Tale of Two Midwives

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

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.

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 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.

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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.