‘The baby burner’

Julia Fortmeyer, 1875

One of the earliest stories about abortion in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives was published in 1874 by The Dispatch, one of the newspaper’s predecessors. It involved a midwife-abortionist named Julia Fortmeyer, who lived at 1817 Morgan Street (now Delmar, between 18th and 19th streets).

Fortmeyer’s brush with infamy began in August of that year, when she asked local authorities to retrieve the body of Lena Miller, an African American woman of about 18 years, who died after a crude abortion and after receiving what was described as an overdose of morphine.

Police also found a second woman, Louise Beehler (or Biehler), clearly in distress.

And they discovered, according to contemporaneous reports and trial testimony, remains of fetuses, or babies, in Fortmeyer’s oven.

Sarah Fay, a young woman in Fortmeyer’s employ, later testified that Fortmeyer performed abortions, then put still-living babies in the oven, dousing some with coal oil to speed the incineration.

It was sensational stuff, to be sure – although, given the unreliable police work and journalism of the time, likely exaggerated.

In a story published by The Dispatch on Aug. 14, 1874, Fortmeyer (her first name was incorrectly reported as Julietta) asserted she was religious and a Methodist. But she said didn’t believe much in churchgoing “since I have seen the corruption and debauchery … among church people, but I believe in God and in a place of future punishment.”

Fortmeyer also asserted, The Dispatch reported, that she didn’t believe “a babe becomes a living being with a spirit and a soul until it is born.”

Fortmeyer faced murder charges when she went to trial in 1875, but her lawyers convinced a jury to convict her of manslaughter.

Arguments at her trial and witness statements were turned into a 64-page book, “Life, Crimes and Confession of Mrs. Julia Fortmeyer of St. Louis,” available online. In it, she asserted she was a Catholic convert, that Sarah Fay was a “perjurer and liar” and all the bones found in her oven were of children who were already dead. But, according to the sensational account, nearly 100 bodies, “dead and alive, have been cast into the flames of the stove by this human fiend.”

“They were all dead, and most of them born so; I was interested in the mothers, and not the children,” she said, according to the book.

Fortmeyer, dubbed “the baby burner,” was sentenced to serve 10 years at the penitentiary in Jefferson City; she was released after seven.

Prison records show she was 37 years old when she arrived – and 5’4,” “very large” and “homely.” What happened to her after her release is, at this time, unknown.

Few other records about Fortmeyer are readily available. She shows up in the 1870 census, living with her then-husband William Fortmeyer (he divorced her in 1875), along with Ellen Sweeney, a prostitute, and Hattie Jackson, who is described as insane. She is listed in the 1880 census as a resident of Cole County, where the state penitentiary is located. After that, there’s nothing.

In 1883, a news item about a Louis Fortmeyer, who claimed to be her son, was published by the Post-Dispatch. But his story is also, as yet, unknown.

Though abortion was, at the time, considered disreputable and criminal, it clearly was a common practice in the 19th century, but one relegated to poorly trained amateurs.

An even more gruesome case emerged in 1899, when St. Louis police discovered the work of Mrs. Henrietta Bamberger, a midwife accused of multiple deaths of women and infants at her home at 919 Chouteau Avenue.

Bamberger’s business really wasn’t a secret. She and other midwives regularly advertised their services, offering confidential help to “ladies in trouble.”

Bamberger, 60, was convicted in 1900 of manslaughter in the case of Wilhelmina Spoeri (other charges were dropped), sentenced to serve five years and released in 1903. (The 1920 census shows her at the Wartburg Home in Brooklyn, a Lutheran facility for the elderly.) — Roland Klose

(Originally published May 14, 2022)

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