A photograph supposedly showing the gravestone of a woman named Kate McCormick, who passed away in the 1870s from a fatally botched abortion, has been circulating online for several years. In May 2019, the Facebook page “American News X” revived interest in the image:
This is a genuine photograph of a tombstone marking the grave of a woman who passed away in the 1870s after claiming she took abortion-inducing drugs, and we were able to corroborate many of the details of the inscription via contemporaneous news reports.
Our one caveat with this Facebook post is the stated date for when the tombstone was erected. While McCormick passed away in the 1870s, it wasn’t until more than a century after her death, in 1997, that an anonymous donor placed the pictured gravestone on her final resting place.
The Story of Kate Simpson (AKA Kate McCormick)
McCormick’s story can be gleaned from various articles published by newspapers in Tennessee in 1876 concerning an inquiry into her death, the death of her child, and the doctor who was charged with (and ultimately acquitted of) providing her with abortion-inducing drugs. While these reports contained a fair amount of detail such as eyewitness testimonies, a few facts of the case are still a bit unclear. We have done our best to piece together the events that led to McCormick’s death, the trial of the man who reportedly killed her, and the circumstances of her burial below.
Katie’s story starts in Humboldt, Tenn., where she was seduced and impregnated by a shoemaker named George Burgess. After becoming pregnant, Burgess sent McCormick to Memphis to have the child with the promise that he would soon follow to marry her. But Burgess never followed.
In late January 1876, a stillborn child was discovered at what news accounts referred to as “Mrs. Widrig’s boarding house.” Police arrived and found that the child’s mother, Kate Simpson (alias Kate McCormick), was also deathly ill. She passed away the following day:
The Trial of Dr. D.S. Johnson
Dr. D.S. Johnson was arrested and indicted on three charges related to the death of McCormick and her child. The Memphis Public Ledger described the charges against Johnson in a 9 February 1876 article, stating that the doctor was indicted for administrating “large quantities of deadly, dangerous, unwholesome, deleterious and penicious pills, herbs, drugs, potions, teas, liquids powders and mixtures” with the intent of causing an abortion, for causing said abortion, and for “feloniously, willfully, deliberately, premeditated and with malice aforethought kill[ing] and murder[ing] the said Kate McCormick.”
A number of witnesses who were with McCormick in her final days provided testimony to authorities. Widrig, the woman who ran the boarding house where the bodies were discovered, told authorities that McCormick had paid Dr. Johnson $25 to terminate her pregnancy. A woman named Mollie Brown provided similar testimony:
Mrs. Widrig was sworn and stated that the girl came to her house some time before Christmas, but only stayed one night that she came back three weeks ago, and on Saturday night, or, rather, Sunday morning, she was delivered of a dead child; that Dr. Johnson had been attending her; that her suspicions were aroused and she asked Katie to tell her the whole truth; on Sunday Dr. Frayser had been sent to see Katie by Chief Athy and told her that the girl would die; this she told to Katie, who seemed much affected and made a confession; she said: “Mrs. Widrig, I think my time is short,” and then she added: “Dr. Johnson gave the medicine to destroy my child; tell Dr. Johnson that I promised not to deceive him or tell any person but the time has come when I can keep the secret no longer; I paid Dr. Johnson twenty-five dollars for the medicine; he gave me the medicine some three weeks ago, and said if it did not do its work in six days it would be a failure; I took the medicine from Dr. Johnson to kill my child and paid him twenty-five dollars for it.”
Mollie Brown sworn: Katie told me last night that Dr. Johnson sent her medicine by express; she said to me she was satisfied she was going to die, and that Dr. Johnson was the cause of it.
Dr. Johnson’s version of events differed. Johnson, as well as two other doctors who visited McCormick before her death, testified that McCormick had been treated only for diarrhea:
Dr. Marable testified as follows: On Sunday morning was called by Dr. Johnson to make a call; he told me about the case, and said he had prescribed for diarrhea; the treatment was correct as stated by Dr. Johnson; he said that he had discovered that she had a baby last night, but that she was in danger of dying from the afterbirth; I attended to her immediately, and gave her the necessary remedies to stop the flooding, and the remedies resulted successfully; the girl appeared very weak; Dr. Johnson and I went to see Chief Athy at once with reference to the dead child, and at my instigation Dr. Johnson called upon coroner Spelman to hold an inquest on the dead infant, which inquest was held on Sunday; I advised Dr. Johnson as to the necessary treatment to place the girl under with a view to her recovery; the girl had diarrhea and I prescribed with Dr. Johnson for its treatment; the girl was nervous and troubled in mind; she said she was out of money and had no friends; trouble of mind and excitement very often cause abortions or miscarriages, and the greatest trouble physicians have in such cases is to keep the patients quiet; I think flooding and mental anxiety was the cause of her death.
Johnson testified as follows: Three weeks ago I first saw the deceased; she came to my office and told her story, and wanted to hide her disgrace; I advised her not to commit abortion as it was against the law; I called to see her at Mrs. Widrig’s boardinghouse and prescribed for diarrhea; on Sunday morning I called and found that she had a miscarriage; I then called on Dr. Marable; the prescription given her by me was ascitate of lead and morphine; the girl seemed troubled and said she would sooner die than live; she said this both before and after the abortion had taken place.
Johnson was eventually acquitted of the charges against him.
The Burial of Kate McCormick
The story of McCormick did not end with her death. While McCormick’s mother traveled to Memphis after learning of her daughter’s death, she left the city without making arrangements for burial. Similarly, Burgess, the man who reportedly impregnated McCormick, didn’t undertake a visit to view the body.
A particularly depressing passage published by the Public Ledger on 4 February 1876 (which contains some racial language common to the era) noted that McCormick’s body was stored in a “pauper’s coffin” in a stable that served as a morgue for the impoverished in Shelby County:
The reporter who found McCormick’s body sought to remedy the situation by obtaining the help of a Capt. George W. Miller of the Cut Off Saloon. Miller agreed to finance a proper burial, and McCormick’s body was taken to Elmwood Cemetery:
McCormick was interred at Elmwood Cemetery sometime in 1876, but the gravestone shown above was not originally present at her final resting place. This tombstone was erected in 1997 and was paid for by an anonymous person who was apparently moved by McCormick’s sad tale.
The inscription on the stone reads: “Kate McCormick Seduced and pregnant by her father’s friend, unwed, she died from abortion, her only choice. Abandoned in life and death by family. With but a single rose from her mother. Buried only through the kindness of unknown benefactors. Died Feb. 1875 age 21. Victim of an unforgiving society, Have mercy on us.”