The Trials of Madame Restell

Nineteenth-Century America’s Most Infamous Female Physician and the Campaign to Make Abortion a Crime

The biography of one of the most famous abortionists of the nineteenth century—and a story that has unmistakable parallels to the current war on reproductive rights

For forty years in the mid-nineteenth century, “Madame Restell,” the nom de guerre of the most successful female physician in America, sold birth control medication, attended women during their pregnancies, delivered their children, and performed abortions in a series of clinics run out of her home in New York City. It was the abortions that made her famous. “Restellism” became the term her detractors used to indict her.

Restell began practicing when abortion was largely unregulated in most of the United States, including New York. But as a sense of disquiet arose about single women flocking to the city for work, greater sexual freedoms, changing views of the roles of motherhood and childhood, and fewer children being born to white, married, middle-class women, Restell came to stand for everything that threatened the status quo. From 1829 onward, restrictions on abortion began to put Restell in legal jeopardy. For much of this period she prevailed—until she didn’t.

A story that is all too relevant to the current attempts to criminalize abortion in our own age, The Trials of Madame Restell paints an unforgettable picture of the changing society of nineteenth-century New York and brings Restell to the attention of a whole new generation of women whose fundamental rights are under siege.


“Nicholas Syrett digs deep to present for the first time a fully three-dimensional Madame Restell, the legendary nineteenth-century New Yorker whose name became a national synonym for abortion—‘Restellism’—for three decades and beyond. Syrett probes behind the hype of scandal-driven newspapers to portray a committed female physician providing contraception and abortion services to probably hundreds of women each year. And how did the authorities treat the Madame? Read on, to learn about this surprising chapter of America’s abortion history.”
—Patricia Cline Cohen, author of The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York
“Nicholas Syrett’s The Trials of Madame Restell is as illuminating as it is haunting. [In this] careful historical reconstruction of abortion, midwifery, and women’s reproductive healthcare in the nineteenth century told through the life of one New York woman, Syrett makes clear that the right to choose has been used by men as a tool to control women for centuries. Madame Restell is an unforgettable character: feminist, progressive, social justice warrior, and shrewd businesswoman. Her very life embodies a fight over women’s rights that has gone on for far too long. I read this book aghast, breathless, enraged—every sentence a whisper of our world today.”
—Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises and Women We Buried, Women We Burned
“Famous, infamous, and undaunted, Madame Restell believed fiercely in the right of nineteenth-century women to control their own bodies. A savvy entrepreneur, a wife, and a mother, Restell was also an unceasing target of the press, the police, and the courts. In this compelling book, Nicholas Syrett gives us an all-too-timely tale of the untimely demise of an unconventional woman.”
—Martha Hodes, author of My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering
“In this illuminating narrative . . . Syrett reveals an entire underground industry that flourished in 19th-century American cities, and tracks the rise of opposition to women’s reproductive care over time. It’s an eye-opening account.”
Publishers Weekly
The Trials of Madame Restell is a respectful, thorough portrait of a brave woman who defied her era’s norms to give women reproductive options.”
Foreword Reviews
“Compelling. . . . Thorough and well-researched.”
The Washington Post
“Syrett’s meticulously detailed account . . . offer[s] a portrait of a formidable woman navigating an era that, in several important respects, bears an unnerving resemblance to our own.”
The New Yorker
The Trials of Madame Restell takes readers on a fascinating and timely journey through four decades of Restell’s pioneering medical practice and constant legal predicaments in a rapidly changing New York City. Syrett’s historical sleuthing through legal records, archives, and newspaper accounts paints a complex portrait of Restell and the society that vilified her, and brings antebellum and Gilded Age New York to life.”
—Tom Meyers, co-host of The Bowery Boys Podcast
“This extraordinary and compelling story of the trials of Madame Restell will thoroughly engage you, totally enrage you, and hopefully persuade you to join her courageous legacy and fight for women to have control over their bodies and lives.”
—V (formerly Eve Ensler), author of The Vagina Monologues and Reckoning
“Conjuring the fracturing social world of mid-nineteenth-century New York—decades that changed how Americans lived, loved and worked—Nicholas Syrett’s extraordinary account of the many assaults on Madame Restell, the city’s most notorious abortionist, reminds us of the horrifying costs in our ongoing struggles over women’s bodies and reproductive rights. It’s a battle that is not yet over.”
—Ann Fabian, author of The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead
“‘Are we not bound by every obligation, human and divine . . . to guard, to protect our health, nay our life’ is how Madame Restell advocated for contraception and abortion publicly—in the year 1839! We honor this inspirational provider ancestor when we learn her story, uplift the good she did, and build on her legacy of fierce resistance.”
—Viva Ruiz, founder of the Thank God for Abortion initiative
“A richly detailed biography of a defiant woman.”
Kirkus Reviews
“[Syrett] has written a thoroughly researched and scholarly account, blessedly free of academic jargon.”
The New York Review of Books
“A thorough and discerning political history of abortion in 19th-century New York City.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Syrett took great care to write with elegant, economical prose. . . . This fascinating story of Madame Restell, the women she served, and the foes who sought to crush her deserves wide readership.”
Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books
“In an era when men of law and medicine were aggressively eliminating women’s sexual and medical rights, Madame Restell was one of the few women who dared to openly defy them. She earned international notoriety and a small fortune providing birth control, abortions, and a refuge for pregnant women who had nowhere else place to turn. But Nicholas Syrett’s account of Madame Restell’s extraordinary career and tragic ending could be ripped from today’s headlines. Anyone who wants to understand the current conflagrations over abortion needs to read The Trials of Madame Restell.”
—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

News and Reviews

The New York Review of Books

Read a review of The Trials of Madame Restell by feminist journalist Susan Faludi in The New York Review of Books.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of The Trials of Madame Restell in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews