A rollicking romp through 19th-century American contraception inspired by the true story of a Manhattan midwife.
In 1860, Axie, nee Annie, is “rescued” from a New York slum along with her siblings and sent West on an orphan train. In the Illinois prairie, Axie’s younger sister Dutchie and brother Joe find homes, but the irascible 12-year old is sent back to New York along with Charlie, another street-wise urchin. Axie reunites with her mother, but her joy is short-lived: After “Mam” delivers an infant who dies shortly after birth, Mam herself expires of childbed fever at the home of Mrs. Evans, a midwife and, some say, abortionist. Truly orphaned this time, Axie is apprenticed to Mrs. Evans and by the age of 16, is an accomplished midwife’s assistant who has picked up many helpful hints about all aspects of pregnancy, including avoiding it and ending it. After her mentor’s death, Axie, who is now married to Charlie, a would-be journalist, concocts and peddles a female medication that, often enough, has a side effect of inducing miscarriage. Aided by Charlie’s marketing smarts, Axie is soon running a thriving and lucrative business, dispensing pills, sex education, birth control advice and, when necessary to help her clients avert certain death or ruin, the occasional first trimester abortion. Her clients range from tenement dwellers to Manhattan’s upper crust, and while amassing tremendous wealth, Axie, operating as Madame DeBeausacq, sees her main mission as freeing women from the consequences of men’s unbridled lust and profligacy. However, when Manhattan’s penny tabloids, egged on by two disgruntled doctors, foment a scandal accusing “Madame X” of child murder and infant trafficking, Axie is consigned to Manhattan’s notorious Tombs jail. The ensuing events highlight controversies regarding “reproductive health” that are still raging today.
Axie’s profane Irish brogue is vividly recreated with virtually no anachronistic slips, and though a certain degree of polemical crusading is unavoidable given Axie’s proclivities, her voice never fails to entertain.