The Sad Tale of Kate McCormick

This nondescript grave marker belies an intriguing and tragic story.


Abortion in Memphis
The Sad Fate of a Seducer’s Victim
Dr. D. S. Johnson Charged With a Double Murder

This was the title of a Memphis Ledger newspaper report from 1876 which told the sad story of an unwed mother and her aborted baby who was found dead in a boarding house on the corner of Second and Winchester streets in Memphis, Tennessee.

Kate McCormick, pregnant and unwed, was attended by Dr. D. S. Johnson of Jefferson Street, Memphis. Mrs. Widrig (the boarding house owner) became suspicious when a dead child was delivered. Dr. Frayser was called to examine Kate and announced that she was going to die. She then made a confession stating that she had purchased medicine from Dr. Johnson to kill the child.

The Chief of Police reported that the mother stated that her name was Kate McCormick (Kate Simpson) originally from Humboldt, Tennessee. She had been seduced with the promise of marriage by her father’s friend, a shoemaker named George Burgess. When she became pregnant, Burgess had refused to marry her, and she had left her hometown in disgrace and moved to Memphis.

Chief Athy notified Mrs. McCormick but Kate died before her mother arrived. A coroner’s inquest was held and the body released to Kate’s mother for return to Humboldt for burial. The mother refused to inter the body near her home and it was turned over for post mortem.

Dr. Johnson denied the murder and stated that the medicine he had provided was to correct a case of diarrhea. An inquest was held, and the jury found Dr. Johnson guilty of murder by committing an abortion whereupon he was arrested and charged with murder.

Kate’s death was recorded on the first of February and she was buried the same day in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee.  The solitary gravestone is located beneath a large tree. A marker was placed in her memory by an unknown sponsor in 1997. It reads:

Kate McCormick / Seduced and pregnant by her father’s friend / Unwed, she died from abortion, her only choice. / Abandoned in life and death by family. / With but a single rose from her mother. / Buried only through the kindness of an unknown benefactor. / Died February, 1875, age 21. / Victim of an unforgiving society / Have mercy on us.

Although the inscription states that her mother left a rose, it is unlikely due to the fact that she had no wish to take ownership of the body. The interment of Kate was paid for by a newspaper reporter named Fred Brennan and a local saloon owner.

Remember me, my Christian friends,
And, then in charity pray
That God may blot out all my sins
The general judgment day.
With humble prayers then may crave
When you perceive that from my grave
I ask my last request from you
To whom I bid my last adieu.


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