This is yet another sad story, so prepare yourself.
It begins in Paris in 1913, just as the premier Raymond Nicolas Landry Poincaré was eradicating dissent from the government, which was less than democratic, while being a total Germanophobe, which was more than useful at the time.
Peter Cooper Hewitt, whose grandfather had filled the family coffers with his work on the steam locomotive, and who himself added to their astonishing wealth by inventing the mercury-vapor lamp, the radio receiver, and the mercury rectifier (which sounds terribly painful to me), had taken the coziness of the Franco-American relationship to a new level, by engaging in an affair with Maryon Andrews Brugiere.
Brugiere, echoing the inseparability of these two great powers, produced a child, Ann Cooper Hewitt, and that is where the happy part of the story ends.
While Ann remembered her father with fondness, describing him as ‘one of the few precious gifts of my life; he was a tall man, very kind and gentle. I think of him walking beside me, suiting his long gait to mine. It seems to me I spent all my happy times with him’, her mother was a different test tube of mercury altogether.
When he died in 1921, Ann’s father left a will describing exactly how he wanted his fifty-five-million-dollar-estate (in 2021 value) divided. While Ann would inherit two-thirds of this fortune, Ann’s mother would only receive one third, a measly eighteen million dollars (in today’s money).
Although faring far better than the wife Hewitt cast aside for her, and who would gain absolutely nothing from her former husband's estate, Brugiere was not happy with this division, and she cried bitter tears all along the Seine for weeks.
But there was a silver lining for the sulking widow.
Hewitt’s will also stipulated that in the event that Ann died without having an heir, Ann’s portion of the inheritance, or what was left of it, would go to Brugiere by default.
Think you can see what's coming next? I think not.
While she certainly enjoyed her father, Ann found her mother to be the very opposite of a good parent, and that became even more profound when left alone with her once her father had departed this world for laboratories heavenly.
‘Mother didn't have one spark of affection for me, she noted, and she refused to permit others who did. She always called me an 'imbecile' and an 'ugly duckling'.
As well as being physically abused with cigarettes that burnt her arms and glasses that were thrown at her head, she was confined to her room, and not allowed to make friends with any other children, and endured a childhood bereft of love and parental support, being left to the care of whichever maid happened to be around at the time and not tipsy on the cooking wine.
As with many relationships when a victim of abuse identifies, attaches, and often bonds with their abuser, Ann stayed close to her mother, and it was therefore her mother she was with at a restaurant in 1934, when, at the age of 20, Ann suddenly fell ill and was taken swiftly to hospital.
Scared and in pain, she was quickly diagnosed with appendicitis, though this was done without any proper examination, and was sent home with a sedative and painkillers, and scheduled to return a few days later for a routine appendectomy.
I know what you’re thinking, but the surgery was successfully performed by a doctor named Samuel Boyd, and Ann spent a few weeks in hospital recovering, before being discharged and, as far as she knew, cured.
And that should be the end of the story.
But it isn’t.
Because Ann started to recall, as she convalesced at home, that while she was recovering in the ward, slipping in and out of sleep while recuperating, she had overheard nurses and doctors talking about her.
She’d heard them refer to her as the ‘idiot patient’, and the patient that ‘didn’t suspect a thing’, and that her appendectomy was not the only operation that had been carried out.
According to the whispers that had surrounded Ann while she was dozing or pretending to sleep, she’d also had a salpingectomy, the removal of one or both of her fallopian tubes, the result of which was that getting pregnant was almost impossible.
Essentially, Brugiere had sterilized her own daughter, before her twenty-first birthday so that she had no choice in the matter, and so that no heir could be produced, and Ann’s majority fortune would pass to Brugiere, if Ann died, which, we can assume, had also crossed her conniving mother’s twisted mind.
The early 1930s in the United States were defined, very unfortunately, by poverty and depression, and the inhumane ideology of eugenics, the institutional sterilization of women deemed ‘insane, feeble-minded, dependent, and diseased,’ and thus unable to ‘regulate their own reproductive abilities,’ and, as ever in the convoluted thinking of a nation raised on a frontier mentality of ‘manifest destiny’, this became blurred along race and class lines, and the idea that a stronger, more able nation would result became an unchallenged belief bolstered by national stupidity.
In one state alone, North Carolina, where a Eugenics Board had been created to review petitions to impose sterilization on ‘poor, unwed, and mentally disabled women, children and men’, nearly eight-thousand people underwent sterilization, always forced, and often without their knowledge.
During the entire decade of the 1930s, between sixty- and one-hundred-thousand people were sterilized by their nation, in their abusers bizarre hope of preventing less-than-optimal offspring.
Ann Cooper Hewitt was one of those people.
But Ann wasn’t an idiot, and the operation she’d undergone was driven only by greed, and as such was certainly a crime, whereas the thousands of other victims of sterilization underwent this surreptitious operation in a daze of confusion and momentum. It was fifty years before the last legal forced sterilization was performed, in the so-often-praised ‘progressive’ state of Oregon, in 1981, and another thirty until sterilization in correctional facilities was banned in the US in 2014.
And so, Ann hired a lawyer.
She also held a press conference, during which she told the audience that she was going to sue her mother for half-a-million dollars (just under nine million today), for bribing the doctors and ‘an alienist (a kind of psychiatrist, and one who could legally assess competence, originating from the word aliéné, meaning ‘insane’) to perform the salpingectomy’, without her knowledge, and in order to gain access to her portion of her father’s fortune.
It was, of course, because Ann was heir to a huge fortune that this story received any press at all, because thousands of women were being similarly sterilized against their will, but their stories were instantly lost to an era of malignant misogyny, mistreatment from misguided manifestos, and malevolent malpractice.
In court, Ann remarked that she ‘had no dolls when I was little, and I’ll have no children when I’m old,’ and showed the scars and burns she’d received from her mother. She was clearly shown to not be mentally ill or ‘feebleminded’, but, on the contrary, an avid reader, of ‘Shakespeare, French history, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, King Lear, Dante's Inferno, and the works of Charles Dickens’, and a master of the French and Italian languages. It was also proved that Brugiere had indeed bribed the doctors to operate on her daughter and alter medical records, for around one-hundred-and-fifty thousand dollars, in the 2021 equivalent.
And, quite rightly, Brugiere was found guilty.
Rather than spend more than a decade in prison, which was on the horizon for the desperate mother, she settled out of court to avoid incarceration, paying Ann almost two-and-a-half million dollars (in 2021 value) in damages. With that episode behind her, she promptly died, having spent very little of her remaining millions before expiring.
Ann fared little better, dying at the age of only forty, having been married five times and divorced four, and not ever being able to enjoy her wealth either.
After her death, her family did what every good rich family does in these situations; they covered it up, attempting to erase the memories of these women from their history.
‘Mortified by the scandalous women and their feud, [Ann’s descendants] removed papers and records relating to Ann and Maryon from the family’s legacy,’ and in so doing, diverted attention away from the horrific sterilization craze.
Forced and coerced sterilization (a Tennessee judge recently offered incarcerated women a thirty-day reduction in their sentence if they agreed to a birth control implant) still take place everyday across the globe, in the misguided belief that it helps the victims ‘take personal responsibility and give them a chance .. not to be burdened with children’.
Ann’s mother didn’t have that in mind though; the burden she wanted to relieve was a monetary one, and no-one stood to gain other than the miserable Maryon Andrews Brugiere, may she rest in perpetual torment.
photo by Thirdman