Is abortion murder? Today, the answer depends on your religious and moral perspective. But for Eva Swan, the answer was a painful and tragic “Yes.” On April 20, 1910, Swan, a stenographer, seemed unusually disturbed and pale at work. Midway through the day, she left her desk, tossed her keys on her employer’s desk and said, “I can’t stand this anymore” before leaving the office.
The next day, Swan’s family reported her missing and her uncle, Henry Swan, started looking for her. He visited her boarding house and found her possessions undisturbed with no indication that she was planning a trip. Eva Swan had money in the bank, a good job and no indication of problems in her life. As her uncle continued his search, he received letters from Eva’s sister, which accused Paul Parker, who also lived at the boarding house, of having something to do with her disappearance. Parker, a writer and former football star at Stanford, had been a childhood friend of Eva’s. He denied any knowledge of her whereabouts.
Over the next few months, Henry Swan continued searching. Upon hearing a rumor that Eva was in Mill Valley, he searched the town but turned up nothing. After some initial investigation, the police dropped the case.
On Sept. 19, the case took a dramatic turn when a man named Ben Gordon went to the police and told them his employer, “Doctor James Grant,” had killed Eva Swan and buried her body in the basement at 327 Eureka St. Though skeptical, police dug up the basement on Sept. 23 and discovered Swan’s body under a layer of concrete.
Police arrested Dr. Grant and his nurse, Marie Messerschmidt. Both denied any knowledge of the body. Detectives put Messerschmidt in a separate room and brought in her brother-in-law to speak with her. After an appeal to her conscience and assurances that police would protect her from Dr. Grant, Messerschmidt broke down and told her story. She said Swan came to Dr. Grant’s office for an abortion on April 16 and returned the next day for further treatment. She came back in great pain on April 20 and was put into a bed in the office.
During this time, Parker visited three times. Messerschmidt nursed her, but blood poisoning had set in. Swan died on April 30, after 10 agonizing days. Messerschmidt saw Dr. Grant put the body in a trunk and take it away and later learned that Dr. Grant, with the help of his office boy, Willie Saack, had rented a house under an assumed name and buried the body under concrete.
Messerschmidt then revealed another shocking surprise: The man posing as Dr. Grant was actually Dr. Robert Thompson, a graduate of Dartmouth and Baltimore Medical College. Dr. Thompson, who had been convicted of counterfeiting in Maryland, had changed his name and moved to California. Messerschmidt told police Dr. Thompson had threatened her with a gun and said he would “plug” anybody who “would Welch on him.”
Police brought the newly identified Dr. Thompson into the room with Messerschmidt. Thompson, an imposing man who stood over six-feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, stood in the corner with a confident smile. But when he heard Messerschmidt’s confession, his smile collapsed and tried to flee the room before he was restrained by police detectives.
It is estimated that more than 3,700 women died in the United States in 1910 as a result of illegal abortions. Women who suffered complications were never sent to hospitals because the abortionists, 90 percent of whom were doctors, feared arrest and financial ruin if they were exposed. Stories of women’s bodies being found buried or dumped in San Francisco Bay as the result of “criminal operations” appeared in the The City’s newspapers on a regular basis between 1880 and 1930. Doctors were almost always acquitted in these cases.
Police questioned Parker, who admitted to visiting Swan after she called him on April 20. He kept quiet because he was afraid of ruining Swan’s reputation. A few days later, Thompson informed Parker that Swan was recovering and had been moved to a house in Mill Valley.
Thompson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years. During the trial, it was revealed that Gordon and Saack had tried to blackmail Thompson, but received only $30 as hush money. When Gordon demanded more, Dr. Thompson threatened to kill him, which prompted Gordon to go to the police. Dr. Thompson was paroled in 1919, and moved to Boston and New York, where he continued his career as an abortionist for the next decade by bribing police, changing his name and moving to different cities.
Abortion in San Francisco continued to be a risky business until improvements in medical practice and the appearance of the legendary Inez Burns.
More on this in our next installment.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.