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When Abortion was Illegal (and Deadly)

Seattle's Maternal Death Toll

by James Gregory

On February 8, 1967, the body of 24-year-old Raisa Trytiak, a Seattle bank employee and former University of Washington student, was found in a garbage dump in Snohomish County. The young woman, who lived with her parents, had died from an embolism caused by a botched abortion. She had been six months pregnant. The next day, Jack Blight, a 61-year-old retired construction worker, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to probation for a term of twenty years.1

The lenient sentence was unusual, the rest not at all. Abortion was illegal in Washington until 1970, permitted only when the life of the mother was endangered. But countless women found ways to terminate pregnancies, and some died doing so.

One month after Raisa Trytiak’s fatal abortion, Elizabeth Zack Staley died in Olympia. She was 22 years old and newly married. Her husband, Ronald Jae Staley, and a 19-year-old female friend evidently performed the botched surgery. He was found guilty of abortion and manslaughter and sentenced to a more typical term: fifteen years in prison.2

Raisa Trytiak and Elizabeth Staley were among the many victims of Washington State’s restrictive laws. Today, as abortion again becomes illegal in many states in the wake of the Supreme Court's reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, it is useful to take a look back and consider the consequences.

How many women died from botched abortions in the Seattle area? We have scoured the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer and have found fourteen reported fatalities between 1945 and 1969. This is by no means a complete count. Newspapers reported only cases that came from the police blotter involving criminal charges and did not report all of them. Other cases never came to the attention of the police. Medical authorities underreported abortion deaths, missing some, reluctant to embarrass families by reporting others.

Historian Leslie Reagan explains that it is hard to disentangle mortality statistics because coroners and hospitals had so many different ways of reporting maternal deaths. Consequently, there is much uncertainty about the death toll from illegal abortions, with nationwide estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands of American women dying each year. We don’t know the Washington death toll.3

But we do know something about fourteen women who died because abortion was a crime. In addition to Elizabeth Staley and Raisa Trytiack, the known victims are Martha Alit, Elizabeth Ann Crowe, Patricia Dickinson, Beatrice Fisher, Sharon Hoag, Mary Johnson, Beulah LeClair, Patricia Parrish, Bettye Porter, Claudette Sayles, and Irene Timmons. Here are details on each tragedy including the criminal prosecutions that followed.

Most were young but several were married and Martha Alit left behind nine children. They were of many ancestries, including two African Americans, and a Native American. Raisa Trytiak had been born in Russia. What they had in common was that they died at the hands of illegal abortionists, most of whom, like Jack Blight and Ronald Staley, lacked medical training and operated in bathrooms or kitchen tables.

Compounding the tragedy was the near invisibility of these deaths. Mostly these were not big headline stories. Readers of the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer would have had to look carefully through the inside pages of the newspaper to notice the tiny articles that marked these deaths. After Sharon Hoag died on February 1, 1963, the Times ran a three-inch article at the bottom of page two with the succinct headline: “Girl’s Death After Abortion Investigated.” Claudette Sayles’ passing on July 30, 1960, was marked by two inches on page three: “Murder Charge Filed in Death of Woman.” Treated as crime stories, the news focused mostly on arrests, trials, and punishment, saying little about the victims, and never raising the issue of why these women were driven to take such risks.

We learn more about the alleged abortionists. Four were medical professionals: Dr. Frank C. Hart, a surgeon who was convicted of manslaughter and abortion in the 1945 death of Beatrice Fisher and sent to prison for 20 years; Dr. James Unosawa, an osteopath, who was convicted in two separate abortion deaths and spent 18 months in prison; Dr. Roger B. Payne, a naturopath, who was charged after the death of Elizabeth Crowe, and Ida Wrench, a nurse who was charged in two deaths. The others include a husband, a lover, and a female friend all of whom seem to have been assisting in do-it-yourself abortions. And there were several amateur practitioners who made a living from illegal abortions. Marjorie Folsom ran a Seattle sanitarium that police described as an “abortion racket.” She was sentenced to twenty years after the death of two women in 1946. Lee Blue, a former nightclub operator, had twice served time for abortions before he was arrested in 1963 following the death of Sharon Hoag. He received a life sentence as an “habitual criminal.”

Elizabeth Zack Staley, 22, Olympia
(died March 6, 1967)

Elizabeth Zack worked in a Centralia drive-in theater. She had married 22-year-old Ronald Staley less than two months earlier, not long after discovering she was pregnant. For reasons now unknown they decided to end her pregnancy with the help of a 19-year-old friend, Donelle Hulse, who evidently had some experience inducing abortions and at whose house the fatal operation took place. Elizabeth suffered an air embolism and died as her husband rushed her to the hospital. Ronald Staley and Hulse were arrested on manslaughter charges. The two defendants blamed each other and Hulse decided to plead guilty on the eve of the trial. Staley was convicted after a trial that was followed closely in the Daily Olympian. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. No word on what sentence Hulse received. Elizabeth Zack Staley was buried in Centralia.[4]

Raisa Trytiak, 24, Seattle
(died February 8, 1967)

Born in Russia and brought to America as an infant, she grew up in Seattle, graduated from Ballard High School and briefly attended the University of Washington. A year before her death she took a job as a key punch operator with Seattle First-National Bank. Why she sought help from Jack Blight, a 61-year-old construction worker and avid fisherman, is not known. He was a neighbor and family friend. She was almost six months pregnant and the abortion attempt caused an air embolism that killed her. Why there were marks on her neck that led the coroner to suspect that she had been strangled was not explained in any of the news coverage that followed. Nor was the curious fate of Jack Blight who pled guilty to a charge of manslaughter and took responsibility for dumping the body. Blight was sentenced to probation instead of a long prison term typical in such cases. An article in the Everett Herald suggests that the Snohomish County prosecutor accepted Blight’s claim that someone else had been primarily responsible for the abortion.5

In death, Raisa Trytiak helped bring about an important set of changes. The news coverage attracted the attention of a group of men and women who decided to do something about the state’s cruel and restrictive abortion law. See Washington’s 1970 Abortion Rights Victory: The Referendum 20 Campaign by Angie Weiss.

Sharon Diana Hoag, 20, Seattle
(died February 1, 1963)

Twenty years old and living in her parents' home in Ballard, Sharon Hoag must have heard about Lee Blue through a network familiar with illegal abortion providers. The former night club operator had an extensive criminal record and had already served five years for criminal abortion. Moreover, he was awaiting sentencing on a second conviction when he and live-in companion Helen Olson operated on Hoag in their Capitol Hill home. Complications set in the next day and by the time family members drove her to Ballard Hospital it was too late to save the young woman. Blue was charged with manslaughter as well as abortion. After a hung jury on the manslaughter charge, he eventually pled guilty. He received a life sentence with the provision that he must serve at least thirteen years.6

Claudette Sayles, 23, Seattle
(died July 30, 1960)

Claudette Sayles was one of two African American victims of the state’s punitive abortion law. The newspaper says she was a student and that she lived in an apartment on 23rd near Madison. Mae Etta Scott (22) also resided in the Central District and had lived in Yesler Terrace as a youngster. Scott claimed that she had assisted only in the early preparations for the abortion that was performed in Sayles’ apartment and that took her life. The police did not believe her and charged her with 2nd degree murder, an unusually severe charge. But when the jury heard the case, they accepted the defense claim that Scott’s actions had not caused the death and voted to acquit. 7

Martha Alit , 40, Seattle
(died October 16, 1954)

Born in Juneau, Alaska, she had lived in Seattle for twenty years with her Filipino husband and was already the mother of nine children. Her husband, Felicisimo, was away on Coast Guard duty when she sought the services of Dr. James Unosawa, an Osteopath known to perform abortions. She died in his office. Unosawa had served time in prison after an earlier abortion took the life of Beulah LeClair in 1945 (see below). He was convicted again of manslaughter in the death of Martha Alit, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision two years later, holding that the prosecution had not disproved his claim that he was trying to save her life. He would be arrested for a third time in 1963, after another patient required emergency hospitalization. Convicted, he was granted probation after agreeing to stop practicing medicine. 8

Bettye Porter , 24, Anchorage
(died June 17, 1953)

The African American mother of two flew to Seattle from her home in Anchorage evidently seeking an abortion. After friends reported her missing, her body was found in a remote area near Gig Harbor. Norman Wade Austin was charged with manslaughter and two others as accessories. Police charged that Austin, 34, a mechanic by trade, had performed the abortion in the massage parlor he had recently opened in the Savoy Hotel at 1214 2nd Ave. Austin, who also faced charges for running a stolen car ring, spent several years in prison.9

Patricia Parrish, 26, Bremerton
(died September 8, 1947)

The mother of two died in an Aurora Avenue motel in Seattle. The coroner reported that she had “spent two hours in a bathtub of steaming hot water and had taken four medicinal capsules at thirty-minute intervals.” She had left Bremerton that morning in the company of Frank Womac Jr. who described himself as a friend. They had registered as Mr. and Mrs. Womac. The 28-year-old married machinist was arrested and charged but later released on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Patricia Porter’s husband, a Bremerton Jeweler, suffered a heart attack upon learning of his wife’s death.10

Mary Johnson, 29, Seattle
(died March 18, 1946)

One month after her husband, Roy, was discharged from the military, Mary Johnson told him she wanted to end their four-year marriage. A week later he returned to the couple’s Capitol Hill apartment to find her gravely ill. She told him had had an abortion at a north Seattle sanitarium run by Margaret Folsom. She died that night in the hospital. The husband may have tried to blackmail Folsom. He was later charged with extortion. Three days later Folsom and nurse Ada Wrench were arrested and charged with manslaughter and abortion. Police claimed that the sanitarium, located in a four-bedroom house at was “part of a widespread abortion racket.” Folsom and Wrench soon faced charges in a second fatality (Irene Timmons). Sentenced to twenty years in prison, their convictions were overturned by the State Supreme Court in 1947. In a second trial Folsom was convicted only on an abortion charge and sentenced to ten months in County jail.11

Irene Timmons, 24, Kingston
(died May 12, 1946)

The Kingston housewife was the second woman to die as a result of a procedure performed by Margaret Folsom. According to the brief article, Folsom who was out on bail for the Mary Johnson fatality, operated on Mrs. Timmons on May 8 and “the woman died four days later.” Police charged that Folsom had established a new office “set up as an abortion mill” since her arrest two months earlier. It is not clear what happened to this case. Folsom’s trials in conjunction with Mary Johnson’s death are described above. 12

Patricia Dickinson, 18, Seattle
(died August 11, 1946)

Eighteen years old and living with her widowed mother and six siblings on Capitol Hill, Patricia Dickinson died in the home of Theo Kilmer, a 47-year-old mechanic who admitted that he had bought her “medical supplies” for an attempted abortion. He had called the police for help after she had collapsed but she died before she could be taken to a hospital. He was charged with manslaughter and criminal abortion, pled guilty to the latter charge, and was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. 13

Beulah LeClair, 18, Shelton (died December 2, 1945)

Identified in the Seattle Times as an “Indian girl” from Shelton, Beulah LeClair had evidently learned of Dr. James Unosawa’s services from Francisca Guada, his nurse. The Japanese-born Osteopath had recently returned to Seattle from wartime internment in the Minidoka concentration camp and had agreed to perform the procedure for $150. It is not clear what went wrong in his Jackson Street office. Newspaper coverage begins with a report that Unosawa had been indicted on 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, and criminal abortion charges. He was convicted on all three charges and sentenced to 20 years. Higher courts overturned the two most serious convictions but let the criminal abortion finding stand. Dr. Unosawa began serving a five-year sentence in 1948. Mrs. Guada who had also been indicted was informed in 1948 that the prosecutor had dropped the charges. Unosawa appears to have served about 18 months before winning release from Walla Walla prison. He was later implicated in the death of Martha Alit in 1954. 14

Elizabeth Ann Crowe, 21, McMinnville, OR (died September 11, 1945)

Elizabeth Crowe was a Navy Wave serving at a naval installation in Sun Valley, Idaho, before travelling to the Everett office of Dr. Roger B. Payne to seek an illegal abortion. Something went wrong and Dr. Payne, a naturopathic physician, called the fire department medics for assistance. The firemen were unable to revive the 21-year-old Oregon native. After the coroner concluded that she had died from an attempted abortion, Payne and his receptionist, Christine Brown, were charged with manslaughter and abortion and ordered to post $4000 bail each. The disposition of the charges is not known. 15

Beatrice Fern Fisher, 35, Edmonds
(died March 5, 1945)

The mother of three had obtained an abortion once before from a medical professional. Pregnant again, she and her husband decided that for financial reasons she would terminate this pregnancy which may have been in its fifth or sixth month. She sought help from Dr. Frank C. Hart, a prominent Seattle surgeon who allegedly often provided abortion services. She returned home that evening but began to experience complications and the next day returned to Dr. Hart’s office. He treated her but minutes later, in the lobby of the downtown building where his office was located, she collapsed and died.

The arrest and trial of Dr. Hart received more news coverage than the other cases discussed here. He denied performing the abortion, claiming that he was treating her after she had performed a self-abortion. At the same time, he made a statement “bitterly indicting society,” for denying women reasonable options. He reportedly said that “thousands of girl workers and wives of service men” were getting into trouble and then taking desperate measures.

Hart was convicted of manslaughter and criminal abortion in October 1945. Sentenced to 20 years, he surrendered in November 1947 and began serving his term in Walla Walla penitentiary. The 61-year-old surgeon suffered a stroke and died a year later.16

Crime and punishment

In 1970, Washington voters approved Referendum 20 decriminalizing abortion in the early stages of a pregnancy. Until then it had been a felony to intentionally end a pregnancy except to save the life of the mother. The penalties were severe. In the cases surveyed above several abortion providers were charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to 20-year prison terms. These cases involved the unintentional death of the mother. The penalty for performing an abortion without additional charges could be up to 5 years.

We have not been able to research police or court records to see how often charges were brought and against whom. Research for this article is based almost entirely on newspaper reports and it is important to understand that newspaper coverage was largely limited to sensational crime stories. While this method may uncover most of the abortion death cases that resulted in an arrest and prosecution, it misses deaths that medical authorities did not report to police or for which county prosecutors decided not to press charges. It also misses most of the less sensational raids and arrests of abortion providers that were not associated with a maternal death.

A few such cases were reported and provide a hint of prosecutorial strategies. We have found one reported case of a woman charged for a "self-induced abortion" after going into shock and finding help in a Tacoma hospital. The disposition of the 1960 case is not known, but the tone of the short news item suggests that it was not uncommon to charge women for self-performed abortions at least in Pierce county.17

We have also found a few news reports of raids and arrests that were not connected to botched abortions. When a prominent doctor was involved, the arrest was evidently considered newsworthy. Two prominent Seattle doctors and an eminent Tacoma physician faced charges (and news coverage) after police investigations led to arrests. Dr. Loren G. Shroat was arrested in 1960 after police received a tip and followed a young woman to an appointment, entering the premises before any procedure occurred. Shroat claimed that the appointment was merely for an examination and two months later the judge dismissed the charges on the grounds that the police had not obtained a warrant to enter the premises. 18An earlier investigation of Dr. Earle Francis Ristine also earned headlines in Seattle newspapers. He pleaded guilty to performing two abortions and the judge, noting his importance to the community, imposed only a monetary fine of $7,000.19

The 1948 arrest of Dr. Herbert Arthur Pickert in Tacoma ended more tragically. Arrested after an angry husband reported him to authorities, Pickert died while awaiting trial. The Tacoma News Tribune said the 54-year-old died of a heart attack. 20

Race and status had something to do with the standards of prosecution. Theodore N. Craig seems to have been a favorite target of Tacoma authorities. In 1961, the News Tribune closely covered the trial of the 65-year-old Black "physical therapist." There was no injury reported in the case which involved a 29-year-old "Tacoma housewife," who was not charged. But the press made much of Craig's claim to have earned a PhD from "the College of Drugless Healing in Los Angeles." Convicted in a jury trial, Craig was sentenced to the maximum - five years - and denounced by the judge for "committing a serious crime." He served at least one year of the sentence21That was not end of Craig's troubles. Five years later, in 1966, he was again arrested for abortion crimes. In another trial that the News Tribune again covered in lengthy detail, he was accused of performing an abortion on a 27-year-old woman described only as a "German citizen," again without injury. Again, he was convicted and now 71 years old he was again sentenced to five years in prison. How many years he served is not known, but it is clear that prosecutors and judges handled his cases with more severity than was common.22

Copyright © James Gregory, 2013; expanded and updated 2022

1 Seattle Times, Feb 8, 1967 p.38; Feb 9, 1967 p.9; May 23, 1967 p.7. Seattle PI, Feb 9, 1967, p.1; Feb 10, 1967 p.16; May 25, 1967 p.15; Everett Herald, May 23, 1967, p.1B. Cassandra Tate provides background on abortion law and mentions Trytiak in her HistoryLink.Org article, “Abortion Reform in Washington State.”

2 Daily Olympian, March 8, 1967 p.1; March 9, 1967 p.12; May 2, 1967 p1; May 3, 1967 p.1; May 4, 1967 p.1; Seattle Times, May 5, 1967, p.35; May 6, 1967, p.13; July 18, 1967, p.29.

3 Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States 1867-1973 (1998), pp.76-78; Nanette J. Davis, From Crime to Choice: The Transformation of Abortion in America (1985), pp.99, 117; “The Safety of Legal Abortions and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion,” report by NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation (2003)

[4] Daily Olympian, March 8, 1967 p.1; March 9, 1967 p.12; May 2, 1967 p1; May 3, 1967 p.1; May 4, 1967 p.1; Seattle Times, May 5, 1967, p.35; May 6, 1967, p.13; July 18, 1967, p.29.

5 Seattle Times,Feb 8, 1967 p.38; Feb 9, 1967 p.9; May 23, 1967 p.7. Seattle PI, Feb 9, 1967, p.1; Feb 10, 1967 p.16; May 25, 1967 p.15; Everett Herald, May 23, 1967, p.1B.

6 Seattle Times, Oct 10, 1954, p20; Aug.8, 1955 p.18; Jan 17, 1963 p12; Feb 2, 1963 p2; Feb 5, 1963 p35; May 9, 1963 p12; May 24, 1963 p.5; June 5, 1963 p42.

7 Seattle Times, Aug 10, 1960 p3; Aug 17, 1960 p18; Dec 16, 1960 p.6.

8 Seattle Times, Oct 20, 1954 p15; Nov 10, 1954 p53; Apr 2, 1956 p2; March 3, 1958 p2; June 6, 1963 p47; Dec 9, 1963 p10.

9 Seattle Times, June 22, 1953 p22; July 1, 1953 p10; July 3, 1953 p22.

10 Seattle Times, Sept 9, 1947 p5.

11 Seattle Times, March 21, 1946 p2; March 22, 1946 p21; April 2, 1946 p.2; April 22, 1946 p2; May 17, 1946 p21; Sept 17, 1946 p21; Nov 11, 1946 p12; July 17, 1947 p3; June 19, 1948 p9.

12 Seattle Times, May 17, 1946 p3.

13 Seattle Times, Aug 12, 1946 p5; Aug 13, 1946; Aug 14, 1946 p7; Sept 17, 1946 p5; Oct 29, 1946 p5.

14 Seattle Times, April 22, 1946 p2; April 26, 1946 p18; Aug 2, 1946 p13; Jan 2, 1948 p2; April 8, 1948 p31.

15Seattle PI, September 13, 1945, p.1; September 15, 1945, p.6;

16 Seattle Times, March 7, 1945 p2; Oct 3, 1945 p2; Nov 29, 1947 p2;Oct 14, 1948 p9.

17 Tacoma News Tribune, October 31, 1960, p22.

18 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 18, 1960, p44; October 29, 1960, p13.

19 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 12, 1946, p21.

20 Tacoma News Tribune, May 26, 1948, p1-2.

21 Tacoma News Tribune, January 16, 1961, p12; January 17, 1961, p6; February 7, 1961, p12.

22 Tacoma News Tribune, June 9, 1966, p1; June 15, 1966, p31; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 16, 1966, p3.