Jacqueline Smith’s 1955 death and the lessons we haven’t yet learned from it.

The 1955 Manslaughter Case That Sheds Terrible Light on Today’s Abortion Debate 

The 1955 Manslaughter Case That Sheds Terrible Light on Today’s Abortion Debate 

What women really think.
Dec. 22 2015 11:58 AM

The Death of Jacqueline Smith

Sixty years ago, an illegal abortion killed her. The case made national news. We still have much to learn from her story. 

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

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

Jacqueline Smith was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in 1935. She graduated from high school in 1953 and moved to New York City, where she intended to become a fashion designer. In June 1955, Smith began to date Daniel, a sales trainee in a riding equipment shop. Although Smith spent most nights in Daniel’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. (Unless otherwise noted, primary source information in this piece is based either on contemporary newspaper accounts or on district attorney files and transcripts from the 1956 trials of Daniel and Leobaldo Pijuan; these records can be found in the New York City Municipal Archives.)

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In November 1955, Smith discovered she was about six weeks pregnant. When she shared the news of her pregnancy with Daniel, 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, and their children had the word illegitimate stamped on their birth certificates. Many young women went to maternity homes in other towns, where they would have their babies and then give them up in closed adoptions, all done in secrecy. Upon returning home, these women were expected to pretend that the pregnancies never happened and to make the most out of a second chance at respectability.

Daniel did not want to marry Smith 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. Daniel persuaded Smith to take abortifacient pills, but these did not work. In the meantime, Smith went to her OB-GYN twice for examinations, made plans for future checkups, and made arrangements to deliver the baby.

On Christmas Eve 1955, Daniel paid Pijuan, a hospital attendant, $50 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 woman. Those unable to obtain hospital abortions would turn to underground abortionists, some of whom were skilled and some of whose lack of medical training physically endangered women. Pijuan was one of the latter.

Before beginning the surgery on Smith with equipment he had stolen from the hospital, Pijuan created a crude operating area in the living room of Daniel’s apartment in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan, just blocks from Bellevue Hospital. Pijuan covered the couch and floors in old newspaper and blankets, jerry-rigged an intravenous drip out of a broomstick and a bottle, and fashioned makeshift stirrups out of two dining room chairs. Pijuan instructed Smith to sit on the edge of the couch, then tied her legs to the backs of the chairs and her arms to the couch. He then anesthetized Smith with sodium thiopental, using rubber bands instead of a tourniquet. Pijuan, however, did not properly control the drip. During the 10 minutes in which he performed a dilation and curettage, Smith received 1,000 cc of the anesthetic— about 50 times the required dosage.

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

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

On Dec. 30, Smith’s father, Chester Smith, traveled 6½ hours by bus from Lebanon to New York City to look for his daughter after her workplace notified him that she hadn’t showed up for days. Unable to locate her, Smith reported his child missing to the New York City Police Department. On Jan. 10, 1956, the police arrested Daniel at his apartment; he eventually confessed to the circumstances of her death and how he and Pijuan disposed of her remains.

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The horrifying circumstances around Jacqueline Smith’s botched abortion made headlines in newspapers across the United States. Wire services relayed the minute details of the homicide and offered readers biographies of the major players. Reporters described the frantic and ultimately unsuccessful police search for Smith’s body, detailing how 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 thiopental. 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 Daniel and Pijuan for manslaughter, the media and the public obsessed over the personal details of all involved in the case. The New York Daily News hired a plane to fly Smith’s father from Pennsylvania to New York, housing him with one of its reporters; this arrangement gave the paper the inside scoop on a bereaved and traumatized father. Smith’s hometown paper, the Lebanon Daily News, interviewed her high school teachers and friends and featured Smith’s artwork and poetryThe New York Daily News likewise featured clothing that Smith designed; one of its employees modeled her scarves. In June 1956, a jury found Daniel guilty of manslaughter; he was sentenced to 8½–20 years in prison. Pijuan was sentenced to 7½–14 years.

Smith’s death and the literal absence of her body enabled commentators to inscribe their own sexual scripts about women, sexuality, and reproduction upon her. Daniel’s defense lawyer characterized his client 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 Smith into an innocent daughter in need of protection from predators like Daniel. To do so, they used ethnic signposts to contrast “Jackie, the pretty blonde daughter” with “dark Thomas G. Daniel,” “Greek born”; the Puerto Rican nurse Pijuan; and the “Mexican doctor” Mireles. This racial and gendered narrative sought to rehabilitate Smith’s reputation and to convey that she was a good girl who did not deserve her fate, a small-town naïf seduced by the big city. “She actually was a lamb,” stated one co-worker to reporters, “and New York is not the right place for lambs.” Another told reporters, “Jackie was well-equipped in every way, except to cope with the advances of a predatory male.”

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How should we remember Jacqueline Smith’s life and death 60 years later? One way is to highlight the silences surrounding her story. Of hundreds of reports about Smith’s death, all depicted it as a personal tragedy; none of them flagged the conditions that made her unplanned pregnancy possible and dangerous.

Focusing on the gory details of the case enabled readers to look away from the plight of 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 Smith’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 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 had overseen the autopsies of a minimum of 1,200 women who had died from abortion. The media didn’t mention that a white unwed mother such as Smith who carried a pregnancy to term likely would have done so at a maternity home, where she would have been expected to give up her baby with no hopes of seeing him or her again. Largely excluded from the booming postwar adoption industry, unwed mothers of color bore additional burdens, including forced sterilization, exclusion from public welfare, and police surveillance.

The reproductive rights struggles of the past half-century have sought to transform these conditions. Today, as conservatives fight to erode these modest gains, 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 20 years old and had her whole life ahead of her. The men who killed her went to jail, but there was no indictment of a society and policies that were also culpable. For too many Americans, Jacqueline Smith’s past is still all too present.

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This post originally appeared on Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting critical conversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period, and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at Notchesblog.com.