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The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill
The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill

The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill

Abortion, Death, and Concealment in Victorian New England


256 Pages, 6 x 9

Formats: Cloth, EPUB, PDF

Cloth, $28.99 (US $28.99) (CA $38.99)

Publication Date: January 2024

ISBN 9781641608565

Rights: WOR

Chicago Review Press (Jan 2024)


eBook Editions Available

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Price: $28.99


“The narrative unfolds like a high-stakes crime novel.”—Kirkus Reviews

In 1898, a group of schoolboys in Bridgeport, Connecticut discovered gruesome packages under a bridge holding the dismembered remains of a young woman.

Finding that the dead woman had just undergone an abortion, prosecutors raced to establish her identity and fix blame for her death. Suspicion fell on Nancy Guilford, half of a married pair of “doctors” well known to police throughout New England.

A fascinated public followed the suspect’s flight from justice, as many rooted for the fugitive. The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill takes a close look not only at the Guilfords, but also at the cultural shifts and social compacts that allowed their practice to flourish while abortion was both illegal and unregulated.

Focusing on the women at the heart of the story—both victim and perpetrator—Biederman reexamines this slice of history through a feminist lens and reminds us of the very real lives at stake when a woman's body and choices are controlled by others.


“Marcia Biederman brings to life the world of illegal abortion in nineteenth-century New England through a compelling narrative of its victims, providers, and prosecutors that is both timely and still relevant today. The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill is essential reading for anyone invested in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice and interested in how the lessons of the past can inform the present.” —Tanfer Tunc, author of Technologies of Choice

“A fascinating examination of the nature of women’s health care, abortion procedures and societal consequences in the late 1800s.” — The News-Gazette

“Biederman’s story about abortion in the nineteenth century is an amazingly textured and rich account. The book vividly shows how criminalizing abortion threatened the dignity, safety, and even the lives of people forced outside of the law to manage their lives. As it will again.” —Rickie Solinger, author of The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law

“A chilling narrative of abortion in nineteenth-century New England—the story of ‘Mrs. Dr. Guilford’ and the women who sought her services exposes a dark chapter in our history that may be about to repeat itself. Biederman would make a great coroner: her command of medicolegal death investigation skills is on full display in this cautionary tale.” —Christina VandePol, MD, creator of Cause & Manner: A Medicolegal Death Investigation Blog

“Marcia Biederman, deploying her fine journalist skills and wry wit, delivers a first-rate, riveting true historical why-done-it that illuminates the lives and crimes of the entrepreneurial nineteenth-century doctors Henry and Nancy Guilford, specialists in ‘complaints peculiar to females.’ From the shocking discovery in the opening scene through the tense courtroom drama, this fascinating story, which resonates with one of today’s most controversial political issues, will keep readers eagerly turning the pages.” —Theresa Kaminski, author of Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War

"In the wake of Roe v. Wade’s reversal, Biederman’s latest book focuses on the death and subsequent investigation of the murder of Emma Gill, a young unmarried woman from Connecticut who secretly sought an abortion in 1898; her body was found dismembered under a bridge. This historical account follows Henry and Nancy Guilford, a couple of unlicensed 'doctors' who’d become some of the most notorious abortion providers across New England. Neither properly studied medicine, but they were ambitious and duplicitous enough to convince many desperate women to seek their services. Emma is thinly sketched, but her story reveals the ways communities, law enforcement, and the media perceived and stigmatized abortion. The author draws on an exhaustive collage of newspaper accounts, historical records, and archival research to not only animate the era, but to provide specifics about the extensive harm caused by regulating women’s bodies. Nancy’s eventual conviction for manslaughter for Emma’s death (Henry, who wasn’t involve with Emma Gill’s abortion, wasn’t charged) reveals how far abortion and sex education discourse has come (and recently regressed). Biederman’s economic prose avoids sentimentality ('A saloonkeeper’s wife, presumably with access to cash, would have received a warm welcome, particularly at that time. Nancy’s financial pressures were mounting'), and the narrative unfolds like a high-stakes crime novel. An afterword explains that Guilfords’ trials and imprisonments did not dissuade them from continuing to give abortions.
A multifaceted, revealing historical account of one woman’s abortion." —Kirkus Reviews

"...this timely, detailed work contributes to the history of women’s reproductive rights. It is sure to find an enthusiastic audience." — Booklist

"[The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill] serves as a stark reminder of the sometimes fatal consequences women face when denied the right to safe, legal abortions.” — Library Journal

Author Biography

Marcia Biederman is the author of A Mighty Force, Scan Artist, and Popovers and Candlelight. As a journalist she was on the staff of Crain’s New York Business and contributed more than 150 pieces to the New York Times. Her work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, New York Magazine, the New York Observer, Newsday, and the Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.