On August 1, 1929, 22-year-old schoolteacher Violet Morse, of Anaconda, Montana, died at 638 Montana Avenue in Butte, Montana. She died in a room that she had been renting for several days from Mrs. Grace Ybarra, the owner of the house.

Gertrude Pitkanen

Her death certificate, attributing her death to myocarditis (a heart condition) was signed by Gertrude Pitkanen (pictured), who was listed as the attending doctor even though Pitkanen was actually a surgical nurse and a chiropractor.

Violet's father requested a coroner's inquest, which revealed that Violet had actually died of complications of an induced abortion. With abortion illegal, this meant that Violet's death was a homicide, and a new death certificate was issued.

Pitkanen insisted that she had only been called to Violet's bedside after her death. She said that she just forgot to notify the coroner. Interestingly, it had been Pitkanen -- who admitted to knowing that Violet was pregnant -- who sent Violet to the Ybarra house to rent a room.

One of the Morse family friends said that Pitkanen had told him as well as Violet's family that she had given Violet "tablets." Some witnesses said that Violet's fiance, Mark Clemow, had been in Butte with Violet the day before her death, but he denied having been in Butte or having any knowledge about the abortion.

Undertaker Sam White, who would have a responsibility to report a suspicious death, indicated that he didn't think there was anything suspicious about being asked to take Violet's body out the back door of the house, since this, he said, wasn't unusual.

With no way to verify that Pitkanen had performed the abortion, she was simple censured for failing to notify proper officials about the death, as well as for falsifying the death certificate.

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 Margie Fraser 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.

Violet's abortion was unusual in that it was likely 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 1920s.

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

  • "Black Market Adoption", Denver Post, Aug. 4, 2002
  • "Gertrude Pitkanen -- Butte's Notorious Abortionist", by Peter Chapin
  • "Gertie's Babies", People, Oct. 7, 2002
  • Silver Bow County, Montana death certificate #35901
  • "Autopsy Ordered in Case of Girl Found Dead Here," Butte Montana Standard, Aug. 3, 1929
  • "Morse Inquest Set for Today," Butte Montana Standard, Aug. 13, 1939
  • "Probe Continued in Girl's Death," Butte Montana Standard, Aug. 14, 1929
  • "Criminal Case Filed Against Mrs. Pitkanen," Butte Montana Standard, Sept. 18, 1929
  • "Unknown Person Killed Teacher, Verdict Asserts," Butte Montana Standard, Aug. 28, 1929






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