May 19, 1920: Duluth midwife charged with manslaughter

On this day in Duluth in 1920, midwife Magner Fredericka Julia Hansen was charged with manslaughter in the first degree by means of a “criminal operation” in the death of Mrs. Carrie Wissel of Cohasset, Minnesota. According to Duluth historian Heidi Bakk-Hansen, “It was alleged that Hansen had performed an abortion for Wissel, who then returned home to Cohasset” where she died. Wissel had been Hansen’s patient through the final months of her pregnancy, from January until the alleged abortion in March. Bakk-Hansen further explains: “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.” Wissel,then 58, was sentenced to up to 20 years in the state woman’s prison in Shakopee. She was released in 1925 and did not return to Duluth, nor midwifery. Read Bakk-Hansen’s and Gina Temple-Rhodes’ fascinating two-part history of childbirth in Duluth here and here.

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