A Case for Wrongful Death

By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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1940s woman walking down street

“And did you come to a conclusion?”

“I did. I concluded that some sort of sharp instrument had been inserted into the uterus through the vagina and had caused a rupture between them. There were between two to three pints of pus in the abdominal cavity.”

“What do you believe caused the pus?”

“It resulted from the insertion of the sharp object. There is no other reasonable explanation.”

“What was the cause of death?”

“Acute peritonitis, caused by infection in the abdominal cavity.”

On cross-examination, Ingram pressured Dr. Thornton to admit that the pus could have resulted from some other cause, but Dr. Thornton held fast.

Vass’s next witness, Dr. Boyer, testified that when Connie Reynolds came to his office on July 6, 1940, she was seeking an abortion. He stressed that he advised her against this course of action, then reluctantly suggested the name of Dr. Wheeler.

“And why Dr. Wheeler?”

“He is known in the medical community as someone who performs abortions.”

“Objection!” yelled Ingram. “Facts not in evidence.”

“Overruled,” Judge Aikin said. “The witness has personal knowledge of the medical community.”

Vass called Lois as his last witness. She entered the courtroom wearing a pink linen suit, which fit a little too snugly around the hips, a balled up linen handkerchief in her hand. A recent perm had coiled her ordinarily straight hair into tight curls. Vass walked her through the visits to the two doctors, establishing that she had taken her sister to Dr. Wheeler expressly to get an abortion.

Despite Mr. Vass’s instructions that she face the jury during her testimony, Lois never turned in their direction. Instead, she stared at the attorney, tears in her eyes, as if imploring him to let her go.

Lois testified that her sister was perfectly healthy before visiting Dr. Wheeler and described her as groggy and very tired when she came out of Wheeler’s examination room.

On cross-examination, Ingram asked, “Your sister was expecting a baby, right?”


“Do you know whose baby it was?”

“Her fiancée’s.”

“Why would she want an abortion if her fiancée was the father?”

Lois looked around the courtroom as if the answer were written on the walls. “It would be shameful to have a baby too soon after a wedding,” she finally said, her voice thick with tears.

“But wouldn’t it be even more shameful to have someone else’s baby too soon after a wedding?” Ingram asked.

“Objection. Calls for speculation,” Vass called out.


“I’ll withdraw the question,” said Ingram with a smirk, obviously satisfied that the jury had heard the question.

“Do you live with your sister?”

“No, I live with my husband.”

“So you don’t know for sure that she was perfectly healthy when you visited Dr. Boyer, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“One more question. You didn’t go into Dr. Wheeler’s examining room with your sister, did you?”


“Then you don’t know that he performed an abortion, do you?”

“She said he did.”

“Thank you. That’s all.”

“Pathetic cross,” Horace Vass muttered under his breath as Johnny Ingram took his seat.

To the judge, he said, “The plaintiff rests at this time, but reserves the right to call witnesses in response to the defendant’s case.”


Even before the judge called the recess, George had rushed out of the courtroom. He was afraid if he stayed a minute longer, he would race down the aisle, take that smart-ass baby lawyer by the neck and strangle him. His face felt hot and he was sweating all over. He had to cool off.

Lois found him sitting by himself on the courthouse steps, his head in his hands.

“What happened in there?” she asked.

“You heard it,” he growled.

“They wouldn’t let me in the courtroom until I testified. Some kind of rule.”

“The son of a bitch is claiming Connie had a sexual disease.” The words came out hoarse, like someone was choking him.


“I knew it was a mistake. I told your old man; I begged him not to do it.”

Lois put her arms around him.

He shook her off. “He killed them! That fat butcher killed both of them.”

“Go on and cry,” Lois whispered. She sounded afraid. “You need to cry.”

But he wasn’t about to cry.

“He killed my beautiful Connie.,” he hissed. “He killed my baby. You know what that’s like? He killed part of me. That little baby was part of me.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Lois pleaded, “to make that doctor suffer for what he did.”

“It won’t be enough. Whatever happens won’t satisfy me.”

“I think you should go home,” Lois said.

She’s scared, George thought. Scared of what I’ll do.

“I want to hear it,” he said. “Every damned word of it.”


After a recess, Ingram called Dr. Wheeler to the stand. The rotund little doctor took a minute to settle himself in the witness box then fixed his eyes on his lawyer.

After establishing that the plaintiff’s daughter had visited Wheeler’s office on July 6, 1940, and that he had examined her, Ingram asked, “Did you form a diagnosis?”

“Yes. She had gonorrhea,” the little doctor said, sneaking a look at the jury.

George started to jump up. Lois pulled him down and whispered, “He’s lying. They won’t believe him.”

“And how did you make that diagnosis?”

“She told me she had a pain in her back and pain on urination. I did a vaginal examination and found the vagina full of pus, which was oozing from her everywhere. I mopped out the pus with an acriflavine solution on cotton, using an applicator, getting it out as best I could.”

George bolted up from his seat.

“You should leave,” Lois whispered.

“No. I have to hear it,” he said, sitting down again, shoving his trembling hands between his legs.

Lois put her arm around his shoulders and held him for the rest of testimony.

“Then I put in a little drainage tube for the pus to run out,” Dr. Wheeler continued. “She had a lot of inflammation and I concluded she had an acute case of gonorrhea and treated her for that. When I was finished, she got up and seemed all right.”

“Dr. Wheeler, did you at any time perform an abortion on the plaintiff’s daughter?”

“I did not.”

“Did you know she was pregnant?”

“No. She didn’t tell me and I didn’t examine her for pregnancy.”

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Nancy Bourne has been making up stories all her life. Eight years ago, she started writing them down and began to publish. Since then, her work has appeared in more than thirty publications nationwide. Her stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Blue Lake Review, and many others. Her short story collection, Spotswood, Virginia, based on Civil Rights in the 1960s and '70s, is scheduled for publication in Summer 2021. For a full list of Ms. Bourne’s publications, please see nancybourne.us. Ms. Bourne writes about her childhood in the South, her life in California, and her many adventures such as rafting the Grand Canyon and traveling to countries such as Iran. “A Case for Wrongful Death” is based upon stories she heard as a child. Ms. Bourne has been an attorney for public schools, a potter with a home studio, and a teacher, most recently teaching writing to prisoners and incarcerated minors.