One of George Harrison’s best and most enduring songs, performed here by Paul Simon on the Conan Show earlier this week. Simon and Harrison had performed this song together on Saturday Night Live back in 1976, and is still one of my favorite moments in television history.
Whether fairly or unfairly, the woman born Ann Trow in May 1812 would become known as the “Wickedest Woman in New York”—in spite of her claims that she only wanted to help her fellow women.
Originally from England, she went to the United States with her first husband and their daughter. He died not long after, and she became Ann Lohman when she married again. It wasn’t long after this marriage that she decided to set out on a new career—a female physician, provider of birth control, and abortion doctor.
By all accounts, she didn’t have any actual medical training and her trip overseas—supposedly to return to Europe and train with physicians and midwives there—was a ruse. Once she returned from her supposed trip, she began placing ads in the New York papers, offering her services. She started out advertising her “Preventative Powders” and “Female Monthly Pills,” which offered her clientele affordable birth control methods. Most of her pills and powders contained the same ingredients as folk remedies that had been around for generations, and they weren’t always that reliable.
That was where her other service came in. By now, she was known throughout the city as Madame Restell, and she offered abortions out of her Greenwich Street building. For those who didn’t want to go through an abortion but didn’t want their baby, either, she opened a boarding house next to her office that expectant mothers would stay at—in privacy. After the babies were delivered, Restell would arrange for their adoption.
For all her business sense, Restell couldn’t stay away from the law.
According to New York State law at the time, an unborn baby wasn’t alive until it started to move; that made abortions pretty legal up until the pregnancy was about four months along. While most accounts say that Restell was pretty respectful of this law, the deathbed confession of a woman dying of tuberculosis suggested otherwise. Maria Purdy confessed to drinking one of Restell’s mysterious concoctions (later revealed to contain mostly turpentine), before re-thinking how she was going about killing her baby. She went to Restell for an abortion, and received one.
Restell’s arrest for giving a pregnant woman a dangerous tonic to drink was the first of several arrests. It was ultimately decided that a deathbed confession wasn’t admissible in court, and Restell was found innocent. She went back to her business, with a massive advertising campaign that tried to convince New York that she was only trying to help women—and families—crippled by the overwhelming burden of bearing child after child.
New York law changed in 1845, making abortion illegal. Her next arrest followed on the heels of that, when she says she was harassed into performing an abortion on a woman with a very, very insistent lover. Found guilty, she served time in jail.
By the time she got out, Anthony Comstock had begun his campaign against pornography and birth control. In the wake of the flames he was fanning, Restell became known to the papers as a “hag of misery” and the “wickedest woman in New York.” When she returned to her very, very successful business on her release from jail, the Comstock Law had already been passed—now, selling her birth control pills and powders was a crime.
Comstock himself visited her, begging for something to give his wife. She finally obliged and was arrested the next day. Having been in prison and not wanting to go back, Restell slit her own throat in her bathtub on April 1, 1878. Bizarrely, when news got out, the first reaction was that it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
The church condemned her, and the public passed legislation against her, but according to Madame Restell, everything she did was for the benefit of women who had no other way to help themselves. Throughout her career, she painted a picture of herself as the champion of women who were in too ill health to bear the children that society stated they should, and created an image of herself as a protector of female virtue. While undoubtedly, many of the good, upstanding women of the time would deny ever having anything to do with her, business was so good that by the time she died, she not only had offices in New York City, but also Boston and Philadelphia; newspaper articles of the time point to her furs and jewelry, her servants and her horse-drawn carriages, suggesting that it was a much more widespread practice than most would want to admit.
Almost everyone needs a good cup of coffee in the morning to get them going, and, according to legend, it’s all because of a 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder named Kaldi.
Allegedly, Kaldi observed his goats behaving erratically after eating the red berries from a nearby Coffea arabica tree. He tried some of them himself and was soon acting as hyper as his herd. He then brought a batch to a monastery where they were derided for their stimulating effects during long hours of prayer. The religious leaders there threw the tree’s beans onto a fire to destroy them, but the pleasing aroma of the roasted beans convinced them to give the coffee a second chance. Much like with tea, they put the roasted beans into warm water and the beverage was born.
Despite the legend, it’s thought that the practice of chewing coffee beans as a stimulant was around for centuries before Kaldi’s alleged discovery. People would grind the beans to mix with butter and animal fat to preserve and eat on long journeys. Similarly, Sudanese slaves are thought to have chewed on coffee beans to help them survive their difficult voyages on trade routes.
The cultivation and trade of the beans for the drink began in Arabic countries in the 14th century and spread throughout Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. It’s said not a single coffee plant existed outside of Arabia or Africa until the 1600s, when a pilgrim named Baba Budan brought them back to India. In 1616, Pieter van der Broeck smuggled some coffee out of Mocha, Yemen and brought it back to Amsterdam. Soon, the Dutch and their colonies—most notably Sri Lanka and Java—took over the European trade, followed by the French in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America, and the Portuguese in Brazil. The drink eventually made its way to America via British colonizers who docked in New York City.
Today, coffee is a 100 billion dollar a year industry, supporting 25 million people worldwide. How did we ever survive mornings without it?
One January afternoon in 1897, Erasmus (aka Edward) Shue, a blacksmith, sent his neighbor’s young boy to see if Elva, Shue’s wife of three months, needed anything from the market. When the neighbor boy walked through the front door of the Shues’ rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia, log house, he found Elva’s lifeless body at the foot of the stairs. The boy stood for a moment looking at the woman, not knowing what to make of the scene. Her body was stretched out straight with her legs together. One arm was at her side and the other rested across her chest. Her head was tilted to one side.
At first he thought that the woman was simply asleep on the floor. He stepped toward her, quietly calling, “Mrs. Shue?” When she didn’t respond, he panicked and bolted from the house. He told his mother what he had found and she summoned the local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp.
Knapp didn’t get to the Shues’ house for almost an hour. By the time he arrived, Shue had already gotten home, carried his wife’s body up to the bedroom, washed and dressed her, and laid her out on the bed. He’d prepared her body for burial in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar and placed a veil over her face. Knapp went about examining the body, Shue cradling his wife’s head and crying the whole while. When Knapp attempted to examine Elva’s neck and head, Shue became agitated. Knapp didn’t want to provoke him any further, so he left. He’d found nothing amiss with the body parts he had examined and had also been treating Elva for a few weeks prior, so he listed the cause of death as “everlasting faint” and then changed it to “complications from pregnancy.”
Elva’s body was taken to her childhood home of Little Sewell Mountain and buried, but not before a bizarre funeral where her widower acted erratically. He paced by the casket, fiddling with Elva’s head and neck. In addition to the collar and the veil, he covered her head and neck with a scarf. It didn’t match her burial dress, but Shue insisted that it was her favorite and that she would have wanted to be buried in it. He also propped her head up, first with a pillow and then a rolled up cloth. It was certainly strange, but most guests likely chalked it up to the grieving process. Shue was generally liked and regarded without suspicion by everyone in town.
Everyone, that is, except Mary Jane Heaster, Elva’s mother. She had never liked Shue, and even without evidence, she was convinced that he had murdered her daughter. If only Elva could tell her what happened, she thought. She decided to pray for Elva to somehow come back from the dead and reveal the truth about her death. She prayed every evening for weeks, until finally her prayer was answered.
Heaster claimed her daughter appeared to her in a dream four nights in a row to tell her story. Supposedly, the spirit appeared first as a bright light, gradually taking a human form and filling the room with a chill. Elva’s ghost confessed to her mother that Shue cruelly abused her, and one night attacked her in a rage when he thought that she hadn’t made any meat for his dinner. He had broken her neck, the ghost said as it turned its head completely around. Then the ghost turned and walked away, disappearing into the night while staring back at her mother.
Heaster went to the local prosecutor, John Preston, and spent the afternoon at his office trying to get him to reopen the case. Whether Preston believed her story about the ghost, we don’t know, but Heaster was persistent and convincing enough that he began asking questions around town. Shue’s neighbors and friends told Preston about the man’s strange behavior at the funeral, and Dr. Knapp admitted that his examination had been incomplete.
It was enough for Preston to justify an order for a complete autopsy, and a few days later, the body was exhumed despite Shue’s objections. Knapp and two other doctors laid the body out in the town’s one-room schoolhouse to give it a thorough examination. A local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times, later reported that, “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.”
It was clear Elva’s death was not natural, but there was no evidence pointing to the killer, and no witnesses. Shue’s strange behavior since Elva’s death stuck in Preston’s mind and cast some suspicion on him. At the same time, Elva’s mother had described exactly how her daughter was killed before the autopsy was performed. Maybe she’d done it, and the ghost story was an elaborate plot to frame Shue.
Preston continued to investigate and began looking into Shue’s past. He learned that Shue had been married twice before. The first ended in divorce while Shue was in prison for stealing a horse. That wife later told police that Shue was extremely violent and beat her frequently while they were married. His second marriage ended after just eight months with the mysterious death of the wife. In between these marriages, Shue boasted in prison that he planned to marry seven women in his lifetime. The previous wife’s mysterious death and Shue’s history of abuse were circumstantial, but enough for Preston to bring him to trial.
Mary Jane Heaster was the prosecution’s star witness, but Preston wanted to avoid the issue of her ghostly sightings, since Elva’s story as relayed by her mother might be objected to as hearsay by the defense. Perhaps hoping to prove her unreliable, Shue’s lawyer questioned Heaster extensively about the ghost’s visits on cross-examination. The tactic backfired, with Heaster refusing to waver in her account despite intense badgering by the lawyer. Many people in the community, if not the jury, seemed to believe Heaster’s story, and Shue did himself no favors taking the stand in his own defense, rambling and appealing to the jury “to look into his face and then say if he was guilty.” The Greenbrier Independent reported that his “testimony, manner, and so forth, made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.” The jury deliberated for just an hour and ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
Shue was sentenced to life in prison, but died soon after as epidemics of measles and pneumonia tore through the prison in the spring of 1900. Mrs. Heaster lived until 1916, and never recanted her story about Elva’s ghost. Maybe her story swayed the jury and won the case. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe her daughter spoke to her from beyond the grave, maybe the ghost was all in Heaster’s head, or maybe it was a strategic lie. But no matter who saw or believed what, without the ghost story, Heaster may have never gone to Preston, and Shue might not have gone to trial.
A historical marker in Greenbrier County commemorates Elva’s death and the unusual court case that followed, noting that this was the “only known case in which testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer.”