In 1742 in Pomfret, Conn., Sarah Grosvenor and Amasa Sessions were boyfriend and girlfriend, he 26 and she 19. In May of that year, Sarah told Amasa she was pregnant, and he agreed to marry her. But they never made it to the altar. In August, Sarah miscarried and lost the baby. In September, she contracted a fever and died.
Her story might have ended that simply, with a headstone in the local cemetery, but the town swarmed with rumors over Sarah’s death. Three years later, a grand jury was empaneled to investigate.
The jurors indicted Amasa Sessions and Dr. John Hallowell, a local doctor, for murdering Sarah Grosvenor. In the first case of its type in North America, the jury accused Hallowell of murder for attempting an abortion on Sarah.
It would be 1747, a full five years after Sarah’s death, that a court would try the cases and the whole story would came out.
In May 1742, Amasa Sessions helped Sarah Grosvenor obtain an herbal remedy designed to make her lose the baby. It was known as ‘taking the trade,’ and viewed as acceptable in the early stages of pregnancy.
Sarah denied being pregnant to anyone who asked, and continued taking the medicine for the next two months. But the medicine didn’t work, and Sarah began feeling sick. By July the situation grew more dire.
She finally admitted her pregnancy to her sister and her cousin, and Dr. Hallowell visited her home. She felt ill, and the doctor worried she had taken so much of the medication that she would not survive childbirth. Aided by Sarah’s cousin and sister, he attempted an abortion on August 2. Two days later, Sarah miscarried.
Sarah’s sister and cousin buried the dead baby and Sarah began to feel better. But her condition soon worsened. Within two weeks, Sarah developed a fever. The family summoned Dr. Parker Morse to treat her.
Dr. Morse had heard a rumor about Sarah’s pregnancy, but her family denied it. They told him he could prescribe the best treatment for Sarah with no worry that she was pregnant.
On Sept. 14, Sarah Grosvenor died at age 20, probably from an infection caused by unsanitary tools used in her surgery.
Three years later, local gossip about Sarah’s death probably induced the town to empanel a grand jury to sort out what happened.
The jury did not convict Amasa of any wrongdoing for his part in arranging for Dr. Hallowell’s services. But it did convict Dr. Hallowell of a misdemeanor for performing the surgical abortion.
Dr. Hallowell would petition the Connecticut legislature to reduce his punishment to a fine, with no corporal punishment, but it refused.
Thanks to: Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village, by Cornelia Hughes Dayton. This story about the death of Sarah Grosvenor was updated in 2022.