The Trump Babies of Milwaukee

Not only were women shielded from learning the very basics of human reproduction — knowledge which could have prevented many pregnancies — but they were also by default seen as unfit to care for their own children. Their choices were limited and of those few choices, each carried its own set of inherent dangers.

If a woman “in trouble” did choose to carry to term, and did not go to great lengths to hide her condition, she was at risk of a far worse fate than ostracism or poverty. Violence against pregnant women and infants was rampant. In many cases, the perpetrator was either the father of the baby, a family member, or both.

In 1938, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor in North Dakota, Heio Janssen, murdered his 16-year-old housemaid, Alma Kruckenberg, simply because she was pregnant. He then burned down his home in an attempt to hide her body. When questioned, Janssen stated impassively:

The devil overcame me. I did wrong. I have a very good Christian wife and two boys any father would be proud of and I feel only too sorry that I bring such grief to them.1

Shortly after his arrest, the pastor was convicted. Janssen admitted he was the father of the unborn child and he had killed Miss Kruckenberg to prevent his family from finding out2.

New York Daily News, 20 Aug 1938: Page 116

Sadly, Janssen’s case was not an isolated occurrence. That same year, 16-year-old Donald Carroll of New York was convicted of murdering his 18-year-old girlfriend when he learned she was pregnant. Carroll testified the death was part of a failed suicide pact. He claimed they had both chosen to end their lives because “death was the only way out.3

This violence wasn’t limited to the mothers. In 1923, Mr. A. Vlemminck of Michigan kidnapped a newborn baby boy from the hospital, believing it belonged to his daughter. Thinking it was the product of his own incestuous act, he killed the infant and disposed of its body in the Detroit River. Twelve years later, it was revealed that he had stolen the wrong baby and had murdered another couple’s child.

At his trial, Vlemminck stated,”I’m sorry I killed your baby. I never would have done it if I had known it was not my child.4

In 1936, after a 17-year-old Minneapolis man’s girlfriend gave birth to their child, he stole the baby from the hospital and drowned it in a nearby river.5

Cases like these appear over and over in simple keyword searches of news archives. Though the murder of mothers and babies was far too common, it wasn’t only men who committed such unthinkable acts. Feeling trapped in unwanted pregnancies, some women took drastic measures.

In 1944, actress and singer Lupe Vélez committed suicide by overdosing on the barbiturate Secanol. She was unmarried and pregnant and left a note, addressed to the father of her unborn child, actor Harald Ramond6:

To Harald, May God forgive you and forgive me too, but I prefer to take my life away and our baby’s before I bring him with shame or killing him. – Lupe.

Lupe Vélez circa 1930. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Shame and sin are recurring themes in these tragic tales. In 1943, a 23-year-old Denver woman, Bernice Williams was found with the remains of three newborn babies hidden in a hope chest. She had given birth to each child in secret and each time had attended to her own delivery and aftercare.

Elizabeth Smith, New York Daily News, 01 Nov 1936

Bernice was an employed professional, working as a buyer for a department store at the time of her arrest. When questioned about the murders, she said she had to kill them because “they were children of sin.7

In 1936, a 25-year-old Milwaukee woman left the body of her stillborn baby at a garbage dump. She was charged with failing to report the death of her child. When taken into custody, the unnamed woman appeared ill. Midwives and hospitals were not in short supply, so it can be assumed this woman had delivered her baby in secret and hoped to hide the evidence8.

Later that same year, 18-year-old Elizabeth Smith moved a jury to tears with the story of her hidden pregnancy and unassisted birth. The unmarried teen insisted her child was stillborn. In a daze, a few hours after giving birth, she carried the baby’s body to the rooftop of her tenement home and dropped it into the alley below.9.

After Elizabeth’s story broke, New York Daily News reporter Ruth Reynolds published an article listing several women whose circumstances had led them to infanticide. These gruesome tales sound more like works of horror than factual events, and I imagine it would be hard to invoke pity for most of the women mentioned. Here is a link if you’d like to view the original article.

Page 5 of 7

  1. Pastor Gets Life for Poisoning Housemaid.” The Oshkosh Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin). 19 Aug 1938: Page 3
  2. “Pleads Guilty to Murder of Young Housemaid.” Caroll Daily Herald (Carroll, Iowa). 19 August 1938: Page 1
  3. Associated Press,”Youth Escapes Death Chair in Suicide Killing.” The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana) 24 May 1938: Page 4
  4. May Not be Punished for Child Murder.” Marshfield News-Herald (Marshfield, Wisconsin). 26 November 1935: Page 7
  5. Blond Youth Sought by Police in Unwed Mother Case.” The Oshkosh Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin) 18 Aug 1936: Page 3
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupe_V%C3%A9lez
  7. Associated Press,”Unwed Mother Confesses to Drowning of Three Infants.” Green Bay Press-Gazette (Green Bay, Wisconsin) 02 Apr 1943: Page 2
  8. “Unwed Mother of Dead Baby Sent to Hospital.” Wisconson State Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) 21 April 1936: Page 20
  9. “Unwed Slayer of Babe, Freed, Begins New Life.” Daily News (New York, New York) 01 Nov 1936: Page 48

5 Comments

  1. Thank you. Article is very well documented, and presents US history very accurately.
    Three areas of interest: 1. Milwaukee is my birthplace, 1946. 2. I am researching my grandparents’ heritage, both born in Burgenland. 3. A friend, adopted, recently discovered two blood relatives via DNA.
    When I attended college, pregnancy was a major issue with parental disowning. However, in Burgenland baptismal records with father unknown are not that rare. My own grandmother’s parentage is uncertain, born in Leka, Vas. Many births in Europe during and immediately after WWII were by women alone.

  2. Hello Kay,

    Thanks for your feedback. Which part of Burgenland are you researching?

    I wish your friend luck in her search, but it sounds like she’s already close to finding what she’s looking for.

    And regarding parental disowning, I wish I had more space to address that in the article, but 1930s-1960s America did seem to have a greater stigma against out-of-wedlock births than pre-1900s Austria-Hungary. In one particular village, I noticed that nearly 10% of all births between 1855 and 1895 were illegitimate (out of a sample of ~1400). In most cases, they would marry just before having a second child, but some women, especially widows, never did marry the father of their child(ren). Then again, there was too much else to worry about back then to fuss over social stigma. Diptheria and tuberculosis were enough to worry about.

    • Thanks for your reply.
      Grandparents were baptized in Lockenhaus, Vas, Austria. Managed to get funds to visit a few years ago. As far as we can tell, great-grandmother never married;great-grandfather died when grandmother was very young. Uncle Filop in Hammer sent her to boarding school. Last name? Schumeth, Schoamat, even maybe Schmid(t). Were Schumeths in town north of Hammer. Might have a Horvath in my tree from Sopron??? With spelling variations, hard to know.
      Friend already reunited with two brothers. She was devoted to adoptive parents. DNA test was gift by daughter seeking more info.
      As far as my birth, 1946 Milwaukee but father never let me have birth certificate. Mother died early. My aunt, in Milwaukee, told me to use that city and get duplicate from state. Nothing unusual. When dad died he had everyone’s certificate other than mine, original lost. Always bothered me. I have no children so do not think the expense of a DNA test is worth it. Dad always said officials must accept baptismal record in lieu of birth and that is how I got Passport and driving license. So your article opened a “scab” but not worth pursuing.
      By the way, husband born May 8, 1945 does not have birth certificate. Used Russian ration cards to his mom to get some US documents (baby food) in addition to Polish ID. Born in old Poland, now Ukraine, and deported to Silesia that September. Came to US during Solidarity Uprising.
      I too find history via genealogy fascinating. People, not dry dates.

      • Very Interesting stories! Have you visited the Burgenland Bunch website for information about Lockenhaus? I have ancestors from Sopron, but their surname was Paar.

        Sorry my post touched a sore spot, regarding your birth certificate. To clarify, Lawrence has a document he received when he was about 10 years old that served as proof of birth for official purposes. It’s an affidavit signed by the man who baptized him, as well as his elementary school principal.

        • Received your name from the Burgenland Bunch website. I joined before I visited Lochenhaus. I might never have an opportunity again.
          Most Augustins are deceased, on war memorials. One widow of recently deceased business owner is still in town but the only person who would converse with us was waitress in restaurant we ate in. Police station was open. We entered and actually roamed around second floor. It was empty of people at 2pm. The “tourist” office worker only wanted to sell us tickets to the castle (fascinating by the way). The workers at the cemetery were not helpful. We never found the widow.
          The town was strangely like a ghost town. Church was open; no custodian, parishioner nor priest despite gold, silver and many valuables. Tourist agent said many visited for the infamous Polish bloody countess in the basement, an amazing story in itself. Most stories say the location of the crypt is unknown; I did not know the story until after I saw the coffins of her and her husband.
          http://historythings.com/historys-nutcases-the-blood-countess/

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