Keep your digital mitts off my great-grandmother!

My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam
My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam

 

A few months ago, after retelling a bit of family folklore to my husband’s siblings, I decided to Google the name of the relative involved in that epic adventure (which I will not relate on this blog–you’ll just have to ask me in person the next time you see me). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the hits did not refer to the person in question but to another of my relatives–my great-grandmother, Rose Kulamer. She’s internet-famous for having died from an illegal abortion.

I already knew the bare bones of that story. In 1989, Rose’s daughter, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam, told me that her mother had died from an illegal abortion when my grandmother was young. Grandma was nearing the end of her own life when she told me this story. According to her, my great-grandmother, when she learned she was pregnant again, confided in a friend that she didn’t know how she would deal with a fourth child. The friend told Rose that she knew someone who could provide her an abortion. In my grandmother’s account, Rose had the abortion and died from complications.

That story was pretty much all I probably needed to know at the time, and given that my grandmother died less than a month after passing this information on to me, I had little chance to ask follow-up questions. Nor was I particularly interested in asking additional questions–my great-grandmother had been dead for about 70 years, I had never known her, and I saw her death as a tragedy of her times.

Family lore also has it that my great-grandfather, at that point a widower, put his three daughters into a Catholic orphanage, promising to return to retrieve them after the weekend, only to vanish for some longer period of time (estimates range from months to years), reappearing with a new wife.

So how did poor Rose Kulamer become internet-famous for her death? She, and many other women who died under similar circumstances, have become fodder for anti-abortion bloggers. Rose’s story appears in at least two of their forums: Real Choice and Rhonda O. Goldman Life. Each site includes information, gleaned from newspaper articles, coroner’s reports, and other archives, to chronicle, as the authors see it, the dangers of permitting legalized abortion in the United States.

The use of my relative–and the relatives of many other Americans–for issue advocacy raises a set of troubling questions. First, while this information is certainly in the public domain, how much thought for the victims’ lives have the authors given? Second, how good are the blog authors’ historical methods? Third, have these bloggers given serious consideration to other questions that were clearly factors during some of these women’s lives, factors such as the efficacy of available birth control methods or the lack of sterile procedures in any medical procedure, legal or illegal? And fourth, what are the ethics of using and sharing information about people, whether in pursuit of historical research or issue advocacy?  Let’s take them in order.

First, on the issue of consideration for the victims’ lives, the blog authors appear to care sincerely that women have died from illegal abortions, even as they strip away any right to privacy these women (and their descendants) may have. Indeed, Real Choice includes intimate details about women’s symptoms as they fought septic infections, as well as photos when available of the women and abortion providers. The website appears to believe that women who died forfeited any right to privacy, and that such gruesome details and public airing of them are necessary evils when fighting abortion–legal or illegal. Real Choice covers abortions both pre- and post- Roe v. Wade, and its author, Christina Dunigan, has helpfully included a page on why she believes that rescinding the right to abortion would not result in a rise in abortion-related deaths. More about that page below in answer to question three.

Second, on the issue of historical methods, the blogs Real Choice and Rhoda O. Goldman Life both use information borrowed from Cemetery of Choice, a wiki administered by a group of contributors, including Christina Dunigan. She cites Cemetery of Choice in her entry on my great-grandmother, but Rhonda O. Goldman Life does not, despite the fact that the language is clearly copied straight from Real Choice and/or Cemetery of Choice. To give Christina Dunigan credit, she does provide the coroner’s report number in the Cemetery of Choice wiki entry, and she has recently uploaded a copy of my great-grandmother’s death certificate, in case you’d like to know how much she weighed or to confirm that the cause of death was indeed septicemia.

But the attention to detail here is lacking. The death certificate clearly states in three separate places that Rose died in 1918, yet the wiki and both blogs constantly refer to the year as 1919. While the non-historian might ask, “what’s the difference between 1918 and 1919?” when a date appears several different times on a pdf you’ve uploaded (and clearly was available on the coroner’s report), there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. It undercuts your credibility and raises questions about your other data. Dunigan has also placed an entry for Rose Kulamer at FindAGrave.com, but the entry notes only the names of Rose’s husband, John, and two of their three children. Nor does it mention the location of the actual grave site, which does appear on the death certificate.

Dunigan exhibits interest in illustrating different approaches to abortion over time, as in a recent blog post comparing early 20th century abortion deaths in Chicago and Pittsburgh with a later (1972) death in New York. That attempt to contrast abortion practices in Chicago and Pittsburgh appears to build on material Dunigan has read, used verbatim, and cited from Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997).

Third, the blog authors do appear to have considered the medical advancements in the field of hygiene, blood transfusions, and antibiotics as they maintain their digital vigil against abortion. Cemetery of Choice provides a small notation at the bottom of each entry, noting that medicine was not well equipped to deal with abortion complications during much of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. But the authors make no distinction between abortion and any other procedure during a similar time frame. In other words, they do not note that in the early twentieth century, a ruptured appendix or stepping on a rusty nail–or even giving birth with a condition like placenta previa–could kill you just as easily as the sepsis following an abortion. Moreover, there’s no discussion on these websites about how effective birth control could have prevented unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Indeed, my great-grandmother was already a mother to three daughters. She likely already practiced some sort of contraception, as my great-aunt Louise was three years older than my grandmother, and my great-aunt Anna was five years younger. Three births spaced over eleven years suggests a measure of reproductive regulation. That my great-grandmother wondered how she would care for a fourth child (the family oral history from my grandmother) likely tells us that her birth control–whatever it was–failed her.

Fourth, and finally, Rose’s status as poster-victim for the right-to-life movement poses an ethical dilemma, one that has new repercussions in the digital age. Teenagers and their parents are routinely warned to protect their digital identities, yet my great-grandmother’s ignominious death does not garner her privacy. In fact, it’s the only reason she’s an internet “celebrity.” She would have remained anonymous to all but her family members’ memory had it not been for these bloggers and their issue advocacy. Earlier this month, Christine Dinsmore recently wrote in the Washington Post about her own grandmother’s death . At first blush, this approach seems more ethical–Dinsmore outed her own relative. But, like the right-to-life bloggers, it assumes that the victim, in this case Maria Consolazio, would willingly share an intimate part of her life to prevent other women from enduring similar deaths. She may well have, but we do not have the means to know for certain.

As a historian myself, I weigh carefully my decisions when using my sources, and I probably do let my political inclinations influence my final judgments. The family of J. Frank Norris, Texas fundamentalist in the 1920s and 1930s, would likely not appreciate my extended discussion of his racism in my forthcoming book. But my analysis of Norris contributes to a larger scholarly consensus on the matter. Moreover, Norris was a public figure–a man who actively sought press coverage of his life and work. Maria Consolazio, Rose Kulamer, and many others were private citizens in an age when computers were still a very distant dream.

To be sure, Leslie Reagan’s work on the history of illegal abortion in the United States also relies heavily on sharing information that descendants might well wish was buried with their ancestors. When Reagan published the book in the late 1990s, however, she could have had little idea that her publisher would include it in an online library and that Ms. Dunigan would copy and paste large swaths of her prose into the Real Choice website.

I’m fully aware of the irony here–I’m writing a blog post about my great-grandmother’s digital fame, a post that will only lead to more digital recognition of what happened to her, especially as I have my blog set to share my posts via Twitter and Facebook. In many ways, though, the damage is already done–people who never knew any member of my family have used my great-grandmother for their own ends, even if their goals are noble. The very least I can do is write this post and caution them and anyone else. Think twice before you post the autopsy report, the coroner’s report, the photos, and the names. I’ve been able to locate the name of the individual who was charged with (although apparently not convicted of) performing the botched abortion on my great-grandmother. And I’m not going to publish it here. Instead, let’s think twice before we start using someone’s dead relative to make our point.

 

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