Who was Mrs. Frank Bunce?

1881 0326 bunce LouiseMrs. Frank Bunce died on 12 March 1881 in Hardin County, Iowa.  Her death was reported in the Ackley [IA] Enterprise on 26th of March. [1]

SUICIDE, the title screamed.

And yes, she did commit suicide– by consuming a 1/2 ounce of “oil of tansy”.

About 1870, Louise Kent ( b. 1853, Illinois) married Frank Bunce (b. 1843, Connecticut). [2]  In 1879 they moved to Hardin County, Iowa where the family farmed near Frank’s father (possible), Lyman.  Louise and her husband Frank had four children, Alice (9), Lucy (7), Mary (4) and James (1). [3]

But, why commit suicide?

A portion of the answer is reported in the article.  Louise implored her husband to purchase the oil of tansy at that local drugstore in Hubbard and she drank the “quantity necessary to produce an abortion.” [4]

Our remembrances of the 1950’s and 1960’s recalls that it was unmarried women who went to extremes to abort.  Why did a married woman kill herself?  It wasn’t the stigma of not being married.

On this anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court, let’s look at a few bits of information concerning abortion in the 1800’s and earlier.

In 1320, Béatrice stood in front of the Inquisition and testified to the existence of a variety of home remedies which could produce an abortion. In 1320! [5]

Immediately after the Civil War, there were 100 “abortoria” located in New York City.  The medical establishment in 1859 and again in 1871 issued statements condemning the practice. [6]

Written recipes for the usage of the various herbal remedies to induce abortions were vague or non-existent and were generally is the minds of the healers and midwives of the 1700’s and early 1800’s.  When medical practice became one of male domination and people moved to the urban centers, the herbal remedies were lost. [7]  This indicated that perhaps abortions were more routine in the 1700’s and early 1800’s than thought.  Of course, data is not available for this type of procedure.

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable compound, a commonly purchased medicinal syrup, was found to contain several strong abortifacients.  Life root, pleurisy root and fenugreek, all ingredients of the compound, were commonly used throughout the ages for the “restoring of the menses,” the euphemism for abortion.   In 1938, when states were banning the sale of all herbals that could produce an abortion, the women rallied and preserved Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound which can be purchased today. [8]

What was the proper dose of oil of tansy?  Well, we know that 1/2 a gram (equals .5 ml) [9] taken at one time was too much, as it killed Mrs. Bunce.  But, it appears that the dangers of oil of tansy were well known,

“Many case studies where physicians were called after things went wrong were attributable to women taking the concentrated oils–for example, a woman who took five drops of oil of tansy three times a day.  The physician was able to rescue her successfully.”[10]

Mrs. Bunce was not so lucky.

CM Bunce LouiseSo the sad answer is we do not know why Louise Bunce wanted to terminate this pregnancy, her fifth or perhaps her sixth child.  Perhaps she had had a rough birth with James and was afraid for her life; perhaps they were struggling economically and just could not afford additional children.  Perhaps….  Whatever it was, those same reasons are with us today for thousands of women across the United States and the world.

The sad irony is that my great grandmother’s death is on the same page of the paper, three columns over.  Her obituary is a mere three lines for a “common” death of a 21 year old woman who died giving birth to her first child and my grandmother, Carrie.

In remembrance of Louise Bunce and Aukea Rykena Berg…..


You might find this interesting, but it was not used directly in this article:

Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in the Nineteenth-Century America, (Ithaca; Cornell University Press, 1940.)

Note: I have tried to locate the coroner’s report referenced in the newspaper article but in spite of having the date and the county of death, no coroner’s report for this time exists.  Often these were published in the newspaper, but there is no issue of the newspaper extant following the 18 March date of the report. The county, local historical society and the historical section of the public library also received inquiries and were unable to assist.

[1]  “Suicide,” obituary, Ackley (Iowa) Enterprise, 26 March 1881, p. 6, col. 4.

[2]  1880 U.S. census, Hardin County, Iowa, population schedule, Ellis Township,  p. 17, dwelling 151, family 158, Frank E. Bunce; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 August 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, Roll 349.  The approximate marriage year is calculated based on the age of the oldest child.

[3] 1880 U.S. census, Hardin County, Iowa, population schedule, Ellis Township,  p. 17, dwelling 151, family 158, Frank E. Bunce; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 August 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, Roll 349.  The move year is calculated from the age of the oldest child born in Iowa. It is a hypothesis that Lyman is Frank’s father based on his age, unusual surname and proximity.

[4]  “Suicide,” Ackley Enterprise, 26 March 1881.

[5]  John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 10-11.

[6]  R. Sauer, “Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973,” Population Studies , Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), 54.   Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2173793.  Must have access to JSTOR to access this article via the link.

[7]  Riddle, Eve’s Herbs, 233.

[8]  Riddle, Eve’s Herbs, 250-251.

[9] Converter, http://calculator-converter.com/

[10] Riddle, Eve’s Herbs, 237.

[11] FindaGrave, Inc. “Louise Kent Bunce,” Find A Grave Memorial# 84459118, posted by Grasser on 29 April 2012. Photo used with permission.


2 comments on “Who was Mrs. Frank Bunce?

  1. Mary Swenson says:

    Fascinating…thank you for once more enlightening me with genealogy!

  2. Allen says:

    Very, very interesting post. If I remember correctly, “Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable compound” contained arsenic which would “improve” the color of your complexion.

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