Thursday, November 15, 2018

1115 Case #6: Margaret Browning

(Student #6 AMH 2010 1115)

Margaret Browning v. The People of California was charged with the illegal operation of abortion and second murder. The trial began on February 27th, 1933 and continued until May 2nd 1933. Margaret was convicted of illegal operation upon the body of Emily Caton. However she was not convicted for the second charge of second-degree murder. Margaret was sentenced to serve two to five years in San Quentin prison.

 Part One: Case Choice
In class, I chose the case called Margaret Browning v The People. Margaret Browning was an uneducated lady in her fifties. On the card, the word abortion was listed under her crime and that caught my attention. I have to admit that before I began researching, I assumed she was jailed because she had an abortion. I felt many different emotions due to the subject and the time of the court case. Having a baby in 1933 at fifty years of age would come with a high risk of health issues, so I sympathized with her. I wanted to find out her story. I also know that even today abortion is a controversial topic, with a lot of baggage. I wanted to research about abortions in the early 30s, and I wanted to see how the issue of abortion had changed.  However, as my research unfolded, a whole new story was created right before my eyes. I discovered Mrs. Browning wasn’t the one who had the abortion; she was the one conducting the abortions at her house. In addition, it was not only just one abortion, there were many that she performed. Women died because of her procedures and in the articles I found her home was described as an abortion farm.

Everything I thought in the beginning of my research was changing, and my empathy switched to curiosity and then ended with some degree of understanding. I was struck with one big question, why did she do it? Was it for money or was it because she truly wanted to give women in desperate need a place to go? I’m aware this topic is difficult to talk about; it makes me slightly uncomfortable writing a research paper about it. I felt this case file needed to be researched and the story needs to be properly told, as it is an important issue even now.

Part Two: The Research
I began researching documents on and I clicked on the 1930 United States Federal Census. Margaret Browning, born in 1881 in Iowa, was married in 1930 to Shirley N. Browning (she married him when she was 27).  At this time, as stated on the Census, her occupation was a homemaker. She lived in central Madera California in 1930.  The highest level of education she completed was the fourth grade and she was able to read and write. Her dad’s birthplace was Illinois and her mom’s was Kansas. In 1930, the household included Mrs. Browning, her husband and her grandson Shirley Irvine. I felt I was beginning to understand who she was through this initial research. Where were her kids? She had a grandson, and why was he living with his grandparents instead of his parents? I never found out the answer to these questions, but I did find out many other facts about her.

To begin the story, I found the 1910 United States Federal Census. In 1910 Margaret had been married one year and had a child named Pearl Nelson. They were living in Manhattan New York in 1910.  In 1910 her husband was working at a grocery store. I also clicked on Pearl Nelson’s name (Margaret’s daughter) for the 1910 Census and I learned that she was born in 1895 in Arizona; at the time she was 15 years old. I learned that she was the stepdaughter to Margaret’s husband Shirley Browning. The next document I clicked on was the 1920 United States Federal Census. I learned that in 1920 Pearl lived in Madera California with her husband Kit Carson Irvins. Pearl was a music teacher and Kit was a garage mechanic. In 1920 it lists Pearl, Kit and their son Shirley were all living together, however, in the 1930 Census their son was living with Margaret and Shirley and Pearl and Kit were living in Chowchilla, California. Chowchilla California was the location of the “Abortion Farm” in the newspaper article. I was still confused about Shirley and the fact that the grandson was not living with his parents and why his parents moved away.  

The next documents I researched were the 1930 United States Federal Census for her husband Shirley Browning and I also looked at the 1930 census for her grandson Shirley Irvine. Some important things I learned about her husband wa that he worked as a salesman at a hardware store and that he owned a house that cost 90,000 dollars. That caught my attention because today 90,000 dollars would be the equivalent to 1.5 million dollars. Therefore, the Browning family was very well off.  I found out that on average homes cost around 5,000 dollars. I was confused about how they could afford such a nice home when Shirley was only a salesman and Margaret wasn’t working. Things weren’t adding up, and I wanted to find out why.

When I clicked on the grandson’s name for the 1930 Federal Census it stated that he was 15 years old and was born in 1915 in Nevada. His dad was born in Montana and his mom was born in Arizona. Moreover, the next documents I looked at were for Margaret and Shirley Browning on the United States 1940 Federal Census. In these two documents I found out that they were living in Long Beach LA California.
In 1940 Margaret was out of prison. I noticed a couple of important things. First they were living in a home that had a value of about 4,000 dollars and they were living with three other people from a different family. In 1940 Margaret wasn’t working and Shirley was working as a seamstress. The next documents I found were the death indexes for Shirley and Margaret Browning. According to those documents Shirley Browning died in LA on April 21st, 1953. Margaret Browning died on May 3rd, 1949.

I also looked at California’s prison and correctional records from 1851- 1950, which had Margaret’s case file listed. Margaret was at the California State Prison at San Quentin, her number was 54374. On this image, it listed her crime as abortion and her occupation as a nurse when she was received, June 06, 1933. Her sentence was two to five years. I got a lot of information from all these records, but I wanted something else, I wanted to understand her story.  I decided to just Google her name.  That’s when my research really took a turn. I found newspaper articles about her trial and retrial and I also found a couple more detailed documents explaining what happened.

Part Three: The Story
To start, I found a document on, which explained in detail about Margaret Browning’s trial. The next documents I found were a couple of newspaper archives that discusses her trial, and retrial. When I read over these documents I started to understand what actually happened in her case file.
As per, Margaret Browning, was charged with abortion and was sentenced to two to five years in prison. The trial began on February 27th, 1933 and continued until May 2nd 1933.  The defendant, Ms. Browning, was convicted and indicted of using an instrument to cause a miscarriage by Emily Canton. The defendant was not charged with using drugs to induce the miscarriage; instead she was charged with using a tool to procure a miscarriage. There was no evidence of using drugs to induce the miscarriage therefore; the only crime she could be accused of was the use of an instrument. To be convicted for abortion, it does not matter how you procured a miscarriage. It does matter how you did it. You are guilty of a felony if you used tools, drugs or other means to perform an abortion. In this case, the jury was instructed to make sure that Ms. Browning intended to use an instrument specifically to abort and not for another purpose. The jury also had to make sure that Ms. Browning knew the patient was pregnant. The jurors were not sure that the instrument found at the house fire was the instrument used for the abortion. The State made the argument that it did not matter if the instrument was found because just the intent for inducing the miscarriage is worthy of a conviction. The defendant said that the instrument must be found to prove that it was used for the abortion. 

In 1933, Ms. Browning was living with her husband on a farm near Chowchilla California, which also was near her grandson.  At the time, she was not a licensed nurse, but a practical nurse that worked at a hospital.  By definition, a practical nurse is one who assists a licensed nurse. Their basic duties are not medical in nature.

During the trial, Ms. Browning claimed that women would come to her house for treatment of female conditions at which time Ms. Browning would help them. She had some instruments at her house that were used for these conditions. These were the instruments that were found at the home and were produced as evidence during the trial. She stated that Emily Canton had come to her house for this very purpose. However, this is not Emily’s story.

Emily stated that she had confided in her friend that she was indeed pregnant and wanted to have something done about the situation. So they went over to Margaret Browning’s house. She was instructed to take off her clothes to be examined. Ms. Browning performed some sort of operation at that time. Instruments were used. Miss. Canton heard Ms. Browning use instruments on her and one was inserted that produced extreme pain.  She paid Margaret ten dollars and was instructed to return a few days later. An officer confronted Miss Canton as she left and she told him her story. After the procedure, Emily became ill and had to go to the hospital at which time she again told her story. The doctor had to perform an operation to save her life. Sixteen days after her initial entry, a stillbirth occurred. It was determined that the cause of the stillbirth was not a spontaneous or premature birth and was in fact induced. Margaret’s response to these facts was that medicated gauze had been inserted into the vagina for a vaginal disease. It was up to the jury to determine the use of the instruments and the intention of Ms. Browning. The jury found Ms. Browning guilty of using the instrument to abort a fetus.

A contact book was found in her house with names and payments along with dates. This provided some needed evidence for the fact that a business situation was occurring. The last piece of damaging evidence was a witness named Ethel Pitman. She pleaded the fifth on the entire trial because Margaret Browning threatened her. Margaret told her she would have trouble if she answered the questions. Even though she pleaded the fifth, the counsel and the court found that she was connected in some manner with Ms. Browning.

This case was tried twice. The jury felt that the trial judge had not given Ms. Browning a fair and impartial trial. However, it was determined that the judge was not impartial and the guilty verdict would stand for Ms. Browning. While she was on retrial, their home mysteriously burned down and the only things left for evidence was a contact book with about 300 to 500 names which was believed to be the names of who she conducted abortions on. One other piece of evidence that was found was a tool that allegedly was used to conduct those abortions.

To find out more specific information, I decided to go to the newspapers of the region to get their perspective.  The first article I found was from The Fresno Bee The Republican on January 8, 1933, which was found on  In this article, it stated that Mrs. Browning performed an illegal operation and the other charge was for the second-degree murder of Mrs. Helen Ruth Ostergaard who died on February 26, 1932. Mrs. Browning denied both charges. This became a wildly publicized trial with many articles written. In this article it said that the Browning home was destroyed by fire on November 21, 1932.

The next two newspaper articles that I found were from the California Digital Newspaper Collection website.  The first article that was found was from the Madera Tribune, Volume LXI, Number 61, and January 14, 1933. In this article it charges that Mrs. Browning performed an abortion on Miss Emily Canton.  The police had started to watch the Browning farm after many women had died of peritonitis poisoning. There was a connection with the women and the Browning farm so the police started to investigate. It was unknown what the connection was, but a stake out was started. A police raid was held after the confrontation with Miss Canton and that is when they found the book of contacts, which was used for evidence. The officers produced enough evidence to the Grand Jury to start an indictment. One charge was for the abortion performed on Emily Caton. The other was the charge of the murder of Mrs. Helen Ruth Ostergaard. Mrs. Margaret Browning was arrested on November 24, 1932. She spent the holidays and witnesses were sought for the trial. They searched for witnesses as far away as Nevada. It was difficult to find witnesses, because the women felt if they testified, they would incriminate themselves.  In the article Mrs. Browning stated that she had treated Miss Caton to give temporary relief for a disease and was told to seek medical attention from a physician. The People held that there was indeed an illegal operation performed and their goal was to prove this fact.  A decision eventually was made that a retrial must happen before Browning could be charged with the murder of Mrs. Ostergaard.  The new trial date was determined to be January 21, 1933. The second article found about the Browning case came again from the Madera Tribune, Volume LXI, Number 126, April 1, 1933. It stated that Mrs. Margaret Browning was charged with the death of Mrs. Ruth Ostergaard and that she died from the alleged procedure performed on the Browning abortion farm.  Browning however was only convicted of abortion, not murder.

Another article from The Fresno Bee The Republican, from, talks about how they tried to get the judge changed after the first trial because they felt he was biased. However, he was found on February 4 to be competent to retry the case again for the second time.  On March 3, as stated in the Bakersfield Californian, on Friday March 3, 1933 that Ms. Browning was found guilty of an illegal operation. A charge of murder was to be tried shortly after this.

The Fresno Bee The Republican stated on Sunday March 5, 1933 that the charge of murder was terminated. The penalty of an illegal operation was two to five years in the penitentiary. Mrs. Browning’s counsel tried to appeal the verdict but it was denied. The murder trial was pending at that time.

Part Four: The Conclusion
Why was her trial important? Why did her story need to be told? For me I wanted to understand why she did it. Did she realize the repercussions of getting caught? Did she do it for the money? Or, was she choosing to conduct under the table abortions because she had experience as a nurse and wanted to help women who sought her help? These questions will never be answered, because only Margaret herself could explain that part of her story. I would like to believe that she chose to do abortions to help others. To conclude this research, I wanted to do a little side research about abortions in the 1930s. I wanted to know the risk of conducting under the table abortions and how dangerous they actually were. I found out that many women didn’t have any options when they had an unwanted pregnancy. When the doctor told them they were pregnant, they were advised to handle it themselves. Most women could not afford abortions, and the ones who could were typically rich, white women. A lot of women would actually conduct the abortion on their own and many women died because of it. Many wards in a hospital were filled with women suffering after performing an abortion. Many died due to infection that occurred after the abortion or bleed to death.  In addition, as stated by The which discussed the history of abortion, it stated that many women during the Depression could loose their jobs if the were married or had a child. Many women chose an abortion as the only option. This caused an increase in the abortion rates.  Even today, the issue of abortion is still controversial. Due to these circumstances, the 1930s tended to be a time when abortions were at an all time high and Margaret was one out of many that were convicted of this crime.