Gillian Frank

On Christmas Eve 1955, Jacqueline Smith died from an illegal abortion at her boyfriend Thomas G. Daniel’s apartment.

Jacqueline Smith was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1935. A quiet, driven and talented artist, she graduated from high school in 1953 and moved to New York City where she intended to become a fashion designer. In June of 1955, Jacqueline began to date Thomas, a sales trainee in a riding equipment shop. Although Jacqueline spent most nights in Thomas’s apartment, the stigma surrounding cohabiting and having premarital sex was so great that she kept an apartment with three other women in order to maintain appearances.

A sample of the headlines from press coverage concerning Jacqueline Smith’s disappearance, death, and the subsequent trial.

In November of 1955, Jacqueline discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the news of her pregnancy with Thomas, she hoped that he would marry her. At that time, unmarried pregnant women faced harsh consequences for their sexual activity, including job loss and stigmatization. Unwed mothers, pilloried and pathologized, faced limited prospects for marriage even as their children had the word “illegitimate” stamped on their birth certificates. Many young women went to maternity homes in other towns—their families would make excuses for their absence to hide the shame of unwed pregnancies—where they would have the baby and then give the child up in a closed adoption, all done in secrecy. Upon returning home, these women were expected to pretend that the pregnancy never happened and to make the most out of a second chance at respectability.

Thomas did not want to marry Jacqueline and began looking for a means to terminate her pregnancy. Over the next month, he asked colleagues and friends if they knew how to cause a miscarriage. Thomas convinced Jacqueline to take abortifacient pills, but these did not work. Jacqueline in the meantime went to her OBGYN twice for examinations, made plans for future checkups, and made arrangements to deliver the baby.

On Christmas Eve 1955, Thomas paid $50 to Leobaldo Pijuan, a hospital attendant, to perform an illegal abortion. Legal abortions—done at hospitals—required approval from a committee of doctors, which acted as deterrents for women seeking elective abortion. Hospitals usually authorized abortions in rare cases when a pregnancy endangered the health of the mother. Those unable to obtain hospital abortions would turn to underground abortionists, some of whom were skilled and some of whom were unskilled and whose lack of medical training physically endangered women. Leo Pijuan was one of the latter.

Before beginning the surgery on Jacqueline with equipment he had stolen from the hospital, Pijuan created a crude operating area in the living room of Thomas’ apartment, covering the couch and floors in old newspaper and blankets, jerry-rigging an intravenous drip out of a broomstick and a bottle, and creating makeshift stirrups out of two dining room chairs. Pijuan instructed Jacqueline to sit on the edge of the couch and tied her legs to the backs of the chairs and her arms to the couch so that she could not move. He then anesthetized Jacqueline with sodium pentathol, using rubber bands instead of a tourniquet. Pijuan, however, did not properly control the drip. During the ten minutes in which he performed a dilation and curettage, Jacqueline received 1000 ccs of the anesthetic, which was about fifty times the required dosage. This alone caused Jacqueline to go into shock.

Noticing that Jacqueline was in respiratory distress, Pijuan and Thomas did not call for a paramedic or take Jacqueline to the nearest hospital, which was three blocks away from Thomas’ apartment. Instead, Pijuan phoned his friend, Dr. Ramiro Mireles, who was miles away, for help. Later, when questioned by police, Mireles recalled finding Jacqueline unconscious on Thomas’ couch, naked from the waist down, legs splayed apart on the makeshift stirrups, her face blue from lack of oxygen. Mireles applied artificial respiration and a heart stimulant but it was too late. Just before midnight, he declared Smith dead and advised Thomas to call the police.

Thomas and Pijuan did not call the police. Instead, they began Christmas morning by transferring Jacqueline’s body into Thomas’ bathtub where they used a large kitchen knife to hack up Jacqueline’s body. They then placed her body parts in plastic bags and bundled these with Christmas paper and tinsel cords. The two men drove Jacqueline’s dismembered body to Pijuan’s apartment where they kept the remaining parts in his bathtub. From December 27 to 29, Pijuan systematically cut up the body, wrapped up the parts in bright Christmas wrapping paper, and disposed of the remains in garbage receptacles across the Upper West Side.

On December 30th, Jacqueline’s father Chester traveled six and half hours by bus to New York City to look for his daughter after being notified by her workplace that she had not showed up for days. Unable to locate her, Chester reported Jacqueline as missing to the New York Police Department. On January 10, 1956, the police arrested Jacqueline’s boyfriend Thomas at his apartment. During a lengthy interrogation, Thomas offered a series of fantastic accounts of Jacqueline’s whereabouts until he confessed to the actual circumstances of her death and how he and Pijuan disposed of her remains.

Jacqueline Smith’s botched abortion made headlines in newspapers across the United States. Wire services relayed select details of the homicide remaining vague about the abortion procedure itself and focusing instead on the subsequent mutilation and disposal of Jacqueline’s body. Jacqueline’s hometown paper offered readers biographies of the major players. Reporters described the frantic and ultimately unsuccessful police search for Jacqueline’s body, detailing how dozens of detectives dragged the Hudson River and searched through garbage dumps for her remains. Jurists explained the legal precedents for prosecuting a crime without a body and a medical expert clarified the correct dosage for sodium pentathol. Articles lingered on details such as the 800 stolen medical tools, some still covered in blood, discovered in Pijuan’s apartment.

As the state of New York tried Thomas and Pijuan for first-degree manslaughter, the media and the public obsessed over the personal lives of all involved in the case. The New York Daily News hired a plane to fly Jacqueline’s bereaved father from Pennsylvania to New York, housing him with one of their reporters. This arrangement allowed the paper to offer the inside scoop on the emotional reactions of a bereaved and traumatized father. Jacqueline’s hometown paper, The Lebanon Daily News, interviewed her high school teachers and friends and featured Jacqueline’s artwork and poetry. The New York Daily News likewise featured clothing that Jacqueline designed, having one of its employees model her scarves. Readers nationwide followed the court case until its conclusion in June of 1956 when a jury found Thomas G. Daniel guilty of manslaughter and a judge sentenced him to 8 – 20 years in prison.

Jacqueline’s death and the literal absence of her body enabled commentators to inscribe their own sexual scripts about women, sexuality and reproduction upon her. Thomas G. Daniel’s defense lawyer used common tropes that denigrated sexually active women to characterize Thomas as “the victim of a girl who pretended to her family and friends that she was a little angel when she was in fact just a girl who like to enjoy so-called free love.” The prosecutor and the media turned Jacqueline into a beautiful daughter in need of protection from predators like Thomas. To do so, they used ethnic signposts to contrast “Jackie, the pretty blonde daughter” with “dark Thomas G. Daniel,” “Son of Greek parents,” the Puerto Rican nurse Pijuan, and the “Mexican Doctor” Mireles. This racial and gendered narrative sought to rehabilitate Jacqueline’s reputation and to convey that she was a good girl who did not deserve her fate.

Overlaying this recuperation of Jacqueline was the classic tale of a small town naïf seduced by the big city. “She, actually was a lamb,” stated one coworker to reporters, “and New York is not the right place for lambs.” “Jackie was well-equipped in every way, except to cope with the advances of a predatory male,” her employer told The Lebanon Daily News. Such statements reflected a culture that found it difficult to imagine sexually active unmarried women as anything other than degraded. Jacqueline, in this framework, could only have “submitted” rather than elected to have an abortion on Christmas Eve.

How then should we remember Jacqueline Smith’s life and death sixty years later? One way, perhaps, to dignify her life and her choices, is to highlight the silences surrounding her death and mark the contexts that endangered her as surely as her encounter with an unskilled abortionist. Of the hundreds of reports about Jacqueline’s death, all depicted it as a personal tragedy, and not a single one flagged the conditions that made her unplanned parenthood possible and dangerous.

Focusing on the gory details of how Pijuan and Thomas disposed of her body enabled readers to look away from the spike in unwed mothers, the laws that prevented unmarried women and men from accessing reliable contraceptives, the lack of comprehensive sex education for young people, and the inadequacy of educational efforts in schools that promoted abstinence until marriage. Commentary on Jacqueline’s death omitted the severe restrictions on legal abortion, which made them costly and rare and drove between 200,000 and 1.2 million women a year to obtain dangerous illegal abortions. While the media described how Thomas and Pijuan disposed of her body, it left vague the medical violence Jacqueline endured at their hands while she was still alive, enabling readers to avoid confronting the deadly implications of illegal abortions. None of the media coverage included the trial testimony of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City who noted that over the course of his career, he personally had overseen the autopsies of a minimum of 1200 women who had died from abortion. Even as the media reported the police search for Jacqueline’s body, they elided how white unwed mothers who chose to carry a pregnancy to term often did so at maternity homes where they were expected to give up their babies with no hopes of seeing them again. Largely excluded from the booming postwar adoption industry, unwed mothers of color bore additional burdens including forced sterilization, exclusion from public welfare, police surveillance, and the expectation that they keep and raise their children.

Many of the reproductive rights struggles over the past sixty years have sought to transform these very conditions, and in so doing, helped women and men gain greater control over their reproductive lives. Today, in the United States, as conservatives fight to erode the modest gains made over the past half century, we should remember Jacqueline Smith and what it meant to live in a society that normalized abstinence until marriage, did not offer medically accurate information about reproduction, shamed women for engaging in premarital sexual activity, made many forms of contraception costly and inaccessible, and criminalized abortion. On Christmas Eve 1955, Jacqueline Smith was twenty years old and had her whole life ahead of her. Although the men who performed an illegal abortion upon her and mutilated her body went to jail, there was no indictment of a society that was equally culpable in her murder by denying women and men the means to control their reproduction and to plan their parenthood with dignity. For too many Americans, Jacqueline Smith’s past is still all too present.

Gill1Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion and a lecturer in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. Frank’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1.

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One Comment

  1. While this is obviously an extremely important and timely topic to be discussing at the moment, I think the tone of this article is perhaps poorly considered. You critique the media at the time for ‘lingering over the details’ of the death Jacqueline Smith, and question their obsession over the ‘gory details’ of how she died, however I think that this post could also critiqued in the same way. You go into graphic, and in my opinion unnecessary, detail about the medical procedures that led to her death. As you rightly point out the death of Jacqueline Smith needs to be understood within the broader social context where women’s bodies were, and continue to be, controlled and deemed to be public property. However, it seems slightly tasteless to then describe her death so gratuitously while making this argument.

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