By Thomas Fields-Meyer
October 07, 2002 12:00 PM

All her life Bonnie Gower has known she was adopted. But when the Belgrade, Mont., nurse called a state office in Helena in the late 1970s seeking clues about her medical background, a clerk informed her there was no record of her adoption. Puzzled, Gower, now 49, confronted her adoptive mother, whose tearful response hinted at a more complex story. “We promised never to tell anyone,” she told Gower. “It was the only way we could get a little girl.”

The secret Gower would eventually learn was that her parents had bought her on the black market, paying $500 to the woman whose name appears on her birth certificate as the “attendant,” a long-dead Butte chiropractor named Gertrude Pitkanen. And Gower was not alone. From 1933 to 1957, Pitkanen—who also served as Butte’s back-alley abortionist—secretly delivered and sold scores of babies, forging documents to hide the transactions and shield the identity of the birth mothers.

In searching for her roots, Gower discovered a family entirely different from what she had expected—a loose network of men and women who came into the world with the help of the same mysterious woman. “The way we are linked together is that Gertrude Pitkanen touched our birth mothers and touched us,” says Sherry Keller, 50, a Houston physician’s assistant who was adopted in 1952. “We understand each other.”

Gertie’s Babies, as they now call themselves, also share a common longing. “Even coming from a good adoptive home with a lot of love, there’s still that missing link,” says adoptee Sue Docken, 51, who is trying to locate her birth parents. “It’s like, ‘Who am I?'”

And who was Gertrude Pitkanen? Only sketchy details have emerged about the enigmatic figure, who was born in 1878 and trained as a nurse and chiropractor before moving with her husband, physician Gustave Pitkanen, to Butte in 1907. After Gustave went to jail in 1917 for sedition—he was a critic of U.S. entry into World War I—Gertrude took up his practice, performing abortions in an office near Butte’s red-light district. Though she faced manslaughter charges in the deaths of three patients, Pitkanen was never convicted.

At the same time, she was running a thriving, and profitable, adoption business. “Obviously, she was pretty unscrupulous,” says Keller’s husband, Wayne, 65, a psychiatrist. “But there was something about her that was good. She connected all these people to keep babies out of orphanages.” Pitkanen died in 1960.

For years the illegal adoptions remained family secrets. Sue Docken’s adoptive parents were living in Bozeman, Mont., in May of 1951 when they got a call on a stormy night directing them to a house in Butte where a young woman had just given birth. They paid $500 in cash to Pitkanen. Sherry Keller, raised in Texas City, Texas, was nearly 16 when she discovered letters folded into her mother’s wedding dress that revealed the details of her adoption: Her parents had sold a freezer to raise money to send a relative to Butte to get a baby girl. “I asked my mother about it,” recalls Keller, “and she said, ‘I didn’t want to know anything then, and I don’t want to know anything now.'”

But Keller did. Plagued with medical ailments, she began searching for birth records in the mid-1980s. She came across the name of Gertrude Pitkanen and traveled to Montana to delve into the mystery. Docken recalls a clerk, in the Helena records office calling to alert her: “She said, ‘Sue, there’s another story just like yours.'”

Eventually the two women made contact with each other—and with seven other women and six men, all delivered by Pitkanen. Offering mutual support and trading whatever scraps of information they come across, they have joined together in the effort to find clues about their past. “It’s immensely comforting,” says Jocile Ivonne, 55, of Anderson, Calif., who was adopted by a single Concord, Calif., woman in 1947. “It’s a family feeling.”

And yet a feeling weighted with frustration. Only one of the group, Heather Livergood, 56, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has found the names of her birth parents—but she has yet to find actual people to match the names. Despite such challenges, the group’s members have persisted, hopeful for any bit of information. “If any one of us comes up with something,” says adoptee Mable Deane, 52, of Three Forks, Mont., “then maybe there is hope.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Vickie Bane in Butte