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Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones Trials: 1890 & 1892

Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones Trials:
1890 & 1892

Defendants: Mary Amanda Dixon Jones, Charles Dixon Jones
Crimes Charged: Manslaughter, medical malpractice
Chief Defense Lawyer: Richard S. Newcombe
Chief Prosecutor: James A. Ridgway
Judge: Willard Bartlett
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Date of Trial: February 17, 1890-February 23, 1890
Verdict: Mary Amanda Dixon Jones: not guilty; Charles Dixon Jones: directed acquittal
Libel case Jones v. Brooklyn Eagle, February-March 1892 Defendant: Brooklyn Eagle
Plaintiff: Mary Amanda Dixon
Jones Plaintiff Claim: $150,000
Chief Defense Lawyer (for Eagle ): Mr. Dykman
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Charles A. Jackson
Judge: Willard Bartlett
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Date of Trial: February 1-March 12, 1892

SIGNIFICANCE: The trials of Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones focused attention on the state of surgical practice, the role of women in medicine and the professions more generally, issues of class and status, and the power of the popular press to focus public concern on scandals.

Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones had established the first women's hospital in Brooklyn, New York, when it was still a separate city, proud of its reputation as a family-oriented, churchgoing pure city in contrast to crime-ridden New York. Middle-class women in Brooklyn participated actively in charitable activities and were avid readers of newspapers.

In 1889, the daily Brooklyn Eagle launched a series of articles denouncing the medical practice of Dr. Dixon Jones, claiming her malpractice amounted to manslaughter in several cases. Further, the articles claimed that she conducted experiments on helpless women, unnecessarily removing organs for her own scientific study. The paper charged her with secretly concealing deaths at her hospital, mismanaging funds at the hospital, and mishandling surgical practice so badly that many of her patients were rendered incapable of having children, were disfigured, or died as a result.

The sensational series of articles soon led a competing newspaper, the Citizen, to publish a set of countercharges. That newspaper claimed the Eagle simply sought to discredit a decent woman and a leading physician in order to increase circulation and to create scandal where none existed.

The newspaper crusade evoked many themes current in the popular mind of the 1880s and 1890s in the United States. Medical practice and surgery was evolving, but public faith in medicine was shaky. Women entered medical practice in fairly large numbers in the late nineteenth century, leading to very mixed feelings. On the one hand, the profession appeared to coincide with the popular concept that the female gender was particularly suited to the care-giving nature of medicine. On the other hand, some male doctors and many members of the public regarded female doctors with suspicion. Women in traditionally male roles had to behave with circumspection, maintaining a ladylike demeanor.

Mary Amanda Dixon Jones did not quite conform to that stereotype, with an often abrasive and imperious manner. Furthermore, even her supporters agreed that she did not always communicate well with patients, often failing to explain risks associated with certain procedures.

Able Doctor or "Difficult Woman"?

Born in 1828 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the family of a Methodist minister, Mary Dixon Jones graduated from Wesleyan Female College in Wilmington Delaware, in 1845. She stayed on there and taught physiology and literature for two years and then moved to the Baltimore Female College, and then became principal of a girls' seminary in southern Maryland. She began reading medicine under two doctors, a standard method of medical education in that era. In 1854, she married a lawyer, John Quincy Adams Jones, and the couple lived briefly in Illinois and Wisconsin.

In 1862, Dixon Jones formally studied medicine in New York City, receiving a degree from the Hygeio Therapeutic Medical College. After the Civil War, she settled in Brooklyn and established a small medical practice. In 1872, at the age of 44, Dixon Jones entered Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for a three-year term of study, with special training in surgery. Returning to Brooklyn, she reopened her medical practice and founded the hospital that soon became the center of the newspaper expose.

The Manslaughter Case

In the face of increasing public outcry over the newspaper series, the district attorney brought charges of manslaughter against Dixon Jones and her son, Charles Dixon Jones, in February 1890. She was charged with two manslaughter counts and eight malpractice suits. However, the trial centered around only one of the manslaughter cases, based on an episode reported in the Eagle.

In that case, a woman patient, Ida Hunt, had died after being removed to her home following an operation to remove her diseased ovaries. Her parents, husband and the newspaper claimed that Mrs. Hunt had not desired the operation, and when it was bungled, Dixon Jones prematurely sent her home. The carriage ride home led to her death the next day. In defense, Dixon Jones provided expert witnesses who testified to her medical reputation and education, to the standards of medicine at the time, and to the fact that Mrs. Hunt suffered a diseased set of ovaries from a venereal infection caught from her husband. Further witnesses testified that Mrs. Hunt and her husband both insisted on her removal from the hospital. So if her short stay and trip home contributed to her death, the decision was not the doctor's but the patient's.

The judge directed the jury to acquit Charles Dixon Jones for lack of evidence early in the trial. The jury returned a not guilty verdict on Mary Dixon Jones. Although Mary Dixon Jones and her husband had lived separately for many years, he attended her manslaughter trial, and then died of heart failure shortly after the verdict was announced.

The Libel Suit

Despite her acquittal, the publicity and the trial had resulted in a decline in Dixon Jones' medical practice, and she decided to bring a libel suit for $150,000 in damages against the Eagle. In light of her earlier acquittal on the manslaughter charges, many observers, including the editors of the Citizen, expected the Eagle to settle out of court. However, the publishers of the Eagle refused to make an offer, and Dr. Dixon Jones refused to drop the libel charge.

The libel case was heard over a period of six weeks in a dreary and freezing courtroom in downtown Brooklyn in February and March 1892. Public attendance at the trial and steady newspaper coverage made the trial a cause celebre. The defense introduced 118 witnesses to confirm the charges that had appeared in the Eagle. By presenting witness after witness who showed that the general thrust of the newspaper's charges had been well-founded, the defense attorneys hoped to convince the 12-man jury that the evidence mitigated any errors in the newspaper charges. That defense would allow the jury to find for a reduced or nominal financial award.

When attorneys for Dixon Jones presented her case, over 69,000 words of printed material was read into the record, a document the size of a short novel, containing the alleged libelous material. Her attorneys again brought expert witnesses who testified to her skill and reputation as a physician. However, when Dixon Jones took the stand, her own testimony worked against her. Her short temper and disregard for the judge's instructions on how to answer questions appeared to confirm to jurors that she was not the motherly, caring doctor that her lawyers had suggested. Quite the oppositeshe appeared calm and unmoved by horrendous testimony of the agonies of former patients. Her apparent arrogance and hostility only strengthened the case of the newspaper's attorneys that she was a "difficult woman," and her manner appeared to work against her with the all-male jury.

After 37 hours of deliberation, the jury rendered a verdict for the newspaper. Although she had been exonerated of the manslaughter charges in her 1890 trial, the effect of the 1892 libel trial was to suggest that the general thrust of the newspaper's charges against her had substance. Her medical practice was destroyed. She retired and moved to New York City with her son, Charles.

Dr. Dixon Jones continued to write, and in 1894, she became an associate editor of the Women's Medical Journal. She died in 1908, at the age of 80.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestion for Further Reading

Regina Morantz-Sanchez. Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn of the Centuty Brooklyn. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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