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Margie Fraser, Illegal Abortion Death
Surgical nurse charged in death
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On October 13, 1936, 18-year-old Margie Fraser died in a hospital in her hometown of Helena, Montana from complications of a botched abortion.

Abortionist Gertrude Pitkanen

An inquest was held, with eight witnesses, including four physicians. The inquest determined that Margie had undergone the abortion on October 1 in Butte. A surgical nurse, Gertrude Pitkanen (pictured), was charged with manslaughter on October 15.

Pitkanen, born in 1878 in Lincoln, Nebraska, completed her nurse's training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. She moved to Butte in 1907, and was one of the first surgical nurses at St. James Community Hospital, assisting her husband, Dr. Gustavus Pitkanen. Dr. Pitkanen was an abortionist until he was jailed for sedition in 1917, whereupon his wife took up the curette.

Nurse Pitkanen pleaded innocent in Margie's death and posted $5,000 bond. Due to insufficient evidence, and difficulty in finding witnesses, the charges were dropped on April 29, 1937. The fact that Pitkanen had married a former Butte police detective several years earlier is an interesting tidbit of information relating to the case. This former detective, William VanOrden, arranged for a sanity hearing for his wife shortly after the case was dropped. Pitkanen was held for several days before being declared sane and released.

Pitkanen was also charged with the abortion deaths of Violet Morse and Hilja Johnson. A woman who was a student nurse at St. James Hospital in Butte remembered Pitkanen's victims. "They died horrible deaths from infection," she told a reporter from the Montana Standard.

Margie's abortion was unusual in that it was performed by a nurse, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.

Illegal by Doctors Illegal by Paramedical Illegal by Amateurs Self Induced

Keep in mind that things that things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future. For more about abortion in this era, see Abortion in the 1930s.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

Source: "Black Market Adoption", Denver Post, August 4, 2002; "Gertrude Pitkanen -- Butte's Notorious Abortionist", by Peter Chapin; "Gertie's Babies", People, October 7, 2002

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