‘Murder by abortion,’ 1946

A Springfield osteopath was convicted of murder after allegedly conducting an abortion that led to the death of a 19-year-old woman in 1946. Ronald U. Tilley (1897-1966) was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the verdict.

Although the court’s ruling was worded carefully, one factor in the decision may have been Springfield’s longstanding tradition of racially segregated hotels.

Given a second trial, Tilley was convicted again, but this time of the less serious crime of manslaughter. Gov. William G. Stratton commuted his sentence, and, ultimately, Tilley served less than three years in prison.

First trial

According to the Supreme Court’s summary of trial evidence, Renee Stanley, a 1945 Ursuline Academy graduate who worked as a stenographer at the YWCA, came to Tilley’s office, made up of two rooms in his home at 630 W. Edwards St., on July 9, 1946, seeking an abortion. (She reportedly gave Tilley a false name, Hazel or Helen Reynolds.) Stanley died of peritonitis at St. John’s Hospital 10 days later.

Tilley was found guilty of murder by abortion in December 1949. The conviction could have resulted in a death sentence or life imprisonment; jurors, who also were responsible for sentencing in a murder by abortion case, voted that Tilley serve 18 years in prison.

The trial revolved around Stanley’s deathbed statement that Tilley had performed the abortion.

The Supreme Court summary said:

In a statement made by the deceased on the evening before her death, she revealed to Dr. (Franz) Fleischli and to Frank M. Pfeifer, an assistant State’s Attorney who was present as the result of having received a complaint from the dying girl’s father, that she had become pregnant and because she was unmarried felt that she had to do something about it; that on July 9, 1946, she had gone to the combined home and office of the defendant and asked him to perform an abortion; that defendant then used an instrument on her private parts, packed her with gauze or cotton and told her to go home. She related that nothing happened, so she returned to defendant’s office a few days later; that the procedure was repeated, and the following day she became violently ill. In response to questions by Pfeifer she stated that she had paid defendant $200, and denied that she had made any attempt to abort herself.

Tilley and his wife (the office receptionist) gave a different account.

Defendant … testified that he had seen a young woman whom he later learned was Renee Stanley, at his office in the early part of July 1946; that at the time she complained of a pain in her back, for which he gave her an osteopathic treatment; that following the treatment he was asked to examine her female parts as she thought there might be some trouble there; that he examined her, inserting a speculum to keep the vaginal area open, but could see nothing wrong and so informed the patient. He made a charge of $2 for the treatment. Defendant testified that he next saw the young woman four or five nights later when his wife brought her into his private office; that she was pale and crying, and said: “Doctor, I am in an awful lot of trouble. … I have taken everything – all kinds of medicine, and I went as far as using a knitting needle on myself and I want you to help me.” He recounted that he advised her that she was very sick, to see her physician, and to confide in her mother; that he made no examination of her, made no charge for the visit, and assisted her to the street where she entered a car. The witness said that he next heard of her when he was arrested on the day of her death.

Another physician testified at Tilley’s trial that Stanley’s injuries didn’t look like they had come from a knitting needle. Otherwise, the prosecution had little besides Stanley’s statement to tie Tilley to her death. However, prosecutors called two other witnesses to show Tilley was known locally as an abortionist – a woman who said she had received an abortion from Tilley and a man who said his wife had undergone an abortion at Tilley’s hands.

Jury problems

The Supreme Court found nothing wrong with the testimony about Stanley’s deathbed statement or the evidence about the previous abortions. “Whether the witnesses were credible was … a question for the jury to determine,” the justices said.

The jury was sequestered during the trial, however, and that, the court said, is where authorities went wrong – twice.

On the second day of the trial, according to the Supreme Court, the jurors were put in the custody of four bailiffs “who had been sworn to attend the jury.” Chief Deputy Sheriff James DeFrates found accommodations for three of the men jurors at one hotel, and for four of the women jurors at another, the court said. But DeFrates couldn’t find accommodations for the other five jurors, all women.

As a result, DeFrates – “of his own volition,” the Supreme Court said, had those five jurors housed overnight at the home of Sangamon County Jail matron Mertrude Manning, who – although the Supreme Court didn’t say so – was African-American. Both Manning (the Supreme Court ruling misspells her name as “Mertrue”) and her husband William worked for the sheriff’s office – William Manning was a deputy sheriff – but neither had been specifically sworn in as a court bailiff, as judicial procedure required.

The second incident occurred the next day, after closing arguments in the trial, but before jury instructions were given. The jurors were being given supper at Drach’s Pioneer Restaurant, 425 E. Washington St., when they were approached by a White woman named Gladys Farley, who wanted to speak to her sister-in-law, one of the jurors. Mertrude Manning, who by then had been sworn in as a bailiff, was one of those accompanying the jury.

According to the Supreme Court summary (expurgations in the original):

When the bailiff, Mrs. Manning, informed her that she could not converse with the jury, Farley, who was intoxicated, profanely referred to Mrs. Manning and her race, saying: “No ____ ____ can stop me from talking to my sister-in-law.” When a male bailiff remonstrated with her she exclaimed: “I’m not afraid of your tin star,” and later, “If I was on that jury I would free him.” All of which remarks were made in the hearing and presence of the jurors, five of whom were of the same race as Mrs. Manning. None of them, however, conversed with Gladys Farley, whom the record shows was later cited for contempt and fined.

Since the court summary of the second incident reveals five jurors were “of the same race as Mrs. Manning,” it takes no leap of imagination to assume the five women for whom the sheriff’s office could not find hotel rooms were the African-American members of the jury.

Hotel segregation

The most likely explanation for why no rooms were available is hotel segregation, which had been customary in Springfield for decades. In 1941, for example, an all-White Springfield jury found the Hotel Abraham Lincoln not guilty of discrimination when employees refused to house a Black assistant attorney general from Chicago while providing rooms for his two white colleagues. (The verdict, though reported by several Black newspapers around the country, was ignored by the Illinois State Journal.)

By 1949, some well-known Springfield hotels probably did accept Black patronage, but others apparently did not. State Rep. Corneal Davis, an African-American legislator from Chicago, is generally given credit for breaking the local hotel color line. However, it isn’t clear from his oral history memoirs (part of the former Sangamon State University oral history program; see page 51) when that took place. The first night Davis spent in Springfield as a member of the General Assembly in 1942, he was turned away from a number of downtown hotels; he ended up sleeping in the GM&O (now Amtrak) train station.

Black legislators were still being refused rooms in “one prominent Springfield hotel” as late as 1950, state AFL-CIO president Stanley Johnson said in a discussion of the issue quoted in the Illinois State Journal in 1960. Motels just outside city limits allegedly continued to refuse rooms to Blacks for another decade or more. And the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for African-American travelers, still had listings for five Black-operated “tourist homes” in Springfield in its 1963-64 edition.

Verdict overturned

In the Tilley case, although the Supreme Court didn’t delve into the case’s racial offshoots, it did conclude both jury incidents were “of grave consequence.” Even though Mertrude Manning was careful not to allow discussion of the case at her home, Circuit Judge DeWitt S. Crow and sheriff’s office were obligated to see that jurors were always overseen by sworn court bailiffs, the justices said. Farley’s “untimely and ill-mannered” outburst, they added, “must not be considered lightly.”

Combined with some prejudicial evidence prosecutors introduced in Tilley’s trial, the jury errors required the verdict to be overturned, the Supreme Court said. “The cumulative effect … is to leave an abiding conviction that defendant was not afforded the fair and impartial trial guaranteed him by law,” justices ruled.


Tilley went on trial a second time in February 1951. His subsequent conviction was for manslaughter – a crime, under state law, that left sentencing up to the judge instead of the jury. Circuit Judge L.E. Willhite rejected prosecutors’ call for a 14-year sentence and ordered that Tilley serve 4 to 10 years in state prison.

Tilley appealed again, but a divided Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the verdict this time. (Two dissenting justices said Willhite improperly asked the jury about its progress toward a verdict without having the attorneys for both sides in the room. The court majority agreed Willhite’s action was “highly imprudent,” but said it had no impact on the verdict.)

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Tilley’s further appeals, and he finally reported for transport to Menard state prison in December 1952. However, in August 1955, Gov. William G. Stratton commuted Tilley’s minimum sentence from four years to three, automatically making him eligible for a parole hearing. The Parole and Pardon Board granted Tilley immediate parole the next month.

Tilley is buried at Little Rock (Ark.) National Cemetery. Renee Stanley is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Newton, Ill.

Stanley’s boyfriend, not named in any of the accounts of the case, died in a car accident shortly after her death, according to John Curren, who was Sangamon County state’s attorney in 1946. His death and the disappearance of a material witness, a woman, also contributed to the 3½- year gap between Tilley’s indictment and trial, Curren said.

Curren’s 1948 election defeat by George P. Coutrakon, a more aggressive prosecutor in general, may have been another reason Tilley was finally brought to trial. In a radio address during his successful run for re-election in 1952, Coutrakon said the Tilley case was one “many people thought I would never try, and which many lawyers thought I could not win if I did try it.”

Correction: This entry has been corrected. Tilley was not the only physician in Sangamon County to have been charged with murder in connection with an abortion. Dr. John H. Lawrence  was tried twice for abortion murder in 1894. He was acquitted both times.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 








This entry was posted in African Americans, Crime and vice, Law enforcement, Prominent figures. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *