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Student Studies 19th Century Reproductive Rights

When you follow the Vassar maxim, “Go to the source,” while doing research, you never know where it might lead. In Madeleine Boesche’s case, it led to the basement of a courthouse in a small town in Indiana.

That’s where Boesche ’13 found a box of documents compiled in 1879 during the trial of a Greensburg, Indiana, dentist accused of performing an illegal abortion. The papers are a key element of her senior thesis on the enforcement of abortion laws in the rural Midwest in the 19th century.

Madeleine Boesche '13 displays court documents she discovered in the basement of a courthouse in Greensburg, Indiana.
Madeleine Boesche '13 displays court documents she discovered in the basement of a courthouse in Greensburg, Indiana.

“My thesis explores how citizens at that time and place often circled the wagons to protect men from the upper classes who impregnated poor women, how little power these women had over their lives,” Boesche says.

In this case, a jury could not reach a verdict in the trial of the dentist, who was accused of performing an illegal abortion on a teenage girl from a sharecropper family who had become pregnant by a wealthy landowner. According to newspaper clippings and the documents Boesche found in the courthouse basement, most people familiar with the case had either declined to testify, or had testified in a vague manner, in order to protect the landowner.

Boesche says unearthing those documents had capped a rewarding college career that began when she discovered her love of history during her freshman year. She intends to go to medical school, so she had planned to major in biology. But she changed her mind after she took a freshman writing seminar with history professor Rebecca Edwards.

“I fell in love with the History Department,” Boesche says. “I think the scientific approach to historical research that is practiced at Vassar appealed to the science side of my brain. I discovered I just loved writing history papers.”

Edwards, who is Boesche’s thesis advisor, says it is not unusual for Vassar students who plan to go to medical school to major in history. “We have one or two every year,” she says.

Edwards says she wasn’t surprised Boesche had decided to devote her thesis to an analysis of the history of reproductive rights because “it afforded her an opportunity to place one of her primary interests—medicine—in social and historical context.”

Boesche says she learned about the trial of the dentist in a book by historian Leslie Reagan. After doing some initial research on the case on the Internet, she obtained a grant from Vassar to travel to Greensburg during her winter break. When she arrived, Boesche met with the town historian, who helped her find the trial documents in the courthouse basement. “They’d been packed into a box after the trial and hadn’t been opened since,” she says.

Boesche didn’t have the proper credentials to view the original documents, but the town historian did, and he copied them for her. When she returned to Vassar in January, she knew she had enough material for her thesis.

“It culminates my studies at Vassar of the history of medicine, women’s history, and American history,” she says.

She says she still plans to go to medical school but is glad she was able to take an academic detour through the History Department.

“Vassar’s approach to its curriculum enabled me to do all this,” Boesche adds. “I got a breadth of education I may not have been able to achieve at a large school with a lot of requirements, and being in small classes enables you to get to know your professors on a personal level.”

Once Boesche’s thesis is finished, she and Edwards will explore the possibility of submitting an article about the trial to one or more historical journals.

“It’s certainly original research, and it would be wonderful if it could be published,” Edwards says. “Quite a bit is known about the history of reproductive rights in our cities, but not much has been published about what was going on in the rural Midwest.”

After she completes her thesis, Boesche has one more assignment: She’ll be the guest speaker in early May at a women’s studies class Edwards is teaching.

“I want the class to learn about abortion issues in the 19th century, and she knows a lot more about it than I do,” Edwards says.

—Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, March 13, 2013