August 4, 2002
Putting a price on their past - Questions haunt Montana residents sold into adoption
Author: Ron Franscell ROCKY MOUNTAIN RANGER
BUTTE, Mont. - On a dark Montana night in 1951, a car lurched to the side of a lonely road. Inside were a man, a woman and a newborn infant. Even if someone had passed at that hour, a sickle moon didn't throw enough light to see the man drop something into the brush before speeding off into the night, into the future.
What they left behind, in the past and in the barrow pit, was the last real connection between their new baby and her mother, who lay in a forlorn bed somewhere back in Butte. She'd allowed the baby to be taken from her, along with the placenta and any future memories that would bind mother and daughter.
Nothing could be done about the memories, but the afterbirth was dumped in the dirt like roadkill.
Sue Docken Cheney's parents paid $500 for her that night 51 years ago, and everyone was happy.
Cheney got a family who wanted her, and they got "a special child God had given them." The birth mother eluded a responsibility she couldn't face. And Dr. Gertrude Pitkanen, a Butte abortionist whose services were rendered to prostitutes as well as "good girls" in trouble, was $500 richer.
Now a school bus driver in Belgrade, Mont., Cheney is one of "Gertie's Babies," a handful of what she and others believe might be dozens or even hundreds of black-market babies sold by Pitkanen between 1933 and 1957.
These 12 adults, many parents of their own children, all ask the same question: Who are our mothers?
"Who are we?" Cheney asks.
"Other people have blood relatives, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. We probably do, too, but we don't know who and where they are."
For now, Gertie's Babies have one another, seven women and five men, siblings of circumstance bound in a family as close as any without blood ties.
And for better or worse, they share one other thing: Gertrude Pitkanen.
Pitkanen practiced in Butte for more than 25 years, although she was not really a medical doctor. She'd been trained as a nurse and a chiropractor, and worked for her husband, Dr. Gustavus Pitkanen - a feisty radical once convicted of sedition - until his death in 1930.
From him, she learned the tricks of abortion. Her practice was an open secret in Butte and surrounding communities, and she was a great comfort to Butte's thriving red-light district.
She was charged three times with manslaughter or murder after young women died in botched abortions. Each time, charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
Her black-market baby sales were less known. The transactions were usually so swift, the afterbirth was sometimes bundled up with the child.
She forged birth certificates to make it look as if the adoptive parents gave birth. Years later, many Butte old-timers quietly admit they knew about the abortions, but were surprised by the lucrative " adoptions " Pitkanen arranged.
"A person likes to have a past, present and future," says Heather Livergood of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "But there's a piece missing. The past is what I don't know much about. And the question, "Why did they give me up?' is always lingering in my mind."
Now 56, Livergood was born in a Butte motel room in 1946. She has three grown children and has been married for 34 years - a good return on her adoptive father's $100 investment.
Gertie's Babies wrestle with Pitkanen's memory. Her greed, her unseemly profession and rumors of a cruel streak hardly make her a sympathetic figure, but these babies were given a chance at life with a new family. They are haunted by the likelihood that the remains of Pitkanen's aborted "patients" were simply dropped in her third-floor incinerator, nameless and forgotten.
Pitkanen kept five unwanted children for herself, and Gertie's Babies have heard their stories of abuse.
"If Gertrude Pitkanen didn't perform her service, someone else would have," Livergood says today. "I feel lucky that I was placed with a good family. I thank my lucky stars that I wasn't placed within (Gertie's) house. It's a known fact that she used to beat the children she kept. Personally, I think she was a very clever and devious woman."
Others are less sanguine.
"I have no respect for her at all," says Bonnie DeHaan Gower, 49, of Belgrade, Mont. "It was a cruel thing she did, but I'm glad I'm alive."
Gower, now a nurse, recalls a long-ago school assignment to create a family tree. It meant nothing to her.
Shortly before she was married, she tried to trace her parentage - and discovered her birth certificate had been forged.
Later, she found out her adoptive parents had paid $500 for her. Beyond that, her roots remain a mystery.
"My parents tell me they don't remember anything," she says, "and that's really frustrating. Somebody has got to know."
Mable Page Deane was in the fifth grade when she found out she was adopted. She later discovered her own adoptive mother was part of Pitkanen's illicit network, secretly brokering other adoptions .
She was told her real mother was the daughter of a prominent Montana legislator. True? Nobody knows.
Deane, 52, is now an accountant in Bozeman, Mont., the record-keeper for Gertie's Babies. She collects copies of birth certificates, photos, articles and other documents in her files, careful to discriminate between what little is known and what is not.
"It's important for me to find out my birth parents' medical histories, but also to find out the extent of my mother's involvement," Deane says. "The information's out there. There are people who know."
Sherry Keller of Houston was the first to actively explore the circumstances of her birth, and helped bring Gertie's Babies together.
At 16, she discovered papers in her mother's trunk suggesting she'd been born on July 6, 1952 - two weeks before the date her family celebrated. On July 6 that year, she baked herself a cake, enraging her mother, who refused to ever again talk about Sherry's birth.
Now 52, she's been married to her psychiatrist-husband for 24 years, raised four stepchildren and works in a Texas psychiatric hospital.
By 1990, her search intensified, leading her to other babies sold by Pitkanen.
"On an emotional basis, I need to find the "missing piece' to complete the first chapter of my life," she says today, "and if there are people that can provide it to me. It is my absolute right as a human being."
Like her "sisters and brothers," she seeks answers, and a sense of belonging.
"I am saddened that I have no closure to the situation," Keller says. "Closure to me would be finding my ethnic background, a complete family, social and medical history of my birth parents. If I were able to look in their eyes and touch them, it is my opinion that the missing piece would complete the puzzle of my life."
A few years ago, some of Gertie's Babies visited the old building in downtown Butte where several of them were born. Once convenient to both the bus station and the red-light district, it's now an office building. The experience shook them.
"We realize there's not much chance of a happy reunion," Gower admits. "We're prepared for the fact there might be no reconciliation. But give us a photo, some history, a reason we were given up for adoption , anything.
"Maybe my birth mother doesn't even know I'm alive. Who knows what Pitkanen told the mothers?"
Pitkanen later remarried, to a retired Butte detective. She died at home in 1960 at age 82, leaving some money to her adopted children and, ironically, to the Widows and Children's Home in Eaton Rapids, Mich.
Whether she was cruel or callously pragmatic, Pitkanen binds Gertie's Babies forever.
"We have a bond," Keller says. "We were all touched by Gertrude Pitkanen, and Gertrude Pitkanen touched each of our mothers. In that sense, we have a circle of family."