Sarah Hoover Weddle: Lost to a “Criminal Operation”

“State’s Attorney Worthington is investigating the death of Mrs. Sarah E. Weddle, widow, who died near Myersville April 14th. Certain discoveries have aroused the suspicion of the authorities.”

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Although this advert looks innocent enough, terms such as “special strong for obstinate cases” and “will quickly bring about the desired result” indicate these pills were meant to induce miscarriages.

Dayton (Ohio) Herald, 25 February, 1903: “Mrs. Amy Snyder, 52, the wife of Aaron Snyder, an expressman, of 223 South Montgomery Street, was arrested Tuesday afternoon by Sergeant Fair and assistants, on suspicion of having performed a criminal operation on Miss May Smith, 19, of Xenia, which resulted in her death.”

Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal, 26 March, 1903: “Miss Stella H. Stork, a pretty young woman whose home was at Huntingburg, Ind. … died at the private hospital of Dr. Sarah Murphy, 1018 West Chesnut Street, Tuesday afternoon. While peritonitis was the direct cause of death, this was brought on by a criminal operation….. George Lemp, a Southern Railway conductor, who came to Louisville with the girl last week, was arrested … but denied he had any knowledge of the girl’s condition.”

Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, 27 March, 1903: “The sudden death of Mrs. Martha E. Rosengrant, widow of the late William Rosengrant, was the occasion of an inquest by Coroner Tibbins…. Mrs. Rosengrant was found dead in her bed at her home on Foundry Street on Wednesday morning…. The verdict of the jury was that Martha Rosengrant came to her death from a criminal operation performed upon her by someone to the jury unknown.”

Frederick (Maryland) News, 30 April, 1903: “The people of Myersville and vicinity are excited by the discovery of what appears to be evidence that the death of Mrs. Sarah E. Weddle, which occurred April 14, was due to a criminal operation. Mrs. Weddle was sick for about two weeks before her death.”

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When she died during the quickening Spring of 1903, widow Sarah Weddle left five young children as orphans. The lingering evidence shows she was one of the uncounted thousands of Victorian and Edwardian women who, when they fell pregnant, turned to “female pills”—herbal abortifacients advertised openly albeit with coded language—or to “criminal operations,” as illegal abortions were termed in the press.

Sarah E. Hoover was born in September 1864 in the Catoctin District of Frederick County, Maryland, to Rebecca, née Babington (1837-1903), wife of Denton Claggett Hoover (1842-1911), a cooper and later a farmer in Ellerton, a crossroads village just outside of Myersville. Denton was the son of Jacob Hoover (1810-1889) and Mary Ann Warner (1815-1870), who moved from Pennsylvania to Frederick County sometime before Denton’s birth.

By the 1870 Census, the Hoover household included sister Alice Jane (1868-1933). Afterward, brothers followed: John Thomas (1872-1914), short-lived Daniel E. and his surviving twin Charles E. (1874-1899), infant George C. (1877-1878), Benjamin Franklin (1879-1952), and Silas Melvin (1880-1952).

When her youngest brother was three years old, then-19-year-old Sarah wed Martin Luther Weddle (1850-1902), a local man 14 years her senior, the son of James L. (1808-1884) and Susannah Palmer Weddle (1812-1890) of Ellerton. After the marriage, in December 1883, the couple was given 5 acres of land by his parents.

According to the 1880 Census, Weddle, a carpenter and house painter, had been a childless widower before he married Sarah. Their first son was Stanley Berkit, born 8 May, 1889. Later came Floyd Luther, born 7 February, 1891; Grover Cleveland, born 7 November, 1892; Charles Reno, born 4 March, 1898; and Eva Mae, born 20 September, 1899.

The Weddles were a quiet and respectable family that did not appear in newspapers. The exception to this was in October 1898, when Martin Weddle was a witness during the trial of Otho J. Somers (or Summers) (1865-1947), who had been indicted for forging signatures—including Weddle’s—on multiple financial notes in the Myersville area. Somers was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of the charge.

In February 1902, Martin Weddle suffered from an unknown injury that advanced into peritonitis. He died in the family home at Church Hill on the 17th, aged 52. Weddle’s funeral was held at Grossnickle’s Church of the Brethren, and there he was also buried. His Will was filed with the Orphan’s Court of Frederick County and admitted to probate during the following month.

Sarah Weddle was left with her children, the eldest of whom was twelve. Like many women of bygone ages, she soon began to hunt for a new provider, or perhaps there had been a man of her own age she’d always longed for. Whatever drove her, by the end of 1902, Sarah had settled on someone or someones. The Frederick News reported that two men were suspected, “one a resident of the neighborhood of Myersville and the other a resident of Frederick.” Undeniably, premarital intercourse occurred; however, when Sarah told her lover that she was pregnant, for whatever reason, he made it firm that there would be no marriage.

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These tablets’ abortifacient ingredients were listed beside the image of a smiling young Edwardian woman.

Sometime in March 1903, little more than a year after her husband’s death, Sarah realized she must swiftly end the advancing pregnancy before her condition became publicly known. She may have resorted to miscarriage-inducing female pills sold through newspaper advertisements or by nearby chemists, or she may have turned to a clandestine abortionist.

Sarah likely struggled back to her feet to continue the chores of a mother of five; she may have felt well enough to do this for a few days, but then came abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, and thirst. Eventually, Myersville’s Dr. Ralph Browning was summoned. He would have found the woman bedridden, suffering from advancing peritonitis. The Frederick News reported, “She made no statement to him concerning any trouble such as is believed to have caused her death…. Doctor Browning [remained] in the dark as to the supposed cause of her illness”—a protestation to protect themselves commonly and understandably made by attending physicians.

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Sarah Weddle’s Obituary, Frederick News, 17 April, 1903.

Despite Browning’s care, Sarah Weddle worsened. She died on 14 April of what Browning pronounced as peritonitis and heart failure. However, Sarah’s obituary, which ran in local papers a few days later, claimed that she died of “grip.” An archaic medical term for influenza, grip manifested many of the symptoms of peritonitis and provided plausible cover.

Unfortunately, the dissemblance lasted only about a week. First, the Frederick News reported on 30 April, preparations for a sale of her effects led to “discoveries made in the house… [that] first gave rise to suspicion. Then, “dogs dug up in the garden of her late home, about a mile and a half above Myersville, the body of an infant wrapped up in cloths. The body, when found, was taken to the office of Dr. Browning, who kept it until yesterday when it was buried by the direction of State’s Attorney Worthington, who had been communicated with and went to Myersville for an investigation.” Although Worthington interviewed witnesses in the case, he was “unable to say until after further investigation whether any arrests would be made.” It appears that none ever were.

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Rebecca Babbington Hoover’s headstone, Grossnickle’s Church of the Brethren Cemetery, Ellerton. Photo by Nancy Trout.

Sarah Weddle was gone, her body occupying the space beside her late husband in the cemetery of Grossnickle’s Church of the Brethren. Only the whispered gossip of a criminal operation lingered on Main Street and in the high green hills surrounding Myersville.

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Sarah’s children were sent to live with their Hoover grandparents, who had moved to near Sharpsburg in Washington County. The stress of her daughter’s death and the need to care for five grandchildren may have sent Rebecca Hoover into rapid decline. She died just five months later, on 3 September, aged 65.

At the end of December 1903, the News reported that estate administrator Emory L. Coblentz sold at auction in “the electric car barn at Myersville, a house and 9 acres of land, the property of the late Sarah E. Weddle, situated near St. John’s Lutheran Church, to Mr. Soule J. Warrenfeltz, for $410.”

Their parents and home vanished and their grandfather too elderly to keep them, Sarah’s children were fostered out to families in Hagerstown. It may be suspected that their childhoods, so badly blighted, never improved, for none of the siblings lingered in Maryland after gaining their majority. Stanley, the eldest, resided in Woodland, Yolo County, California, by age 20, making his living as a servant and worker in a slaughterhouse. He lived in Detroit, Michigan, in 1918—a 28-year-old brown-haired and blue-eyed former sheet-iron worker disabled by the loss of his right hand. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Illinois, where on 20 April, 1922, he married Irene Flanagan. Stanley died on 25 June, 1973.

The second son, Floyd, may have traveled to California with his older brother and made his home in Los Angeles. He married and had at least one child, a daughter named Eileen, born in 1928. He died on 14 May, 1953, and rests in Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, Los Angeles County.

Sarah’s son Grover Cleveland worked as a brass molder in Detroit, Michigan, for Joseph U. Smith and Company, and married Gertrude Noffz on 4 October, 1913. He enlisted and served in World War I from November 1917 to June 1919.  He was described on his registration card as 5’8″, with blue eyes, light brown hair, and a medium complexion.

In 1923, his wife Gertrude died. Grover later lived in Chicago then Dayton, Ohio, with his second wife, Irene Johnson. He died on 5 December, 1948, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, River Grove, Illinois.

Charles Reno, a brown-haired and brown-eyed 20-year-old who registered for the World War I draft from Hagerstown, saw in his twenty-first year in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, as a fireman on an American naval vessel. He passed away in Chicago, in June 1978.

Sarah’s only daughter married Heinz Petersen in New York City on 20 June, 1925. On 26 October, 1926, Eva gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth Frederica (d. 2004), in Manhattan. In 1929, Eva returned to New York aboard the S. S. President Harding from a trip to Bremen, Germany. A mere four years later, in Michigan, Eva divorced her husband for “extreme cruelty, non-support.” Eva lived until 9 June, 1990.

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Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette, 12 May, 1903: “Apparently deserted by the man whom she had followed from her home to this city, Emma Long Stacey … a beautiful girl of twenty-one, lies dying at the Presbyterian Hospital…. The girl was found unconscious in bed and an ambulance summoned. She was dying from the result of a criminal operation.”

Saint Paul (Minnesota) Globe, 28 May, 1903: “An inquest will be held at the county morgue this morning to investigate the death of Mrs. Ernest W. Crancum, colored, which occurred at the city hospital Sunday morning from blood poisoning. The investigation is being made by Coroner Miller for the purpose of ascertaining whether a criminal operation had been performed upon the woman…. Mrs. Crucum was taken to the city hospital Thursday in a semi-conscious condition and remained so until her death.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 June 1903: “Margaret F. Sutton, 18 years old [died from] a criminal operation in a house on Twelfth Street … and it is alleged, for the purpose of keeping the facts of her death from authorities, that her body was taken from the house during the night and secretly buried….”

Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Semi-Weekly Record, 17 November, 1903: “The police are investigating the case of Mary Stasko, 18 years old, Coal and Grant Streets, who is believed to the victim of a criminal operation…. Her brother Andrew Stassko, is under $500 bail on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact…. Dr. Wenner testified that Andrew refused to allow the physicians to treat the girl and said he did not care whether she lived or died….” Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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