Sixty-four years, seven months, and thirteen days ago a notorious Bay Area abortion provider suicided in a local motel. The event occurred just half a mile from my dingy-but-suburban San Jose apartment. It is there that I am writing this while chugging lukewarm coffee in a pair of paisley joggers. I have propped myself up on my pillows as if my bed were a divan.
Despite the motel’s proximity to my current living quarters and my propensity for neighborhood strolls, I cannot summon the building’s contours in my mind. A quick internet search yields that, in recent history, the motel where Gertrude Jenkins downed her fatal dose of barbiturates had a seedy quality. The walls and floor were so filthy that I had to take the threadbare towel, wet it in the sink, and wash them down, writes one online reviewer. Another reports squashing nine bedbugs over the course of one wakeful night. I would rather sleep in my car, writes a third.
A postcard from Gertrude’s era depicts a sunnier contrasting scene. There’s a cloudless blue sky, windows with coral shutters, and a second story patio featuring crisp broad umbrellas trimmed with large cartoonish flowers. New cars rest in the parking lot, including a snow-colored beauty that my father identifies over text message as a four-door Mercury sedan.
One of San Jose’s and Santa Clara’s Newest and Finest, reads script on the backside of the card. Television. 5 minutes to the heart of San Jose. This use of heart means the central or innermost part of things, and yet, I still envision some pulsating organ. The mere mention of this innard has me thinking of “heartbeat bills.” This new coded language is what anti-abortion activists use to describe legislation that prohibits procedures at as soon as six weeks. Obstetricians remark that, in early pregnancy, embryos do not possess that complex, four-chambered viscera. Instead, an ultrasound picks up an electrical pulse in a speck-size cluster of cells.
When I read how this cluster is the size of a pencil tip, I bolt upright. I swing my legs over the side of my bed-divan, roaming past piles of dirty laundry and cast off work shoes. I meander into my living room, that while tidy, has the stained wall-to-wall carpeting I inherited upon moving in. Whenever I receive visitors, I joke it resembles a crime scene. Next, I extract a well-sharpened golf pencil from a desk drawer. Its color calls forth an emergency: fire engine red. I inspect the pencil point-side up, and hold my balled hand alongside it for scale. My heart, I’ve read on some disproven punk patches, is a muscle that’s fist-size.
[ . . . ]
If I were pregnant in my grandparents’ era, where would I get an abortion?
This is the question that spurs me to scour a newspaper database for stories of illegal operations in my hometown of San Jose.
My research method has some real limitations. For one, it only yields examples of providers who the law marked as criminals. The language that journalists ascribe to them is tough for me to decode. Was Gertrude Jenkins a corrupt entrepreneur who preyed on desperate people or was she a heroine providing much needed care to patients with nowhere to turn? Social mores of the time would have me believe the former, while I’m holding room for some nuance in between.
What’s more: those providers called out in newspapers charged more money than I imagine my blood relations—most of whom were agrarian and cannery workers—would have had access to. Entering these providers’ rates in an online inflation calculator, I find that the going prices were between the equivalent of $3,000 and $6,500 in today’s money. This affirms the point that today’s pro-choice activists keep highlighting: history shows that wealthy people will always have access to abortion, regardless of if it is legal. Journalists label patients as co-eds, divorcees, and housewives. My grandparents were not college-goers of housewife stock, nor did they ever divorce. And so, my progenitors have left much to my imagination.
I do not come from a family that shares their abortion stories. Instead, my relations operate under the improbable notion that no ancestor in our wide Catholic bloodline has ever terminated a pregnancy. Those who predeceased me have taken their secrets to their graves. Living relations who were confidantes have thus far clenched their tight lips. Better a legacy of shotgun weddings and baptismal gowns. Better an inheritance of having to die young during childbirth. Better a birthright of ten or more years of perpetual pregnancy and then your dead husband makes a widow of you. Who knows what portrait might emerge if I knew where to find local elders’ abortion stories: those that do not center the lifestyles of WASPy suburbanites with riches to spare?
And yet, my combing through the database is not for naught.
When I research my hometown, like magic, my viewpoint expands.
I overlay historic thoroughfares with ghosts of Gertrude, and the evolving cast in her surgery ring—sired in the papers as steerers, doctors, and contact men.
I hold space for the unwed teen who, in 1964, ingested faulty abortion pills and landed in an emergency room. She ratted out the auto dealer who sold her the bad medicine, enabling undercover authorities to sting. Lab technicians found that the tablets he dealt her were not made of drugs but of household items like soap and clay. Who pressed the pills the teen once swallowed? Perhaps someone living still knows.
I can imagine some San Mateo County beauty salon workers who a journalist mentions in passing. Following the second world war, they circulated top secret contact information to their clients. The provider, a former Hollywood cameraman with one year of medical school under his belt, ran a curbside abortion service out of the back of a trailer. When salon workers sent him a patient, he kicked down a sizable finder’s fee. I picture long queues of stricken pregnant people, spilling their guts as a knowing stylist arranges their locks into victory rolls or pin curls. I have a guy, the stylist would confide, scrawling his digits on stationery. In 1958, their guy would re-emerge as a partner in what the San Francisco Examiner calls a $1,000 a day “abortion mill”—said to be the most elaborate ever uncovered in the Bay Area. In a rented ranch home, he’d transformed a bedroom into a surgery. The ranch home still stands in Blossom Hill Manor, a residential subdivision on the outskirts of Los Gatos.
The printed address allows me to drive the 8 miles from San Jose through Campbell and into Los Gatos on surface streets. It takes five easy turns: right, right, left, left, right. In my parked car outside of the ranch house, I limit my lingering stares. It is 8:19 a.m. on a Sunday. I should’ve aspired to blend in by squeezing into overpriced athleisure wear while gripping a dog’s leash and a skim milk latte. Instead, I’m a suspect who could be casing the place.
It’s a cinch to locate a photo gallery of the house’s interior on a real estate site. I scroll through the rooms from my driver’s seat while a large crow pecks at the residents’ welcome mat. I admire the bird and its investigative spirit. An estimated three pregnant people per day crossed over the threshold where the winged creature jabs, passing through what one journalist describes as a dark hallway and a thick double door.
I next crack into the story of Luita Mercedes Canelo Simmons, daughter of a once prominent businessman, and great granddaughter of famed San Jose settler John Auzerais. Today there is a downtown avenue named after the Auzerais family. One blogger offers the following pronunciation key: “aw” rhymes with “saw,” and zer-ay-us rhymes with “betray us.” Did Luita’s blood relations perceive her chosen profession as a betrayal? When I address tarot asking for clarity, the card that I draw is JUDGMENT.
Owing to Luita’s socialite status, it is simple for me to construct her family tree from newspaper clippings and records in an ancestry database. From there, I locate her surviving ascendants on social media: a grandson and his brood of children who live in Las Vegas. In two distinct portraits, taken years apart, the whole family smiles in identical American flag t-shirts. I message the grandson and his daughter, skimming through her modeling portfolio on Instagram. Only his daughter replies. I am not sure if the person you are looking for is even in my family tree, she DMs me. From what I was told, I did have a history of grandmothers who did do abortions. I’m willing to help you, but I need to know what is your goal?
She tells me how Luita, known as Rusty to her kin, was an advocate for safe and legal abortions. My great grandma was willing to help any girl in need, she says. She was trying to get them out of sticky situations rather than just having the money.
In 1947, officers questioned Luita about her ties to a curb service abortion racket that Gertrude ran alongside Alta Anderson and May Rodley, a mother-daughter pair. The operations took place in a swank colonial home in Colma. Their process went something like this. Patients waited on pre-arranged street corners for drivers to fetch them in a limousine. Next, the drivers would deposit them at the impressive mansion, which the providers had camouflaged with FOR SALE signs. Once inside, patients went down a long hall leading to a raised surgery with an operating table. Neighbors thought the frequent visitors were potential home buyers. But local police had received a strange tip, and unbeknownst to the providers, surveillance cameras were capturing incriminating “motion pictures” of the patients’ comings and goings. Years later, in 1959, Luita would confess to performing five abortions in a three bedroom, two bath house that she rented in Millbrae. She didn’t perform the abortions, Luita’s great granddaughter corrects. She assisted in them. As for what accounts for this discrepancy in the paper, Luita’s ascendants can only speculate.
Do you believe in spirits and demons? Or bad energies? She asks me.
Yes, I say. I do.
We discuss how the influx of patients’ in distress may have left a residue on the dwellings where providers then worked. I wonder if the people who live in those houses now feel any energy or vibes, I DM her. Like how some people don’t like to be in hospitals. It’s interesting that they are suburban houses, and I wonder if the current residents know about what happened in them.
I am wary to suggest that what lingers from the surgeries is greater than the trauma that accrues in any medical center, or any home for that matter.
If I could ask Luita a question I’d pose: what feelings did you soothe in those rooms?
[ . . . ]
While suturing the chronology of Gertrude Jenkins’ death, I am drawn on repeat to one sentence from the San Francisco Examiner.
A motel clerk, who earlier had observed her seated near a window, found her lying on the floor shortly after noon.
It is the window scene that spellbinds me.
What was Gertrude contemplating on that cool Saturday morning?
What landscape did she gaze upon and what figures did she see?
Was she so ensconced in the wounds of her circumstances that the passersby became a blur?
All I know for certain is this: having weighed all the options before her, our Gertrude chose death.
Having offered respite to so many humans in peril, Gertrude had no haven herself.
[ . . . ]
On a table near Gertrude’s dead body, the motel clerk found a bottle of heart stimulant tablets with the note in case of illness, notify Bert Haley. Haley, a local bar owner and Gertrude’s son-in-law, was her co-defendant in an abortion case for which she was set to stand trial in two days. Her daughter Della Haley and as many as five others were under suspicion for having formed a major illegal surgery ring. The charge against the group stemmed from an abortion received by a young divorcee at a Los Gatos home. The district attorney reported that they’d performed as many as 800 more abortions for patients from five western states over two years. Another authority named their caseload as half-a-dozen operations a week. Headquartered in the Alum Rock foothills district, they’d allegedly made profits totaling $320,000, or $3M in 2019 dollars.
Upon examining her at San Jose Hospital, attendants said Gertrude died of a heart attack. Police investigators ruled out their theory when they uncovered a bottle in the motel room containing about 50 sedative tablets. Lab tests showed traces of the drug in her bloodstream, and investigators subjected the bottle to exhaustive checks for fingerprints to confirm that her dose had been self-administered. It is unusual to find that many capsules in an unlabeled bottle, said the director of the Santa Clara County laboratory of criminalistics. It is owing to these details—the fingerprints, the capsules, the unlabeled bottle—that I can wonder at Gertrude’s methods. Did she toss back the barbiturates in a gulp like a fistful of cool M&Ms, or did she pass them through her throat’s corridor one by one?
[ . . . ]
One afternoon, I change from my paisley joggers into black jeans and a wrinkled white tee shirt I salvage from my laundry pile. I intend to look incognito, as if my low key detective work will lead neighbors to pause and rewind the footage they collect on their sidewalk-facing home security cameras. As I stroll through my sun dappled suburbs, a cacophonous grouping of crows circles overhead. It goes against my politics, in the context of this essay, to call their wild formation a murder. I am advancing towards the shuttered motel: heart racing. Every time I sleuth near home, I undertake a risk. Whenever I pass the L-shaped building of conjoined rooms, or whatever will come to replace it when bulldozers flatten the structure, I will remember Gertrude’s last gasp.
While walking I reflect on Love with a Proper Stranger, an Oscar-nominated 1963 film that a preteen me once caught while flipping through TV channels in my East San Jose living room. Nature had conspired to make my child body a candidate for maternity clothing at age ten, and so, the topic of pregnancy had a new relevance for me. The then thirty year old film appeared to my eye as some dusty artifact. Maybe today’s adolescents feel similarly about the optics of Dirty Dancing. In the movie’s 102 minute run time, the doe-eyed protagonist Angie, portrayed by Natalie Wood, never once breathes the words pregnant or abortion. When she intercepts Rocky, a past lover, in a crowded union hall she blurts out: I’m going to have a baby! After a pause, she continues: Don’t worry, I’m not going to cause you any trouble. All I want from you is a doctor, an address, you know?
Angie and Rocky are Italian Americans, working class and presumably Catholic. They bear some semblance to my Azorean and Mexican American ancestors, and their coded way of speaking is familiar to me. The National Legion of Decency awarded the film an A rating, lauding it as “having treated touchy subjects in an artistic manner,” and describing it as Morally Unobjectionable for Adults. Had the Legion labeled the film a damning C for Condemned, my Catholic blood relations would be committing a mortal sin just for viewing it. Is The Legion partly to blame for my elders’ inability to say words like vulva or intercourse? The church has freighted even technical terms for the body with hell’s fire and wickedness.
Steps away from Santa Clara University, the St. Francis Motel is an off location for a fleabag. It sits on The Alameda, a mansion-lined avenue with dark ties to 18th century settler colonialism. It is one mile down the same road from our local Planned Parenthood, where I am often afraid I’ll see my churchgoing relatives among the anti-abortion demonstrators. It stands near a popular sandwich shop boasting a signature “dirty sauce” and subs named for sports icons and the founders of Apple and Bank of America. I wend through seas of inhabitants who did not here roam in her lifetime: techies on their lunch breaks. Catching a glimpse of my uncombed bob in a store window, I reflect that I am not incognito. Incognito would be something more kempt, with a lanyard and swipe badge slung around my neck like a noose.
That evening, I head to a talk by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. During the Q&A, a person with a quavering voice asks her how do you unlearn shame? Leah responds that you honor it. She says shame is a survival mechanism, and many humans have survived by hiding. She encourages her inquirer to ask two self-directed questions: How has shame kept you alive? How has shame kept your ancestors alive?
Driving home, I pause to buy cheap burritos from a drive through window at my neighborhood strip mall. I flip a right onto the Alameda. When I pass the shut-down St. Francis Motel, I again think of Gertrude. I am startled to note a lit neon sign above the entry blinking OPEN. What the actual fuck, I think to myself, and the stifled lapsed Catholic in me makes a frantic sign of the cross. On instinct I kiss my thumb’s knuckle, a gesture my forebears referred to as kissing the feet of Jesus.
To perform this deferential action is a kind of self-betrayal, and the sensation that skewers through me is shame.
[ . . . ]
Convalescent in my empty apartment, I rewatch the near miss abortion scene in Love with the Proper Stranger. When Angie arrives in a tenement hallway, she wears kitten heels, a boxy overcoat, and a white chiffon kerchief. A detective-bride hybrid, it is as if she’s advancing towards a chapel or a crime scene. Corridors are a theme in illegal abortion stories: the proverbial back alley, slim passages in suburban split-levels, and halls in vacant big city rooming houses.
The chill air makes Angie’s breath cloud. A coarse woman in a hooded coat ushers her into an unfurnished room, instructing her to take off her clothes. Come on, hurry up, get undressed, she says. Which human’s lived experiences inspired the screenwriter, a cis man, to pen this rough scene?
Angie’s disrobing feels slo-mo: interminable. She removes in succession her kerchief, her overcoat, her kitten heels. She slides the narrow belt from her microscopic waist, draping it over the radiator. Meanwhile, the coarse woman is unceremonious. She thrusts a hospital gown on a mat on the floor, and extracts shiny instruments from a worn suitcase. She snaps on a single white surgical glove. Angie is down to her half slip when a fired up Rocky busts through the door: aborting the procedure. He too wears a single glove: a shiny black leather one. What the fuck is up with these gloves? I think as I push down the space bar, sitting pin straight in my bed sheets.
I imagine that a 1963 viewer finds Rocky’s outburst dreamy, even as Angie screams and attempts to pull free from him. He slaps her with his freshly bared glove hand, that outmoded remedy to calm a stressed woman’s shot nerves. He refuses to free her from his grip. She relents to his macho embrace and we, the audience, know that she’s done for.
I am unsure what proximity this scene bears to the unsafe scenarios some pregnant people found themselves subjected to mere decades before I was born. I only know that the framing of Angie’s experience feels harmful.
Twelve movie minutes before the near miss abortion scene, Angie dismisses sex as overrated. We learn she got herself into trouble on her first time. All I felt was just scared and disgusted with myself, she reveals. This scene signals to the viewer that Angie is a Good Girl. For one desperate moment, she was indiscrete. She sought out a spark and found trauma.
Don’t take it personal, she adds for the benefit of a put out Rocky whose masculine prowess she has injured. He slouches and slumps in his swivel chair. She expresses the film’s title sentiment: she’s passing time awaiting the stranger who’ll one day sweep her of her feet and haul her to the altar. Of people who live alone she says: they have those glassy eyes, nothing’s living in ‘em. I haven’t had a housemate in years. Like Rocky, I take it personal. It strikes me that I, an unmarried person upwards of thirty, am in the throes of the future that Angie is rankling against.
[ . . . ]
Having been convicted of abortion in 1948 in San Francisco, Gertrude Jenkins was on parole from a term at Tehachapi Women’s Prison. Mrs. Jenkins [ . . . ] has been in and out of trouble with authorities since 1943, writes one Oakland Tribune journalist, when she was acquitted of murder in the death of a Redwood City housewife. Irene Hafford, age 37, was found dead in a basement apartment in San Francisco that Gertrude Jenkins then occupied. Journalists rename Gertrude as Nurse Jenkins, despite her fishy insistence that Irene had wandered to her apartment at random and, upon ringing the bell, asked to occupy a guest room on account of feeling faint. She said she did not know the circumstances of Irene’s death. She only knew that Irene reclined on her davenport at 8:30 p.m., and by 1:30 a.m. Gertrude found she was lifeless. A journalist in the Oakland Tribune describes Irene Hafford as well dressed.
When police inspected the apartment, they discovered it had a kind of hospital atmosphere. There were six guest bedrooms. Above each bed: a buzzer. They found nine cases of bottled “women’s antiseptic” and heaps of gauze and cotton. Police inspectors suggested that Gertrude Jenkins may have arranged to remove other medical equipment from the place before calling an ambulance. Gertrude informed the inspectors that the supplies they’d uncovered were for her own personal use. She maintained that her establishment was a guest house for transients. Police next transferred Gertrude to the city prison. One local journalist noted that she passed time in her cell by reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales and Poems of Mystery and Imagination. Another notes that Gertrude’s guest house had once been a vice resort, which is old-timey slang for a brothel. Her interest in the macabre, along with her home’s checkered history, lend her a sinister air.
Autopsy reports showed that Irene passed away from an infection following an abortion. Her husband—a PG&E lineman—confirmed that she’d gone to San Francisco seeking the operation, for which they’d taken out a bank loan. Her elder teenage daughter overheard her discussing the treatment on the phone. It was this daughter who drove her father to identify the body; a journalist quotes her as saying that daddy was too nervous. Meanwhile, the journalist describes the younger daughter as bewildered, scrambling to learn the details of her mother’s death from the newspaper men who remained mum. I contemplate, if only for a moment, what narrative might branch out of this one if I learned Irene’s nonagenarian daughters were still living.
In the end, Gertrude won a direct acquittal verdict because there was insufficient evidence in the case.
No record remains of the hundreds, if not thousands, of pregnant people who Gertrude assisted who went on to live. What became of those humans who stepped back out into the landscape, perhaps feeling lightened with gratitude? What undesired future did Gertrude help spare them from?
[ . . . ]
At 9:19 p.m. the next night, I find myself wending through avenues approaching the shuttered motel. I’ve spent a second evening rewatching Love with the Proper Stranger, awaiting this errand with dread. I want to see with fresh eyes the OPEN sign, cherry as a lit cigarette. I’m in work clothes: black slacks, a black blouse with a cowl, and a red vintage chore coat lined with brown corduroy. I’m skittish as I stroll. Every dim home appears haunted. I’m thinking of Irene Hafford, same age as me, and her last moments on the davenport, defined on Wikipedia as a more formal sofa. What transpired in that basement apartment? Did Gertrude minister to Irene as she passed? Trauma begins before conception, I think, though in my jittery state I’m unsure what it means.
When I veer onto the bustling Alameda, I get lost in a shuffle of coeds from Santa Clara University. Co-eds, I reflect, is an outmoded binary term. I’m relieved to see the glow of the sign from across the street. From the crosswalk I note that the letters spell out a different word than the one I’m expecting: OFFICE. I snap photographs from outside the cyclone fencing, reaching my hands through the slit in the padlocked doors. It is terrifying: like thrusting an arm down a mystery hole. What’s more: the entire building’s lit up, and I wonder if the rooms are empty or if they’re preserved as if ready for lodgers. I think of a ghost town where the whole population evacuated near supper, the dishes still set. Perhaps there are bedside tables with bibles untouched in the drawers, or squatters who make meals for the overpopulation of bedbugs. A couple on a night walk pauses to surveil my activity, and shame creeps up in my body. As I amble away, a person looking down on their luck says excuse me and I instinctively pat down my empty pockets and shrug. There are too many people, they tell me.
Li Patron lives and writes in her hometown of San Jose, CA. Find more of her writing at www.romancingthevoid.com.