Tuesday, May 21, 2024

May 21, 1939: Third Death, Still No Prison for Doctor's Widow

A B&W portrait of a middle-aged, plump white woman with round eyeglasses and short, curly, dark hair.
Gertrude Pitkanen
On May 21, 1939, 37-year-old widow Hilja Johnson, nee Ruovasala, of Butte, Montana, died at Butte's Murray Hospital from septic complications of an incomplete abortion. She had been sent to the hospital by Dr. Caroline McGill, who had been called to Hilja's home to examine the sick woman. 

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 had been employed by the W.P.A as a seamstress. She had been born in Wyoming on March 16, 1902 to immigrants from Finland. She left behind her mother and two daughters. 

A surgical nurse, Gertrude Pitkanen, 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. She denied having perpetrated an abortion. Nevertheless, 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 not guilty, and was jailed in lieu of $5,000 bond. The charges were dropped in 1940, for reasons not reported.

Pitkanen, born in 1878 in Lincoln, Nebraska, had completed 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 had earlier been charged with the abortion deaths of Violet Morse (August 1, 1929) and Margie Fraser (October 11, 1936).  

A woman who was a student nurse at St. James Hospital in Bute remembered Pitkanen's victims. "They died horrible deaths from infection," she told a reporter from the Montana Standard.

The fact that Pitkanen had married a former Butte police detective might explain the lack of prosecution in spite of the multiple deaths. Abortion was also a sideline for her; she seemed to make more money selling babies on the black market than aborting them.

According to her death certificate, Pitkanen died of a brain bleed on April 19, 1960 at the age of 81.

Watch Third Death, Sill No Prison on YouTube.


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