*WARNING: Disturbing and controversial content
A Midwife’s Character Is Questionable
I recently connected with another writer-historian, Mary Kircher Roddy, who has been collecting articles about Pauline (Youderian) Riebe. If you’ve been following Generations of Stories, then you’re probably already pretty familiar with the story of how Denver midwife, Pauline, adopted my great-grandmother, Minnie (Wilka) O’Reilly (also known as “Great”). Today’s article deals with the identity of Pauline and what can be gleaned about her character and motives based on historical records and newspaper items. It also attempts to tackle the very challenging and controversial topic of abortion in a way that I hope is thoughtful and considerate of all perspectives.
Mary shared well over 30 articles regarding Pauline that highlighted problems with her different husbands and run-ins with the law, including accusations of murder. Although I had previously known that Pauline had been a midwife, Mary’s research uncovered details I had never considered. This new information confirmed that I was on the right track as to the true nature of Pauline’s personality.
Before reading these articles, my understanding of midwives and the services they provided was very limited. I’d always assumed that midwives only helped women bring their children into the world. It was an eye-opener to learn that many midwives were engaged in removing children from it as well.
Without getting into a debate as to whether or not abortion is evil, it’s easy to understand that there were numerous reasons a woman might be desperate enough to choose that route. Poverty and illness come to mind, but pregnancy outside of marriage was just as compelling as a factor. Today, few people think twice to see a single mother raise a child on her own, but even well into the 1960’s, the stigma for women who became pregnant outside of wedlock was intense. Such women and their children were subjected to harsh treatment and punishment. At the very least, women were sent to institutions and homes where they were put to work– often without pay, and pressured to give up their children for adoption. Many times, their own families forced this decision upon them.
Women who chose to keep their babies and raise them on their own were marginalized by society, struggling to find enough work to keep their families alive–not an easy feat in a time when there were few jobs available for women. What made it worse is that disgraced women were often turned away from positions because of their reputation. Even the children, who were innocent of the “sins” of their parents, were treated unfairly and shown rough “justice”. At best, the communities they lived in labeled them as “illegitimate” and at worst, “bastards”. Even if a woman came from a family of wealth and good-standing, by the time she had her child out of wedlock, she was reduced to poverty through ostracization and humiliation. It’s easy to see how abortion was the option of choice for so many women. Why bring a child into a world that abused them and resented any care that was provided for them once they were born?
It seems that there were two sides of the coin regarding the work of a midwife– the healer/helper that I’d always believed them to be, and the responsibility of extinguishing unborn children in order to see to the welfare of the mother. In the hands of someone with a conscience, this can literally be a life-saving opportunity for the individual who is already living– the mother. It can provide her the chance to return to her life with a clean slate or prevent her and/or her family from being dragged further into poverty. It can even also protect a woman who suffers from severe health issues from descending into a worse condition or even death.Unfortunately, not everyone who practiced as a midwife did so with a conscience. Pauline Riebe seems to be the perfect example of such an individual. After reading all of the information that Mary Kircher Roddy had collected on her, I created a timeline that merged the new details with the ones I already had, and a better picture of who Pauline was as a person came into focus and encouraged my opinion that not only was she a sociopath, but that her work as a midwife was motivated by greed and money, rather than the desire to provide real care and support for those in need.
Born in Germany to Andreas and Susannah (Froelich) Guderian (also spelled “Youderian”) in 1851, she and her family immigrated to America in 1861, settling in Wisconsin. By the time she was fourteen years old, she was married to her first husband, August Feist. She had her first child, William A. Feist, around 1868, and married husband number two, Emil Gustav Priebe in 1869. As mentioned in This Is Great!, she had four children with Priebe between 1871 and 1878. On July 6th of 1880, she married August W. Mittelsteadt and in the month of October of that same year, all of her children with Emil Priebe died. It is difficult to point the finger at her as being the cause of their death, as without the proof of historical records, their deaths could have occurred naturally through illness or epidemic. However, the evidence of her reckless disregard for human life as noted in the articles presented, casts a heavy shadow of doubt on her innocence in this situation. As of yet, I’ve been unable to find mention of any outbreak or illness in or round Pauline’s community in 1880.
The first incidents of Pauline’s greed-motivated activities were in a series of articles that made national news. The events took place in Wisconsin in 1886 when she was using the name Pauline Mittelsteadt. A few of the articles referred to her as “a professional murderess”, stating that she had confessed to killing a baby by piercing its heart with a darning needle after authorities presented evidence that they had accumulated against her. She received a payment of $300 from the mother for “putting it out of the way”. If this wasn’t already gruesome enough, about a week after the first articles came out (around September 6th), the Shelbyville Daily (14 Sep 1886) stated that she burned a pair of twin babies for $25,000. In another article, she was paid only $25 for the same event, so the truth is unclear. Unfortunately, we have no information that provide details regarding the duration or scope of her punishment– only that her bail was set for $10,000. If she did indeed receive a $25,000 payment, I suspect she was able to pay her own bail.
Pauline’s story picks up again in 1893 in Omaha Nebraska, where by this time she’s married to husband number four, Fred C. Riebe, with whom she had a very turbulent relationship. On May 6th of that year, she was arrested on charges of attempted murder through abortion. News items state that although Pauline was the real breadwinner in the marriage, supporting herself and her husband through her work as a midwife, Riebe often reported her activities to the police when he was angry with her. It seemed that this behavior went both ways, as Pauline wasn’t above doing the same when she was frustrated with him, as he was basically a con artist. She referred to him as a “lazy, good-for-nothing man”. Eventually, they were both so notorious in the community for their nefarious activities, they were run out of Omaha and by 1894, they were in Denver, where Pauline would eventually adopt my great-grandmother in 1902.
In spite of what I’ve learned about midwives through Pauline’s behavior, I believe that most of them were motivated by a real desire to help others and approached their work with heart and humanity. However, I should point out that it wasn’t only midwives who sometimes behaved badly; a percentage of the mothers were without conscience as well, using abortion as a common means of birth control, rather than as a last resort.
There are no easy answers here. I don’t see any black and white in the issue of abortion, but varying shades of gray. I think the real question is this– when an individual looks into their heart, do they truly come from a place of revering and respecting life, or does their real motive come from a place of selfishness, social control, or greed? It’s so easy to lose our humanity, and I think the life of Pauline Riebe and the choices she made are a prime example of someone who lost her way.
Unfortunately, the details given here only scratch the surface of what Mary and I learned. Stay tuned for future articles involving Pauline Riebe, as well as the continuing story of finding Great’s real family as it unfolds.
Due to the fact that most articles on the topic of abortion are biased on one side or the other, I’ll refrain from making recommendations for further reading and allow readers to seek out the information they find informative for themselves.
One more thing– the opinions stated in this article are mine and mine alone.
Heretic: The Life and Death of Akhenaten by Bijit Reed is available on Amazon.com. You can read the first chapter free or “look inside”. It’s available to buy in paperback and Kindle. Click on the link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009H6R8GC