An Abortionist's Graveyard

JOTB goes on the trail for clues to a 123-year-old unsolved mystery

Bridge over the Passaic connecting Harrison and Newark

On a sunny April day in 1881, two young boys were playing in the meadow not far from the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in the bustling Newark suburb of Harrison. Their minds filled with thoughts of pirate treasure, they dug hole after hole in the meadow. The discovery they soon made, however, turned their expressions from excitement to horror. They unearthed six glass jars, covered in mud. When they brushed away the mud the boys discovered that the jars didn't contain gold or silver coins-- but the preserved remains of fully-developed infants. Upon further investigating, thee more jars were found in the vicinity, bringing the total to nine. The boys had come to the meadow seeking buried treasure, but had instead found an abortionist's graveyard.

Abortion was a bustling business in Newark in the latter decades of the 19th century. Though highly illegal, it was a lucrative enterprise, and dozens of otherwise reputable physicians placed their careers on the line in the pursuit of quick wealth and a seemingly endless stream of new customers. Just four months before the jars of dead infants were discovered near the present-day site of the Red Bull Arena, a Newark doctor named H.W. Geddicke got ten years in prison and a $200 fine just for attempting to perform an abortion. Yet, in spite of harsh sentences, the abortion business continued to thrive, and dozens of secret "abortion dens" sprang up throughout Newark, Jersey City, and surrounding areas comprising New Jersey's "Gateway Region".

Who was responsible for the graveyard in the meadow? This remains one of New Jersey's lesser known unsolved mysteries, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Old newspaper accounts provide us with the names and details of some of Newark's most notorious abortionists, who may or may not have been the culprits. Perhaps somebody reading this article holds the missing clues that may solve this 123-year-old mystery.

Ida Vail and the Clairvoyant Candy Shop Abortionist

Jersey City, located about seven miles from Harrison, served as a backdrop for one of the Gateway Region's most appalling and bizarre abortion trials. The year was 1873 when a Jersey City undertaker named Plaget was preparing the body of a pretty 19-year-old girl for burial. Plaget sensed that there was something suspicious about the girl's death, and something even more suspicious about the property to where he had been summoned, at 54 Erie Street.

The property was a boarding house, owned by a woman named Marcella Metzler and her son, Frederick. It was a two story house, with an innocent-looking candy store occupying the front. In one of the windows was displayed a sign advertising the services of Madame Marcella, Clairvoyant.  Plaget found the girl's body on a filthy bed in a filthy room on the second floor and notified Dr. Buck, the county medical examiner. Dr. Buck, along with two other physicians, removed the body to Mr. Plaget's undertaking establishment for a post-mortem examination. They concluded that the girl, Ida Vail, had died as the result of a botched abortion.

Police staked out the candy store and soon nabbed the man who was later proven to be the person who delivered Ida to the clairvoyant, a middle-aged businessman from Newark named Alonzo E. Kimball. Kimball was a manager for the Domestic Sewing Machine Company, and Ida Vail was his newest employee. "I am ruined!" exclaimed Kimball as he was escorted to the police station.

Kimball told the police that he had no idea who the abortionist was because he or she wore a black mask throughout the procedure. Mrs. Metzler, the clairvoyant, denied having any involvement, but police later searched the property and found hundreds of pieces of evidence proving otherwise: receipts of money paid to Metzler, correspondence from doctors, and letters from dozens of individuals seeking abortion advice. Madame Metzler immediately fingered a local physicians named Dr. Cormus. Cormus, charged as an accomplice, was eventually acquitted but both Marcella Metzler and Alonzo Kimball were convicted.
Could it be possible that Marcella Metzler, the candy store clairvoyant who oversaw a thriving abortion den, was the person who buried the jars containing the bodies of nine infants in the meadow just seven miles away?

Medical Pioneer or Mad Scientist?

Let us now turn our attention to another suspect, Dr. Simon P. Taft, a practitioner of "eclectic medicine" from Newark who was hailed as a pioneer of medical science by his colleagues. But was Dr. Taft a true medical pioneer or a mad scientist? You decide.

Biographies of Taft, such as the ones that appeared in National Eclectic Medical Association periodicals, paint Simon as a self-made Renaissance Man, who rose to prominence after a difficult poor rural upbringing in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. However, Taft had not come from a poor family, as he so often claimed, but from prominent family which would produce 2 governors, 2 U.S. Senators, 2 U.S. Representatives, 2 Secretaries of War, an Attorney General, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one President of the United States. Simon's own father was a highly decorated military commander.

Simon began his career as a traditional physician before turning his attention to "eclectic medicine", a controversial branch of medicine which combined elements of homeopathy, Native American shamanism and even the occult. The movement spread like wildfire, as it was the era of frontier snakeoil salesmen and Spiritualism. Universities of eclectic medicine sprang up all over the country. Yet most Americans remained skeptical of this radical branch of medicine. Plagued by patients who had the unfortunate habit of dying under his care, Taft was forced to move his practice every few years. He operated out of Alton, Illinois in 1837. By 1839 he was practicing out of St. Louis, and thence to Whitehall, Illinois in 1841. Eight years later he returned to the East and made his home in Newark, which was becoming a national hub of eclectic medicine.

In Newark, Dr. Taft devoted a great deal of his time conducting experiments in electricity and psychic phenomena. Stated the National Eclectic Medical Association in 1892: He was also deeply interested in Psychical Research and was ahead of his times in his explorations in this field.

While records fail to describe the types of experiments he may have conducted, history tells us that contemporary psychical researchers often dabbled with hypnotism and drug-induced hallucinations. Taft was described as being "ahead of his time" in this field, which leaves plenty to the imagination. Taft was also an outspoken critic of traditional medicine, and published a book about the "Medical Plot", implying that establishment was out to get medical pioneers such as himself and other eclectic doctors.

Eventually, traditional medicine was able to squash the pseudo-scientific upstart of eclectic medicine. After the notorious Resurrection Riot in 1839, which centered on the practice of stealing freshly-buried corpses for medical research, the nation's leading eclectic medical college was evicted from Worthington, Ohio and forced to relocate in Cincinnati. One by one, these so-called medical schools began to close, and by 1910 only a handful remained. This was due in part to the Flexner Report of 1910, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, which called for medical schools to use evidence-based practices.

Taft's practice in Newark dried up by the 1870s and the esteemed medical "pioneer", now on the cusp of old age and financial ruin, turned his attention to performing illegal abortions. On July 26, 1872, Dr. Simon P. Taft was arrested in Newark as a result of an abortion that ended in the death of a young woman. Little is recorded of him until his death in 1889, when a lengthy obituary was published in the journal of the National Eclectic Medical Association. Not surprisingly, nothing was written about his involvement in the Newark abortion industry.

So who was responsible for the abortionist's graveyard?

While either Dr. Taft or Marcella Metzler would be prime suspects, the smart money is on Simon P. Taft. His practice was based at 28 Fulton Street in Newark, which sits virtually directly across the Passaic River from the site where the jars were discovered in 1881. One can easily imagine Dr. Taft, after being arrested in 1872, walking south a few blocks to the Newark station, getting on a train and crossing the river to the Harrison station, before burying the gruesome evidence of his misdeeds in the surrounding meadow.