Prior to the 20th century, childbirth, especially in rural areas, was not so much an issue dealt with by medical doctors, but by midwives. The story today is about one of those midwives that served the Altenburg area during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This woman hit my radar today because it would have been her wedding anniversary. Her married name was Magdalena Mueller. I actually have mentioned her twice in previous posts. The story, Mueller Millers, was mostly about Magdalena’s husband, Christian Mueller. She was also one of the people discussed in the story, The Mueller Outlaws. However, today I will focus on Magdalena and her occupation as a midwife.
First of all, let me go briefly back to the 1838-1839 immigration. There were three ladies listed as midwives among the members of the Gesellschaft. Those three ladies were Johanna Sophia Fischer, Rosine Goehring, and Johanna Rosine Kretzchmar. Two of these three came to America with children, but all three of them came without husbands. I may have to do posts on these women someday.
Magdalena was the daughter of Dr. Ernst Eduard and Amalie (Weber) Buenger. She was born on September 9, 1851. When she was born, Dr. Buenger’s family was living in St. Louis. Two children had been born in Altenburg to the Buengers, but then they moved to St. Louis. Two more children were baptized at Old Trinity Lutheran Church, but then three more children were baptized at Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Louis where Ernst’s brother, Rev. J.F. Buenger was the pastor. The three records from Immanuel circled in the image below were children of Dr. Ernst and Amalie.
Amalie and Benjamin apparently died early because they do not show up in any subsequent church or census records. Starting in 1853, the Buenger children were once more being baptized at Trinity, Altenburg. One of the reasons I am going back to Magdalena’s siblings is the fact that there were 14 children born into this family and seven of them died in childbirth or as infants. Keep in mind that the father was a medical doctor, and still so many of his children died early.
On August 6, 1874, Magdalena Buenger married Christian Mueller at Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg. Here is their marriage record in the Trinity books.
We do not have any Trinity marriage records from 1865 until 1874. For some reason, these records from Rev. J.F. Koestering were not recorded or are missing. This Mueller/Buenger record is the next marriage recorded after this “Koestering Hole”. Here are photos of Christian and Magdalena.
Now we run into a bit of a mystery. We have an issue with the birthday of their first son, Theodore. Trinity’s records show him being born on December 23, 1874. It was the last Trinity baptism record for 1874. Here is that record.
Theodore’s gravestone, however, states that his birthday was December 23, 1875.
Yet another record for Theodore’s birthday comes from his death certificate. I highlighted his birth date in red.
I think a mistake (possibly intentional) was made on his gravestone. The evidence seems to favor a 1874 birthday. If so, you can do the math. There would have been only four months between the wedding of the Muellers and the birth of their first child. I went to all the trouble to tell you this part of Magdalena’s story because I think it may have had to do with her becoming a midwife.
Before I move on, I found this description of a midwife of the 1800’s online. I decided it would take up too much space here on the blog, but I will put it here as a Word document that you can open if you choose to read it. I found it to be very helpful in imagining what Magdalena’s life must have been like serving as a midwife for this community.
For quite a while, I have been looking forward to the opportunity to write this story about Magdalena. That is because every once in a while, I have noticed her name on birth registers for Perry County children. She was one of many midwives who served the communities in this area. As you would expect, these midwives had their own “territories” because there it was only so far that each of them could travel in those days. Magdalena helped with children being born in Altenburg and Wittenberg. Here is a portion of a birth register that shows several births assisted by Magdalena.
You can see her name in the last column which listed the person who assisted with the birth. Here is another such record.
I know that on occasion, I have found such records like this which have both Magdalena’s name as well as her father, E.E. Buenger.
There was a time when expecting mothers did not even desire to have a male medical doctor help with the delivery of their baby. A midwife would be much more desirable. The midwife would usually be helped by other ladies who knew they should be around to assist. It was often neighbors who came to help. The midwife would often have to stay with the mother for a few days until the baby was born and cared for. A midwife also realized that they would have to be ready to leave their homes at a moment’s notice to go to the aid of a mother who was about to give birth. In the days before telephones and automobiles, it would have also taken quite a bit of time to get to the midwife with the message that a baby was on the way. Such a midwife could also not rely on having pleasant weather when these calls for help arrived.
If she was still living and living in the same house, Magdalena would be my neighbor. I see this house where she lived on a daily basis because it is just across the road from where my driveways empties out onto Main Street.
This photo of the same house has shown up on this blog before with Magdalena’s husband, Christian, standing in front. At the time of this photograph, I suspect Magdalena had already died.
I can just imagine someone, possibly in the middle of the night, walking up to the door of this house and pounding on it to get Magdalena’s attention so she could quickly go and help with a birth.
The 1920 census for Altenburg indicates that even though her husband was retired, Magdalena was still functioning as a midwife.
It was the same year of this census that Magdalena died. Here is her death certificate. She died at her home.
Twenty years later, her husband died in 1940. The image below is his death certificate.
I find it interesting that Christian’s death took place at a hospital. Hospitals were a relatively new institution in this area. No hospitals were around when Magdalena was assisting with births. Today, almost all births in America take place in hospitals with medical doctors involved in the deliveries.
Martha Ballard is said to be one of the most famous American midwives. That is because she kept a journal of her experiences. That journal was turned into a novel written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Through these writings, one can learn what the lives of early American midwives must have been like. In 1998, PBS produced a docudrama based on these writings. If you care to watch, here is a trailer for that movie. (Please forgive me for the ad you have to see.)
Magdalena Mueller, in my opinion, was a unique midwife in Perry County. She had what I would describe as a very special teacher. Her father was a doctor, who no doubt would have been experienced many births during his career, including several by his own wife which did not always end well. Dr. Buenger must have been a good resource for her during her career as a midwife. He didn’t die until 1899. I happen to also think she may have had some advice to give to her father about birthing babies that she may have learned through her experiences.
I also have this theory that Magdalena may have become a midwife partly because of her own history. She may have suffered with the guilt of giving birth just four months after her marriage. The flapping tongues of her Altenburg neighbors may have caused her to search for a means of receiving a pardon for her mistake. She may have found that reprieve in becoming a midwife for the community.
Her death in 1920 took place at about the same time that women were looking more to doctors for their birthing assistance, and hospitals as the locations where those births took place.