On May 21, 1939, 37-year-old widow Hilja Johnson of Butte, Montana, died at Butte's Murray Hospital from septic complications of an incomplete abortion. Since her death certificate says, "Infection from gas producing bacteria," she most likely died from a Clostridium perfringens infection, most commonly known as gas gangrene.

Hilja was employed by the W. P. A. as a seamstress. She had been born in Wyoming to immigrants from Finland.

A surgical nurse, Gertrude Pitkanen (pictured), admitted at the coroner's inquest that Hilja had come to her office, and that she had later visited Hilka at her home and advised her to go to a hospital. Pitkanen was charged with murder in Hilja's death.

She fled, but was located about a year later, living near Columbia Gardens. She was brought to court in a wheelchair, pleaded innocent, and was jailed in lieu of $5,000 bond. The charges were dropped in 1940, for reasons not reported.

The fact that Pitkanen had married a former Butte police detective several years earlier is an interesting tidbit of information relating to the case.

GertrudePitkanen.jpg
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.

Pitkanen was also charged with the abortion deaths of Violet Morse (August, 1929) and Margie Fraser (October, 1936). 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.

Hilja'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.

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

HiljaJohnsonButteMontanaStandard21July1940.pngSources:

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  1. 1900s
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  3. 1920s
  4. 1930s
  5. 1940s
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  11. 19th century
  12. 2000-2009
  13. 20s
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  15. 40s
  16. NAF
  17. abortifacient
  18. abortion
  19. abortion mill
  20. abortion mortality
  21. abortionists
  22. abortionists -- female
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  24. alabama
  25. anesthesia
  26. arizona
  27. black women
  28. born alive
  29. botched abortion
  30. california
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  33. connecticut
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  36. deaths
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  40. district of columbia
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  42. ectopic
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  45. fetal indications
  46. florida
  47. former criminal abortionist
  48. george tiller
  49. georgia
  50. hemorrhage death
  51. hospitals
  52. illegal - doctor
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  54. illegal - nurse
  55. illegal - paramedical
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  60. illinois
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  65. indiana
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  92. ru-486
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  95. secret abortion
  96. self-induced
  97. suicide
  98. teens
  99. texas
  100. wisconsin