family history, History, Sutliff

On Abortion

I realize that the title of this post is a hotly debated subject. Where one rarely finds agreeable ground with another. And, while I have my opinion and I do enjoy getting up on my soapbox, that isn’t why I’m writing this post. Rather, this post is one of the historical significance of abortion, and my hope is that we can learn from our past to better educate our future.

photo from if anyone has a photo of Belle, please share! I would love to see!

  Last week, as I entered the last year of my twenties, I couldn’t help but to think of my life in terms of the women who came before me.

If I was my mother, I’d have been married six years and would have a two year old toddling after me. Which is a disconcerting thought as I flip-flop on the idea of having kids (and who still enjoys overindulging in adult beverages on a Tuesday night).

My maternal grandmother married at 27, had her first child soon after, and was pregnant with her second by twenty-nine.

My paternal grandmother was married at 24, and had children in quick succession.

But more than any of these fantastic women, I find myself thinking this week about one relative in particular: Belle Sutliff, my 3rd great-aunt.

Belle plays a significant role in my current WIP as a sister to my main character. It’s a fictionalized portrayal of the difficult and tragic life of my 2x great-grandfather, William Sutliff. And Belle’s story, more than any other, struck something inside me that has not yet healed. And, if I’m being honest, it probably never will.


In the early morning hours of 12 February 1897, with her brother and sister and a nurse present, Belle’s organs failed, one by one, until at long last, her heart gave up the fight, it’s last beat at 2:15am. She was 28 years old.[^1]

It took me years, to learn the truth behind Belle’s death. The online listing of deaths from Jones County, Iowa listed Belle’s as  caused by “blood poisoning” something I found odd. A relatively healthy 28 year old living near a town should, technically, be able to seek medical care in that condition. It wasn’t until a random Google search of her name returned a clearer answer as to the cause of her death.

The “Criminal Operation”: Murder of Belle Sutliff 1897

Shortly after her mother’s death, Belle began a relationship with physician, Lacey Bobo, a married man. (How you choose to have a relationship with anyone named “Bobo” is beyond me.) When she discovered she was pregnant she went to Bobo for help. He first offered her an elixir (testimony during trial states it was cotton root, a known abortifacient[^2]) that would produce an abortion. When the medicine failed, Bobo used an instrument on Belle. And when that too failed, and Belle came again asking for help, he told her to find another doctor.

Abortions in the 19th century were illegal, unless the mother’s life were in danger. Interestingly enough, for the most part, abortions were not illegal until 1880. At the end of the 1800s, a burgeoning antifeminist movement to restrict women to strictly domestic and childrearing roles as well as male doctors realizing the economic and social threat of midwives performing abortions and delivering babies, elicited the medical establishment to take up the antiabortion cause. Also, with the influx of immigration and the declining birth-rate among whites in the late 1800s, found the government supporting white supremacists, and urged white, Protestant women to populate the growing nation.[^3]

The doctors who came to Belle in her hour of need after Bobo tossed her aside knew they were risking prosecution. What I initially read as kindness of one doctor wanting to bring in a more experienced physician to examine her, now fills me with rage. The same doctor refused to treat her unless she would write a confession exonerating him and pointing the blame at Bobo in order to protect his reputation and his practice. And it wasn’t until after Belle died that he produced this penned evidence. In court. Under oath.

But much of my anger lies with Bobo himself. True, it “takes two to tango”. As Belle’s physician, he would’ve seen her at her most vulnerable times. Was he in a position to take advantage of her? Absolutely. True, too, she was a twenty-eight year old woman who should have known better. But anyone in a weakened state, can be easily swayed.

Two separate newspapers account of the Bobo trial also angered me. The first appeared in The Monticello Express on 25 February 1897.


To me, this article sounds as if the case against Bobo should be dropped because Belle has died and to continuing prosecution will just damage his reputation.

“So will the man’s life be wrecked if found guilty of the foul crime charged against him.”

Well, that’s too damn bad. A woman has died (died!) and yet this account is more concerned with the fate of the man responsible’s reputation.

The next article was from The Monticello Express dated 18 February 1897. A partial piece of the article appears here.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.39.20 PM

As if, she deserved to die for sinning? That by making a mistake or a choice that doesn’t align with their values that it’s therefor a sin and that someone deserves to die? The disheartening fact is there are people today who believe this. 

I can’t help but assume that she was lonely. Newspaper reports state how much she was loved and adored by her students. And in the years before her mother’s death, she led an active social life, traveling to nearby cities and towns visiting relatives and friends. Her brother, William, was living with her, and her sister Mary Eva lived nearby. And she still spent time with friends. But there’s a difference between familial and friend relations and needing something more. Of course, Lacey Bobo wasn’t the best choice for her to have made, but she met him at a low period of her life. Her father had deserted the family, her younger sister was married with a child, her mother passed away, and her younger brother, I assume was happily experience his first love with his childhood sweetheart.

Did she long for a relationship of her own?
Someone who understood her on all levels?
Did she want someone to hold her?
To share her life with?
To kiss away her fears?

Don’t we all?

For Belle, what other options did she have? She was a schoolteacher, well-known and well-liked, respected within her community. She didn’t have family to turn to that lived “upstate”. She didn’t have money to leave. Had she chosen to have the child, even had she given it up for adoption, she would’ve lost everything. Her job, her livelihood, her home, gone. The paternity of the child would not have remained a secret in such a small town. Bobo would have had the luxury of moving away with his family. But Belle and her child would have been branded for life.

I think again of my mother, my grandmothers, and all the women who came before me. How strong, how brave. To bring a life into the world, not knowing what the future has in store. It’s a frightening concept. And it’s why I know I flip-flop on having my own child. The past is easy to understand. I can read a book, watch a film, visit a museum, touch a gravestone. But I cannot see into the future. I cannot know that my child will grow up happy and healthy. That they will laugh and play, make friends, find love, feel passion for something. It’s a frightening gamble to make.

And yet, even today, unwed and uncommitted mothers face the same stigma as Belle. It may not run as deep as the 19th century, but still, people talk. Rather than comment on her glow people worry over how she will afford to live. Rather than offer support, people offer concerns. Why is it so easy to criticize someone else’s life instead of try to understand?


Tragically, this story led me to realize that in 19th century America, a woman’s life meant nothing. Even today, they means little more than that. Regardless of whether or not a pregnancy was by rape or a mistake or simply carelessness, abortion is not a decision that is easily made. But few try to empathize and understand. Fewer still show compassion.

Perhaps one day we can stop the senseless fighting. It should never be and never have been about controlling what a woman can or cannot do with her body. But sadly, that’s the world we still live in. From belittling catcalls and unwarranted sexual advances, to the media’s scrutinization of women, and the demeaning questions asked of them. Hell it’s even within the beauty ads that tell you one thing, yet promote their products on the idea that you’re actually NOT good enough on you’re own…you NEED this makeup, shampoo, beauty bar, perfume, clothing to be better than you are!

Perhaps if we were a more accepting of others, and the choices they’ve made or have been forced to make because they saw no better option we could learn to be compassionate.

Perhaps if tolerance was an actual course taught to us and our children and not just a fanciful notion of how great the world would be “if” we only we could all be accepting.

Just as someone else’s life is not your life, someone else’s choice does not have to be your choice. But we can still be kind to one another’s choices. It’s the humane thing to do.

I guess I got up on my soapbox after all.


[^1]”The ‘Criminal Operation’: Murder of Belle Sutliff 1897.” Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases. Nancy Bowers. May 2012. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

{^2]”Cotton Root Bark.AltMed. The Gale Group. 2008. Web. 12 Aug. 2016

[^3]”HISTORY OF ABORTION.” Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century. Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Published by Touchstone.  n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

3 thoughts on “On Abortion”

  1. This is a very fascinating and heartbreaking family story. I can see why you’ve had such a difficult time writing about Belle. Thank you for sharing and for providing a history lesson on the issue – very interesting!

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