I was born, not aborted.Those are the opening lines to my latest short story, a slippery stream-of-consciousness piece narrated by the most famous child contortionist to ever emerge from Butte, Montana (admittedly, perhaps the only headline-making, pliable-boned infant to come from the Mining City).
I contorted my way into this world with a twist and a slip and a slither.
Back then, they called me Montana Lily, Butte’s Baby Wonder.
“Contort” is a brief look at the life of “Montana Lily” Pitkanen who wowed her audiences in the early part of the 20th century. Newspaper ads from 1924 touted her as “one of the greatest 15-months-old athletes in athletic stunts” under the direction of Dr. G. Pitkanen. The little girl, it seems, learned to somersault before she could crawl.
|photo courtesy of Butte-Silver Bow Archives|
I first learned of Montana Lily a few months ago when I was invited to contribute a story to a fundraising project for the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. The photo you see here was taken by C. Owen Smithers, a prolific photographer whose collection of more than 25,000 images at the Archives documents Butte’s rise as a cosmopolitan city. The Archives received the negatives several years ago and has been working to preserve them ever since. However, the cost of restoration is a large one. As this Montana Standard article points out, “most of these negatives, if not in pristine condition, are in relatively good shape. However, floods, fire and time have taken a toll. Some of these negatives need a touchup here and there, others need a bit more work, while some negatives are in need of extensive restoration.”
That’s where we storytellers come in.
Several of us in the community were invited to contribute creative texts in response to specific photographs from the collection. I lucked out with a photo of a little girl balancing on the extended hand of a woman old enough to be her grandmother. I wanted to know more about this snapshot, and so Irene Scheidecker from the Archives emailed me with some background information on Lily and the aforementioned “G. Pitkanen.”
That would be Gertrude Pitkanen, the infamous abortionist of Butte, Montana. This is where the story really gets interesting.
There is an entire website devoted to Dr. Pitkanen and the legacy of “Gertie’s Babies.” As I read more about the doctor, my curiosity grew: “She was charged three times with manslaughter or homicide following the death of women who had Gertrude Pitkanen’s illegal operations, and each time charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.” And then there’s her lesser-known reputation for the illicit sale of infants she delivered.
Montana Lily was different. For some reason, Gertrude decided to adopt the infant (whose mother, I imagined in my story, was a hard-working lady at the Dumas Brothel). In her email to me, Irene wrote:
Research on genealogy websites shows that Gertrude Pitkanen adopted several more children after Montana, and that they were all placed in a Helena orphanage at one point in time. Montana Pitkanen got married at age 18 to a 32-year old man named John Williams, and apparently lived out her life as a beauty operator in Butte.As you can see, this story practically writes itself. I’m just standing by, ready to put it all down on paper. (And, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m completely done with Montana Lily’s story; my brain continues to churn...)
Irene has transformed our creative interpretations of the Smithers photos into beautiful works of art for the fundraiser. Some are wall-mounted posters, some are fashioned into something resembling a scrapbook, and my story, fittingly, is a miracle of twisted origami.
The Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives event on October 28, “A Night in Black and White,” will raise funds to preserve the C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection. There will be a live auction featuring never-before-seen Smithers images as well as a silent auction and an adopt-a-photo program. Click here to learn more about how you can help contribute to the photo restoration project.
The Archives plans to put together a book with the stories from “A Night in Black and White.” I’ll post an update when I learn more about how to purchase the book. For now, I’ll leave you with the closing lines of “Contort.”
Go ahead, balance me in the palm of your hand, lift me to the sky so I can tumble up to the clouds. Hold me in your hand and I will harden into a plank. Go ahead, swing me by the hair and see if they don’t put me on the front page of the newspaper: BUTTE’S MOST REMARKABLE INFANT. See if I don’t bump Jack Dempsey back to page 3. See if Warren G. Harding doesn’t bow to my remarkable talent. See if I don’t somersault over them all, leaping and flipping through the air, landing right in the center of that headline. Watch me now, you’ll see. I’ll show you REMARKABLE.