On September 21, 1905, a suitcase floated to the water’s surface in Winthrop Harbor, a shallow six-foot deep man-made channel, about three miles north of Boston Harbor. Stuffed inside the seemingly innocuous case was the torso of a “young and beautifully formed woman” whose intestines and stomach had been removed, along with her extremities… and her head. The Boston Globe splashed the headline across its front page the next day, “Dismembered Body of Girl Found in Suitcase Floating on the Tide at Winthrop.” Below the larger than life letters, the true nature of the crime was printed, “Death Probably Due to Peritonitis after Unsuccessful Operation of a Criminal Nature.” There it was, a dismembered body was found floating in the harbor in an unassuming olive-green suitcase, but the real scandal was that the body had recently undergone an illegal operation – an abortion. An operation so common that everyone reading the paper that day knew exactly what the headline referred to, but a crime so sensationalized, no one could utter its name.

Other Episodes of Interest:

Transcript of The Suitcase Murder: Mystery, Murder and Abortion in 20th Century America:

Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD Candidate

Recorded and produced by  Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate and Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate

Elizabeth: On September 21, 1905, a suitcase floated to the water’s surface in Winthrop Harbor, a shallow six-foot deep man-made channel, about three miles north of Boston Harbor. Stuffed inside the seemingly innocuous case was the torso of a “young and beautifully formed woman” whose intestines and stomach had been removed, along with her extremities… and her head. The Boston Globe splashed the headline across its front page the next day, “Dismembered Body of Girl Found in Suitcase Floating on the Tide at Winthrop.” Below the larger than life letters, the true nature of the crime was printed, “Death Probably Due to Peritonitis after Unsuccessful Operation of a Criminal Nature.” There it was, a dismembered body was found floating in the harbor in an unassuming olive-green suitcase, but the real scandal was that the body had recently undergone an illegal operation – an abortion. An operation so common that everyone reading the paper that day knew exactly what the headline referred to, but a crime so sensationalized, no one could utter its name.

I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG.

Marissa: This episode is part of our True Crime series. We are discussing true, historical crimes, which is a genre that’s wildly popular with a huge audience, from television series, to books, to podcasts. I personally love true crime but I’ll admit that often these popular series gloss over the important historical context that made the crime and or murder impactful during the time. I mean, let’s face it, people are killed everyday. But sometimes crimes and murders strike such a cultural thread that they become sensationalized and people just can’t get enough of the story. And often, that’s where history comes into play. What was it about the crime that fascinated people so much. Surely it wasn’t just the crime itself, because those happen every minute of every day. No, there was some cultural cord that was strummed, making the crime interesting to people because of the cultural context in which the crime was committed. So in this series we are revisiting some historical crimes and giving you the historical context that made these crimes truly fascinating.

Elizabeth: When the olive-green suitcase holding the dismembered torso of a young woman was fished out of the water in Boston 1905 people took notice. It’s a gruesome and strange crime! But besides the need to find out who the woman was, and who did this to her – it was also imperative for police to find out where she got her abortion. In the early twentieth century abortion was illegal but was performed at a high rate- about the same rate as it had been performed for thousands of years before that. What was different in the 20th century as opposed to earlier times though, was that the policing of abortion was more intense. By the 1880s, abortion was a crime in almost every state. Yet hundreds of thousands of women successfully received them from doctors, midwives, abortionists, or by self induction with none being the wiser except woman and possibly her helper and partner.

Marissa: However, many women also died from abortions, usually from infections caused by contaminated instruments or unclean surroundings while the operation was performed. For years, women had been dying as the result of abortions performed in illegal “medical parlors’’ in cities like Boston, New York, and even Boise, Idaho. Abortion was the “crime” that everyone knew about but no one talked about. In fact, when a doctor was asked in 1920 whether public opinion in the U.S. sanctioned abortion, they answered yes it did, but only in the bounds of secrecy. So essentially, abortion was fine for oneself or loved one when needed, but not for anyone else.

Elizabeth: And so when the dismembered torso of a shapely women was found crammed into a suitcase in the harbor, the sensation wasn’t only the gory details of her dismemberment, but the apparent botched abortion she received before death. But the social constraints of the time made it so that people spoke and wrote in coded language. The initial Boston Globe story gave just a single reference to a “criminal operation” that had been performed on the body. That small detail, the mention of a “criminal operation,” was all anybody needed to hear in order to know exactly what the “true” crime was in the story. This woman had an abortion and the sensationalization of such an operation, mixed with the gruesome way her body was disposed of, made the “suitcase mystery’’ as the case came to be called “a crime so awful that the soul revolts in horror.’’

Marissa: Abortion was illegal for the most part in America since the 1880s. There’s a lot of back story as to how abortions became illegal, who could still get them, and how they were performed. We will go into that a bit here but for a more detailed history of abortion and birth control in America, check out our three-part series on abortion and birth control in America as well as our look at global reproduction practices in our iTunes feed or on the website at www.digpodcast.org.

Elizabeth: And a note on how historians learn about supposedly illegal actions and people’s thoughts about them. Many of the voices and actions of the underserved in America, mainly non-white wealthy men, are found in court records. This means that the marginalized – so women, people of color, immigrants, anyone who did not have a prominent voice in American popular culture – are often hard to “hear” in history. This is why for many years, traditional history didn’t tell these people’s stories, because their stories weren’t on the surface. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s when women’s historians, historians of color and social historians started digging and finding these voices, that we really get a better sense of what was going on historically besides what prominent white men were doing. And one of the ways we find those voices is through court records.

An advertisement showing two young women walking on a beach

Beecham’s Pills were often used as an emmenagogue | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: One of the earliest American court cases involving abortion was Rex v Hallowell in 1745. Reviewing this case from Connecticut allows us to explore the use of abortifacients, or ways to induce abortion. There were countless recipes, manuals, diaries, letters, and medical books from the era that list ingredients used to “restore menses.” These were called emmenagogues. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was no longer believed that the medieval idea of quickening happened when the fetus was endowed with a soul. Quickening was however, understood as the point that the fetus became more than an inanimate object. At this point, a woman could be certain of a pregnancy because she could now feel the fetus moving, usually around four months gestation. Before quickening, women and physicians could view a lack of menses as “taking the cold,” or as an “obstructed” or “blocked” menses. Emmenagogues were used to restore or unblock the menses and as they caused uterine contractions or purging, they were abortifacients as well. It’s important to note that ridding the body of a fetus before one felt the quickening was not a crime. That didn’t come until the 19th century.

Elizabeth: In 1812 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Bangs that an abortion before quickening was not a crime. In this case, Isaiah Bangs prepared and administered an abortifacient potion to a woman. He was freed by the justices because it could not be proven “that the woman was quick with child at that time.” Commonwealth v. Bangs remained the ruling precedent in abortion cases in the United States for the next sixty years.

A brown rabbit in green grass

Rabbit. | darius norvilas / Flickr CC-BY-ND

Marissa: In fact, there was no definitive method for verifying pregnancy until 1926 when Cecil Vogue created the rabbit test for pregnancy detection, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the test was refined and could produce accurate results. Therefore, pregnancy wasn’t an absolute certainty until the woman felt the quickening, or movement of the fetus. This put the domain of pregnancy specifically in how women experienced their bodies. Unfortunately, in the 19th century and the professionalization of medical practices, women’s experience of their bodies became less important than the “knowledge” of professional men.

Elizabeth: 19th century physicians increasingly attempted to separate themselves from lay healers and folk doctors by taking on the name “Regulars”. These doctors tended to be graduates of prestigious medical school or those that practiced with them. Regulars regarded their advancing position as important as the field of law or theology, and they intensely opposed what they considered quack theories. In an attempt to protect their medical ideals and sources of revenue, Regulars began pressing for increased legislation pertaining to medical practice. As a result, between the years 1821 and 1841, ten of the twenty-six states in the union enacted statutes in regards to abortion.

Marissa: Connecticut became the first state to enact a law specifically pertaining to abortion in 1821. Section 14 of the law stated “every person who shall…administer to…any deadly poison, or other noxious and destructive substance…thereby to murder, or thereby to cause or procure the miscarriage of any woman, then being quick with child, … shall be thereof duly convicted.” This law thus prescribed into law what had already been practiced in common law and upheld in Commonwealth v. Bangs, that a woman quick with child, could not be given anything that would purposely cause abortion.

Elizabeth: By 1841, ten states and one territory had enacted laws pertaining to abortion. Five states explicitly stated abortion was illegal after quickening. The other five stated abortion was illegal at any time during pregnancy. In reality, the laws were unenforceable as there were no pregnancy tests at that time. It’s interesting to note that there was major coverage of the enactment of these laws and revisions in either the popular press or the religious press during this time, reinforcing the point that these were laws pushed by the medical profession to strengthen there professional clout. Interestingly, there was a surge in the volume of abortifacients advertised in papers and magazines during the 1840s. Abortion practitioners like Madame Restell and Dr. Peter’s French Renovating Pills were advertised in all major cities, and some small-town papers too.

Marissa: The American Medical Association (AMA) formed in 1847 as a professional, nationwide organization for physicians. This group of Regulars continued with increased fervor the push for enacting more abortion and general medical legislation. The AMA set out to influence legislation and public opinion. Regulars bemoaned the country’s “general demoralization” as attributed to the public’s ignorance on quickening, doctors performing abortions to make money and retain patients, and lax laws against abortion. The AMA determined to deconstruct the prevalent quickening ideal among the general populace by lecturing their patients and producing books and manuals debunking the quickening doctrine. They largely succeeded and by 1868, thirty of the thirty-seven states in the union had abortion laws and the common discourse on abortion was changing. Only three of the state laws deemed abortion after quickening a crime. Almost all of these laws held the woman receiving the abortion liable as well as the practitioner but it is important to point out that these crimes always carried lesser sentences than homicide cases.

A black and white etching of a well dressed white woman being approached by a white man in a black suit

Madame Restell, a well-known abortionist, was once arrested by Anthony Comstock. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The legislation push by regulars continued and by 1880 every state in the Union except Kentucky had laws making abortion illegal at any stage except when deemed necessary for the women’s health by a respected physician. Most laws also made the advertisement of abortion services or abortifacients illegal. The Comstock Act of 1873 drastically increased the regulation of advertising “women’s services.” You can learn more about our friend Comstock in our Selling Sex episode from our #sex series.

Marissa: Abortions were by no means eliminated as they were gradually pushed underground. At a time of increased scientific knowledge and ability to make abortions safer for women, many physicians were refusing to perform them, making illegal abortion increasingly more dangerous for women who needed them. But not all physicians refused to perform them. In fact many AMA doctors routinely performed abortions for their private clients. And since one had to be well off in order to afford a private doctor, this meant that wealthy women had access to abortion. Working class women did not have the means to have that kind of access to private doctors, forcing them to more underground means, like the “medical parlors” that operated in cities like Boston.

Elizabeth: After the suitcase was pulled from the Boston waters, weeks went by before any real progress was made in the suitcase mystery. There were a couple of false leads. The torso was thought to belong to a missing Boston woman until she promptly surfaced the next day. The police actually made an arrest on October 2nd. A man who worked as a clerk in a grocery store by the name of Samuel Winfield told police that his friend had just cut up a body. The police promptly arrested his friend, a mister William Hayes who worked as a clerk in a shipping office. Mr. Hayes was interrogated at length and fully denied the charges. He said he had recently served on a Coroner’s jury and his (dumbass) friend had gotten confused because he had told him about serving on the trial. And to clarify, a coroner’s jury is basically a small jury summoned to see evidence from the coroner and then determine type of death, so like suicide, murder, etc. These aren’t really used anymore because honestly, you want Joe Schmoe analyzing your toxicology reports? [laughter] Needless to say, Mr. Hayes was soon let go.

Marissa: Boston detectives took the green suitcase to the manufacturer of the bag. Because it’s 1905! They could do that you know? They could look at the manufacturer of the bag and say hey, that’s down on so and so street. Let’s go talk to them. It’s sometimes hard to imagine our world before globalization isn’t it? Anyway, the suitcase manufacturer looked at the bag and determined that the handle had been repaired by a harness maker. According to the New York Times, suitcase repair by a harnessmaker was a pretty rare event and so they were hopeful that the harnessmaker would be able to give them more details. Later, pawnbrokers would actually help police identify who purchased the suitcases.

Elizabeth: Two East Boston machine workers also gave the detectives interesting leads. While working they said they both looked out the second story window of their shop down onto the wharf where they saw a man put a dark green suitcase into a rowboat. The man wasn’t that noticeable but they both remembered the incident because of the peculiar color of the bag and the fact that as the man put the bag onto the boat, he seemed to struggle with its weight. That was hours before the body was discovered floating in the harbor. Nothing came of this “eyewitness” account either.

Marissa: Then on October 27, four weeks after the dismembered torso was found in the suitcase, two arms and two legs were found in a second suitcase floating by the Charlestown Bridge, near what is today Paul Revere Park. How sweet. [sarcasm] Again suspicions soared as the public grappled with the grisly findings. The Globe, latching on to the severe racism prevalent against Asian people during the period, interviewed the “white wife of a New York Mongolian” who “expertly” asserted that the dismembered body was “no doubt the wife of some Chinaman who had come into possession of some of the secrets of their murderous societies.’’

Elizabeth: This turned out not to be the case but gives us a clue as to how a body that had had an abortion could be viewed as part of a criminal enterprise. Abortions were illegal, obtaining them was illegal. So no matter that thousands of woman successfully obtained abortions every month across the U.S., many under the care of licensed doctors – when an abortion went wrong and a woman’s body that had an abortion entered the public and legal space, it became criminal by association.

Marissa: On October 30, six weeks after the first suitcase was found, the body inside was identified. The second suitcase held the key. There were three rings on one of the hands in the case. Newspapers printed descriptions and pictures of the rings and they were soon identified by Catherine Geary as belonging to her daughter, 20-year-old Susanna Geary. Geary was a performer with the Shepherd King theater company and had only been singing and dancing with them a few months before her disappearance. She was a chorus performer and went by the state name Ethel Durrell.

Elizabeth: As it turns out, Susanna’s parents became increasingly worried as time passed that the body found in the first suitcase might perhaps be their daughter. Mrs. Geary called the police when she saw the description of the rings. She was quoted as saying, “ I had not seen my daughter for seven weeks… and I have felt sure for some time that she was the victim in the case. She wore a chased gold ring on her little finger and she had also an opal and a garnet ring, which I gave her as a birthday present five or six years ago. The chased ring is about ten years old. When I saw these rings I had no difficulty in recognizing them as those worn by my daughter.”

Marissa: Mrs. Geary and her husband John Geary also telegraphed Susanna’s fiance, Nathan Morris, secretary to the manager of the theater company who was in Pittsburgh to come back to Boston. Nathan refused, which prompted Susanna’s father to reply “Come or I will come after you.” Nathan promptly got himself legal counsel. However, Morris Nathan, was quickly arrested in Pittsburgh and held for questioning. And to reiterate how everyday racism permeated popular white American culture, let me read to you a newspaper article describing Nathan’s arrest. “The local police received instructions last night from the Superintendent of Police Pierce of Boston to apprehend Morris Nathan and find out what he knew about the disappearance of Susan Geary, his sweetheart, whose dismembered body was found in the suit case near Boston. Nathan, accompanied by Manager B.A. Reinhold, Stage Director Samuel Forest and a Japanese (!!!!) were arrested after a search of several hours in the Hotel Henry and taken to police headquarters…Nathan was unable to stand when he learned that Cole was from detective headquarters. He had been crying for the past week and was so unnerved that Kimeo (Japanese) and Forrest had to carry him to police headquarters.”

Elizabeth: Nathan reported that he and Susanna were together for rehearsals in August. On September 9th he directed her to a surgeon. Notice how they can’t say that they had sex or were intimate or planned to get married. Nope. They were together and then he directed her to a surgeon. It’s all very coded language. After his arrest, the New York Times reported that Nathan was “almost in a state of nervous collapse since his incarceration, and has not slept or eaten. The members of the company believe him to be innocent of complicity in the murder.” Yeah okay, even though he didn’t do anything once his girlfriend went missing right? Yet days after Nathan was brought to Boston and “charged with the crime of abortion on the dead girl,’’ another arrest was made.

Marissa: On November 3rd, police arrested Dr. Percy McLeod, a graduate of Harvard Medical School. He was alleged to have dismembered Geary’s body and was released on a $20,000 bond pending his trial on November 10. Later the same day a judge issued a warrant for Mrs. Mary S. Dean who allegedly performed the abortion and ran a recuperation house on Winthrop street, where Geary eventually died.

Others were soon implicated and arrested. We are going to read you a long excerpt from the New York Times from November 3, 1905:

“The Boston suit case mystery was solved yesterday when William Hunt, alias William Howard, a hypnotist and fortune-teller, and Louis Crawford, otherwise known as Albert H. Emory, a theatrical agent of Boston, were locked up at Police Headquarters charged with homicide in connection with the deaths of Susanna Alice Geary, whose dismembered body was found in Boston Harbor.

A black and white image of newspaper front page depicting three white men in suits with hats and glasses

The Boston Globe depiction of the arrested men | Boston Globe, November 4, 1905

Elizabeth: Hunt made a confession to Inspector O’Brien, admitting that he was one of the men who helped to dispose of the body. Crawford, while not denying the story told by Hunt, refused to have anything to say about the case until he had a chance to consult counsel. Crawford is the son-in-law of Dr. Jane Bishop, a physician of 178A Tremont Street, Boston.
After being arrested and put through the third degree at Police Headquarters last night, Hunt broke down and said he would confess to all that he knew about the Boston dress suit case mystery. He said that he had been acquainted with Crawford, the theatrical agent, for about three years. On Sept. 19 he called t Dr. Bishop’s office to see whether Crawford could get him a job on the stage. Crawford made a proposition to him to the effect that he could make some ready cash if he would call around at the doctor’s house later in the day. He called at 1 o’clock that afternoon and Crawford told him that he had a dead body he wished to dispose of, saying it was that of a woman who had died in one of Mrs. Bishop’s private hospitals.
“How much is there in it?” Hunt says he asked Crawford, and Crawford replied, “One Hundred dollars.”

Marissa: Crawford then made an appointment to meet Hunt that night at Dr. Bishop’s house, and was told to go up to the second floor and knock on the door. He did so, but, receiving no answer, went back to the street, and a few minutes later met Crawford.
Crawford then led Hunt up to the second floor, opened a door with a latch key, and took him into a room where there were two suit cases on the floor. There was also a small hand satchel. According to Hunt’s story, Crawford told him that the suit cases and satchel contained the body. The head was in the hand satchel and Crawford explained the plan was to throw all three bags into the water from a ferry-boat going from Boston to East Boston. Crawford also explained that the small satchel was loaded with shot which he had purchased in a Boston hardware store.
“I picked up one of the dress suit cases,” said Howard, in telling his story to the police last night, “and Crawford picked up the small satchel containing the head. We then went down to go on board a ferryboat to East Boston but there were so many lights around and so many people that Crawford suggested that we postpone the matter until a little later. We then went to Orient Heights by a round about way. We returned to the ferry and boarded one of the boats. After the boat got out a little way we went over to the stern and dropped the satchels overboard.

Elizabeth: “We went back to Dr. Bishop’s office and got the other dress suit case which contained the woman’s trunk. It was so heavy that it took the two of us to carry it. It was about 9 o’clock when we left the Bishop office. We carried the suit cast to Tremont and Boylston Street, where we met a Hackman named Howard.
“We hired Howard to take us over the ferry, this time going to Chelsea. The Hackman wanted to help carry the bag but Crawford wouldn’t let him. We got on the boat and threw the suit case overboard.
“We then returned to Boston and boarded a trolley car. Crawford got off near his home. I went on to Dudley street, where I got off. Before parting that night on the car Crawford told me to come back to the Tremont Street office the following morning.
“Crawford was manager of the doctor’s office there, and on the next morning when I went to the office Crawford gave me $60. He explained that was all the money the office had taken in, and told me he would give me the remaining $40 later. Two days later one of the suit cases was picked up from the water and the newspapers were filled with the story of the murder.

Marissa: “I went to Crawford and told him I was going to get out-of-town and that I needed money. Crawford said he guessed he had better get out-of-town, too, as the newspapers were full of the thing. He then gave me $30. “
Both accomplices moved to New York City where they lived for almost two months before being arrested.
Shortly after Crawford’s confession, the police divers scoured the bottom of the harbour for the handbag containing Geary’s head. After a systematic search by divers, they produced the head. Susanna Geary’s head was found in a small handbag on the floor of Boston Harbor, weighed down by buckshot, just as Hunt had confessed.

Elizabeth: It’s important to point out that this was a sensational story. Newspapers all over the United States followed this story closely. Papers as far away as San Francisco updated its readers on the developing story almost as fast as Boston papers did. The New York Times did as well. With all of this public attention, Boston police felt like they had to do something about the flourishing trade in abortions taking place up and down Tremont and Boylston streets. What went on in these medical parlors had “been known to the police and the prosecuting authorities for a long time.’’
On November 11 the raids began. Police smashed windows and shattered door fronts as they entered more than 15 suspected abortion establishments.

Marissa: Although these strong-arm tactics were a fairly common, if sporadic way of “cracking down” on abortion, more often than not the police targeted women themselves for information.
Dying declarations increasingly became the crucial pieces of evidence in the policing of illegal abortions up until the 1930s. Women admitted to hospitals or on their deathbeds due to complications from illegal abortions were interrogated, often when near death, about their abortions. Because poor women were forced to use cheap and dangerous self-induced measures, or inexpensive but un-reputable abortionists, they were more likely to end up in the hospital with complications. These women were questioned about intimate details of their sexual life by male police, physicians, and hospital staff, in order to provide prosecutors with information about abortionists.

Elizabeth: Investigations into abortion-related deaths also caused pain and embarrassment for the women’s families. Police visited the houses of friends and family of deceased women who had given dying declarations. Newspapers hungry for scandalous stories would print the names and intimate details of women who had illegal abortions. Newspapers would sometimes hint that police had uncovered lists of women who had abortions when they confiscated an abortionist’s records during raids.For example, on November 12th, a day after the raids in Boston, the newspaper stated that “although the raids did not result in any arrests, the police found considerable material which will aid them in the future.” Sounds pretty ominous to me. And in regards to the suitcase murder specifically, newspaper reports confirm that the whole Shepherd King theatrical company were rounded up and brought before the detectives to tell what they knew. A few of Susanna’s co-chorus line actors were even identified by name in the papers.

A cartoon sketch of two men on a boat tossing suitcases into a body of water

A 1912 sketch of the murderers flinging the suitcase into the harbor | Boston Post, November 17, 1912

Marissa: But these kinds of stories were salacious. They made headlines and sold papers. And so they continued. The Boston Globe wrote, “Not since the finding of the torso of the unfortunate Susanna Geary has public interest been aroused to such a high pitch as it was yesterday afternoon when the police, armed with five search warrants, raided the offices of alleged malpractitioners on Tremont Street.’’ The paper went on to report that a crowd of “thousands…gathered in the street’’ and jostled one another for a better view to watch the spectacle of the raids.

Elizabeth: Inside the office of Dr. Jane Bishop, police found a mask used to hide the face of the person who performed abortions. “The mask consists of a complete head covering of black hair, with long, flowing black whiskers of the burnside variety, and a gauze covering for the remaining portion of the face…That even the operator could not be identified by the color of his eyes was made certain.’’ Interestingly enough however, Susanna Geary’s abortionist was a woman. Although the office belonged to Dr. Jane Bishop, the person who performed Geary’s abortion was most likely Mary S. Dean, who although had a warrant out for her arrest was never found. Also it was unclear if Hunt might have been the person who performed the abortion. During his trial he admitted that he performed abortions at the house on Tremont street and that he was under indictment for performing an “illegal operation” upon a woman in Philadelphia who died. (this is the guy who was a hypnotist and fortune teller to BTW)

Marissa: Here’s a little back and forth from the trial as recorded by the Chicago Tribune:
Q- You and Mrs. Dean performed illegal operations in that office, didn’t you? A – Yes
Q- How many did you perform? A- I do not know
Q- You performed them upon girls of all ages, didn’t you? A- Yes
Q- You did not care how young they were, did you? A- No sir.
Q- What else did you do beside work at the Bishop office? A- I was a supernumerary in the Shepherd King company.
Q- Did you perform an operation upon Miss Geary? A- No. I was at the theater that afternoon.

Elizabeth: Morris Nathan, you remember, the guy who impregnated Geary in the first place? He admitted to police “that he was responsible for Miss Geary’s condition and that he endeavored to get her out of trouble.” All coded language for he got her pregnant and helped her find an abortion. He was held in jail for two weeks and was released after a Grand Jury found no indictments against him.
The later part of November 1905 was filled with the trial of Dr. McLeod and his accomplices, William Hunt and Louis Crawford. What emerged from reporting during the trial shed light on how Geary spent her final days.

Marissa: After spending all of August in Boston with the theatrical company, and presumably her boyfriend Nathan, Geary performed on stage for the final time on September 9. After the show Nathan directed Geary to a surgeon to undergo an abortion. We now know that was the clinic or “medical parlor” run by Dr. Jane Bishop on Tremont Street in Boston and where Mary Dean performed the abortion. After the procedure, Geary became very ill and court records said she was likely suffering from “septic poisoning.” Essentially that’s complications from an infection. Septic shock occurs when an infection overtakes your body and causes very low blood pressure. Septic shock can affect anyone susceptible to the germs that cause infection. When linked with abortion, septic shock can be a dangerous complication.

Elizabeth: As Geary’s condition quickly worsened, supposedly Mary Dean called in Dr. McLeod to save Geary’s life. Apparently Dr. McLeod attempted a second operation but her condition only worsened.
On September 18, so about 8 or 9 days since she had the initial abortion, Geary wrote a letter to her mother saying that she was in Salem, Massachusetts and she hadn’t written because she had been sick with diarrhea. She asked her mother not to write her there and instead of forwarding any letters, to save them for her at the house. She wasn’t in Salem however, she was just a few miles away from her mother at a house in Roxbury, and mere hours away from her early death. She died on the morning of September 19.

Marissa: According to newspaper accounts of the trial, Dean and Dr. McLeod decided to dismember Geary and put her into three suitcases. Then, they offered $100 a piece to two men, who were instructed to dump them in the Atlantic Ocean near Portland, Maine. Instead, as we read to you earlier, the men, Crawford and Hunt, opted to drop the cases from the East Boston ferry. Not surprisingly, the suitcase containing Geary’s torso surfaced in Winthrop Harbor about 48 hours later.

Elizabeth: What is surprising however is that Dr. McLeod was found not guilty! He was charged with being the person who did the dismembering. I mean, you’d think that would be the real crime here right?! During his testimony, Crawford testified that Dr. McLeod was the one who dismembered Geary’s body in a bathtub. There was also other evidence that McLeod wasn’t simply acting as a courageous physician, called in at the last-minute to help with a botched abortion. Emma Coulter, a nurse in the Bishop “hospital” testified that there were seven rooms in the house and there were often three patients in each of the rooms. She testified that Dr. McLeod attended patients there and that she saw him attending to Geary. She said he always wore a white mask over his face so that he could not be recognized. Another professional nurse testified that McLeod called her to the house to assist with the unsuccessful second operation. She did not mention the dismemberment.

Marissa: But McLeod’s defense rested on the fact that he was a “regular” – meaning he was an AMA, Harvard educated doctor which granted him a level of cultural capital that the other defendants in the case did not have. His defense pegged him as a heroic physician who swooped in to a bad situation in order to save a helpless girl. Apparently McLeod “pleaded that his obligation as a physician precluded his coming forward voluntarily and disclosing information gained by him in the discharge of his professional duties.” Nevertheless, McLeod was acquitted of any crimes on December 2nd, apparently with the approval of those in attendance as there was applause in the courtroom after the verdict was read.

Elizabeth: Louis Crawford and William Hunt, the two men who disposed of the suitcases containing Geary’s dismembered body, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison. For months, police continued to search for Dean. The search took them to Portland, Maine, New York City, and Nova Scotia, but Dean was never found. Susanna Geary is buried in New Calvary Cemetery, just three miles from where she died.

Marissa: The Suitcase Mystery or the Suitcase Murder was a national phenomenon. Newspapers all over the country followed the story closely. It continued to captivate the public’s imagination for about a decade or so afterward.
There were even short stories written about the case. Immediately after the first suitcase was found containing Geary’s torso, the Hearst tabloid, Boston American, printed a four-part Sherlock Holmes pastiche entitled “The Suit Case Mystery.” Now a pastiche is a story that imitates the style or character of the work of another writer or artist. It celebrates the work it imitates, but in this case it’s really a form a plagiarism. But apparently writing these fake Sherlock Holmes stories was a pretty popular mode of writing during the period. “The Suit Case Mystery” was written by Jacques Futrelle who interestingly enough, died on the Titanic. He put his wife and child in a lifeboat and was last seen smoking a cigarette on the deck of the ship with John Jacob Astor IV. In his Holmes story, the dismembered body pulled from the harbor also suffered from a botched abortion and her body was cut up and hidden to protect the people involved. The four-part story concluded before the second suitcase was even found.

A photograph of a dirty, old, brown suitcase

An old suitcase | Martin Thomas / Flickr CC-BY

Elizabeth: Yes, I actually found out about this case in my own research. I’m currently writing about single motherhood and the formation of the welfare state in the early twentieth century and one of the woman whom I study was speaking at a conference and threw out the term “suitcase murder” and then just went on because everyone in her audience obviously knew exactly what she was talking about. And this was in 1908 I think. So I had to go research and figure out what she was alluding to. In this speech, Kate Waller Barrett – the woman I’m studying is bemoaning the way single mothers were treated in contemporary society. And she says that you know, women wouldn’t resort to abortions if there was a place in society for them. And she held up the suitcase mystery as a case in point, essentially saying that if motherhood wasn’t such a burden on women, especially single motherhood – both for the blow to a woman’s reputation and logistically as a barrier to working for wages- that women wouldn’t seek out abortions in the numbers that they did.

Marissa: So this case was a well-known phenomenon at least during the first decade of the twentieth century but even as late as 1928 a copy of Punch magazine made a joking reference to the 1905 suitcase murder.

Elizabeth: Yeah, so that is the 1905 Suitcase Murder. And just an interesting note, they spelled it suit case, like two separate words. And actually in a lot of places it was called a dress suit case. So our modern suitcase- all one word term is a more recent phenomenon.

Marissa: Cool. Well that’s it for this episode of Dig. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Rate and review us on iTunes, or whatever app you listen to podcasts on. Drop us an email if you have any questions. And we hope you join us again soon.

Elizabeth. BYE!!

Sources and Further Reading:

SOLVING SUIT CASE MYSTERY.: Boston Detectives Progress in Inquiry Into Woman’s Death.
New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]24 Sep 1905: 14.

SUIT CASE MYSTERY ARREST.: Boston Clerk Held — Said to Have Talked of Cutting Up a Body. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]02 Oct 1905: 2.

Nathan Escapes Indictment. New York Times; New York, N.Y., 14 Nov 1905: 2

SUIT CASE GIRL KNOWN, HER FIANCE ARRESTED: Boston Mystery Victim Was a Cambridge Chorus Girl. SANG IN “SHEPHERD KING” Rings Identified by Her Mother — Prisoner Secretary of Theatrical Company’s Manager.
Special to The New York Times.. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]30 Oct 1905: 6.

MORE ARRESTS NEAR IN SUIT CASE MYSTERY: Morris Nathan Tells All He Knows to Pittsburg Police. SEARCH NOW IN BOSTON Chorus Girl’s Fiance to be Charged with Being Accessory — Will Waive Extradition.
Special to The New York Times.. New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]31 Oct 1905: 6.

SUIT CASE MYSTERY SOLVED BY CONFESSION: Boston Hypnotist, Arrested Here, Threw Body Into Water. IMPLICATES A PRISONER Son-in-Law of Woman Physician is Charged with Having Aided in Disposition of Body.
New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]03 Nov 1905: 5.

Dr. McLeod Out on $20,000 Bail.
New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]05 Nov 1905: 10.

GIRL’S HEAD FOUND.: Believed to be That of the Boston Suit Case Victim.
New York Times (1857-1922); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]06 Nov 1905: 5.

San Francisco Call, Volume 98, Number 152, 30 October 1905

San Francisco Call, Volume 98, Number 154, 1 November 1905

The Kingston Daily Freeman, Kingston, NY, Volume XXXV, Number 21, 11 November 1905.

The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 45, 1905.

The St. Louis Medical Review, Volume 52, 1905.

Brooklyn Medical Journal, Volume 20, 1906.

The Boston Daily Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 30, 1905.

Punch, Volume 175, 1928.

The terrifying murder mystery that changed the way Boston viewed abortion, boston.com. https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2015/11/12/tbt-the-terrifying-murder-mystery-that-changed-the-way-boston-viewed-abortion

Bill Peshel. Sherlock Holmes Edwardian Parodies and Pastiches II: 1905-1909,Peschel Press, 2016.


The Boston Globe splashed the headline across its front page the next day, “Dismembered Body of Girl Found in Suitcase Floating on the Tide at Winthrop.” Below the larger than life letters, the true nature of the crime was printed, “Death Probably Due to Peritonitis after Unsuccessful Operation of a Criminal Nature.” There it was, a dismembered body was found floating in the harbor in an unassuming olive-green suitcase, but the real scandal was that the body had recently undergone an illegal operation - an abortion.


Julia · March 2, 2018 at 3:35 pm

The Suitcase Murder: Abortion, Mystery and Murder in 20th Century America. 1. The photo of the newspaper of Morris Nathan arrest. Where is it from? 2. Whatever happened to Morris Nathan?

    Elizabeth Garner Masarik · March 4, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Hi Julia,

    The headline is from The Boston Globe. As for Morris Nathan, as far as I can tell he drifted off into history. Without a deep dive into the archives, we have no idea what happened to him later. Thanks for listening!

Sarah Handley-Cousins · March 5, 2018 at 9:06 am

Hi Julia! I just wanted to say that the exact issue of the Boston Globe was Oct. 20, 1905.

    JuliA · March 5, 2018 at 9:56 am

    To save you the time, my Dad’s Uncle Morris died of suicide by hanging in @ 1944.

      Averill Earls · March 6, 2018 at 11:08 am

      Sorry we misspelled your name, Julia! As someone with a weird name that gets spelled and pronounced incorrectly all the time, I know how annoying that is. And very sorry to hear about your great uncle. He is the same Morris as the Morris Nathan in this case? Why didn’t you just say so in the first place! I’d be interested to know more about what his life was like after the case. I’m sure he was devastated by her death, and it’s crazy to think that he was held even a little responsible – but these are the consequences of denying women access to safe and legal abortions. Either way, I hope he found some peace and happiness in the 40 years before his death. Thanks for listening, and for sharing a little piece of your family’s story with us.

        Julia · March 6, 2018 at 11:48 am

        No relatives are still alive for me to learn anything more. My Dad was a teenager when Morris died. Years ago he had told me he had an Uncle who dropped dead on the streets of NY from a heart attack. I haven’t found this to be true so I’m guessing that is what he was told, instead of the truth.

Sean Geary · November 28, 2022 at 3:59 pm

I was recently doing some genealogy searching and discovered that Susana is my great grand aunt, I think that’s the term. She was the daughter of my great-great grandfather from his second marriage. my grandfather was born a few years after her death. I can honestly say I never heard about this. I also didn’t know about these other aunts and uncles until recently. Looking forward to listening to your episode a few years after the fact.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.