|Sally C. Curtin et al., "Recent Declines in Non-Marital Child-bearing in the United States," National Center for Health Statistics, Data Brief No. 162, August, 2014 (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db162.htm)|
|Des Moines Tribune, September 28, 1925|
But what about Grinnell? Newspapers here featured no stories announcing a wave of illegitimacy. However, a new source on this question has recently emerged: a complete register of all admissions to Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital between the years 1919 (when the hospital opened its doors) and July, 1935. Identifying more than 4400 hospital admissions, the register provides singular evidence on morbidity and hospital mortality in Grinnell in the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the register identifies every baby born at St. Francis, and, where officials deemed it appropriate, the register signified who was "illegitimate."
Of course, St. Francis—a Catholic institution—was one of two hospitals in Grinnell, and births continued to occur at Grinnell Community Hospital as well as at home and at other hospitals. So, it is impossible to know how representative are the data from St. Francis. All the same, the St. Francis register provides vivid insight into "illegitimate births" in Grinnell, and also, surprisingly, a peek at the incidence of abortion, both issues that law and popular morality helped keep out of the published record.
|Register of all admissions to St. Francis Hospital, Grinnell, 1919-1935 (Grinnell Historical Museum)|
***For obvious reasons, babies deemed illegitimate when born at St. Francis hospital usually—but not always, interestingly—had unmarried mothers. Most of these mothers came from elsewhere, presumably seeking in Grinnell some privacy from the criticism they might have encountered in their home towns. So it was that Miss Eleanor Cassilly (the hospital register regularly identified female patients as "Miss" or "Mrs.") of Le Claire, Iowa checked into St. Francis hospital in October, 1923. Just nineteen years old at the time, Eleanor was the younger, unmarried sister of Merle Cassilly—ten years her senior—, who with his wife, lived with their parents in their Le Claire home. Within a day of arriving in Grinnell, Eleanor gave birth to a baby girl whom the register called "illegitimate." Likewise, Ivy Singleton, the oldest child of five in the household of H. A. and Nora Singleton in Chalmers, Illinois, arrived in Grinnell in the last days of December, 1922. Then either nineteen or twenty years of age and pregnant, Ivy soon gave birth to an illegitimate son. More than a decade later, Amelia Reha, a very pregnant and unmarried eighteen-year-old from Iowa City, came to Grinnell for similar reasons. The third child of six born to Frank (a farmer) and Amanda Reha, Amelia delivered a baby boy at St. Francis hospital September 5, 1934. Just two months earlier Margaret Madesen had found her way from McFarland, Wisconsin to Grinnell, where she also gave birth to an illegitimate son.
It is easy to imagine how the staff cosseted these innocent babes, but the hospital register rarely offers any indication of the fates of these children, instead merely attaching the damning adjective "illegitimate" to their arrival. However, the hospital register reports that at least one unwanted child did find adoptive parents. Amanda Reha's little boy, who was born in early September, 1934, became something of a Christmas present to Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Koett of Marshalltown. A cramped note in the margin of the hospital register reports that the Koetts adopted the boy—whom they named William—December 14, 1934, three months after his birth. How the Koetts came to know of the child, and exactly how the adoption was arranged are matters presently-available evidence does not address. One wonders, for example, who kept the baby those few months between his birth and his adoption? Hospital records show that Amanda was discharged shortly after the child's birth, but whether she took the baby home the register does not say. That the hospital reported on the adoption offers reason to think that Amanda left the child in the hospital's care, and that officials undertook to find adoptive parents. Marshalltown newspapers confirm that Veronica Koett was very active in local Catholic organizations, and the Koetts also made sure that William attended Catholic schools, so it seems likely that the adoption took place through Catholic contacts.
|Gravestone of Eugene, Veronica, and William Koett, Riverside Cemetery, Marshalltown, Iowa|
October 17, 1921, however, Hazel Mintle entered St. Francis hospital where she promptly gave birth to a little boy whom the hospital register judged "illegitimate." I found no evidence of how Hazel's delivery was received locally, but it is hard to imagine that she and her newborn were received enthusiastically, either within the Mintle clan—whose numerous branches were well-known and well-regarded in Grinnell—or more broadly. Nevertheless, as additional documentation proves, Hazel did indeed keep her baby, naming him Keith Lavelle Mintle. For reasons not spelled out in hospital records, Hazel and her newborn were not released until after Halloween. But soon she and her baby took up residence with Mr. and Mrs. William Sears at 1122 Ann Street.
|1921 Death Certificate of Keith Lavelle Mintle (1921-1921)|
|Gravestone for Keith Lavelle Mintle, Hazelwood Cemetery (West Hazelwood 976) (2017 photo)|
***A happier, if more confusing, narrative came to the baby born to Mrs. William A. Flanagan at St. Francis Hospital June 14, 1935. Helena A. Jones had married William Flanagan September 15, 1930, and they soon set up house in Grinnell. April, 1932 saw the couple welcome their first child, Joanne, and in May 1933 a second child, William, joined the family. Then in June 1935, Helena was admitted to St. Francis where on the 14th she give birth to a little girl. For reasons that I can only guess about, the hospital register clearly labeled the baby "illegitimate." None of the persons whose admission notice is near Helena's gave birth to a child, so the entry cannot be an obvious, clerical mistake, transferring to Mrs. Flanagan the birth of a single woman admitted with her. But how can a married woman have given birth to an "illegitimate" child? Had Helena confessed a sin to one of the nuns who worked there, and she felt obliged to record this failing? Had Helena perhaps earlier decided to unburden herself of a secret to her husband, who then reported this news to his wife's doctor? Neither course seems especially likely, if not impossible. But answers to these questions cannot be expected ever to appear, since matters like this are communicated orally and in privacy—if indeed they were communicated at all.
Once Helena delivered the baby, the Flanagans faced some hard choices. If resentment and regret accompanied the new arrival, should the Flanagans perhaps give the child up for adoption, removing from their household the living evidence of Helena's extra-marital adventure? Or, whether Helena's misstep was forgiven or not, should Helena and William welcome the baby into their home like any other offspring, since there was no reason for anyone to suspect anything in the arrival of a third child to a married woman? The hospital register cannot answer these questions, but other documents about the family reveal that the Flanagans did take the baby home, and raised her as their own. The 1940 US Census identified four Flanagan children, including their third child, Marguerite, who was said to have been 4 in 1940, which would point to a birth in 1936. In fact, however, as Social Security records and other documents confirm, Marguerite Flanagan was born June 14, 1935, the exact date entered in the St. Francis Hospital register when Helena Flanagan gave birth to an illegitimate girl. Marguerite was that "illegitimate" child.
|Marguerite Flanagan (1935-2006), 1952 Grinnell High School Yearbook|
***So far we have been discussing mothers who, however reluctantly, brought their children full-term, and delivered babies. At least some women, however, must have considered how they might avoid the scorn that an illegitimate birth would bring. Despite its Catholic commitment, St. Francis Hospital offers some evidence on these cases, too, periodically noting in the hospital register that a patient had had an abortion.
When I first encountered this term in the hospital records, I doubted that the word denoted the termination of pregnancy, as we understand that term now. But as I saw the term repeated, along with other expressions ("miscarriage," "uterine hemorrhage," etc.) which might have hidden abortions, had the physicians wished to do so, I became convinced that Grinnell doctors had indeed performed abortions in St. Francis hospital.
Accepting this argument does nothing to undermine the Catholic church's own opposition to abortion, a force of considerable power within a Catholic hospital like Grinnell's St. Francis. And yet the hospital register identifies at least seven abortions, all carried out in the 1920s (for unknown reasons, not a single abortion can be found in the register's records from the 1930s). Who were the women at St. Francis who underwent abortions?
|St. Francis Hospital, Grinnell, Iowa (1920?) (Digital Grinnell)|
Other abortions identified in the hospital register seem to have originated with the women's doctors. For example, in April 1928, Miss Kathleen Clifford came to Grinnell from West Branch—at least that's what the hospital record says. However, I could find no Cliffords in West Branch, Iowa; the closest family of that name lived in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and their daughter Kathleen would have been about 25 years old in 1928. It could be, therefore, that, like other unmarried pregnant women who wanted to escape the censure of their hometowns, Kathleen made the trip to Grinnell, but, instead of giving birth to an illegitimate child, she underwent an abortion.
Another single woman said to have had an abortion at St. Francis was Wilma Wentzel, whose name readers of this blog might recognize: in a highly-publicized 1923 case, she had run away from home with a married Grinnell man whom newspapers dubbed "Iceman Romeo." Unlike other young women who had journeyed from distant points to Grinnell to resolve their pregnancies, Wilma was a local girl, her family residing at 1016 Center Street. She had been admitted to St. Francis once before—in June, 1921—to be treated for gonorrhea, a sexually-transmitted disease not often met in the St. Francis register. Just fifteen years old at the time, Wilma was evidently sexually active, which may explain how she returned to the hospital in mid-July, 1922 where, according to the register, Dr. Talbott performed an abortion. Medical authorities explain that a pregnant woman infected with gonorrhea is more likely to experience miscarriage or a pre-term birth, and it may be, therefore, that when Wilma Wentzel returned to St. Francis hospital in 1922, she exhibited some signs of these problems, encouraging her doctor to terminate the pregnancy. Evidently there were no complications, and Wilma was promptly released.
|Luella Walker Holstrom (1901-1984)|
1925 yearbook of Mankato State Teachers College
What does this mean? Was the conception somehow defective, perhaps putting Nellie's own life at risk? Had there been some other trouble that necessitated terminating the pregnancy? The hospital register has nothing to say about these questions, remarking only that Nellie was dismissed four days later. Whether related to the abortion or not, something did go wrong with Nellie's marriage, even though the next year she gave birth to a daughter, because by the time federal census agents appeared at her door in 1940, she was no longer living in Brooklyn with Harry, but had returned to Davenport where she lived with her daughter, the census describing her as divorced.
|Gravestone for Grastina Marchellino, Hazelwood Cemetery (2017 photo)|
The other abortions listed in the St. Francis register occurred to married women who already had other children. Mrs. Dow Mehaffey, for instance, entered hospital October 16, 1921, and Dr. Talbott reported having performed an abortion. Dow Mehaffey (1879-1950) and Maude Carson (1890-1955) had married December 20, 1909 in Washington, Iowa. Their first child, Lyle, was born in 1910, but died the following year. Lauretta followed in 1914, and Frances in 1916. So, when Maude was admitted to St. Francis in 1921, she had already given birth three times, and two children awaited her at home. It seems likely, therefore, that her abortion had something to do with the child, and that her doctor determined that an abortion was necessary to preserve Maude's own life, especially inasmuch as Maude went on to have two more children: Metta and Martina.
Mrs. Eugene Dewey of Newburg also had an abortion, hers done by Dr. Parish in late April, 1924. In his later years Eugene Dewey (1895-1960) drove a truck for Richardson-Phelps Lumber Company in Grinnell, but he had begun his working life as a farmer in Hamilton, Missouri. In 1915 he married Cora Jane Innis (1899-1943) in Caldwell, Missouri, and they soon moved to Iowa, first living in Newburg, then later in Grinnell. Cora Dewey gave birth to son Walter in 1917, to daughter Francis in 1918, and to a second daughter, Thelma, in 1923. It seems likely, therefore, that the 1924 abortion reported in hospital records, like Maude Mehaffey's, was the result of some irregularity in the pregnancy that threatened Cora's health.
***The cases pulled from Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital records highlight experience that weighed especially heavily on women: childbirth outside marriage. Still a rarity in the 1920s and 1930s, extra-marital childbirth in Iowa proved resistant to cultural acceptance, so that young women who conceived a child before having married often had to resort to desperate solutions. For many, it meant finding a hospital far from home where they could give birth, and then return home, hoping that neighbors and friends were none the wiser. Occasionally these single mothers elected to keep their children, but this was difficult and, as happened with Hazel Mintle, these women ultimately chose to leave Grinnell—and their babies—behind.
Other unmarried women appear to have elected abortion. The records tell us nothing about how advanced the pregnancies were or whether there might have been medical problems that made abortion necessary. No doubt each case was complicated. Perhaps for some, who even at a young age were accustomed to serial sexual encounters, abortion was no big thing; in and out of the hospital promptly, as Wilma Wentzel was, for example, these women could not allow pregnancy to complicate their lives. Most of the abortions at St. Francis, however, seem to have been performed on married women who already had children. Consequently, their treatment at St. Francis seems to have had nothing to do with avoiding pregnancy and childbirth.
The brief reports of these women's encounters with illegitimacy and abortion, therefore, preserve for us only the dimmest outlines of lives in which pregnancy brought not only medical but also important social consequences that helped define their biographies. These stories were not written into the master narrative of Grinnell's past, and even within the walls of their own homes may not have been much discussed. Yet these stories, too, belong to Grinnell's past.