Jeannie's Demise

Abortion on Trial in Victorian Toronto

Reviewed by Tanja Hütter

Posted December 1, 2021

In 1875, Jeannie Gilmour was a young single Toronto woman who bristled against the social conventions that denied her the agency to make her own decisions about where to live and to work, or about the people with whom she could spend her time. While the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy remain a mystery, the circumstances of her death were violently clear.

When abortions are illegal, the need for them does not disappear, only the access to safe procedures. And when service providers were unregulated, incompetent, and killed one of their clients, discreet disposal of the body was their paramount concern.

In Gilmour’s case, she was not even afforded that courtesy. The discovery of her half-buried corpse eventually led to multiple arrests of people who were intimately involved or who were accessories after the fact.

In Jeannie’s Demise, historian Ian Radforth presents the results of his detailed investigation of one backstreet abortion and its tragic consequences. While the book is sparsely illustrated, it’s an absorbing read, and the included endnotes offer directions for possible further reading.

North American women today may have access to a safe abortion, but after witnessing recent events in the United States that right feels much more fragile now than it did just a few years ago. Jeannie’s Demise is a disturbing reminder of how dangerous and lethal medical procedures can be when access to professional care is trumped by religious convictions and political agendas.

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This article originally appeared in the December 2021-January 2022 issue of Canada's History.

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