosenzweig in the death of his young cousin Figa, who’d disappeared.  Rosenzweig swore she’d moved back to Europe, but rumor had it he’d impregnated her, then killed her while performing the abortion.

For the New York Times, the discovery of the mysterious woman in the trunk could not have come at a more fortuitous time.  At the time, abortion before the first quickening was legal, and for months the paper had crusaded for an outright ban on the practice.  The Times considered abortion barbaric, likely to lead to feminine licentiousness, and most importantly, to demographic displacement; since the Irish eschewed abortion Protestants would soon be eclipsed.  The Times was not completely altruistic.  Abortionists, including Dr. Ascher, regularly advertised in the rival New York Herald, and the Times were not one to miss the opportunity to goad a rival.

It took until Wednesday, August 30, for the corpse to be named.  The body had already been dead a few days before Vandervort opened the trunk, and even though Dr. Cushman had ordered the body packed in ice, the sickly sweet stench of death lingered in the broiling summer air around Bellevue Hospital.  Theodore G. Kimmel and Joseph Parker, both real medical professionals and both of Paterson, New Jersey, identified the body as Alice A. Bowlsby.  Kimmel recognized an odd vaccination mark on her forearm, and Parker, her dentist, recognized his handiwork on two fillings.

Only 20-years-old, friends knew Alice as a sweet, gentle, innocent girl, who taught Sunday School and worked in the family’s dress shop.  Alice and her mother had been staying with Alice’s aunt in Newark, and she’d left to return to their empty home in Paterson after a brief shopping trip in Manhattan, or so she told her mother and aunt.  Bowlsby disappeared into the metropolis in a white lawn dress, tucked and ruffled, with a blue sash and ribbons about her waist.

The newspaper reporters got to Bowlsby’s aunt quickly, and she identified the putative father, Walter F. Conkling; bookkeeper at the Dale Silk Mill, and son of a Newark alderman.  By the time Conkling showed up for work the next morning, the entire Silk Mill knew of the accusations, and co-workers gossiped amongst themselves whether a diamond stick pin, which he usually wore but which was now absent, had been used to pay for Rosenzweig’s services.  Conkling refused to discuss the matter.  He looked nervous and pale as he balanced his books, and refused to join his friends for lunch.  While the office was empty, Conkling tore a page from his ledger and scribbled:

I have long had a morbid idea of the worthlessness of life, and now to be obliged to testify in this affair and cause unpleasantness in my family is more than life is worth.  Good by dear father, mother, brother and sister.


Putting the note in his pocket, Conkling went to the fireproof room where the company stored finished silks, put the barrel of a revolver behind his left ear, and pulled the trigger.

A few months later, the state tried Rosenzweig for manslaughter.  The state’s key pieces of evidence were a handkerchief with “Bowlsby” inscribed with indelible ink, the cartman’s testimony, and some scraps of fabric purportedly belonging to Bowlsby’s dress.  His lawyers put up a vehement defense, glossing over the testimony of the cartman, who’d admittedly never seen Rosenzweig, and finding an alternative Mrs. Bowlsby from Brooklyn to testify that the handkerchief belonged to her daughter.  At the close of the case, two jurors held out, and only agreed to a verdict of guilty provided that they jury agreed to request mercy for the accused.  The court ignored the mercy request, sentencing Rosenzweig to seven years in Sing-Sing.  The murder sparked public outcry, leading to the outright abortion ban championed by the New York Times.  Ironically, Rosenzweig’s lawyers managed to use the legal change to free Rosenzweig after a successful appeal.  Released after a year in prison, Rosenzweig went right back to providing backroom abortions, neither chastened nor chagrined.

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Some fun stuff from the archives:

The World’s Worst Divorce Attorney:

The Original Flagpole Sitta:

A Public Service Announcement from 1896:

The Great New York Shoe Conspiracy:  



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