The Tragic True Story Of Heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt

Ann Cooper Hewitt was born in 1914 in Paris, France. She was part of a prominent New York family and was slated to inherit a vast fortune. Sadly, what would have been a happy life turned tragic because of monetary greed. Today, Hewitt is known as the young woman who battled her own mother in court for having her sterilized without her knowledge.

In the 1930s, as reported by HuffPost, more than 60,000 people were sterilized — a form of eugenics — in the United States. The term eugenics means "good creation," and it is the practice of bettering the human species by mating those who have the genes ideal for the perfect society. Forced sterilization was one of the ways society was "cleansed," as it prevented minorities and the mentally disabled from producing offspring (via History). In the late 1920s, eugenics laws were in place and forced sterilization was not unlawful. It wasn't until 1942 when it was deemed illegal, but by then, thousands had already been sterilized — one of them being Ann Cooper Hewitt.

Ann Cooper Hewitt's wealthy father

Ann Cooper Hewitt was born to Peter Cooper Hewitt and Maryon Andrews Brugiere in 1914 — the result of an extramarital affair. Peter divorced his then-wife and married Maryon in 1918. He was an electrical engineer and the inventor of the mercury-vapor lamp, and other inventions under his name include the radio receiver and the mercury rectifier, per Britannica. Ann's father earned $1 million in 1901 for inventing the mercury-vapor lamp, but he was already a wealthy man even before that. He was the grandson of engineer Peter Cooper, who built the first steam engine in the U.S. (called the Tom Thumb locomotive) and was one of the wealthiest men of his time.

Ann's father died in 1921 when she was just 7 years old, but she had fond memories of him. "He was 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," Ann said (via Town & Country Magazine).

Ann's relationship with her mother

While Ann Cooper Hewitt had a good relationship with her father, she had the opposite with her mother, Maryon Brugiere. As a baby, Hewitt was allegedly confined to a crib, and her mother left her to be cared for by the maids. When her father died, Brugiere prohibited Hewitt from leaving their home or making friends with other children. "Mother didn't have one spark of affection for me, and she refused to permit others who did. She always called me an 'imbecile' and an 'ugly duckling'," Hewitt said, per an article by Town & Country Magazine.

Brugiere did not only verbally abuse her daughter, but she also allegedly physically hurt her, as Hewitt testified in court. According to the New York Post, Hewitt showed the court a scar she had on her forehead that was allegedly the result of a wine glass that her mother smashed on her. She also showed a burn mark on her arm that she claimed was from her mother's cigarette.

Stipulations of inheritance

When Peter Cooper Hewitt died in 1921, his estate was worth more than $4 million, which is approximately $61 million in today's money. Per the Daily Mail, Peter left a last will and testament that consisted of a stipulation on the inheritance that Ann Cooper Hewitt and Maryon Brugiere would receive. One-third of his wealth was left to Brugiere, while the remaining two-thirds would go to Ann. That's not all, however, as the will stipulated that in the event Ann died without having an heir, her inheritance will automatically go to Brugiere.

The will's clause was the catalyst for a series of events that would eventually land Ann and Maryon battling each other in the court of law. Brugiere was determined to get the full inheritance from his husband, and the only way to do that was to ensure that her daughter would never be able to bear any children. She devised a way to have Ann sterilized without her knowledge.

Ann Cooper Hewitt's forced sterilization

In 1934, when Ann Cooper Hewitt was 20 years old, she was out having lunch with Maryon Brugiere when she suddenly felt pain in her abdominal area. Her mother rushed her to a hospital where a medical practitioner, Dr. Tilton Tillman, diagnosed her with appendicitis without performing a thorough examination of her body, as reported by the New York Post. She was asked to return to the hospital four days later to have her appendix removed by Dr. Samuel Boyd. The surgery was carried out and Hewitt stayed in the hospital for a few weeks to recover.

According to Town & Country Magazine, it was while in the hospital when Hewitt overheard employees talking about her and referring to her as the "idiot patient." She also heard a nurse conversing with Dr. Tillman, telling him that she "didn't suspect a thing." Eventually, Hewitt found out that she didn't just have an appendectomy, but also a salpingectomy — the process of removing a woman's fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy (via WebMD). Brugiere ensured that the surgery took place before Hewitt's 21st birthday, as that would make her daughter a legal adult and free to make her own decisions.

Maryon Brugiere was charged with mayhem

Upon learning the truth about her surgery, Ann Cooper Hewitt hired an attorney and held a press conference in 1936, where she announced that she was suing her own mother for $500,000. As an heiress, Hewitt's shocking claim made headlines and caught the attention of many, including San Francisco's then-District Attorney Matthew Brady, as reported by Crime Reads. Hewitt accused her mother of bribing two doctors and an alienist to perform the salpingectomy without her knowledge. She said her mother's motivation was to ensure that she would die without an heir and get her share of the inheritance.

Brugiere and the doctors were charged with mayhem — the act of unlawfully removing a part of a body resulting in disfigurement or uselessness. At that time, sterilization can only be done legally to those who suffered from mental illness, and Hewitt's lawyer argued that his client wasn't feebleminded. Brugiere bribed the doctors $9,000 each to operate on her daughter, and medical records were also altered to justify the removal of Hewitt's fallopian tubes, per the Daily Mail. A psychologist deemed Hewitt feeble-minded before the operation, but one physician testified in court against the claim and said, "She writes fluently in French and can converse in Italian. She has read books on Shakespeare, French history, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, King Lear, Dante's Inferno, and the works of Charles Dickens."

Ann Hewlitt Cooper's later life

The crime of mayhem was typically punished with up to 14 years in prison at the time of Hewitt's case against her mother. During the trial, both sides presented their argument, but the case ended in a settlement where Brugiere paid Hewitt $150,000. Just three years later, Brugiere had a stroke and died (via the Daily Mail). Hewitt went on to live her life. She married five times throughout her life and died of cancer at the age of 40.

Today, unfortunately, forced sterilizations still occur as there are those who truly believe in eugenics. In 2020, as reported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nurse employed at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia revealed that detainees were kept in horrible conditions and some were subjected to hysterectomies without their knowledge. There have also been reports of incarcerated individuals being bribed with lesser prison sentences in exchange for undergoing sterilization.