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Blog: An ’illegal operation’ gone horribly wrong

A botched abortion that was deemed murder
Heartbeat trace and glasses

Here’s a tragic tale of an illegal abortion that went wrong—back in the day when a newspaper couldn’t use the actual word “abortion.”

The Enterprise on April 4, 1919, reported:

“Dr. Ephriam Northcott, San Francisco physician, who was arrested Monday and charged with murder in connection with the death of Miss Inez Reed, army nurse, whose body was found in the San Mateo Creek ravine on March 8, was brought to the county jail in Redwood City Wednesday afternoon. The accused man had been confined in prison in San Francisco since Monday night, when he was taken into custody at his home.

“The San Francisco and San Mateo police were busy Tuesday and Wednesday gathering evidence that will prove conclusively, they say, that the illegal operation that resulted in the death of Miss Reed was performed at (a house on) Highland Avenue, San Mateo. According to Captain of Detectives Matheson, Dr. Northcott acquired the house in San Mateo expressly to provide a safe retreat where the illegal operation might be performed. Northcott was arrested Monday night following the finding in an open fireplace of the Highland Avenue house charred remnants of a silver mesh purse, part of an amethyst ring and other articles belonging to Miss Reed.

“Wednesday the detectives interviewed several persons whose testimony is wanted before the police arrest the man who drove the car in which the army nurse’s body was carried out to the Crystal Springs Road to be dumped into the creek. The arrest of this man and also the person originally responsible for the nurse’s trouble, is expected hourly.

“Captain Matheson has been silent as to the man to whom Miss Reed’s troubles were due, and refused any information as to whether he is in San Francisco or in the East, or whether he had a hand in the arrangements that ended with the death of the girl. Nor will Matheson tell who was present when the operation was performed, or whether Frances Cronin, Dr. Northcott’s office nurse, was at the San Mateo house at the time. Miss Cronin has not been arrested. She will tell the whole story, Matheson said, when she is called to do it.”

An article in The Enterprise on April 11th said the initial hearing had been delayed, citing lack of preparation by the defense, and gave an interesting tidbit: “Despite the efforts of the detectives Tuesday, Frances Cronin, Dr. Northcott’s office nurse, could not be located to be served with a subpoena and was not present in court…”

The February 6, 1920, edition of The Enterprise glanced by the end result of the trial:

“Dr. Northcott’s trial, held in Redwood City last June, was one of the most sensational trials ever held in the county. The accused was convicted and sentenced by Judge G. H. Buck on July 6th to an indeterminate sentence of from ten years to life.”

The Times wrapped up the story several years later, in their July 2, 1928, edition:

“Dr. Ephriam Northcott, former San Mateo and San Francisco physician, convicted in 1919 of performing an illegal operation at a house on Highland Avenue, San Mateo, died last night in the hospital at San Quentin prison. He was serving a life sentence. Death was due to pneumonia contracted at a prison road camp.”

Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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