Tale of Two Midwives

Magda Hansen’s arrest made headline in the Duluth News Tribune on June 27, 1920. (Image: Zenith City)

A Strong-willed Woman Against the Law

Magner Fredericka Julia Hansen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1864. Her father was a shopkeeper of “fair” financial condition, and both her parents were of good, Lutheran character, according to her own report many years later. She left for the United States at age 20, earning her citizenship in 1888. She earned her living as a midwife.

In most of her advertisements, Hansen called herself a “graduate midwife,” though how or if she earned that designation is unknown, in part because she had a habit of changing her name. Initially, she went by the name of Julia Hansen, then by Magda Hansen, and eventually preferred M. F. J. Hansen. (Her last name is also often spelled “Hanson,” though here we use the usual Danish spelling, in agreement with her own later advertisements and state records.) Sometimes she claimed to be widowed, and at other times to be divorced. In any case, the name of her husband, or if she ever had one, is unknown.

In 1900, Hansen lived at 708 East Third Street with a trained nurse, Mrs. Mary Fowler. In 1901, according to a News Tribune story on a contentious divorce case, the two offered shelter and assistance to an “abandoned woman”—the wife in the case—inviting her into their home. When Fowler reported the husband’s lack of support, which could get him sent to the penitentiary, “he became very wroth and endeavored to blacken [Fowler’s] character.”

For many years afterward, Hansen ran a private hospital at 413 Seventh Avenue East (the site of a parking lot today). Women who worked as nurses or domestic help usually lived there as well, sometimes with their small children.

While birth control had been legal in the United States through most of the 1800s, the Comstock Act of 1873 drastically changed things. This federal law prohibited the mailing of “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” In addition to this, several states extended this law by outlawing even the use of contraceptives.

Midwives, by virtue of their advertising, would often find themselves the recipients of letters from young women seeking birth control information. If they responded, and were caught, they would find they had run afoul of the law.

In 1912 a nationwide coordinated raid against the “misuse of the mails” resulted in the arrests of over 175 people in several cities. The raid was intended to stop the “use of mails to solicit criminal medical practice or to dispose of medicine and instruments connected with such practice.” Caught up in the sweep, Hansen was charged with “sending a letter through the mails giving unlawful advice.” A year later she pled guilty as charged. At her sentencing she was given clemency, in large part because local physicians defended her and her “reputation of 22 years.” She received a fine of $250 rather than the maximum penalty of five years imprisonment or a fine of $5,000.

Throughout the 1910s, it is apparent that Hansen considered Haldora Olson her chief rival in the business of Duluth obstetrics. She made sure her advertisement in the city directory ran opposite Olson’s, and was of comparable size.

In 1920, tragedy struck. Mrs. Carrie Wissel of Cohasset, Minnesota, died of blood poisoning, and M. F. J. Hansen was arrested and charged with manslaughter in the first degree by means of a “criminal operation.” It was alleged that Hansen had performed an abortion for Wissel, who then returned home to Cohasset. On her deathbed, according to attending physicians, Wissel accused Hansen.

When brought before the judge, Hansen denied knowing Wissel or having any knowledge of the alleged abortion. According to newspaper accounts, however, she issued contradictory statements. At one point she said, “I know nothing about the case at all. Mrs. Wissel was married. I think that she was married.” Later, “she disclaimed any further knowledge of Mrs. Wissel, returning to her original declaration that she ‘knew nothing at all about her—had nothing to do with her—never even saw her.’” During the grueling trial that summer, it was subsequently alleged that Wissel had been Hansen’s patient through some months of her pregnancy, from January until the alleged abortion in March.

Under pressure from the prosecution’s witnesses—primarily Wissel’s doctors—Hansen testified that, “she had considered performing the operation charged and had given Mrs. Wissel treatments for that purpose, but that the child was born without an operation,” (i.e. miscarried; the months-long ordeal might indicate a troubled or dangerous pregnancy). Hansen defended herself by pointing to her 35 years as a midwife and the fact that she had attended the births of 4,000 babies. In less than an hour, the jury found Hansen guilty as charged.

After two years of appeals, Hansen was sent to the women’s prison at Shakopee to serve an “indeterminate sentence, not to exceed 20 years.” According to her prison records, she was 58 years old, 142 pounds, two inches over five feet tall with gray hair and blue eyes. She wore size 4 boots. The state of her “moral susceptibility” is recorded as “strong will.”

In 1923, her parole request was denied, but she was released two years later. Where she went after that is unclear, but records show she did not return to Duluth, nor midwifery. Census records indicate that she may have lived in a California nursing home near one of her nephew’s homes, where she died in the 1940s.

Haldora Olson’s death and Magda Hansen’s conviction for manslaughter might serve as the end of an era for midwifery before its return in current times. The transition from home to maternity hospital attended by midwives to a regular hospital with a doctor was well on its way. In 1939, Minnesota issued its last new license to practice midwifery. By 1970, only four licensed midwives practiced in Minnesota, including Mrs. Hilda Ekstrom of Duluth, who was then 86 years old.

In 2014, one hundred years after two Scandinavian midwives ran competing advertisements for their private maternity homes, a birthing center now operates out of an old mansion on Superior Street. Undoubtedly, Haldora and Magda would be folding their capable arms, declaring, “About time!”

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.