January 17, 2014

The Tragic Story of a Minneapolis Baby Farm

Reprinted with permission from the Alley Newspaper, October 6, 2009, by Sue Hunter Weir
 
"Bring a shawl and get a baby" from a 1908-09 Baby Farm
3341 Nicollet Avenue
 
The babies were buried in unmarked graves in The Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery
 
Between June 24, 1908 and September 6, 1909, 27 infants died at the same address–3341 Nicollet Avenue South. These babies (13 girls, 13 boys, and one whose gender was not recorded) were under the care of “Doctor” Hans Oftedal. As the quote marks suggest, Hans Oftedal was not a licensed physician; he was the proprietor of one of several “baby farms” operating in Minneapolis at the time.
Baby farms were essentially unlicensed boarding houses for infants whose parents were too poor to care for them. The parents surrendered their children to baby farm operators and paid a fee for the care that they believed their children would receive. In some cases, the parents intended to come back and reclaim their children, but in other cases they expected their children to be adopted by families who could provide for them. Adoption was unregulated at that time, and Minneapolis had the dubious distinction of being the baby-trafficking capitol of the Upper Midwest. The Minneapolis Tribune described the adoption trade in Minneapolis as one in which people could “Bring a shawl and get a baby.”
In October 1909, “Doctor” Oftedal shut down his baby farm. He ordered the utilities turned off and abandoned five infants in the care of two teen-aged girls. The girls had no food or supplies with which to take care of the babies. Eventually staff from the city’s Poor Department, as it was called at the time, got wind of what was happening and tried to take charge of the babies. At first the girls declined to give up their charges but eventually turned the babies over to city authorities. The good news was that all of those babies survived although three of them were in poor health. One of them was a five-month old child who had been one of the incubator babies successfully treated at Wonderland Park but who had lost considerable ground after being fed only skim milk while under Oftedal’s care.
After he closed down his operation, “Doctor” Oftedal, his wife, and a woman identified in the press as Nurse Siegel, fled to Seattle, Washington. City officials did not track them down and prosecute them. Indeed, it is doubtful that anyone had any idea about the 27 babies who had died—at least none of the newspapers mentioned them. The babies died from a variety of causes, many of them from gastrointestinal problems or pneumonia. Two of them died from malnutrition. They ranged in age from two days to 18 months old.
The babies are buried in unmarked graves at various locations throughout the cemetery. Their names are Erma Amundson, Marian Bachler, Myrtle Bowen, Wesley Brown, Baby of Catherine Carroll, John Coade, Baby Boy Douglass, Montague Edwards, Henry Hanson, Florence Helmer, Freddie Helmer, Leroy Jackson, Mildred Kenney, Violet King, Baby Girl Lather, Allen Meyers, Francis Mieselt, Elmer Olson, Lucille Ormond, Baby Girl Ross, Luther Severson, Blossom Smith, Wanita Thomas, Twin Girls of Edward Thompson and Walter Wold.
In 1917 the Minnesota Legislature adopted a Children’s Code aimed at regulating adoption and requiring that hospitals and boarding homes that took in homeless children be licensed. The bill was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court on a technicality, but soon afterwards the flaws in the original bill were corrected and the provisions of the Children’s Code were put into practice.
During the 1920s, Hans Oftedal returned to Minnesota. He was no longer a “doctor,” but was listed in the City Directory as a carpenter.


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