mad in pursuit family history

The Family ofMoses Flanagan & Maggie Kelville

NELLIE'S EXIT: Abortion in 1913

I'm tempted to think that taking charge of your life, being the hero of your own drama, taking leaps into the unknown is always a good thing. Risk-takers win, right? Strong-willed women who make things happen for themselves are supposed to lived happily ever after. But then I think of Nellie. My great-aunt Nellie reminds me that gambling with the future is always a flirtation with danger. And that danger can kill you.


Nellie Flanagan KralemannOn Tuesday, March 25, 1913, a rainy spring day in St. Louis, the newlywed Nellie Flanagan Kralemann sent for her friend Pauline. She was doubled over with terrible abdominal pains. Pauline applied hot towels to Nellie's belly and back and gave her a liniment rub-down, then called Nellie's husband Harry home from work. Harry brought a doctor.

To the doctor Nellie admitted the cause of her problem. She'd had an abortion. She would say no more. Infection raged through her body. By 10 A.M. the next day, after a night of screaming agony, she was dead.

Nellie and Harry had gotten married only seven weeks earlier. Nellie was a beautiful 23-year-old woman and I imagine her in the flush of sexual awakening. But almost immediately she knew she was pregnant. At the coroner's inquest, Harry said she was taking a variety of home remedies to bring on her period – not only hot toddies, but poisonous cathartics like calomel and turpentine. When asked if he knew about her seeking help from a midwife, he said he'd forbidden it. Then the pain began. For two weeks, Nellie suffered. Harry said he thought it was kidney trouble.


I was always curious about Nellie. My grandmother Kitty worshiped her bright and talented older sister and talked about her enough that forty and fifty years after Nellie's death, Kitty's grandchildren were aware that "Nellie" was part of Kitty, part of her wonderful early childhood, when the Flanagans were healthy and prosperous. The two girls learned to play the piano and to sing.

Kitty liked to tell the story of a house fire they had about 1903. While her parents were rescuing the other children, Nellie single-handedly pushed her beloved piano out the door onto the safety of the front porch. This feat got her picture in the local newspaper. Nellie was about 13 – the right age for a romantic act of heroism.

It wasn't until sometime in the late 1960s that I learned about Nellie's demise. It was a summer afternoon. I was home from college and sitting with my grandmother in her kitchen. I must have asked her how Nellie died and she told me about the abortion. It wasn't till decades later that we actually obtained the death certificate and then the transcript of the Coroner's Inquest. Homicide, they confirmed.

Here is another of my female ancestors who had a big idea of herself No way was she going to have children the minute she got married.

Nellie's pampered early childhood had been derailed by six additional children squeezed into small north St. Louis apartments. Just into adolescence, not long after the fabled piano rescue, Nellie watched her mother die from uterine cancer. No doubt Nellie picked up much of the care of her siblings during those horrid days and watched helplessly then as the youngest two girls were sent to live in an orphanage. It would be hard for such a girl not to connect bearing children with poverty and death. Her husband Harry was only a railroad clerk, not the prosperous grocer her sister Kitty had just married.

So Nellie found herself in a crisis. Trapped. Pregnancy can't be cured by picking up and leaving town. Her choices were few: her mother's wretched path of children-poverty-death or poisonous hit-or-miss folk remedies or a visit to a sympathetic midwife. Nellie was distraught. Nellie wanted her life back.

She took charge. She was not going to wind up like her mother. She defied her husband's orders and paid a visit to someone whose identity will never be known, for an intervention that will never be clear. She took that risk. She made that leap. For lack of safe procedures, in the days before antibiotics, she placed her bet, all in, and lost.

Strong-willed women with big ideas of themselves travel in dangerous territory.




Extended Nellie story with notes