Taking the Trade

Gravestone carving image
About the Site

The year is 1742 and the place is Pomfret, Connecticut. Sarah Grosvenor’s wooing by Amasa Sessions has gone awry. Sarah is pregnant but Amasa is reluctant to marry her. At Amasa’s insistence, Sarah has taken a powdered abortifacient (which her friends call “taking the trade”) and has allowed a local doctor to perform an abortion using a metal instrument. Sarah dies shortly afterwards of a uterine infection at age nineteen.  These events are whispered about locally at the time, and three years later lead to an unusual criminal prosecution (the first one we know of in any British North American jurisdiction) for an abortion performed by a physician.

This website allows viewers to read the rich set of surviving documents about this case. These consist of depositions—testimony given by witnesses—and indictments. Through them we can explore the mental world, speech patterns, religious understandings, fears, and self-justifications of Amasa, Sarah (as recalled by others), the physician John Hallowell, and their youthful accomplices, friends, and family members.

We include other aids for interpreting the case: nutshell biographies of principal characters, a timeline of the courtship, pregnancy, and abortion and the complex legal proceedings that followed. We also include a map and photographs of the Pomfret countryside today and of Sarah’s and Amasa’s gravestones which stand only 25 feet apart.

This website complements a scholarly article written by historian and site co-author Cornelia Hughes Dayton, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 48 (1991), 19-49. Teachers, students, and viewers who use this website are encouraged to email Prof. Dayton with suggestions for site future enhancements (at cornelia.dayton@uconn.edu).

Page created: May 18, 2007; last modified Jan 1, 2009





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