Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Marcia Biederman

Once a mystery novelist, Marcia Biederman now writes meticulously researched nonfiction that reads like a detective story. As a longtime freelancer for the New York Times, she wrote more than 150 pieces for the Times on everything from ice dancing to automobile wheel repair. She was a staff reporter for Crain’s New York Business, and her work has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday. Before discovering her passion for history, biography, and true crime, she published three mystery novels and contributed a short story to Best of Sisters in Crime, edited by Marilyn Wallace.

The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill: Abortion, Death, and Concealment in Victorian New England, is Marcia Biederman’s fourth nonfiction work about women whose stories should be better known. Her previous books are A Mighty Force, about Pennsylvania coal town physician Elizabeth Hayes; Scan Artist, about speed-reading entrepreneur Evelyn Wood; and Popovers and Candlelight, about New York restaurateur Patricia Murphy.

Take it away, Marcia!

What path led you to Emma Gill’s story? Why do you think it is important to tell her story today?

More than four years ago, I was researching a different topic when I stumbled across an 1898 edition of the Los Angeles Herald headlined, “The Mysterious Tragedy of Bridgeport.” There are many American cities named Bridgeport, but a quick scan confirmed this was about my hometown – Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was born and raised. Robustly illustrated with drawings of suspects, victim, and crime scene, the piece told a story I’d never heard.

A young woman’s mutilated remains had been found in a pond. A medical examination immediately indicated that the woman had died of an infection following an abortion – a serious crime at that time in Connecticut, and, indeed in every state – with the body cut up afterward to conceal what had happened.

Immediately, I was hooked. In that piece, abortion wasn’t mentioned directly, but there were multiple mentions of the “midwife” under suspicion. Bridgeport seldom makes national news now, and it never did. This had to be big.

Digging further, I found this was more than just a police-gazette-style story. The yellow press – the Hearst chain, etc. – was all over it, but reputable papers like the Hartford Courant and the New Haven Register provided more sober coverage. The Bridgeport Herald, now extinct, astounded me by calling for sex education for girls, criticizing prudishness, and writing that Nancy Guilford – the suspected abortion provider, who eluded the police for weeks – “simply was unfortunate in getting caught in an unlawful act which is being repeated weekly in every city in this state.”

Statements like that floored me. They also spurred me on to write the book. As I began my research in late 2019, Roe v Wade was still the law of the land, but I knew it was under attack. In many parts of the country, opponents of reproductive rights had closed abortion clinics or made it impossible for them to open. Years ago, I’d read a book by the historian James C. Mohr, Abortion in America, which talked about how widespread abortion became in the nineteenth century, moving from the margins into the mainstream (yet here I am, being interviewed by History in the Margins!)

State legislatures responded by tightening laws against abortion, but the cases were hard to prosecute, and many people tolerated, or even welcomed, criminal abortion providers in their midst. As I recently wrote in a newspaper op-ed, only Robin Hood had more accomplices. If abortions led to lethal infections — always a risk in the era before modern antibiotics — the patient’s family would help conceal the cause of death. At least that was true in the Connecticut and Massachusetts cities where Nancy Guilford’s practices flourished until the disposal of a body went terribly wrong in two separate cases and Guilford served long prison sentences, only to get right back to it after release.

Emma Gill was a name that didn’t pop up until I was far into my research. The case remained unsolved for months, and Nancy Guilford remained at large, because no one could identify the dead woman. Fingerprinting identification was not yet available, so the police put the severed head on display in the city morgue. Hundreds of Bridgeport residents filed past it, but no one recognized the face. Emma Gill, as it turned out, was from Southington, near Hartford. In the meantime, mailbags full of tips arrived at the Bridgeport police department. Everyone, it seemed, had a sister, wife, or neighbor who’d been away from home for a few days and who – according to her siblings, spouse, or co-worker – might well have gone for an abortion, despite the fact that the procedure was strictly illegal.

As I discovered more about Nancy Guilford and her husband – old-stock white Protestants – it became clear to me that abortion was as American as apple pie. While I was halfway through the writing, I became more determined than ever to tell this story. Writing for the Supreme Court majority in the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe, Justice Samuel Alito stated that the right to abortion is not “deeply rooted” in American history or traditions. My book proves him wrong.

Are there special challenges in writing about a historical event with echoes in current politics?

Yes. Abortion is one of the most controversial topics of our time, so there are special challenges even when writing about events that happened 125 years ago — not so much in writing the book as in selling it to publishers and marketing it. I’m fortunate to have Chicago Review Press as my publisher. Before they offered me a contract, an acquisitions editor at a much larger publishing house became interested and set up a Zoom call to discuss it. Initially, only the editor, my agent, and I were going to be on the call, but one of the editor’s superiors invited herself at the last minute and dominated the conversation. The editor started by asking if I thought of Nancy Guilford, the abortion provider at the center of the book, as a “delicious villain.” Now, as a criminal who enriched herself by fulfilling a need, Nancy was a seriously flawed person who sometimes set her own interests above those of her patients. She was also married to a genuine villain and, at least for a while, did bad things to cover for him. The fact that they were both engaged in crime made it difficult for her to leave him, though she tried.

As I began to explain these nuances, I could tell that the editor’s superior was losing interest. They never made an offer. When my book finally found a home, I was never asked to reduce complexities to simplicities. My editor trusted me, and no higher-up was trying to trim history to certain specifications.

As for marketing the book, there are benefits as well as drawbacks, depending how blue the state. Before publication, I was able to place op-eds related to the book in two Connecticut news outlets, the Hartford Courant and the CT Mirror, and in the New York Daily News. However, in Pennsylvania, a reporter who regularly contributes to two small newspapers was able to place a feture about the book in only one of those outlets.  The other paper told her they were afraid of pushback from the antiabortion movement, which is active there.

On the plus side, a wonderful Manhattan bookstore, P&T Knitwear, arranged my book launch as a benefit for The Brigid Alliance, an organization that brings people from states with abortion bans to New York for care. We already know that the past can inform the present. It can also raise some money for it!

When did you first become interested in women’s history? What sparked that interest?

My local library, like many libraries known to baby boomers across the country, had a special case for several dozen books officially titled the Bobbs-Merrill Childhood of Famous Americans series. We called them “the orange biographies” for the color of the bindings. I devoured the ones about women as young girls: Amelia Earhart, Jane Addams, Dolly Madison. Supposedly they were nonfiction, but the dialogue and many events were made up. Today we’d call them historical fiction. Still, there was enough true stuff there to get me interested.

In addition, I formed a long-time obsession with Louisa May Alcott after discovering an abridged version of Little Women in the comic book racks at my neighborhood newsstand. I identified with Jo, obviously a stand-in for the author, and devoured what I could about her creator. I especially loved John Matteson’s 2008 biography, Eden’s Outcasts, about Louisa’s relationship with her father, Bronson Alcott.

Hence, it was great fun to discover an indirect connection between Louisa May Alcott and the people and events in my latest book, The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill. The abortion provider at the center of the book, Nancy Guilford, learned “the criminal operation,” as it was then called, by assisting her husband, Henry Guilford. But how did Henry learn it? Henry claimed to have a medical degree, although I could find no evidence of that. Nonetheless, newspaper reports show that he worked as an in-house doctor at one of the Health-Lift exercise salons popularized by one of Louisa May Alcott’s cousins, a Harvard-trained physician and bodybuilding enthusiast named George Barker Windship.

Related to Louisa through the Mays, her mother’s side of the family, weightlifting George and his scribbling cousin had much in common. According to her biographer Matteson, Alcott was a dedicated runner. Jo March, of course, was an athletic type, and in Eight Cousins, Alcott presented a male character, a kindly uncle, who encouraged girls to dress in less restrictive clothing and exercise more.

When Louisa’s strongman cousin, George, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 42, the Health-Lift craze screeched to a halt. People lost faith in the exercise machines, some modified for use by women, a significant portion of the clientele. My research suggests other reasons for the sudden plunge in popularity. At least two people involved in Massachusetts abortion trials had worked at Health-Lift gyms. Henry Guilford, a “doctor” for one of the gyms, may have learned his trade there. When the gyms closed, he and his wife, Nancy, opened their own abortion practice in Worcester, Massachusetts. All this gave me a whole new perspective on the Alcott family tree.

A question from Marcia: Can you think of any other books (or works about history in any format – biopic, documentary) in which a tale from the past strongly resonates today, whether about reproductive rights, banned books, vaccinations, trans rights, threats to democracy, etc.?

I spent much of the last four years in a deep research dive on Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, the isolationist movement in the United States during the same period, and the challenges journalists faced in reporting both stories. It was uncomfortable reading. All too often, what I was reading in the morning’s paper—or at least the on-line versions thereof— echoed the stories from the past that I was researching.

For example, watching our current debates over support to Ukraine, I keep thinking about Lynn Olson’s Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941. In it, Olson explores how the issues of interventionism and isolationism split American society in the years before the United States entered World War II. She centers the story on the larger than life figures who embodied the two positions: President Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh. (Neither man comes out looking good.) But the story is more than a Clash of Titans. Olson takes us through the conflict in step-by-step detail, looking at grassroots activism as well as the actions of those in power. She introduces the reader to individual members of Congress who took positions on both sides of the conflict, bringing them to life in unexpected ways. She looks at high-ranking officers in the American military who were anti-intervention and who actively worked to undermine Roosevelt’s pro-British policies. She outlines the workings of a covert British operation which created false news, dug up dirt on isolationist Congressmen, and helped form the OSS, precursor to the CIA. She describes the formation and actions of isolationist groups like the America First Committee and the American Mothers Neutrality League and their interventionist counterparts, the White Committee (officially the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies) and the Century Group.

It was a dirty fight on all sides, until the attack on Pearl Harbor made the debates largely irrelevant.


Want to know more about Marcia Biederman and her work?

Check out her website:

Follow her on Instagram: @squiremarcia



Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer from children’s author Laurie Wallmark, who writes about women in STEM.

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