Dr. Harvey Lothringer, a family practitioner, has been performing illegal abortions for years. His medical office is under police surveillance, but Barbara Lofrumento’s parents may not know this when they bring her to him on a Saturday morning, the 2nd of June, 1962. She’s five months pregnant.
“I’m not touching her. She’s too far along.”
“You’re going to take care of this problem,” Barbara’s father, Dominick, says. It sounds like a threat. Dominick knows of Harvey’s reputation and record, can turn him in at any time. When he learned of Barbara’s pregnancy, Dominick asked around for the name of an abortionist. Harvey’s Queens office is about 15 miles from Dominick’s home in upscale Westchester, New York, but he was told the doctor would travel to his house. Dominick lives with wife, Rose, and their children Barbara and Richard.
Another daughter, Rosemary, is out of the house, safely married. It’s Barbara who is of concern now. But the doctor is reluctant.
He’s 41 years old and has never been under such pressure, has never been put in this position. He finally agrees to do the procedure the next day at the Lofrumento home. There’s no question of doing it in his office; it’s too risky.
But at 11 that night Harvey changes his mind. He’ll do it in his office. He calls Dominick, telling him to bring his daughter to Park Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, five blocks from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel—an easy jump back into Queens.
They rendezvous at 2:30 in the morning, Sunday. Barbara and her mother Rose slip into Harvey’s car and Dominick returns to Westchester. Even at this hour, the city is a mosaic of energy—sounds and lights and meandering people. Although the theaters are closed, the marquees are lit and taxis honk, weaving in and out of light but steady traffic. Harvey takes the midtown tunnel under the East River into Queens, following the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Grand Central Parkway, exiting at 188 Street into the polished landscape of Jamaica Estates. In the blanket of pre-dawn darkness, they arrive at Harvey’s house, where he’s been living with Theresa, a Cuban airline hostess, since his separation from his wife, Felice.
The house, an expanded ranch, is more spacious on the inside than it appears from the street—Union Turnpike, a primary artery lined with shops, restaurants, and the occasional home converted to business, like Harvey’s. His is divided into two sections: a comfortable living quarters and a separate medical suite accessed by patients through an exterior side door.
Once inside, Barbara is taken directly to the examining room. She’s told to remove her clothing and is given a blue paper gown. Shivering both from fear and from the cool damp air of late spring, she wishes her mother were with her, but Rose has been escorted into another room of the house to wait. The procedure should be routine, Rose has been told; after an hour on the table, her daughter will be taken to one of the upstairs bedrooms, equipped, Harvey has assured her, with its own refrigerator.
“Women need plenty of liquids after the procedure,” he said.
But nineteen-year-old Barbara doesn’t make it that far. She’s feverish, and Harvey soon realizes that someone’s already started an abortion. Checking the fetus, he figures it’s been dead for hours. All he can do is try to save Barbara.
At least this is what he will later tell my father, his attorney.
The newspapers’ versions of the story will vary. Although there are myriad inconsistencies and uncertainties in this story, I know it as the epicenter of an ever-spiraling horror, something I experienced through direct involvement when I was a child and later as an adult, researching, interviewing, trying to piece it together.
Dr. John Furey was an assistant medical examiner in 1962 and assigned to the case, but it was Milton Helpern, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner at the time, who most fully described what happened in his memoir, Autopsy, since “the whole affair came under my jurisdiction.” Barbara, he conjectures, probably “died immediately” following a “torrent of blood” as soon as Harvey “began preliminary probing with an instrument.” It’s possible fatty tissue passed into her bloodstream, becoming trapped within a blood vessel. But Helpern also notes that one can’t be sure; given the “circumstances, it was quite impossible to hazard a guess at the actual cause of death.”
At 5:00 AM Harvey calls Dominick and tells Rose that he’s giving Barbara oxygen “as a precaution,” but two hours later he sends Rose home, telling her there are complications, to come back the next day. He assures her that everything will be fine.
Then he shreds Barbara’s body into near-nothingness, and tries to wash her away.
• • •
This is a story about control, about forces that would usurp natural, instinctive processes. Some people insist that abortion is murder. I respond: the impetus to abort or not is part of maternal instinct—similar to that of other species with whom we share the planet. External interference in this instinctual process is a form of control.
Attempts to harness or replicate reproduction independent of women’s bodies—from the magical golem to Frankenstein’s monster to human cloning—have populated both literary and scientific imaginations. The most gruesome versions involve dismemberment or its counterpart, reconstruction of corporeal fragments. Harvey Lothringer did not seek to create or control life, exactly, but he was caught in a web of laws and institutions which tried to do so. And when something went wrong—when Barbara died—he went berserk.
• • •
He uses a scalpel and power saw to dismember the body; some sources report the use of a hatchet. It takes hours, and there are massive amounts of blood. Some body parts he flushes down the toilet; smaller segments are ground up in the kitchen garbage disposal.
Meanwhile, around 10:00 that Sunday morning, Rose and Dominick meet up at Grand Central Station. They stare at each other.
Instead of returning home to Pelham Manor, they hurry back to Queens. No one’s answering the door. Harvey (and Theresa?) may still be dismembering the body, or at least cleaning up. They may be quietly packing. But we do know they are still hanging around because the next day—Monday, June 4—before fleeing the country, Harvey brings his two German shepherds to the home of his neighbor, George Harchack, a New York City cop, asking him to watch the dogs for a few days. He also asks George to call Roto-Rooter sewer service to flush out his system. He gives him the key to his house. Would he please let them in?
Is Harvey thinking that pumping out the system will prevent discovery? Is he simply stupid? Or insane? Months later, he will testify that he doesn’t remember what happened in the hours following Barbara’s death, but he will also tell my father he disposed of the body so that Theresa wouldn’t be implicated. Preparing to flee, he instructs Theresa: “Trust me, and follow me without asking questions.”
Later that same day—Monday—Dominick and Rose return again to Harvey’s house, finding patients lined up outside a locked door. Though terrified to notify the police, realizing they’ve participated in a crime, they finally report Barbara missing. Late that night, the police come to my house to question my father. They’ve learned he’s been Harvey’s attorney regarding several criminal and domestic matters. I listen to the deep voices in the front hall from the doorway of my ground-floor bedroom. I’m eleven years old.
Harchack does what Harvey had asked and calls Roto-Rooter. On Tuesday, June 6, the sewer service shows up at 185-01 Union Turnpike. Harchack gives the key to Robert Busch, one of the men on the team of technicians, who unlocks the door and goes inside. He finds a gushing toilet, pink water rising and spilling over the rim. Downstairs in the basement, the same tinted water covers the concrete floor. Leaking drainpipes, once opened, reveal clumps of pink debris. The same gruesome remains are discovered in the sewer drain a few feet from the house, which is beginning to overflow into the street. Harchack calls the police, who come immediately with detectives. Once they realize they’re dealing with human remains, they open the sewer lines around the house—pulling and sifting, wrapping samples in foil and labeling them, working through the following day.
The solid chunks eventually recovered are no larger than a few inches. Parts of the head will be found intact. Dental records—some teeth still lodged in the jawbone—will provide positive identification. Dominick will also identify fragments of Barbara’s clothing, including pieces of her skirt and a girdle.
A girdle? At five months of pregnancy? On the way to an abortion at two in the morning?
• • •
The FBI issues an all-points bulletin as the police search for Harvey and Theresa, who have fled to Canada, crossing from Detroit into Windsor, Ontario in a taxicab carrying about $10,000.00 in cash. From there, they fly to France and settle in Andorra, a tiny principality between France and Spain, high in the Pyrenees. With no extradition treaty between Andorra and the United States, Harvey hopes he’ll be safe. He’s rented a cottage from Andorra’s mayor, and he and Theresa plan to remain there indefinitely. But in the back of his mind, he later tells my father, Harvey believes he’ll be found.
Indeed, on September 10, Harvey is arrested by French security and brought to Perpignan—or, as my father, identified in the papers as Moses M. Falk, argues, he was kidnapped and brought illegally over the border to France. The next day, while Harvey remains in prison, Philip Chetta, Assistant District Attorney from New York, flies to Paris to meet with my father and begin the extradition process. Harvey’s taken to another prison in Montpellier, where the conditions, according to my father, are horrific.
He’s kept in solitary confinement in an ancient dungeon. The cell has no light and a mere slit on the ceiling for air. My father cries out to the press and to the French government about the lack of humanity and justice, demanding that an international tribunal be convened. The French authorities respond, “That’s not the way we do it in this country.” Harvey is eventually denied legal counsel and told that he may not see Theresa until he signs a confession, which he does while Theresa waits outside the prison. My father is enraged. The New York Mirror reports on September 5, “Moses M. Falk … said the doctor made a ‘false confession’ about the fatal abortion to keep his Cuban girl friend … from committing suicide.”
• • •
A bizarre drama, for sure, with parallels in myth and legend. During their three months hiding in Andorra, for example, Harvey and Theresa lived under an insanely audacious alias: Dr. and Mrs. Victor Reys. Reys evokes “King.” Equally important, the flight to the mountains as well as the name Victor is reminiscent of the Frankenstein story. But if Harvey’s footsteps trace those of the mad doctor, who then is his monster?
Since Frankenstein’s publication in 1818, the name of the scientist-creator has become conflated in popular culture with the name of his creation. Similarly, through the desecration of Barbara’s body and the destruction of the fetus, Harvey and Barbara share the identity of monster-destroyer: the doctor destroyed both mother and child, but some would argue that Barbara-the-mother also destroyed her child. Was she not only a fallen woman, but a monster as well?
Surely Barbara is at the center of this story, but curiously, the papers say very little about her. She’s described generically as a “pretty coed,” a sophomore at the College of New Rochelle. The focus was always on Harvey and the sensational nature of the story, the details of which I couldn’t avoid. When the story broke and my father became active in the case, I was given a task: cutting out news articles and photos and taping them on 8.5 by 11 paper, with the headline, date, and photos neatly arranged. One article, from The Long Island Daily Press on June 4, 1962, quotes several of Harvey’s patients: “There’s nobody like him.” “He saved my husband’s life.” “He was a very kind man.” “To know him was to love and respect him.” “I would do anything to help the man, because he did everything to help us.” The article also quotes a college student who begs for mercy for Harvey, insisting that the world must understand Harvey and what happened. She said she was indebted to him, that it would be wrong to condemn “an emotionally unstable doctor who perhaps felt he could help this girl.”
Emotionally unstable? What, I wondered, does emotionally unstable mean? Harvey was not just my father’s client. He was a family friend, my family’s doctor, my doctor. I was chronically ill as a child with an undiagnosed auto-immune disease. A few days before Barbara died, I was on that table.
It soon became clear to my eleven-year-old mind that the hush surrounding Barbara—which eventually became stony silence—had to do with something really bad that she had done. There was religious condemnation in the air, reinforcing what I’d already absorbed about good girls and bad girls and sex. Unwed mothers were tramps. Did Barbara wear stockings? Girls who didn’t wear stockings and paraded around in bare legs were tramps. My mother sometimes called my sister Adrienne a tramp. Would Barbara’s fate become hers? Could this happen to me?
Even today, for many people, talking about Barbara, talking about abortion, and the grotesque nature of the disposal of her body, is taboo, even damning. According to several of her classmates with whom I spoke—now in their seventies—in 1962, the faculty and administration of The College of New Rochelle (an all-girls, Catholic college) forbade mention of Barbara’s name and the circumstances of her death. The effects of this silencing were toxic, deep and pervasive. For example, Barbara’s classmate Janice Lyons Decker, a writer now residing on the West Coast, told me that, like many others, she was instructed “not to talk about it.” A few weeks after Barbara’s murder, Decker was gang-raped. Finding herself pregnant, Decker thought, “No legal abortion available. What now? Barbara had been erased with finality. Her death and the ensuing silence was proof that no one would help me.”
Barbara’s story can be found only in silence, in shreds. Like Frankenstein’s monster, her ghost roams the arctic of our indifference.
But it’s a story—politically threatening though it may be—that I am determined to retrieve and piece together. A blend of public history and personal memory, it requires me to “dive into the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich puts it, of history, myth, and gender politics. What gets dredged up from a collective unconscious are images, symbols, and archetypes—universal myths that both reflect and help make sense of the horrific and bizarre. Here, in this collective memory, one finds universal fascination with and abhorrence of physical dismemberment. One also finds sources of female integrity and power.
One version of a Hindu creation myth, for example, recounts the story of the goddess Shakti, who was cut up into more than fifty pieces by the warrior god Indra. Each piece became its own beneficent creative force in the place where it landed. These sites, scattered throughout India and known as Shakti Peethas, are where Shakti is worshipped today. Through rituals of cohesion, the parts are unified into one divine creative force. I imagine each piece, rooted in its own fertility site, connecting with the others below the surface. Like a root system of trees, or brightly burning stars connected in a fiery constellation.
More familiar to westerners, perhaps, is the Egyptian goddess Isis, married to her brother-king Osiris. Osiris is murdered by his brother Set, who dismembers the body, scattering the parts throughout the world. Riddled with grief, Isis roams the earth, searching for the parts. She finds them and puts them together—or, rather, she finds all the parts except the penis, which she fabricates anew and attaches to the reassembled body. She then has sex with him, becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a son, Horus. There’s more to this story than the prototype of the dildo and magical sex: Osiris becomes the archetype of the resurrected god, prefiguring Christ, while Isis is worshipped as a fertility goddess.
If Isis was so venerated for her reproductive power, where then did fear and its offshoot, misogyny, come from?
A Persian myth of the creation of the world, recounted by psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, provides insight: “[A] woman creates the world, and she creates it by the act of natural creativity, which is hers and which cannot be duplicated by men. She gives birth to a great number of sons. The sons, greatly puzzled by this act, which they cannot duplicate, become frightened. They think, ‘Who can tell us that if she can give life, she cannot also take life.’ And so, because of their fear of this mysterious ability of woman, and of its reversible possibility, they kill her.”
Even when women are not literally killed, their sexual and reproductive power is often controlled or “girdled” while patriarchy explores alternate means of procreation. For women to regain control of reproduction, they must first reclaim control of themselves. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother, asserted in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.”
Barbara’s is a story of a young woman’s powerlessness. The image of a nineteen-year-old woman, pregnant and bound in a girdle, escorted by her parents to a backstreet abortion arranged by her father—this alone speaks volumes. In my forays behind the silence and silencing of the story, I find scant though telling descriptions of a young woman who seemed to live behind the scenes, ushered through life by one patriarchal institution after another. She was described to me by her former classmates as a “chubby” and “mousy” girl, who spoke softly and gently the few times she did speak. As a commuter, she didn’t hang around campus and get to know the other students. In his memoir, Milton Helpern called her “poor, fat, unfortunate Barbara,” noting that she was “obese” at 150 pounds and that Harvey had to cut through layers of fat. Girls and women, both then and now, are prompted to be beautiful, thin, and quiet, often subject to physical and social forms of girdling and silencing.
I learned the most about what might have happened to Barbara before her fateful abortion when I interviewed the three Cole siblings: Cybil, Martin and Mindy, children of Dominick Lorumento’s pharmaceutical business partner Benjamin Cole (of Dominick, Rogg and Cole). The two families were extremely close, and it was in the Cole home that the Lofrumentos sought shelter from the media when the news broke. According to Martin, Barbara was “conservative, quiet, and demure,” and because Barbara seemed so prim and proper, a good Catholic girl, “no one,” he says, “expected this kind of scandal. She certainly didn’t look like a party girl.” Cybil, however, does recall a party. She says Barbara didn’t want to go but was pressured by friends. At the party, she was given a drink laced with a drug, and then “something happened.” Then again, several newspapers report the presence of a boyfriend who offered to marry Barbara. The Lofrumentos and the boyfriend’s parents apparently met “to discuss the matter” and decided against it. Finally, there were rumors that a priest was involved.
The question remains: what did Barbara want?
• • •
Unanswered questions, horrific images—they burned themselves into my psyche when I was a child, not only because of my proximity to it all, but due to overlapping violence in my own family and a deep sense of powerlessness in my life. In June 1962, when Barbara was mutilated, I couldn’t speak of my terror. My father was unavailable, high on the publicity the case was bringing him. My mother was stoned; Harvey was the first of several doctors to prescribe addictive, personality-altering drugs for her, which eventually led to even stronger pain medication, shots of Demerol, suicide attempts, shock treatments, rages, rants, and beatings.
I recall one beating in particular, soon after Barbara died. My mother had just finished off the bottle of Dexedrine that Harvey had prescribed, but he was nowhere to be found for a renewal. Out of nowhere, she threw me to the kitchen floor, grabbed my hair, and dragged me through the doorway onto the sidewalk. I could feel the concrete beneath me, its rugged divisions on my spine and neck, banging against my head; the tight pull of my hair on my scalp. I shut my eyes against the bright sun and blurred landscape. Most of all, I recall frozen terror laced with awe and deep understanding of my mortality. I would die. This woman was capable of making that happen. She had that power. I wanted it for myself.
I mark this as the time I began to hate. It’s a progressive feeling, formed by powerlessness, fear, and rage, which ultimately leads to the desire to control. While cutting and piecing together the news articles for my father, silently identifying with the young woman who died on the same table on which I had recently been examined, a dam broke open, flooding my mind with intolerable images. Conflating the violence I perceived in the news and at home, I created what I believed to be a “wall” of protection and control. But it was actually a deceptively safe, icy distance from others.
The result was painful isolation. I’d peer into other people’s lives and homes, seeking warmth and love—though the nature of love was a source of confusion. Certainly, whatever love had been in Barbara’s life brought her to a terrible end. And in my own home, I witnessed my mother’s unconcealed love affairs, many of them with doctors. I also knew about her unwanted pregnancy and the illegal abortion Harvey had given her. My father was aware of this, too, as he was of the beatings and emotional abuse. He blamed it on the drugs, and whenever I approached him, insisting he do something, he’d reply, “She’s still your mother.” Like thin squares of colored glass, the images overlapped: Harvey, my mother, sex, abortions, my father, abandonment, law, Barbara, beatings, monsters, murder, the table, my body, the cutting, the knife.
Today, in my sixties, I have choices. I can keep silent—about abortion, about what happened in 1962, about the dysfunction of my family. But over the years, I’ve come to foster compassion for those who’ve been silenced. Barbara. People living in conditions—geographic and political—where to speak would mean suffering or death, where to breathe toxic air too deeply would fill the soul with pain. Survival often means remaining quiet. I know this. Have been. Silent. Much of my life.
Or I can speak up. I can speak for Barbara and those who have been denied autonomy, dignity, and safety.
In so doing, however, I risk becoming my own kind of “mad scientist” or manipulative creator. It’s like pasting up those news articles, determined to tape Barbara together. Piecing together stories, words, ideas, I often feel like Isis assembling the fragments of Osiris. It’s a creative process that carries within it the seeds of arrogance and the illusion of control. I am no goddess, and I must take responsibility for what I create, must remain vigilant and humble in both my work and relationships. At times frustrated, enraged, or in pain, I could morph into a monster, lash out at others over whom I ostensibly have power: my children, my students, my dog. I wouldn’t need sophisticated, futuristic technology. I wouldn’t need bionics or genetic manipulation. I could merely let hatred rule compassion, and with lightning speed, abandon or abuse others.
Sometimes I sleep in fits and bursts, rankled by the industry of dreams. Perhaps I have a genetic disposition toward violence; maybe I’ve internalized it through the events, circumstances, and monsters of my childhood. For many of us, monstrosities constantly infiltrate our imaginations, intensified these days by our current political climate: the planet cracking with abuse; informational bombardment; the increasing scarcity of dignity, intelligence, and compassion. I ask this: if peace is not possible, is there such a thing as grace? In my struggle to understand, I feel more connected to humanity than ever.