Thursday, December 14, 2017

Illegitimacy and Abortion in 1920s-1930s Grinnell

In the United States today, about forty percent of all births belong to unmarried mothers. Whether you think this a good or bad thing, it's hard to deny that the number reflects a substantial change from the recent past. According to available data, in Iowa of the 1920s and 1930s, for example, single parents accounted for less than three percent of all births. Consequently, if today a single woman in the United States can give birth without incurring a lot of social criticism, single women in early twentieth-century Iowa likely faced a much more censorious world. "Illegitimacy" was a brand that made life onerous for both child and parent.
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 (
Determining exactly how common was illegitimacy and how it affected Grinnell in the past is not easy. Largely because of the negative valence illegitimacy carried, people kept quiet about their situations, and did what they could to hide pregnancies outside marriage. Nevertheless, given the public's concern about illegitimacy, the issue did occasionally surface in the press. In 1925, for example, the Des Moines Tribune published a report based on the findings of the Iowa State Health Commissioner, who announced that the previous year (1924) illegitimate births in Iowa were three times as common as they had been in 1915.
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
Perhaps other children born at St. Francis and judged "illegitimate" were also given up to be adopted, although the register mentions no others. Alternatively, unwanted little ones might have found their way to a nearby orphanage, such as the one in Toledo (which later became the State Juvenile Home/State Training School for Girls). Another alternative saw the mother keep her baby, and records make clear that at least occasionally this is exactly what happened, despite the opprobrium these births brought their mothers. Take, for instance, Miss Hazel Mintle, born in Malcom township in 1898, the fourth of five children welcomed by Laura Mintle and her farmer husband, Frank. The family soon moved to Grinnell, living at 702 Broad. Hazel told the 1915 Iowa census taker that she had completed two years of high school, but her absence from the high school yearbook suggests that she did not stay in school long enough to graduate. After Frank Mintle died in 1916, Laura remarried in 1919, taking as her husband John Creamer, a Grinnell auctioneer who lived at 423 West Street. Hazel moved with her mother, and by 1920 was employed as a clerk in a department store.

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)
Sadly, misfortune soon followed this brave course: little Keith grew very ill (perhaps he was already under treatment when born, helping explain the delayed release from hospital), and before he was two months old the child died. The death certificate identified the cause of death as syphilis, which indicates that the baby had contracted the disease from his mother while still in her womb. And this fact, in turn, indicates that Hazel had had at least one sex partner—either the child's father or someone else—who himself was infected; Hazel then transmitted the disease to her fetus.  Whatever people may have thought of this short-lived little boy, Hazel herself must have endured a double dose of criticism, having not only violated accepted morality in conceiving a child outside marriage but also having gained a sexually transmitted disease that she visited upon her unborn son. So far as the baby's grave can contribute to the story, Hazel's family (or some part of it) at some point absorbed the child into the family—at least that is what is implied by Keith's burial in Hazelwood, adjacent to his grandparents and other members of the Mintle family (although the misspelling of the boy's middle name indicates some distance from the child and his mother).
Gravestone for Keith Lavelle Mintle, Hazelwood Cemetery (West Hazelwood 976) (2017 photo)
Hazel herself, however, soon left Grinnell behind, never to return. Des Moines city directories from the early 1920s find her living in Des Moines and working at the new Hotel Savery, opened there in 1919. Also living in Des Moines at this time was Paul Seeburger, identified as a "battery expert" at Iowa Storage Battery Company. How and when the two met I could not learn, but I wondered whether Paul might not have been the baby's father. In any case, in 1926 or 1927 Hazel and Paul Seeburger married and moved to California. The 1930 census found them in Los Angeles; Paul was a clerk in a drug store whereas Hazel was employed in sales at a department store. Evidently the pair never generated any children, as the 1940 census found them still childless in Los Angeles where Paul worked as apartment manager in the building in which they lived. Hazel died in Los Angeles in July, 1963, and was buried half a continent away from her only child; Paul survived Hazel for some years, dying in March, 1971.
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 as I could learn, Marguerite enjoyed a normal childhood, passing through the Grinnell schools and graduating from Grinnell High School in 1952. She married Richard Owens, moved to Omaha, and there gave birth to two children of her own. When she died in 2006, she had already been widowed for several years, but there is no evidence that the one damning word attached to her 1935 birth ever brought her any unwanted consequences.
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.
But wasn't abortion illegal? Indeed it was, as James C. Mohr convincingly argues ("Iowa's Abortion Battles of the late 1960s and Early 1970s: Long-term Perspective and Short-Term Analysis," The Annals of Iowa 50[1989]:63-89). In the last years of the nineteenth century, Mohr points out, the Iowa legislature and courts gradually tightened laws aimed at abortionists, so that by 1886 the death of a woman as a result of an abortion could be prosecuted as second-degree murder. Nevertheless, Mohr contends, "substantial evidence suggests that abortion remained a reasonably wide-spread practice in Iowa, just as it did in other states...." Mohr read decisions of Iowa's Supreme Court as admitting "that the death or even the presumed death of an unborn fetus was considered a threat to the life of the woman carrying it and therefore justified an abortion; that anyone could attempt an abortion as long as the life of the woman appeared to be at stake; and, most importantly, that the state had the burden of proof to demonstrate that the abortion was not necessary." The result, Mohr argues, was that performing an abortion, especially if done by a physician, rarely attracted prosecution. Survey data collected in 1931 from more than eighty rural Iowa physicians seems to support his contention: inquiry of more than eighty rural Iowa physicians revealed more than 6600 abortions alongside some 51,000 deliveries.

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)
Only once does the hospital register report that the abortion was self-induced, and that description was attached to Mrs. Philip Thomas, who was admitted to St. Francis February 3, 1924. Philip Thomas and Mildred Halstead had married in Newton in December, 1920. The Grinnell city directory of that year reported that the couple lived at 1507 Summer, and that Phillip was a "meat cutter." Later evidence indicates that Phillip took up farming, as his death certificate confirmed that he had died unexpectedly in 1928: he suffered a lightning strike as he planted corn on their farm. Available records indicate that Phillip and Mildred Thomas had no other children after the 1924 abortion. Although a self-induced abortion might have damaged Mildred's reproductive organs, she gave birth to a son in 1930 after Phillip's death and her remarriage, so the failure to add children was not a biological consequence of her abortion. But why did she try to abort her 1924 pregnancy? And did that abortion somehow interfere with her relation to her husband?

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
The case of Mrs. Harry Holstrom was quite different. Luella (Nellie) Rosalina Walker was born in 1901 in Princeton, Iowa. By 1920, her father was dead, and she and a younger brother were living with their widowed mother in Davenport. Nellie decided to pursue an education, focusing upon teacher training. In 1924 she accepted a position at Mankato State Teachers College (today's Minnesota State University, Mankato). At about the same time, she met Harry Kay Holstrom, and in November, 1926 they married and settled in Brooklyn, Iowa. Apparently Nellie promptly conceived, but she entered St. Francis March 13, 1927, her doctor reporting that he had performed an abortion.

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)
A similar scenario played out for Mrs. "Geo." Marchellino. Giuseppe ("Joe") Marchellino had immigrated to the United States in 1909, and established a shoemaker's business in Grinnell. By 1920 Joe was living and working in Ottumwa, where in 1922 he married eighteen-year-old Grace Weeks; they both reported that this was their second marriage. Soon thereafter the newlyweds settled in Grinnell. Grace entered St. Francis Hospital May 10, 1923 where Dr. Talbott again reported having performed an abortion. Apparently there were no complications, as Grace was dismissed two  days later. She conceived again very soon, because their son, James, is reported (on a delayed birth record), as having been born November 6, 1923. This date, recalled years later for the substitute birth certificate, seems very unlikely, and St. Francis records do not remember James's birth at all. Nevertheless, November 6, 1923 is what was recorded in numerous later documents, including the report of James's World War II death in New Guinea in 1942. A second child, Grastina, was born in September, 1925, but died the following spring. Francis came in 1927, and LaVena in 1928. For reasons unknown, by 1930 the couple divorced, and in 1931 Grace remarried and left Iowa. Joe remained in Grinnell until 1962 when he returned to Italy, where he died in 1966.

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.


  1. This is a powerful narrative of the consequences of abortion and illegitimacy in Grinnell and Iowa's history.

  2. The information I have claims that my father’s birth in 1921 to an Ivy Burns in PA was an illegitimate one. His father (my grandfather) was reputed to be an Irish auctioneer named Pop or Pops Murphy. I have no idea if this info is accurate. Ivy named my father Victor Paul Burns. Anyone have info, contact me please,

  3. My father was born Feb14,1935 to Lois Plum of Grinell Iowa adopted and raised by a family in Guthrie Center. I wonder if there is any mention of his birth in these records ?