name='keywords'/> Boomer, Sooner and Johnny-Come-Lately: The History of Norman Oklahoma: September 2016


Monday, September 12, 2016

The Death of Marian Mills, 1932 University of Oklahoma Campus Beauty Queen.

On July 10th, 1934, University of Oklahoma student, Marian Mills, died in the apartment of Mrs. Hazel Brown, cook for Delta Upsilon’s fraternity. Marian’s death resulted from a botched abortion. On July 13th, a murder warrant was issued for Neal Myers, University of Oklahoma pharmacy student. The murder of Marian Mills made sensational headlines in newspapers across the country, where articles described Marian as a beauty queen and most popular girl on campus.  The Lewiston Evening News headlined “Most Beautiful Co-Ed.” Evidently actor Frederic Marsh traveled to the University of Oklahoma to bestow such an honor on Marian. Ms. Mills was also the daughter of university professor, Albert Mills.

Marian Mills’s abortion was not an anomaly for the 1930s; abortions were at an all time high during the economic depression. Oklahoma specifically had a high abortion rate. In 1938, Mrs. Virgil Brown of the Maternal Health Center in Oklahoma City claimed that there were most likley12, 936 abortions in Oklahoma City that year. She arrived at these figures in a rather unscientific way. She claimed that of the 654 women who used her clinic, 213 had 371 abortions. She calculated that there were 22,000 childbearing women in Oklahoma City. By using her ratio, she concluded that there must have been 12, 936 city abortions.  Regardless of Mrs. Brown’s unsubstantiated mathematical approach to the problem, other sources indicated a high number of abortions preformed on Oklahoma City women.

In early America, following the principles of federalism, abortion laws and issues of women’s health resided in the states. Even though there was an increase in federal influence in the 1930s, states kept their power over women’s health. Typically, states still followed the practices of English common law set forth in the English colonies that rendered women’s right to an abortion as legal. The rule used in common law was called the “quickening rule,” where it was thought that a fetus could not be aborted after quickening, or the first movement of the fetus.  This rule was made into American law starting in Connecticut in 1821, when the state made it a crime to abort after quickening. Other states followed changing the laws to criminalize before quickening. States continued to “tweak” the abortion law and in 1916, New York State made it criminal for attempting an abortion, even if the women involved was not pregnant. Oklahoma altered the law to state that the women involved in an abortion had to be pregnant. So, the issue of abortion, as stated in English common law, was rewritten over time in the states to mean different things but as the laws evolved, each state took a harsher stand and criminalized the act.  The reason varied to why in the early 19th century abortion became a crime. One principal reason was the high mortality figures for women who had abortions; the safety of the medical procedure for abortion varied and many women died under unsterile and unsafe procedures by many incompetent abortionists.

Because abortion was a crime in Oklahoma in the 1930s, women who sought abortion did so by the “back alley” method.  Abortion was a lucrative business for doctors and others who performed the procedure. Statistics show that women of every social stratum turned to abortion in the 1930s for unwanted pregnancies; especially women who could not afford one more child to feed or clothe.  Case studies verify the reason for some women’s decision to seek an abortion. One woman indicated that she had eight children and her husband made $60.00 a month. Another women with 4 children sought an abortion because her husband had tuberculosis; he worked for the Federal Works Projects Administration.  And, a farmer’s wife, with 11 children, had had 3 abortions.  The economy was certainly a factor in the rise of abortions in the 1930s. But, it is also clear that there were a variety of other reasons for women to abort unwanted pregnancies.

Campus beauty queen Marian Mills had just broken off her engagement to Bernard Doud, former University of Oklahoma Engineering student, who lived in Shreveport Louisiana.  She started to date University of Oklahoma pharmacy student, Neal Myers. Friends, in newspaper interviews, related that Marian and Neal were just casual acquaintances.  Regardless, Marian Mills was pregnant. She had sought the advice of a doctor, who indicated he did not think she was pregnant. Marian believing that she was pregnant; after more test, the doctor finally confirmed what Marian had feared. Neal Myers was the purported father of her baby. Marian had stated to Mrs. Brown, in whose apartment Marian sought refuge, “that her people would not accept Myers” indicating her only course was to abort the fetus. Neal Myers was from Enid Oklahoma, where his father was a physician.  

Marian did not seek a back alley abortion, her method was to self-induced an abortion. Marian and Neal asked Mrs. Brown if they could stay the night at her apartment.    Marian had told her parents that she was attending a friend’s party in Tulsa. The couple told Mrs. Brown that they were married, although they did not share the same bedroom at Mrs. Brown’s apartment. It would later be determined that they were not married. The next day after Mrs. Brown left the apartment to run errands, Marian became ill and passed out. Neal quickly called Dr. E. F. Stephans, but by the time the doctor arrived, Marian had died.  Neal, however, did not wait for the doctor to arrive. After he called Stephans, his impulse was to make a quick retreat; he got in his car and drove out of state.  Meanwhile, the Cleveland County district attorney, Paul Updegraff, believed that Myers was responsible for a botched abortion resulting in the death of Marian Mills; he issued a murder warrant for the arrest of Neal Myers.   

Neal Myers drove from Norman to Houston, Texas. While in Texas he learned that Marian had died and that he was wanted for her murder. His plan was to find work on a ship headed to South American, but in the end he decided to go to Denver. From Denver, he contacted a Lawyer in Enid, who traveled to Denver to bring Myers back to Norman to face charges.  Myer’s trial was booked as the “trail of the century” and newspapers across the country kept their readers up to date on all sensational aspects. The trial started on September 4th, 1934.  Seventy men were called to jury duty; three quarters of them were farmers. For all five days of the trial, it was standing room only in the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman. District Attorney Updegraff demanded that the laws against abortion in Oklahoma be enforced. Both the prosecution and defense asked doctors to examine Marian Mills so as to determine cause of death. The prosecution called three expert witnesses; the three had a difficult time ascertaining that Neal Myers caused Marian’s death.   It was, perhaps, Mrs. Brown’s testimony, for the prosecution, that helped the defense win the case. She testified, “the youth never wanted an operation performed on the girl. He didn’t want her to do that to herself.” Mrs. Brown also related that Marian had been taking a “quack” medication. The jury deliberated for four hours before finding Neal Myers not guilty.

Marian Mills was one of several University of Oklahoma coeds, who made headlines because their deaths followed an abortion.  In April 1932, Virginia Lee Wyekoff, 21, had died after obtaining an abortion from Dr. Eisiminger. Also in 1932, Mrs. Frank Lee, 17, the wife of an University of Oklahoma football star, died of an abortion performed by Dr. Richard E. Thacker. Even though the Lees’ were married, the young couple thought that if their parents knew that they were expecting a baby, the parents would have the marriage annulled.  Both Eisiminger and Thacker were indicted for the murder of eight women in April of 1932 who had received an abortion by the hands of these men.

In the 1930s, the medical procedure practiced to induce an abortion was a simple catheter with a wire, the wire was to puncture the womb and start the abortion. Women in Dr. Thacher’s and Eisiminger’s care stated before they died that the instruments used on them by the doctors were not sterilized. After the “surgeries,” the good doctors sent the women to a designated home, where a woman took care of them until the fetus aborted. It was not yet common practice in the 1930s for doctors to treat patients through blood infusions or through the treatment with anti-biotic.  Along with the indictment of Thacher and Eisiminger for running, what the Daily Oklahoman called an “Abortion Mill,” a Mrs. Lena Griffin, also known as Mrs. E.B. Smith, and her assistant, Mrs. Pearl Green, were charged as aiding in the practice of abortion. Both doctors send their abortion patients to Mrs. Griffin’s home.  Griffin allowed that she received $550.00 a week for her services. She charged $50 to $70 per patient. One patient, Helen Friend, a 16 year old chamber maid claimed Mrs. Griffin was the one performing the abortions. By newspaper accounts, it appears that all were involved in the “abortion ring.”

The University of Oklahoma was forced to “handle” the abortion deaths of university coeds because of the adverse publicity garnered from the incidences. The university set up a Discipline Committee, whose goal it was to look into the conditions at the school that perhaps fostered an environment that ultimately caused their deaths.  An editorial in the Daily Oklahoman September 6th, 1934 also sought to explain the death of Marian Mills. The writer addressed the sensational aspects of the murder trail and the details surrounding Marian’s death.  He believed it was sensational because Marian sought to “avoid motherhood.” The editorial maintained that Marian, Neal Myers, and their parents were all on trail and condemned in the public mind in “every county in the state, in cities, towns and tiny hamlets, at the crossroads and in farm homes.”  The author believed that there was a lot that society could do to remedy the high abortion rate. He stated that society could ease the economic burden of marriage and to “treat sex in a lot more rational manner that it was treated thus far.”

The Marian Mills murder case has faded from history. It was only by happenstance that I found a picture of the prosecutors from the District Attorney’s office sitting at their table during the murder trial. On the back of the photograph, which was from the AP Chicago Bureau, was the a identification of the men at the prosecution table and that “They are prosecuting Neal Myers, young student at the University of Oklahoma, on trail for murder in the death of Marian Mills, 19-year old campus Queen, who died following an attempt to avert motherhood.”

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