Donald Trump was 11 years old when the teenage victim of a botched backstreet abortion was found buried in a trash-strewn vacant lot in his home borough of Queens.
Trump was still young enough that adults might have lowered their voices, but he was old enough to understand the gist of whatever he may have overheard about 17-year-old Arlene Thompson and what the police were describing as the kind of “surgical butchery” to which women too often fell victim in the days when abortion was a felony crime.
As reported in the newspapers and no doubt repeated in conversations across Queens, Arlene had gone missing on the night of Dec. 9, 1957. She had left her home on Martin Avenue in Bellmore, Long Island, telling her mother that she was going to a girlfriend’s bridal shower and would be spending the night there.
The mother, a beautician named Sally Thompson, would remember that Arlene asked her a question before she left. It must have seemed just one of those things teenagers are liable to ask while trying to take the measure of things.
“Mom, would you be really lonely without me around?”
When Arlene had not returned by the following evening, Sally called the girl’s father. The couple’s only other child had died some time before, and they had since divorced. Adam Thompson was now living in Hialeah, Florida.
When Adam said he had also not heard from Arlene, the mother went to the police and filed a missing persons report. Worry deepened when Arlene failed to appear at the night classes she had been taking at Hofstra University.
Arlene also was a no-show at the Baldwin branch of Meadow Brook National Bank, where she worked as a teller. Detectives learned that she had emptied her savings account before leaving on the day she vanished. She had told co-workers that she was going to use the money to buy Christmas presents.
Less dedicated detectives might have just shrugged and said Arlene must have run off somewhere. They instead stayed on the case, and among the friends they identified and interviewed was a 22-year-old married gas station attendant named Aram Hovnanian.
Hovnanian was on parole, having done 28 months in Sing Sing prison for assault. The detectives found him to be “shaky and nervous” during an initial interview. He insisted he had no idea where Arlene might have gone.
On the 10th day after the disappearance, the detectives called Hovnanian in for an energetic follow-up. He confessed that he had been having an affair with Arlene and she had become pregnant.
Hovnanian told the detectives that he had spoken of the pregnancy to an acquaintance, 38-year-old Joseph Torres of Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Torres would be described in the press as “a jobless, debt ridden car salesman.” The need for money had apparently led Torres to say he could arrange an abortion for $300.
On the night she vanished, Arlene had gone from her home to Baldwin, Long Island, where she met Hovnanian and Torres, who posed as a nurse. They all proceeded to the Hotel Benjamin Franklin on Long Beach, Long Island.
Hovnanian had paid $20 to rent a room for a week, but he demanded that Arlene pay the full $300 for the abortion. She handed over all her savings and went into the room, where 37-year-old Julie Villano of Bleecker Street in Manhattan was waiting.
Villano was married and worked as a hatcheck girl at the Club Capri on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side. She now prepared to make a little extra cash as an abortionist.
Villano barred the two men from the room during what she called “the operation.” The procedure is said to have begun with her emptying a syringe of soapy water into Arlene’s vagina.
The two men were waiting at a nearby ice cream parlor. Villano called them there and said that Arlene had bled to death 30 minutes into it.
The men went to the room and dressed Arlene’s body. They then carried her to a freight elevator. They positioned themselves on either side of her and walked her through the hotel lobby.
“As if they were helping a drunken woman,” the police later said.
The men deposited Arlene’s body in Hovnanian’s car. Hovnanian demanded a refund of half the fee. Torres and Villano agreed.
Hovnanian drove off with $150 of Arlene’s life savings in his pocket. Her body remained in the trunk of his car for 24 hours, as he drove to and from his wife at home and his job at the gas station.
The following night, he cleared away some of the trash covering a vacant lot behind what was then Jamaica Racetrack. He dug a hole in the muck 8 feet long and 6 feet deep.
After depositing Arlene in the hole, he refilled it and recovered it with trash. She might never have been found if the detectives had not persuaded Hovnanian to lead them there.
The discovery hit the newspapers, which ran photos of Arlene, smiling, wearing pearls. The story must have been the talk of Queens, and you can almost hear the adults around young Donald Trump saying “So pretty! So young! So sad!”
Hovnanian was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. Torres and Villano were also charged with manslaughter but were convicted of a lesser felony of performing an abortion.
Hovnanian was sentenced to a term of 10 to 20 years. He appealed his conviction twice, insisting his confession had not been voluntary and contending that his co-defendants should also have been convicted of manslaughter. Both appeals were denied.
In the meantime, Arlene Thompson joined the horrifically long list of woman who died from illegal abortions in America, a list that grew by some 5,000 women a year. It came to include a 23-year-old magazine editor from the Bronx named Vivian Grant, who died in 1961 after seeking an abortion, only for the autopsy to show she had never actually been pregnant.
If Trump does not remember the body that was found not far for his Queens home when he was 11, he certainly knows that thousands of women fell victim to surgical butchery in the years when abortion was illegal. All New Yorkers—Trump included—should be proud that their state became the first in the union to allow abortion on demand in 1970, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to choose.
But now, even as Trump pledges to Make America Great Again, a man who has said that “my personal Vietnam” was having unprotected sex with a parade of young women wants to take us back to a shameful time.
He wants America to be like it was when he was just 11.
He wants to go back to when a 17-year-old asked her mother, “Mom, would you be really lonely without me around?” and was found 10 days later buried in a trash-strewn lot, dead from a botched illegal abortion.