The inquest gained extraordinary newspaper coverage, much of it extremely graphic for the Victorian age that didn’t even acknowledge bodily functions let alone sexual matters.
Today it arouses passions and controversy; a century and more ago, abortion was mentioned publicly only in extreme circumstances. The death of Annie Embleton at South Wellington was such an exception.
After listening to the evidence for almost 12 hours, a coroner’s jury found that “the deceased Annie Embleton came to her death by abortion, which produced peritonitis or inflammation, but we cannot find sufficient evidence to show us by what person or persons medicines were administered to procure abortion”.
This, after hearing evidence that was described as having been voluminous and exhaustive.
Mary Jane Drew had testified that Mr. Embleton asked her at 10:30 on the night of May 27 to sit with his wife while he fetched the doctor. She found Mrs. Embleton, who’d often complained of a pain in her side, to be “no sicker than at other times,” but cold, so she’d placed hot irons at her feet. “The deceased told me that she had been using a syringe on herself and that I was not to tell Dr. Walkem or her husband when they came.” She’d also noted what she’d thought to be vaginal bleeding on the bedsheets.
Two weeks previously, Mrs. Embleton had told her that she’d “take medicine if she could get it by any means” to terminate her pregnancy as another birth “would kill her”.
When the doctor and husband arrived, Mrs. Dalton told Walkem that Mrs. Embleton had pains in her back and belly. Walkem gave her some powdered sedative which she threw up five minutes later and declined to take a second dose but relented half an hour later. Mrs. Drew went home at 3 a.m. Friday and returned at 1 p.m. and remained at her friend’s bedside, in the company of her parents and two others (unidentified in the Nanaimo Free Press) until Mrs. Embleton passed away at a quarter past six after having refused Walkem’s suggestion that she be seen by Drs. Jones or O’Brian.
Edwin Pimbury, pharmacist, deposed that he’d filled three prescriptions for the deceased: a quinine mixture, some morphine powders and bromide of potassium, none of which would have had adversely affected pregnancy. R. Scott, another druggist, denied anyone having attempted to procure medications for Mrs. Embleton without a prescription.
Dr. Robert O’Brian described the results of his post mortem examination of the 24-year-old deceased in clinical detail. She’d been between two and four months pregnant and had died of peritonitis. There were no internal indications of physical injury, no firm evidence of medications having been taken to induce miscarriage — and no physical evidence that the deceased could not have successfully completed her pregnancy.
Dr. William McNaughton Jones, who’d attended the post mortem, concurred but flatly said that peritonitis was the result of “abortion or confinement”.
Recalled, pharmacist Scott said that he’d concluded a month before that Mrs. Embleton was suffering from neuralgia, but her husband having whispered that he thought her trouble to be in her mind, Scott took this to be a hint that he provide them with the means to terminate her pregnancy. He’d told them, “I had too much respect for my age to begin that sort of work now. I do not want 15 years in the penitentiary, nor do you, Tom.”
Six months earlier, Dr. Walkem testified, Mrs. Embleton had complained of pain in her left side and dizziness, and had expressed the fear that she was pregnant. He’d diagnosed an inflamed ovary, warned her against using her foot-pedal sewing machine, and prescribed a tonic. When she’d insisted that she was four to five weeks pregnant, he’d dismissed the idea because of previous unfounded ailments. He’d also complained about having made an unnecessary house call, and of her drinking tansy tea. When next he saw her, in May, she was dying.
Druggist Scott returned to the stand to state, “I say positively on my oath that I have not given the deceased any noxious drug to bring on a miscarriage.”
The inquest gained extraordinary newspaper coverage, much of it extremely graphic for the Victorian age that didn’t even acknowledge bodily functions let alone sexual matters. For Thomas Embleton, the loss of his wife and the mother of his children was compounded when, despite the inquest’s blank ruling, he was charged with having procured the potions by which his wife Annie had attempted to induce miscarriage.