Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Sad Case of Rosetta Jackson

In the evening of June 12, 1874, 17 year-old Miss Rosetta Jackson died in her bed here at 186 S. Jefferson (since renumbered 313 S. Jefferson). The death certificate, prepared by her doctor, Charles Earll, indicated typhoid fever and enteritis as the causes of decease. Her sister and brother-in-law, Lizzie and William Flagg, sent her body to be coffined and taken by train for burial near her family home in Wisconsin.

But something about the case troubled Chicago police officer Thomas Simmons: a sudden, unexpected death of a young, healthy woman, and such a rush to remove her remains. And then there was the involvement of the notorious Dr. Earll. He went to interview Miss Jackson’s landlady, a Mrs. Kate Heiland. The story that spilled out of Mrs. Heiland was one of the most sordid and heartbreaking in Chicago history, one that would fill newspaper headlines throughout that summer of 1874, as two separate juries deliberated on the fates of Mrs. Heiland, Dr. Earll, and the Flaggs. The Rosetta Jackson case, which brought to prominence in Chicago an early instance of an issue that roils America to this day, seems to have been lost to history.

Miss Jackson’s older sister Lizzie had married a barber by the name of William Flagg, and the two inhabited an apartment on W. Lake St., above Mr. Flagg’s barbershop. At age 16, Rosetta left her family home in Mauston, Wisconsin, to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, exchanging room and board for cleaning and household duties, which were many in the rapidly growing Flagg family.

But all was not right in the home. Mr. Flagg took an increasingly dangerous interest in the pretty young girl, and she seemed flattered by his joking flirtations, as when he would wrap his arm around her waist and laughingly tell the patrons of his barbershop that they’d better not lay a finger on “his girl”. Over time, the neighbors began to whisper and the scent of scandal turned prurient eyes wherever they were seen together. The two were seen sitting together at Western Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church on Sundays, without Mrs. Flagg, and frequently went out together at night.

Mrs. Flagg wasn’t impervious to the accusatory stares of her neighbors, or what she could see with her own eyes. Pregnant with another child at the time, she was especially sensitive to her husband’s apparent dalliance. As she told the police on the day after Rosetta’s death,
I have seen my husband noticeably intimate with my sister. The neighbors noted it too. At one time I caught him kissing Rosetta. I had not the courage to speak to my husband about it, though….I never caught the pair in any more improper behhavior than kissing each other, but I could swear that at the time mentioned there was something irregular, and I believed that they had been doing wrong.
A neighbor, Angeline Pernod, later testified at trial:
Mrs. Flagg, about three of four weeks ago, told me that her husband was out until about 11 o'clock one night, and when he came home put his hat and coat in her room. Then he walked into her sister's (the deceased's) room, and she subsequently saw him kneeling on the floor, and he had his arms over her sister's head. She asked him what he was doing there, and he then got up and walked back to her room. When Mrs. Flagg told me this she said she had not told half of her troubles....There was some talk in the neighborhood about an intimacy between Flagg and his sister-in-law, occasioned by their going to church, and being out at night together.
One day, Mrs. Flagg took the train up to Wisconsin for a family visit, leaving Mr. Flagg and Rosetta alone at home. Immediately upon Mrs. Flagg’s departure, the two went out to a restaurant together – something they had never done before – and upon their return, Flagg closed his barber shop early. The two were not seen again that evening.

Up in Wisconsin, Mrs. Flagg had a dream: her husband was having an affair with her sister. She awoke and could not settle her suspicious intuition. She made an excuse and boarded the night train back to Chicago, arriving in the morning. At her home, she first went to Rosetta’s room. The bed was perfectly made and there was no sign it had been slept in. By contrast, in her own bedroom, she found the bedsheets askew on her husband’s bed, and the unmistakable evidence that two, not one, had slumbered there.

Her worst suspicions confirmed, she confronted Rosetta. Was her sister sleeping with her husband? Rosetta denied everything, as did Mr. Flagg, but the relationship between the sisters was permanently damaged, and a few months later, Rosetta would depart from their home for good.

Around the time of the confrontation with her sister, Rosetta Jackson discovered she was pregnant. Conditions for single mothers in Chicago were perhaps a little better than in the East, but out-of-wedlock childbirth still meant social ruin, poverty, and a practical impossibility in marrying. What would her fellow Methodist church members say? Would her sister and her family ever speak to her again? And what about dear, kind, Mr. Flagg? His reputation, his family life, his business, all could be lost. She just couldn’t have this baby.

She told Flagg of her plight, and he asked if she wanted to move out East to live with another sister in New York. No, she did not want this baby. “For God’s sake,” he later claimed to have told her, “don’t do anything to get rid of it. If you are in a family-way go and have it. I will pay your expenses.”

But a few days later found Mr. Flagg in a brothel a few blocks east of his home on Lake St., where he discussed the problem with Nellie Sinclair, one of the prostitutes working there (Flagg later claimed, to the credulity of no one, that Sinclair was ill and he gave her $2, not for services rendered, but out of charity).

“What do women of your profession do to eliminate a pregnancy?” He asked Sinclair. “I’m in real trouble – you see, I’ve gotten too intimate with a lady friend of mine from Wisconsin. She’s a church member and I have to shield her from disgrace.”

Sinclair recommended two practices common among women of her grade: drinking tea made from the herb tansy and, amazingly, jumping rope. Later, Flagg would claim that he never mentioned any “lady friend from Wisconsin,” and that his query about ending a pregnancy was meant for advice to his wife – he had a large family and did not want any more children. This story, too, was believed by few.

It was likely Rosetta who first broached the subject of approaching Dr. Charles Earll. “Dr.” Earll, who apparently had no medical training whatsoever, kept an office on Halsted St. Around 60 years old with a grey moustache and full beard, Earll was divorced a few years earlier. The Tribune would later claim that during the Civil War, he had operated a “den of infamy” in Kinzie St. Now, however, he presented himself as a physician specializing in obstetrics. During the winter of 1874, around the time Rosetta Jackson discovered her pregnancy, Dr. Earll’s name made the newspapers when he was arrested for performing an abortion, in violation of an 1845 Illinois statute. Though the charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence, Dr. Earll was known to be a man who could help distraught women.

Dr. Earll’s assistant, a W. W. Quinn, later testified in court that in early May, William Flagg came to the office on Halsted in a state of great excitement, twiddling his thumbs furiously as he spoke.

“I’m in a lot of trouble. I’ve seduced a servant girl and my wife is raising hell about it. I need one of Dr. Earll’s prescriptions to destroy pregnancy, and I need a boarding house or some other place for the girl to stay awhile. I can offer $50 if the doctor can help me.”

It is not known if it was then, or later, when Dr. Earll became involved in the case, but by the end of May, Rosetta Jackson was living under an assumed name, “Mrs. Alice Hays,” at Kate Heiland’s home on Jefferson Street. Heiland was a dressmaker by trade, and occupied the home above her shop, along with two teenaged daughters. She took “Mrs. Hays” in as an apprentice and to provide companionship for her girls, charging her minimal rent, some of which was paid by Mr. Flagg.

Almost immediately after Rosetta’s arrival, Mrs. Heiland discovered that her new boarder was four months pregnant by an unknown father, and moreover, that she was obsessed with ending the pregnancy. Alternately reading her Bible feverishly and dosing herself constantly with essence of tansy and other severe drugs, she presented the picture of a woman on the brink of madness. “I’ll get rid of this child or die trying,” she prophesied when Mrs. Heiland tried to dissuade her from the drugs. Mrs. Heiland noticed one of her knitting needles missing and assumed the worst.

Just a few days after her arrival, Rosetta gave birth, with Mrs. Heiland standing in as midwife. At just four months, the child was pitifully small, but alive. The baby raised its hand. At the request of Rosetta, Mrs. Heiland closed the tiny creature in an old cigar box and buried it in her backyard.

During the birth and after, Rosetta was unwell. She had internal injuries and was suffering convulsions (the latter a common pharmacological effect of consuming high levels of tansy). Her personal physician, Dr. Earll, was called for. He prescribed a noxious blend of calomel (a laxative), quinine, and morphine, and Rosetta gave him a note to deliver to Flagg:
Willy: Come and see me as soon as you can. Don’t come at meal-time. Come any time during the day. The carrier [Earll] will tell you where I am.”
Both Flagg and Dr. Earll called at Mrs. Heiland’s home frequently over the next week. At one point, Dr. Earll prescribed sulphide of soda powder, while at another time he recommended brandy and whiskey. Dr. Mayo, he was not.

Finally, on Friday, June 12, Rosetta Jackson died. William Flagg, who was at her death-bed, informed his wife, and the two collected Rosetta’s body and had it shipped off to Wisconsin for burial. Dr. Earll signed a death certificate, which indicated death from typhoid fever and enteritis, mentioning nothing about childbirth, abortion, or drugs.

On Saturday morning, when Officer Simmons arrived at Mrs. Heiland’s home to investigate the sudden passing, Heiland repeated what Earll had written on the death certificate. Officer Simmons decided to press a little harder to see if there might be something more to the story. “Madam, the law says in such cases, the County Coroner must examine the body. Dr. Earll has a reputation with young women. Are you certain there isn’t more you need to tell?”

Heiland, who no doubt felt the weight of her role in the plot heavily, sobbed, then admitted the whole sordid tale – the abortion, the cigar box, the frequent presence of Dr. Earll and Mr. Flagg in her home, the tansy tea and other drugs. Simmons had his men dig up the cigar box and enter its contents as evidence. Then he had Mrs. Heiland arrested and jailed as a material witness for trial, and sent a telegram to recall the body of Rosetta Jackson back to Chicago for examination.

The coroner empaneled a jury to investigate Miss Jackson’s death. On the stand, Mr. Flagg claimed he was not the father of the Rosetta’s child. He threw suspicion, instead, on two of his neighbors, especially a young jeweler, O. W. Young, who he claimed to have seen sitting in his house with Rosetta one night with the lights off (Young later took the stand and claimed he hardly knew Rosetta and had never been with her in the dark). He had known about Rosetta’s pregnancy and had visited her at Heiland’s home in an attempt to help her, but it was Rosetta, Flagg claimed, who had wanted to employ Dr. Earll, who was set on ending the pregnancy.

With a large family and no means of supporting herself without her husband, Mrs. Flagg unsurprisingly rallied to her husband’s defense. She knew of no evidence that there was any intimacy between her sister and her husband. She was emotionally distraught when questioned on the day after her sister’s death, and anything she might have told the police about catching Mr. Flagg kissing Rosetta was untrue. Rosetta left her home not because of a dispute with her sister, but because the workload was too heavy. “Mr. Flagg and I were like mother and father to her.”

After examining the body of Rosetta Jackson, Dr. Henrotin, the county physician, confirmed that she showed evidence of being four months pregnant, of having recently miscarried, and that the lining of her stomach was inflamed, “such as might, and probably would, be produced by irritating medicines.” When asked, he affirmed that her condition was consistent with the effects of tansy, a bottle of which was found in her possession at Mrs. Heiland’s home. The actual causes of death were not those listed on the death certificate by Dr. Earll, but were puerperal fever and metroperitonitis, two conditions associated with childbirth.

For her part, Mrs. Heiland claimed she did not know that burying a fetus in a cigar box in one’s backyard was against the law (to be fair, Illinois was not then a death registration state). She only wanted to protect the woman she knew as Mrs. Hays from disgrace. Though Mrs. Heiland had her suspicions that Flagg was the father of Rosetta’s child, she claimed that, on her death-bed, Rosetta admitted that Flagg was not the father.

Brothel inmate Nellie Sinclair, as well as a variety of other interested parties, also testified. After three days of hearing witnesses, the jury ordered the arrest of Flagg and Dr. Earll, as well as a search of Earll’s office.

Dr. Henrotin, who led the search, testified that the Halsted St. office was in “a frightful state of disorder,” and he was shocked to find six bottles containing fetuses suspended in fluid, between 1 and 6 months old. None of the bottles were labeled, “as is customary when such anatomical curiosities are found in medical museums or in the offices of respectable practitioners.”

Dr. Henrotin also found a vast collection of medical instruments intended for use in obstetrics, including forecepts, hooks, and probes. While such instruments are used both by abortionists and respectable physicians, he admitted, the fact that absolutely no other types of instruments or doctor’s materials except these were found in the office, raised his suspicions.

After a brief deliberation, the coroner’s indicted Dr. Earll for murder, and Flagg and Heiland as accessories before and after the fact, respectively. All three were imprisoned at county jail. The criminal trial of People v. Earll began a month later, on July 29th, and lasted three days. Most of the witnesses from the coroner’s trial repeated their testimony, although Dr. Henrotin claimed that after a more careful examination of Rosetta’s body, there were wounds on her womb consistent with the use of instruments such as those found in Dr. Earll’s office. Mrs. Heiland’s daughter testified that she and Rosetta had gone for a walk before the birth, and had passed by Dr. Earll’s office, where Rosetta went up and spent five minutes in a room alone with the doctor.

After the prosecution rested, Dr. Earll took the stand to defend himself. In a careful, calm voice, he claimed he never saw Rosetta until after she was sick and living at Mrs. Heiland’s, about the first of June, and he knew her only as Mrs. Alice Hays. At that time, Mrs. Heiland told him that Rosetta had miscarried a few days before, and he prescribed drugs to alleviate the pain. He claimed Rosetta had never been to his office and knew nothing of any relationship between her and Mr. Flagg. He continued to insist that the cause of death was typhoid fever and enteritis.

In its closing argument, counsel for the defense argued powerfully that Rosetta Jackson’s death was consistent with her own self-medication, possibly under the advice of Mr. Flagg, and that Dr. Earll’s guilt could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury deliberated all night, and at 2:30 in the morning were still split 6-6. The pressed on and finally, by daybreak, they agreed to convict Dr. Earll on a lesser charge, manslaughter, with a sentence of one year at Joliet penitentiary.

The sentence was passed, and after an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court failed, Dr. Earll served a year at Joliet, emerging in August, 1875. He directly went back to work as an abortionist, and was arrested six times, a rate of once per year, between 1874 and 1880. Each time, he escaped for lack of conclusive evidence. Finally, however, after the death of another patient who had acquired his services, Dr. Earll was again sentenced to Joliet, this time for five years.

At the time of his release from prison in 1885, Dr. Earll was over 70 years old, and there is no further record of his activity. William and Lizzie Flagg later moved out to a larger home in the country to suit their large family. Mrs. Heiland’s home on Jefferson, where Rosetta Jackson boarded and died, is today a parking lot.


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