Birthing in the Zenith City, Part II

The story of the Zenith City’s birth cannot be told without including the tale of the midwives who ushered most native-born Duluthians into the world before World War I. While Duluth boasted medical doctors as early as the 1870s, and the wealthiest of its expectant citizens might call upon these physicians to attend births, the vast majority of women did what they had always done: they called the midwife.

Sara Wheeler, who—along with Hebzibah Merritt—acted as a midwife on nearly every birth in Oneota Township from the 1850s to the 1880s. (Image: Tome Wheeler)

Pregnancy and childbirth were both, quite literally, not to be mentioned in public before the turn of the 20th Century. Newspaper advertisements for various patent medicines usually either alluded to the condition or went so far as to “bleep” the words out as obscenities, printing a line instead of the text. After about 1900, when these ads began to use formerly forbidden words, it must have been about as jarring as when the word “jackass” first hit broadcast television a decade or so ago.

So perhaps it’s understandable that in a combination of being both unmentionable and integral to the sphere of “women’s business,” midwives for the most part went unnamed in the earliest annals of Duluth history. We know that Sara Wheeler and Hepzibah Merritt helped with the birth of children in Oneota Township beginning in 1858, but others have not left their stories behind as the Wheelers and Merritts have. In the muddy pioneer days, the midwife was probably just an older neighbor lady who’d had several babies herself, but as the city grew, professional midwives of various educational backgrounds arrived.

The earliest mention of a Duluth midwife in the public record is in the November 10, 1877 Duluth Minnesotian, which reported that “Old Mrs. Hanson, the midwife” went to visit a man named Anton Arronson for a “friendly gossip” only to be shoved out the door, injuring her leg. For this assault, she was awarded “$5 and costs.” The incident was reported in the “Local Rip-Raps” column, where the newspaper editors commented on minor criminality with jaunty amusement.

Midwifery in Duluth from the 1880s until the 1910s was largely practiced among immigrants, and thusly was centered in the West End and West Duluth, where most immigrants found a home. The midwives’ names were primarily Scandinavian, but occasionally Italian or Irish in origin. While midwives traditionally attended births at the expectant mothers’ own homes, some progressive midwives offered a “private hospital,” often simply the midwife’s apartment or house. This development usually meant cleaner surroundings and the lack of children underfoot or other household chaos.

Midwives advertised primarily in the classified section of the newspaper. Some would advertise their private hospitals regionally, which made it possible for unmarried women to “hide their shame” by traveling to another town to give birth. These same private hospitals would then provide for the adoption of the babies. (Occasionally, some midwives were accused of running “baby farms,” where coercion, kidnapping, swapping and baby-selling came into play.)

Midwives of this era operated in an arena of increasing professional and legal pressure, as doctors sought to bring childbirth under their supervision and legislators answered the demands of these relatively powerful constituents.

The transition from midwifery births to the medicalization of childbirth is a well-documented process in the annals of women’s history, and Duluth was a battleground like everywhere else. National and even international stories about midwives caught performing multiple illegal abortions hit the local papers regularly, peppered with horrific details involving dismemberment and remains found in cook stoves. Cautionary notices about infant blindness and other injury caused by midwives were published far and wide, and public figures like Helen Keller called for the abolition of midwifery altogether.

Cultural beliefs were shifting, pushed by a relentless media campaign. If a woman or infant died in childbirth attended by a doctor, then it was presumed to be providence. If the same happened with a midwife, the attendant was sure to be blamed.

The modernization of medical standards meant registration and licensing, but also often involved prejudicial beliefs against midwives as inherently incompetent because of their gender and their class. They were women, and they were immigrants—and therefore doubly suspicious.

Ridding the world of midwives was widely seen by the medical profession and other powerful forces at the turn of the 20th century as a sign of Progress with a capital P. The stories of two of Duluth’s most prominent midwives serve to illustrate how this progress played out.

Haldora Olson, an immigrant from Iceland and arguably Duluth’s most prominent midwife. (image: Zenith City)

Doing Everything Right
Haldora Olson and her family emigrated from Iceland to the United States in 1889 when she was 44 years old, settling immediately in Duluth. Like many midwives of the era, Olson inherited her profession from her mother, but she had more knowledge than most: Olson was a “graduate midwife,” having studied obstetrics at the Iceland School of Midwifery.

In those tumble-loose days of medicine, becoming a doctor or a graduate midwife might mean anything from “I attended a seminar” to “I went to a medical college.” In Haldora Olson’s case, however, it is clear she took pains to be a professional of the highest order.

In 1891, Minnesota lawmakers William W. Mayo of Rochester, Dr. John Bel of Minneapolis and Dr. Werner Hemstead of Brainerd spearheaded an effort to pass legislation requiring the registration of midwives. As soon as Olson learned English, she was among the first wave to register. Around 1905, she enlarged her home at 329 North 58th Avenue West, making it a private hospital with 12 beds. She was the first to get her hospital certified by the city health department.

To comply with laws disallowing forceps or surgery (including suturing) by midwives, Olson invented an “obstetrical appliance”—a ribbon meant to go around the jaw of an infant in the birth canal, with loops for the midwife to pull the baby out. (Her device was patented in 1900.)

This photograph (retrieved from microfilm), showing the healthy babies born with the help of Haldora Olson, appeared in the Duluth News Tribune in 1910. (Image: Xenith City)

The Duluth News Tribune published an article celebrating Olson’s hospital and achievements in 1907, extolling its “marvelous success and popularity.” It was illustrated with a dignified portrait of Olson and a large photo of a bevy of chubby, healthy-looking babies. The article reported that Olson had attended 1,100 births in 14 years and had “built up the largest obstetrical profession at the head of the lakes.”

Olson was active in West Duluth’s Ladies’ Aid and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also advocated strongly for Duluth’s wealthy to join her in building a bigger, better hospital for women. In 1911, the News Tribune publicized her quest for “a maternity hospital where worthy poor women and wayward girls can be taken care of during illness at a reasonable cost.” It read in part:

…the majority of cases which come under her care are those of women and girls who are financially unable to meet the greater expenses charged at larger institutions, that many of these come from districts where proper medical aid or care during illness cannot be secured…. She invites the closest scrutiny of people who might become interested in assisting in the project and has secured the aid of Rev. S. A. Jamieson and Alderman L. A. Barnes to act as trustees for any funds subscribed towards this end.

Despite all her education and professionalism, Haldora Olson could not stay on the right and proper side of the law forever.

As World War I dawned, various public policies involving infant welfare emerged. One of the most difficult policies to implement and enforce became the requirement for birth registration. People just didn’t see why the government needed to know when and how another citizen was born, and in fact, it seemed clear to most that the reasoning behind registration was in part due to the administrative difficulties encountered by a government in wartime. Should there be another war after The War to End All Wars, the government needed to know where to find its eligible young men.

To comply with laws disallowing forceps by midwives, Olson invented an “obstetrical appliance”—a ribbon meant to go around the jaw of an infant in the birth canal, with loops for the midwife to pull the baby out. (Image: Public Domain)

Both doctors and midwives got in trouble with the new requirement that they keep a registry of all births, noting the time, place (ward and street), the child’s “sex and color,” and the name and residence of each parent. Not only must physicians and midwives keep such records (which many were not accustomed to doing), but they were also required to provide a copy of these records to the board of health within five days of the birth.

Newspapers at the time frequently reported doctors failing to comply with the law, or keeping shoddy records. In 1917, Olson was arrested for “alleged failure to comply with the law.” She had filed a certificate fourteen days late. Olson was released on bail, and later paid a fine. Public Safety Commissioner Bernard Silberstein was reported to have said, “It is certain that the department will do everything in its power to safeguard the public health at all times.”

Haldora Olson died in 1921 at the age of 66. While there were brief abortive efforts to create a separate charity-funded maternity hospital on Jefferson Street, run by the wealthy ladies of the East End, Olson was never, as far as can be determined, invited to preside over its administration. What happened to her private hospital is unknown, and the building no longer exists.

At the time of Olson’s death, she was a widow living with her son Oliver and his family. He was a physician in private practice. It seems she had no daughters to follow in her footsteps. She is buried next to her husband in Oneota Cemetery.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


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