Jeannie’s Demise

Jeannie’s Demise

Abortion on Trial in Victorian Toronto

By Ian Radforth


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  • Alison PrenticeAward for Ontario Women’s History, 2022 (Winner)

August 1, 1875, Toronto: The naked body of a young woman is discovered in a pine box, half-buried in a ditch along Bloor Street. So begins Jeannie’s Demise, a real-life Victorian melodrama that played out in the bustling streets and courtrooms of “Toronto the Good,” cast with all the lurid stock characters of the genre. Historian Ian Radforth brings to life an era in which abortion was illegal, criminal proceedings were a spectator sport, and coded advertisements for back-alley procedures ran in the margins of newspapers.

At the centre of the story is the elusive and doomed Jeannie Gilmour, a minister’s daughter whose independent spirit can only be glimpsed through secondhand accounts and courtroom reports. As rumours swirl about her final weeks and her abortionists stand trial for their lives, a riveted public grapples with questions of guilt and justice, innocence and intent. Radforth’s intensive research grounds the tragedy of Jeannie’s demise in sharp historical analysis, presenting over a dozen case studies of similar trials in Victorian-era Canada.

Part gripping procedural, part meticulous autopsy, Jeannie’s Demise opens a rare window into the hidden history of a woman’s right to choose.


“What a remarkable achievement! Radforth brilliantly uses one sensational murder-by-abortion trial in nineteenth-century Canada to illuminate the everyday world of women and men as they wrestled with conflicting religious messages, fiercely patriarchal traditions, a slowly changing sexual order, and the urgent need to protect honour, reputation, and property. Jeannie’s Demise provides an intimate and vivid portrait of the precarious, treacherous worlds of ordinary people in Victorian Toronto.”

– Ian McKay, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University

“This highly readable, fascinating book sheds new light not only on the troubles of nineteenth-century Toronto women with unwanted pregnancies, but on many other issues, such as police detection practices and fights about who was in or out of the medical profession. A great read!”

– Mariana Valverde, author of The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral reform in English Canada 1880s-1920s

“Abortion is rarely easy, but hypocrisy and misogyny make it tragic for many women. Ian Radforth’s reclamation of Jeannie Gilmour provides a moving reminder of women’s long-standing efforts to command their own bodies and destinies. The history of this unnecessary death may be Victorian, but the message is right up to date. It’s always good to get the real villains straight.”

– Veronica Strong-Boag, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of British Columbia

“Ian Radforth demonstrates a timeless truth: that when women’s rights to abortion are denied, women pay with their lives. In this impeccably researched and beautifully written study, Radforth creates a vivid sense of time and place, masterfully weaving the personal and familial stories into the larger social, legal, and political context. In his gripping account of the dramatic criminal trials that followed, Radforth also conveys Jeannie’s dignity, spirit, and strength, and the inequities of law, patriarchy, and class in nineteenth-century Toronto. It is a must read.”

– Shelley AM Gavigan, Professor Emerita & Senior Scholar, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

“Rich in detail, meticulously researched, this book will delight those wanting to know more about the history of abortion and of Canada’s criminal justice system.”

– William Wicken, Department of History, York University

“At a twenty-first-century moment, when abortion, gender, class, ethnicity, inequality, and the law dominate headlines and galvanize public discourse, Jeannie’s Demise reveals the riveting, tragic tale of 23-year-old Jeannie Gilmour. With the deft hands of a master storyteller, Ian Radforth forcefully reminds us how the past speaks to the searing issues of today, weaving a gritty and captivating narrative that is as compelling and sad as it is informative and illuminating. Jeannie’s Demise is a fantastic addition to Toronto history, legal history, and social and cultural history–and a reminder that the divisive political issues of the past are always present.”

– Dimitry Anastakis, University of Toronto, author of Death in the Peaceable Kingdom: Canadian History since Confederation through Murder, Execution, Assassination and Suicide

“With great skill, compassion, and empathy, Ian Radforth cuts through the voyeuristic and often judgmental press coverage of the trial to bring humanity to Jeannie Gilmour and those on trial for her death. Radforth’s meticulous research and eloquent writing paint a vivid picture of the politics, culture, and religious values that influenced Gilmour’s decisions and restricted her choices. Jeannie’s Demise is a story about how one woman navigated these politics in Victorian Toronto, when abortion was illegal. But it will resonate with reproductive justice activists today, who continue the increasingly difficult work of defending people’s control of their reproductive health.”

– Nancy Janovicek, Department of History, University of Calgary

“A gripping tale of the grim realities of abortion in nineteenth-century Canada—vulnerable womanhood, sleazy medical quackery, and convoluted criminal justice—told with compelling clarity and insight. And a powerful cautionary tale for any attempt to recriminalize women’s right to choose.”

– Craig Heron, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, York University

“Victorian Toronto is often portrayed as a genteel place, but Jeannie’s Demise reveals that the reality for many was very different. With his exhaustive research, Ian Radforth provides a vivid window into the social history of nineteenth-century Canada, with details and characters that bring us right to the streets of Toronto.”

– Shawn Micallef, author of Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness</em


List of Illustrations
Jeannie and Her Family
Arthur and Alice
The Preliminary Hearing
Another Abortion Death
Botched Abortions
The Davis Trial
The Trial Continues
On Death Row
In Pursuit of the Seducer
Accessory after the Fact
A Victorian Tragedy