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Death and the abortion doctor: The story of Dr. W.H. Dudley

This edition of Remember This is the first of three stories recounting the status of abortion in the 1920, and the downfall of a prominent local doctor
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Dr. William Howard Dudley. Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

In 1928, doctors were called to a local hotel to find a woman – the wife of the owner – dead.  And with that was launched an inquest into the nature of her death, and the activities of Doctor William Howard Dudley, who had been treating her prior to her death.

The woman’s autopsy revealed a perforated uterus and indicated that she had died of peritonitis, an infection of the abdomen’s inner wall.  As a result of these findings and witness testimony, Doctor William Howard Dudley was arrested. His bail was set at $10,000 – over $145,000 by today’s standards – and he was charged with manslaughter in the woman’s death.

The prosecutor claimed she died “as the result of an illegal operation,” a commonly-used euphemism for an abortion.

Doctor W. H. Dudley was a well-respected figure in the community. Originally from Pembroke, he began working as a school teacher in the late 1800s, which led him to Sault Ste. Marie. He then changed paths and pursued a career in the medical field. After serving in the First World War, he returned to Sault Ste. Marie to practice medicine. He was even profiled in a local book from 1922 that profiled prominent Sault doctors, “History of the Medical Profession.”

With Dudley’s arrest, however, those high opinions of him clearly began to shift.  During the preliminary hearing, for example, Magistrate Elliot strongly hinted it was not appropriate for women to stay and observe the proceedings. “The ladies present would sustain the wholesome reputation of the ladies of the city of Sault Ste. Marie by leaving the court room,” he said, prompting the women to leave in response.

Throughout the inquest, preliminary hearing, and trial, details and accusations came to light regarding Dudley’s treatment of the woman.  

The woman had been ill for some time, leading at least one employee of the hotel to suspect that she was pregnant and make joking comments towards her about it.  Doctors performing the postmortem agreed that the woman had been recently pregnant, approximately two months along. However, she never told her husband of her pregnancy.

According to her husband, things worsened after she took a trip downtown.  Upon her return, she was feeling “pretty bad,” and things got worse from there.

Approximately a week later, the woman requested that someone call Dr. Dudley to examine her because, as her husband testified, “She says Dr. Dudley [is] good for women.”

The prosecution alleged that the woman had an abortion and developed an infection, the signs of which could be seen on the postmortem.  The instrument apparently used to perform the abortion had perforated her uterus, leading to the severe infection that ultimately killed her.

Dr. Dudley was accused of performing the abortion; he, however, maintained that he only treated her after she fell ill, and that she was not pregnant at that point.

As the woman became sicker, Dudley visited the woman repeatedly.  Dudley stressed that during these visits, he recommended that she seek treatment in hospital, but she “strenuously” refused to go.

The woman died in Dr. Dudley’s presence, as a result of “smothering” on her own vomit.

Attempts to bring her back failed.  Dr. Dudley gave her five shots of whisky – a dangerous treatment no longer practiced that involved him injecting whisky into the muscles of her chest using a hypodermic needle.  However, it did nothing to revive her. Dudley left, and the family called for the undertaker and other doctors.

As for the defense, they argued that the “case was not well handled,” but that there was no direct link between Dudley’s actions and the woman’s death. He didn’t perform an abortion, and he wasn’t hiding anything: he just behaved in a way that a “reputable physician” wouldn’t.

Ultimately, the case was handed over to the jury. After three hours of deliberation, Dudley was found not guilty of manslaughter.

However, it was hardly the end of the road for Dr. W. H. Dudley.  

Check back next week to see what happens at the trial.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here




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