By Stuart Nulman
Portrait of a Scandal by Elaine Kalman Naves (Vehicule Press, $18)
If you thought the growing concern of abortion and abortion clinics in Canada began with the late Dr. Henry Morgenthaler back in the early 1970s, think again.
Over a century before, in the 1860s in particular, abortions were rampant in the years preceding and following Confederation in Canada, in which less than reputable doctors were aborting fetuses of unwanted babies using highly dangerous chemicals; anyone who was caught performing these abortions were tried for murder and if convicted, were condemned to the gallows.
In the winter of 1868, an illegal abortion that took place at the renowned St. Lawrence Hall hotel in Montreal that involved Robert Notman, the brother of William Notman, whose thriving Montreal photography studio was gaining attention for its photographic innovations, and how they were chronicling life in the nascent Canadian nation. The recipient of this secret abortion was Margaret Galbraith, a young woman from a Scottish family in the Eastern Townships, who was attending McGill University’s Normal School in order to become a teacher. The operation was performed by a Dr. Alfred Patton, whose suicide following the operation in the hotel was the spark that caused the whole affair to erupt into a cause celebre scandal and trial, in which Notman was charged with “counselling, procuring & commanding a person to administer a noxious thing with intent to procure a miscarriage.”
Award-winning author and journalist Elaine Kalman Naves has dug up the facts involved in this rarely heard bit of Montreal history to come up with a fascinating account of the Notman abortion trial in Portrait of a Scandal.
Thoroughly researched, Naves writes quite the absorbing account of a trial that took Montreal by storm, which threatened the solid reputation of one of Montreal’s top businessmen at the time. She examines every aspect of the affair, from the backgrounds of the Notman and Galbraith families, to the crusading judge and lawyers who did battle in the old Palais de justice, to the crude chemical methods that were utilized to induce an abortion, to even the sordid history of Kingston Penitentiary, where Notman was sent to when he was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The chapters dealing with the actual trial of Robert Notman almost read like a John Grisham legal thriller, and the verdict was almost overturned over an issue that could have been just as relevant today. In particular, the media, and how a newspaper was used by the jury as a source of information when it reprinted the love letters between Notman and Galbraith in their entirety, because the handwriting of the original letters were illegible.
Naves uses her creative writing abilities and penchant for thorough research to create a rather surprising story to emerge from a conservative, patrician Montreal just after Confederation. She also successfully ties up the mysterious loose ends of the two protagonists of this sordid affair (Notman ended up living in New York until his death in 1882, and is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery next to his first wife Annie Birks, whose brother Henry later founded the famed Montreal jewellery store that carries his name to this day; Galbraith died three years earlier and is buried in her Townships home town).
Portrait of a Scandal turns a lesser known page in Montreal history, which reveals the true character of a social problem that remained so carefully hidden, only to break wide open more than a century later.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.