Shopping Cart



Heart Problems

Vicki Madden

On the day Violet Morse died in Butte, Montana, the headlines told of a German dirigible fighting to outrun a storm across the Atlantic Ocean in its record-setting round-the-world trip. Charles Lindbergh reported seeing Mayan ruins from the air after turning inland over Quintana Roo, an area “ white men had never penetrated.” In Butte, the thirty-four-year-old wife of the president of the Montana Coca-Cola Company had died shortly after bearing her fifth baby, and the police were taking fingerprints from a dead man in an attempt to identify a carnival follower who’d been shot and killed during what authorities called “a small riot.”

Butte in 1929 was known to be disreputable. That Violet died in Butte was the first suggestion that something was not natural about her death. It was a mining town, after all, so first and foremost, it was dirty. One young woman reporting her impressions of Butte in the early years of the twentieth century told of the ugliness; the smeltery fumes had killed all the vegetation. People had to go out in the early morning before the fumes got intense, and they wore handkerchiefs over their faces.

In 1907, Craftsman magazine published an article titled, “Redeeming the Ugliest Town on Earth.” It was about Butte.

The city was full of miners with a high percentage of unattached young men. Butte’s red-light district rivaled those of New Orleans and San Francisco. One prostitute, self-described as sheltered in spite of five years in the bordellos in eastern cities, recalled her “shuddering horror” at Butte’s “seamy side of the underworld.” When Carrie Nation brought her public campaign against vice to Butte, the city’s most prominent madame, May Maloy, came out into the street, where she and Carrie Nation engaged in fisticuffs in front of a gathered crowd. Carrie Nation lost.

Violet’s body was found on Thursday, August 1, 1929.

From that day on, Violet Morse’s public identity was fixed: the reports of inquests and autopsies all described her as a twenty-two-year-old Anaconda schoolteacher.

Two years earlier, when there were still at least a few possible lives Violet might have lived, her name began to turn up in a college newspaper out of Dillon, Montana. Dillon is the county seat of Beaverhead County in southwestern Montana, where online maps still refer to large geographical areas as the Hoffman Place, the Ball Place, the Fries Place—names of ranchers who owned huge spreads.

Violet grew up with her parents in Anaconda, seventy-five miles from Dillon. Isack Morse, her father, was an engineer, according to census records. Anaconda was home to the Anaconda Smelter Stack, which smelted copper from the Butte mines and was the tallest masonry structure in the world in 1919. Anaconda’s population peaked in 1930 at almost thirteen thousand souls. Lucille Ball lived there briefly as a child. The first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins came from Anaconda.

I’d like to follow Flaubert’s advice and give you three vivid details about Violet’s physical appearance, but I can only rely on news sources, which called her pretty and popular. Somehow I imagine she was a brunette, but her mother emigrated from Sweden, so it’s more likely she was blond.

In February 1927, two years before her death, Violet received her teaching certificate along with dozens of other young women at the Montana State Normal School in Dillon. The following month, she was chosen for the varsity volleyball team.

The Montana Standard, the daily paper of Butte, which was one of the largest cities in the western United States at that time, had a section called Anaconda Briefs and one called Jackson Notes. Violet turns up in both, as she was from Anaconda but now teaching school in Jackson. In early December 1928, we learn that Miss Violet Morse visited friends in Jackson Saturday afternoon. On Christmas Day 1928, “Miss Joy Morse, student of the Normal College at Dillon and Miss Violet Morse, teacher at Jackson, are in the city to spend the holidays with their parents.”

Violet was the oldest of five children, according to the 1920 census. Her parents, Isaac and Christine, were both forty-five years old that Christmas of 1928, the last time they’d celebrate that holiday with their eldest daughter. Iva, as the census named her, now known as Joy or Ivey, according to different newspaper articles—these personal name changes make historical research difficult—was three years younger than Violet. Then came two teenage brothers and another sister, ten years younger than Violet.

In March 1929, the Dillon Tribune reported on “a delightful dinner,” hosted by the Neidts on Sunday at their ranch home. “Dinner” in this case means lunch, and a ranch home means an actual house on a ranch rather than the low-slung homes of midcentury America, oriented around the garage and patio.

Also in March in Dillon, Miss Violet Morse and Mrs. Camas Nelson were the hostess committee for a session of the Royal Neighbors. After the meeting these hostesses arranged for the members to be “entertained at cards and luncheon… Pinochle was the diversion, eight tables being at play. High scores went to Mrs. Alan Dansie and Mark Clemow.” Mark Clemow will turn up again in this investigation.

In May 1929, just three months before Violet died, she visited her sister Joy, and a week later she spent the weekend in Dillon, returning to Jackson to teach school Monday morning. Who was she meeting in Dillon? Was that the fateful encounter? Lest you think Violet Morse was somehow special to be named so often in the newspapers, I offer the full listing of the Jackson County News from the Dillon Tribune for Friday, May 17, 1929:

Rosie Wenger returned from Dillon on Tuesday having been there for a track meet.
 Miss Violet Morse returned from Dillon on Monday.
 The P.T.A. held a splendid meeting Friday, the county nurse was present and examined the children and the teachers put on a fine health program.
 A.W. Wilson left for Butte last week where he will remain for some time having dental work done.

Our last sighting of Violet alive comes from the Dillon Tribune on Friday, June 21, 1929. “Mr. and Mrs. Diggle Emerick, Miss Violet Morse and Tom Lubin were week-end guests at the Clemow home.” When I read this, I hadn’t yet seen the inquest results, so I didn’t understand it was Clemow I’d want to trace, Mark Clemow. So instead I went after Tom Lubin but found nothing. I chased Diggle Emerick for a generation or two, exploring how the Emericks came to Montana, his or his wife’s illness and travel to the Mayo Clinic, until finally I decided this wasn’t the key to Violet’s demise.

What can we know for sure about Violet’s death? Only what the newspapers reported, and even that, as we’ll see, raises as many questions as answers.

ANACONDA. AUG. 1—(SPECIAL)—Miss Violet Morse, 22, beloved daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Isack Morse, 617 Walnut Street, died this afternoon in a Butte hospital after a brief illness. Miss Morse was born here and received her education in the Anaconda schools. Her death is mourned by a host of friends.
         Besides her parents, she is survived by two sisters, the Misses Ivey and Inis Morse and two brothers, Robert and Elmer Morse, all of Anaconda. The body is at the White chapel in Butte, pending funeral arrangements.

Following the request of Isack Morse of Anaconda that an investigation be made into the death of his daughter, Miss Violet Morse, 22 years old, County Attorney Harrison J. Freeborn yesterday ordered that an autopsy be held in the case.
         The girl was found dead in a Nevada Street home here Thursday morning, authorities said. They did not state what suspicions had led to the investigation.

BUTTE, AUG. 2.—(AP—An autopsy and investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death here Thursday of Violet Morse, 22, well-known Anaconda girl, was ordered Friday by County Attorney Harry Freebourn. Miss Morse died suddenly and the investigation was requested by her parents. Isack Morse, father of the girl, refused to tell reporters why he asked for the probe.

Already, we can see contradictions and confusion: first it is reported that Violet died in the hospital after a brief illness, but then it comes out that she was found dead in a house on Nevada Street.

Violet’s father requested the investigation but refused to say why. We can only imagine the shame complicating his grief, but he had to have been considering the family reputation and his four younger children. At first, I could find almost nothing on the man’s life—Isack or Isaac Morse of Anaconda seemed to disappear after his fifteen minutes of fame surrounding his daughter’s death. But when I searched for records on Violet’s siblings, I discovered that their father went by Roy. His full name was Isaac Del Roy Morse, but everywhere on and in newspaper wedding announcements, I found him and his wife referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Roy Morse. In giving a different name to the reporters, I suspect he was trying to protect his other children, especially his two surviving daughters, from the shame of this scandal. He wouldn’t be the only one to publicly deny or distance himself from Violet after her death.

The name changes of Violet’s father and sister are perhaps trivial illustrations of the difficulty of knowing accurately even simple factual matters from the past, let alone private actions not made public. In the weeks after her death, some news articles began to report that Violet was twenty-three years old. Was this a correction? Had she had a birthday between the death and the inquest? We make do with what facts we have and then conjecture, based on knowledge of human nature and other contemporary people of similar class and location, but ultimately we depend on our own psychology to imagine the details of events we cannot know.

Censuring Mrs. Gertrude Pitkanen for signing a false death certificate and for having failed to notify proper officials of a death, a coroner’s jury found at an inquest yesterday that Violet Morse, 22-year-old Anaconda teacher, died last August 1st as a result of a criminal operation, performed by an unknown person.

In spite of a death certificate saying heart problems, what had become clear from the reports, no matter how circumspect the newspapers might be and how inconclusive the final verdict, is that Violet Morse died as a result of trying to end a pregnancy. I’d initially thought that June weekend with Tom Lubin and Mr. and Mrs. Diggle Emerick was the key. But if Violet conceived in late June, could she already have lined up an abortion for August 1st—or more accurately, the last days of July, since she was found dead on August 1st? How could she be so sure? If her periods were regular, she would’ve missed one in early July. But hope and fear would’ve still been battling it out, I would think, for a few weeks. No, even a highly organized and decisive schoolteacher would not have acted so soon, to my way of thinking. She had to be farther gone to have made such a choice.

The pretty school teacher was found dead at 638 Nevada Street in a house where she had rented a room for a few days. The session yesterday concluded the inquest, which started two weeks ago. Testimony of Dr. J.R.E. Sievers and Dr. P.E. Kane, autopsy surgeons, and a written report from Dr. T.F. Walker of Walker Laboratories in Great Falls indicated that the girl had died as the result of an attempted abortion.
         Mrs. Pitkanen, who testified that she is not a physician but a licensed chiropractor, signed the death certificate giving myocarditis, a heart disease, as the cause of death. She testified at the inquest yesterday that she had not treated the Morse girl, although the latter had asked her to help her.
         A. Lafty, a friend of the Morse family, testified that Mrs. Pitkanen had admitted to him and the family shortly after the death of the girl that she had given her “tablets.”


Mark Clemow, son of a prominent Jackson rancher, near whose home Miss Morse was teaching school, also was called to testify. He denied that he had been in Butte with Miss Morse the day before she died, as was indicated by the testimony of other witnesses. Clemow was engaged to Miss Morse and they were to have been married this fall, he said. He emphatically denied knowing anything connected with the illegal operation.
         Mrs. Pitkanen declared that she was called to the girl’s bedside after she had died and knew nothing of the cause of death. She admitted that she knew of the girl’s condition, but had believed death due to some other cause. She explained her negligence in calling authorities before the body was removed by the undertaker with the statement that she “had forgotten” to call the coroner.


The jury under Acting Coroner J.J. McNamara declared that “Violet Morse, 22, of 617 Walnut Street, Anaconda, died as a result of a criminal operation performed by a person or persons unknown to us.”
         The verdict also contained the following reprimand:
          “We, the jury, censure Gertrude Pitkanen for signing a false death certificate and for having the body removed to the undertaking parlor without notifying the coroner.”

Unknown persons are responsible for this criminal act. Is criminal a more accurate assessment than tragic? There’s no question Violet’s death was tragic: she was young and pretty and popular and about to marry the son of a rich and important rancher. The question, as in all tragedies, is whether Violet’s downfall was due to a flaw in her own character, a wrong judgment. Or was it just the casual play of the gods we call luck? Perhaps the gods were actually punishing the young man, Mark Clemow, or the old man, Isack Del Roy Morse—both of whom would go on to suffer other unexpected losses—and thus Violet’s womb was simply an instrument of dramatic action, collateral damage in the drama of someone else’s fate.

The landscape of the western plains, including the foothills approaching the Rockies, is tough terrain, largely empty of human enclosures. Zebulon Pike called this region the Great American Desert, a term that would be contested and overturned as railroad companies needed settlers to populate the invented towns along the tracks. Montana has always felt like a mystery just out of reach, the contradiction between how lonely the landscape feels to me and the sentimental, even maudlin, nostalgia of my father’s stories. Something about my character made me wonder how it was possible to be a person, let alone a woman, in such a wide-open, hard land, in a culture that valued one’s ability to be silent, especially about personal matters. Silence was the interpersonal correlative to the landscape. And yet, there was always the luminosity at the horizon, drawing one on, the promise of some treasure just out of reach. Or maybe the landscape simply mirrored back one’s self? To the person who didn’t need others in the messy business of human life, perhaps it was friendly.

My people were from southeastern Montana, flatter and dryer than Anaconda, near the scene of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. All four of my grandparents met up and settled on the least fertile acreage in the continental United States.

Montana was on my mind in 2017, but not Butte or Anaconda. I was at a dinner party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when a woman my age, midfifties, told me about her grandparents coming from Anaconda. Her grandfather had worked his way up through the mining company, she said proudly, adding, “My grandmother and her sister took turns attending college, because they couldn’t both afford to go at the same time. So one year her sister would attend while my grandmother taught school, and then next year they’d do the opposite.”

My first response to the woman’s story about her grandfather working his way up was irritation. My relatives never seemed to climb any ladders, working instead only horizontally across the country, always moving on before any value could be accrued, ever westward from West Virginia, Illinois, Bloody Kansas, to Montana and then Washington State. I changed direction at eighteen, taking the red-eye to New York City where I’ve stayed ever since.

My own grandmother had recently died at almost ninety-eight, making her contemporaneous with these virtuous ancestors of the dinner party woman, but Grandma Marge’s eight marriages and divorces, the way she stayed on the move, felt like a different American story. She was a secret-keeper, so habitually closemouthed about anything substantive that she lost the ability to have a real conversation until the last few weeks of her life, when she’d come a bit unhinged, her white hair uncombed, her translucent face wild. In the tv room of the Olympia Arms Nursing Home, she answered what I thought was a simple question about whether she’d graduated high school with a quiet howl, “No, I was raped! I had to leave school.”

I knew she’d married my grandfather, Frank Harrison, twice. I knew she’d married him the first time as a teenager and had her two children—my uncle and my mother—before she turned nineteen, but there now seemed to be so much I didn’t know.

When I went back to the videotape I’d taken of Grandma at ninety, seven years earlier, it started to make more sense.

Me: “Did you… like… Frank right away?” (I was not sure what verb to use. They’d married each other twice, which I’d assumed meant they were driven by intense sexual desire. But she was my grandmother.)

Marge: silent for a long pause as her eyes slid from me to the floor, then a vague distance comes into her voice, “No, I was going with another boy. I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to stay in school.”

It was in that same videotaped interview that I learned I wasn’t the first woman in my family to have a baby by C-section. I asked Marge about her births, and she told me the story of her first birth, my Uncle Stan, when she was seventeen, how she’d ridden into town for the Fourth of July celebration and had Stan three days later. Marge said that as she was approaching her due date the following year with her second baby—who would become my mother—my grandfather came to her and said, “I’ve made an arrangement with the doctor for you to have a cesarean. But you can’t tell anyone, not even your mother.”

This story was both shocking and somehow a confirmation of something I’d known: my first intimation of Grandma’s C-section had come long before I interviewed her at her ninetieth birthday.

I was nine years old. The grass was that phosphorescent shade only visible during peak springtime when the whole universe manifests fecundity.

My mother had set up a homemade slip-and-slide in the backyard. There was a slight downhill under the clothesline, on which she’d laid out a big piece of clear plastic sheeting and then secured the gushing hose to the top of it, so that we, her five children, could approach it at a run and then throw our bodies on the wet, slippery ground to slide to the bottom.

As I stood up after sliding down, panting and happy, I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye the scar on my mother’s belly, from which she’d given birth to me. It might have been that we were all wearing swimsuits, or that the grass burns from miscalculating when to fling myself down triggered some sensory recall. Whatever the instigator of the scar memory, I saw it clearly that day.

The only problem was that it was not her scar.

My mother, Roberta, had five normal births. What I wouldn’t find out for decades was that my grandmother had indeed had a cesarean section when she gave birth to my mother. How did that unknown association come so strongly into my mind, even if I was off by one generation?

That mysterious childhood memory was the only thing that justified, even to myself, this midlife obsessive investigation into why Frank Harrison forced his eighteen-year-old wife to have a cesarean section in 1935 in rural eastern Montana.

In 1935, the year of my mother’s birth, a cesarean section would have been risky. A reliable supply of penicillin, eventually developed in Peoria, Illinois, in a single moldy cantaloupe—from which most of the worldwide supply still derives—had not yet been established. There was strenuous debate in obstetrical journals in the first half of the twentieth century, eventually establishing the low cervical transverse incision as the safest approach rather than the historically used classical vertical incision. Still, there were dangers, as discussed by Dr. Murdoch J. Cameron in his 1923 guide to the technique, based on 107 sections he’d performed while losing only one mother, making him something of a guru:

On the other hand it is an operation for the specialist rather than the general practitioner, and this view should not be lost sight of as small maternity homes staffed by practitioners are being opened in all parts of the country. During extraction of the head I have known alarming haemorrhage result from extensive tearing of the tissues where a transverse incision had been made.

It is unlikely that Marge’s doctor was a surgical expert.

Grandma didn’t know why Frank Harrison had made this plan. She thought he might have owed the doctor money; they were gambling friends. She thought the doctor needed more experience. She said she’d heard the doctor’s wife had died after a similar operation. Like most of Grandma’s stories, that turned out to be false. But there was one fact that ultimately emerged as inarguable: after she had my mother by cesarean section when she was eighteen, my grandmother never had another child. She was sterile.

The British Medical Association in 1930 listed the three top indicators for cesarean section: contracted pelvis, placenta previa, and eclampsia. Placenta previa is not diagnosed until a woman is in labor and the placenta comes first, blocking the baby’s way out, so that could not be the reason for Marge’s section. Eclampsia generally comes on during late pregnancy, with high blood pressure, headaches, and swelling. It’s rare during second pregnancies, and Marge would have known she had it.

Contracted pelvis, still the leading indicator for surgical birth to this day, is the idea that a woman’s pelvis is too small. There was an elaborate system of pelvimetry in which various measurements were calculated to determine if a woman could give birth to the baby she was carrying. It’s not unlike some of the brain-size theories about different racial intelligence levels put forward in the 1920s and 1930s. Like them, pelvimetry is fake science, but it testifies to a persistent fantasy about that most contested territory in a woman, along with the doctor’s need, often with the conspiring help of the husband, to protect what we call during childbirth “the birth canal,” which is known at all other times as the vagina.

The pelvis is not one bone; it’s a system of several bones attached by membranes that stretch, gradually softening throughout the nine months of pregnancy to allow for labor. A tiny echo of that softening and stretching happens with each menstrual period, causing much of the discomfort we think of as PMS. Facts don’t stop doctors from saying, sometimes as the first words to a woman they are meeting, “Your hips look a bit small. We may have to section you.” My sister heard these words from an obstetrician two years before she gave birth at home to an eleven-pound baby.

Marge didn’t have any trouble the first time. After she rode her horse into town, she was staying at her mother’s when labor started. She got her history teacher to drive her to the hospital in Hardin, because he had a car. Marge remembers they had to stop to get the headlights fixed because it was dark. She was lying down in the back seat. “A black cat crossed our path,” she said. (This was the kind of information Marge provided when I asked her about factual events.) At the hospital, Stan was born around midnight—Marge always said it was the sixth of July, even though the birth certificate lists the seventh. Either way, for a first-time mother to get to the hospital after dark—in the long days of July—and have the baby at midnight, we can conclude that Marge gave birth easily.

As of this writing, you can watch an actual C-section from 1930 on YouTube. “Cesarean Section at Full Term for Contracted Pelvis” shows Lieutenant Colonel Spencer Mort operating in London. The woman on the table is completely draped in white cloth, her face covered like a corpse, with just the top of her mountainous belly exposed.

She is a twenty-year-old woman, having her first baby. This diagnosis, then, is based on nothing real except what is in the minds of the doctors. Her “diagonal conjugate diameter” has been measured to be 3.25 inches. They have manually palpated the belly and determined—with certainty, they must feel—that she will be unable to birth her baby.

The preanesthetic treatment: 1/12 grain heroin hydrochloride given thirty minutes before surgery. Then gas and oxygen are applied over the face.

A four-and-a-half-inch incision is made vertically, with the belly button at the midpoint. Scissors are then used to snip open the tissues below. The uterus is cut open. Blood spurts up at this point, and several hands move in to limit the spray, forcing the spurt to angle downward. The black-and-white screen doesn’t show the bright-red blood as a crime scene would. One surgeon inserts a hand up to his wrist into the woman’s belly, as blood streams up and out onto the floor. He wrestles his arm around for several long seconds, then pulls up some pale limbs. The head is still inside the mother. Then it’s up and out, and the baby is floppy, white and motionless, its head hanging loose. The doctor places it on a towel held out by a nurse. Meanwhile, another gloved and masked figure holds onto something inside the mother, probably the placenta. Throughout the video, a nurse places towel after towel around the belly to absorb the blood and other fluids coursing from the open abdomen. The surgeon attempts to remove the placenta and tissues, but they are “very adherent” and he must work delicately to avoid causing hemorrhage. An assistant “steadies the uterus” and applies pressure to the uterine arteries, while “Sister has given ½ cc Pituitrin,” an extract of bovine posterior pituitary hormones, to encourage contractions and the release of the placenta. More towels. Finally the placenta is out.

The uterus is lifted out of the mother’s body. The camera zooms in on gloved hands holding the uterus while the surgeon stitches with catgut. Medical journals featured discussion of the relative merits of catgut versus silk stitches. Catgut usually wins. It’s not actually cat’s guts; it’s made by twisting together strands taken from the small intestines of healthy ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) or from beef tendon.

The long threads, knitting together the uterus, are lifted up, stretched out, and cinched tightly like trussing a turkey or Scarlett O’Hara’s waist, while several hands continually towel away blood.

Next step: “Anterior fossa of peritoneum cleared of blood clots by swabs.” The pouch of Douglas, a little cul-de-sac between the rectum and the back wall of the uterus that tends to collect fluid, is cleaned out. The letters on the screen state “This is very important.” As four hands scrub inside the woman with dish-towel-size swabs of cotton, intestines ooze up and out. Each time, they are pushed back in by gloved fingers.

The white text on black screen reads “Ovaries and tubes examined and found healthy. Patient not sterilised.”

The uterus is popped back down into the cavity.

Two gloved hands now stitch the peritoneum closed, using catgut, while two other hands hold the edges of the skin together using scissorlike tongs, just ahead of the stitching. Finally, the threads are tied into knots and clipped, like a tailor hemming pants. The outer layer of skin gets silkworm gut sutures. The belly is doused with dark antiseptic fluid, the kind we used to use when we skinned our knees, then covered with layers of gauze and tape.

The total time elapsed was seventeen minutes: one minute to deliver the baby and sixteen minutes to put the woman back together.

D. M. Strang signed my mother’s birth certificate. Momma told me she knew two things about the doctor. He moved from Montana to Pacific County, Washington, a memorable coincidence since it’s where she has lived for the past twenty-five years. And he was famous for a triplets birth.

In the 1940 census, D. M. Strang, surgeon, lived in Pacific County. But the 1930 census also shows him living in Pacific County, self-employed as a doctor, so Momma’s idea that he moved there after her birth in Montana isn’t quite accurate. Strang was born and raised in Minnesota and attended Carleton College, where old yearbooks show him active in theater and other clubs. In 1907, he graduated from medical school and got married. In the next four years, he had a son and a daughter and was on the board of trustees of Northfield Hospital, owning shares and helping to establish this new institution. He delivered scores of babies, including his own son, at Northfield, signing the last birth certificate in May 1913. And then suddenly in June, he is in Sprague, Washington, a dot on the map fifty miles from Spokane, applying for a license to practice medicine in Washington State.

Why had he suddenly left his well-established life in Minnesota for somewhere so isolated?

He was still in Sprague in 1918, when his draft registration card tells us he was of medium build with blue eyes and brown hair. Records available attest to his attendance at many deaths, though this is perhaps because few encounters with physicians are recorded unless a birth or death is the result. Throughout the 1920s, he lived at various addresses in Seattle, according to city directories.

The 1930 census shows Strang and his family already living in Pacific County, and the Centralia, a daily newspaper, reported in 1933 that when little Robert Marg cut off the first finger of his left hand in a bark-cutting machine, Dr. Strang dressed the wound. So, if Strang was practicing medicine in Washington State since 1913, how did he come to be in Hardin, Montana, to perform a scheduled C-section in 1935?

We can rule out Grandma’s rumor that the doctor’s wife had died when he did a C-section on her. Mrs. Strang was about fifty years old in 1935, and her youngest child had married the previous year. The Seattle Times reported on her daughter’s wedding in August 1934, referring to “Dr and Mrs Strang of Hardin, Montana.” So he was in Hardin by mid-1934. He didn’t stay long. By 1940, he was back in Pacific County, Washington.

Why does it matter?

Why did he sterilize her?

Marge’s experience of Momma’s birth may have just been another everyday example of the systemic disregard for the feminine voice. During the 1930 London C-section, the narration states that the woman’s uterus was examined and found to be healthy, therefore she was not sterilized. The assumption here is that any C-section was an opportunity for a doctor to decide to sterilize a woman while she was unconscious. No consent required.

The colonization and control of the uterus, the strongest muscle in the body, stronger than anything in a man, takes different forms at different times. Momma was caught up in the hysterectomy craze of the 1970s, losing her uterus around 1975.

When my gynecologist asked me at a routine visit when the women in my family experienced menopause, I had to report “They don’t know.”

Marge’s explanation of her several marriages and divorces (at least six after the two involving Frank Harrison) was that when something bothered her, she thought to herself, “Well, gosh sakes, that’s not right.” Then she left.

There are at least three explanations of why Marge married Frank a second time. Either he promised her a car and that he’d stop drinking if she came back to him, or he was drunk and gave her two black eyes and threatened to kill her if she didn’t come back to him, or he wanted a chance to renegotiate the child support agreement after he lost his good job. This third version also features two black eyes, but the motive is more calculated and secret than the maudlin second version.

When Marge eventually remarried, after the second divorce from Frank, she and her new husband, Glen, wanted to have children. After trying for some time, they consulted a doctor and found out Marge couldn’t have more children as a result of the C-section.

She didn’t know she’d been sterilized.

That’s all Marge would say on camera; no emotional details. Later, Momma said it was something about the way she got stitched up.

“Well, I knew Glen wanted to have a lot of children, so I decided to leave him so he could marry someone else,” Marge reported, seventy or so years later. And she had.

“Did you talk to Glen about it?” I asked as I shifted the video camera on my shoulder to follow her face as she turned away. “Did you discuss it with him?”

“Oh, we didn’t talk about things like that in those days,” she said.

Dr. Strang, according to my mother, achieved some fame related to a triplets birth. Triplets were rare in the days before fertility drugs. In 1938, in the entire state of Montana, only two triplets births were reported. My mother is a woman with a strong and historically accurate memory, but I can’t find any record related to Dr. Strang and triplets. Neither could the research staffs I hired at historical societies in Washington and Montana.

I was still pondering possible reasons when the New York Times ran a story about a baby-selling scheme in Butte from the 1920s to the 1950s. I knew that Frank had spent time in and around Butte. His second wife—the one he killed in a “hunting accident”—was from Butte. And her aunt ran the local whorehouse where Frank went “just to gamble,” according to my mother.

The Times article, combined with Frank’s Butte connections and Momma’s tenacious memory of triplets, gave me the idea that maybe the doctor had palpated multiple babies. That would be a reason for a C-section and, if Frank were planning to sell the extras, Marge would need to be knocked out. The sterilization could’ve been a mistake, a by-product of the surgery that was, as we know, not a job for a general practitioner like Dr. Strang, a guy who dressed the wounds of old people and little boys who severed their fingers in farm equipment. What kind of doctor could you partner with, though, if you wanted to sell extra babies without letting the mother know they’d ever existed? I asked my uncle what Frank had told him about Dr. Strang.

“Oh, he was a drunk,” Stan said, waving his hand dismissively.

Infants sold for up to five hundred dollars each at a time when the country was in a depression and the doctor’s annual salary was only two thousand dollars. The midwife who’d brokered the sales, which people were only finding out about in the twenty-first century because of DNA testing, was Gertrude Pitkanen, the same one who’d lied on the death certificate of Violet Morse.

Relying on memory and coincidence, like the woman at the dinner party in Manhattan who mentioned her Anaconda grandmother just when I was up to my neck in research about Violet Morse, or even newspaper archives for truth has its hazards. The name changes of Violet’s father and sister are perhaps trivial illustrations of the difficulty of knowing accurately even simple factual matters from the past, let alone private actions. Motive is several layers even more remote, even if the perpetrator is fully aware of their own reasons. And few of us are.

Everything about my grandfather’s past was a matter of conjecture. Depending on which stories I chose to believe, he might’ve killed a man in Chicago or spent time in the tuberculosis sanatorium in Deer Lodge. He may have been in prison. He definitely died young, at forty-nine, of a bleeding ulcer, a consequence of severe alcoholism.

It’s impossible to know who Marge was, emotionally, before she was raped by the man she would have to marry as a result—and then two years later sterilized as a result of his actions. Who might she have been? Her absent presence may have been her original character, but certainly the losses and attacks she experienced, and the silence with which she and her culture addressed them, had to have diminished her emotional range and ability to be a full self in the presence of others, or at all. In the end, she wouldn’t even die in front of a family member, waiting until the vigil keeper left the room to slip away.

When I started to paste the article below into this document, it was as if a ghost took over, highlighting several pages and deleting them. I pressed “undo” and tried again. The file became possessed, page after page being highlighted as the text scrolled down, while neither of my hands were on the keyboard. Maybe Marge wants her secrets kept.

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents—all carry with them more than just memories.
     Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. 1

Perhaps one day scientists will discover the exact mechanism behind the psychological and behavioral tendencies toward silence, toward indirection and evasion, like birds avoiding the house where an ancestor was shot generations before, even though different people now live there. The word is passed mutely and never gets revised.

My mother took away only positive memories of her father, she says. But she has behavioral tendencies and warnings to communicate. She didn’t want her daughters to attract attention as girls. When I asked for what my friends had during adolescence—a bra (before I needed one), fashionable articles of clothing, pierced ears—Momma said, “Girls who look older than they are get into trouble.”

I protested, but on some level I took it in. The trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk writes: “Even our biological maturation is strongly influenced by the nature of early attachment bonds.” I did not begin menstruating until I was seventeen and a half, far outside any published range of menarche ages.

We inherit not only physical inclinations, to heart disease or red hair or long faces, but also, as epigenetics is now making clear, emotional and behavioral patterns. From both my maternal grandparents, Frank and Marge, I inherited almost nothing concrete except two pairs of earrings and the dress Marge wore to my parents’ wedding, but I’d been steeped in their evasiveness. Marge had certain well-rehearsed stories she told over and over as if to shield herself from more genuine interaction, but when asked a follow up question or even seeing herself on video telling a story—that I myself had taped her telling!—might say, “Oh, that’s not how it happened at all.” No matter how hard you tried to pin Marge down, she’d cycle her arms, head for the door, and exclaim, “Gotta run!”

Eventually, I would have to wonder if the problem was not just that we were a family with few written records and the habits of cowboys: a tendency to move on, a reverence for silence and deep disgust with any talk of an inner life. My compulsion to investigate these old mysteries, moments when a possible birth turned slantwise and ended in its opposite, stories I’d never be able to solve, has its roots, most likely, in the Saturday night in Greenwich Village that has both receded to historical background in my life and, through unconscious byways governing the movement of my attention and obsession, remained at the forefront of my mind and heart.

At 9:26 p.m. on January 9, 1999, I gave birth to a baby girl who declined to take a breath or beat her own heart once the cord was cut. Another secret keeper. The yards of coiling tape spewing from the heart monitor machine told a beautiful lie, a fiction of rhythmic perfection.

Five doctors and a midwife huddled together in the hallway, examining the heart monitor strip. It was impossible, they said, to have such a story on paper, right next to the table on which lay the baby who had refused to be resuscitated. “You’re one in a million!” a doctor told me.

The Greek chorus gauntlet on Brooklyn sidewalks and playgrounds gave me no rest: “We heard about you!” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Now you get to try again!” “Next time get more testing done! You’re no spring chicken!” Did anyone tell Violet Morse’s survivors that she’d been right where she was supposed to be? A rooming house in Butte? More likely: it was God’s will. It must be comforting to imagine God as a wise figure meting out justice, not some randy old goat like Zeus who might just be using your life to settle an old score.

I return again and again to a narrative that begins in a mystery and gives every sign that the arc of excitement, the discovery of clues, will result in a satisfying conclusion and the unmasking of the villain. But instead, each time, the trail goes cold and I’m left alone, wandering Green-Wood Cemetery, wondering about causality and culpability, matters that grand rounds and autopsies have in fact already judged, repeatedly, to be inconclusive.

When I was a child, I used to sweep our driveway, even though it was unpaved, just packed dirt. It felt purifying to make a clear, flat, smooth surface without rubble or dust on top. I would stand on it barefoot feeling the silkiness of the compressed earth. As I got older, I saw how pointless this was. But a clearing in the dust, an afternoon of diversion at pinochle, a horseback ride into town on a summer day, a baby’s sun-bleached white cotton diaper hanging out on the line: all these moments matter, even if they will soon be soiled, soon disappear in the hourly, daily, yearly cycles that consume our lives.

It has mattered to me to pick apart the strands of inheritance, of nature and nurture and received ideas, to reclaim some piece of territory on which I can stand and name for myself the truth, or some truth. Discovering what actually happened—who, when, where, even if not the full truth, ever, about the real what or why—has freed me to consider that memory and intuition and everything I think I know—about myself and my ancestry, about the gradient of the plot arc and my place in it, about causality—might be explained by some different and unknown set of circumstances.

Nothing official remains of my daughter, no birth certificate or death certificate. Sometimes, less and less often now, I stand on a chair and take down a wooden cigar box stamped Zino Classic Special Selection, in which I keep proof that she was not nothing. I open the metal latch and take out papers: a letter from Old First Reformed Church, “Ministering to the Heart in the Heart of the City,” testifying to our ownership of grave plot no. 365 in section 53/72 of the Cedar Dell Section of Green-Wood Cemetery.

From the New York City Department of Health, I have a certificate of spontaneous termination of pregnancy, which makes it sound like there wasn’t a fully formed seven-pound eleven-ounce baby girl who made her way partway out of my body, far enough for the doctor to feel her pulse in the fontanelle as he cut the cord. The questions at the top of the form are:

“Did the heart beat after delivery?” In all caps, NO is written by hand.

“Was there movement of voluntary muscle?” Again, NO is scrawled.

If the answers had been YES, “Such cases must be reported by filling a certificate of birth and a certificate of death”. On this form, the one filled out when the answers are NO, there are spaces for names only of the mother, father, and doctor, because there was no baby.

I turn back to the cigar box. From March 8, 1999, a faxed two-page report from Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center Department of Pathology. It’s a fax, because we, as the parents, had trouble getting a copy. A friend who was a doctor at Saint Vincent’s obtained it for us. It’s the autopsy report, and it begins with the patient name: Babby Girl Madden. It’s ridden with errors worse than spelling, claiming I was feverish after a “2 day history of spontaneous rupture of membranes.” In fact, my water had been broken for two hours. How can I trust any official records, for Annie, for Marge, for Violet? Was the hospital trying to put the blame on me, an irresponsible woman who would wait two days after her water broke to finally manage to push out the baby? Or was that also a typo like Babby? When I finally got Dr. ______ on the phone to ask him about the cause, wailing “I have to give birth again! I have to understand,” he said, “You’re the mother? I’m not supposed to talk to the mother.” His voice got fainter as he backed away from the phone. Finally he told me the cause, like most infant deaths, was unknown. They could only conjecture.

Next: an Oxford Health Plan identification card for Annie Ebersole, testifying to her membership in the Liberty Plan, member number 558003*03, received a few days before her birth. I feel a secret satisfaction holding this card, like I’ve outwitted the authorities.

Underneath is a pink half sheet, “Newborn Identification, To be completed in the delivery room.” It has my name and the infant’s information: 1/9/1999 @ 9:26 p.m., girl, 7 lbs 11 ounces. Below those handwritten facts, which exist nowhere else, are two inked footprints, proof of Annie’s corporeal existence.

In a corner of the cigar box, there is another tiny box. Inside, a folded square of white tissue paper with barely visible penciled words, in my handwriting: Annie’s hair. I unfold it gingerly. There’s nothing in it. I take off my glasses, wipe my eyes, wonder if I should get a magnifying glass. Can hair decay into nothing? Is twenty years too long? Did someone else, not me, open the box and lose the contents? I look again. Under my desk lamp, I see tiny bits of blond hair distributed over the tissue, looking like part of the paper weave. I remember that when she was born, we thought she was a redhead, but that turned out to be my blood. Her hair was blond, like Jim’s, and absurdly fine, like mine. As I fold the tissue paper back up, I see a minuscule bit of her hair on my desk. I lick my finger and touch it, try to wipe it onto the tissue paper to preserve it, but somewhere between my finger and the paper I’ve lost it.

A pink piece of lined notebook paper with my handwriting, copied from a book, “the death of a baby is a melody played softly through its mother’s life like an intimate dirge, and you have to have died a little yourself to hear the music.” Nora Seton, The Kitchen Congregation.

A carbon copy receipt, paper clipped to a business card, from Brooklyn Monument Company Inc. for a smooth face stone with sandblast letters, for which we paid $1,112.00, reading:

Annie Madden Ebersole

January 9, 1999

You who never arrived in our arms…

1. Dan Hurley, "Trait vs. Fate" (Discover, May 2013)


About the author

Vicki Madden is a New York City teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times. She is a 2019 A Public Space Fellow.

Sign up for A Public Space's Newsletter