Painless Childbirth Once A Selling Point In Sublette, Illinois

Sep 25, 2014

A small northern Illinois town is celebrating its history as a once-popular destination for pregnant women.

Eloise Barrett's mother-in-law was looking for a painless delivery back in 1925.

"She was so afraid to have the baby because she had heard from old-time stories about so much pain," Barrett said.

The method was called "Twilight Sleep" because of the soporific state it induced in the mothers.

"She said it was so beautiful to have a baby and not remember any pain," Barrett said.

Don Dinges is a local historian from Sublette, Ill. From 1914-1940, he estimates 3,000 Twilight Sleep babies were born here using the method.

Potent Mix Causes Temporary Amnesia

"It's a combination of scopolamine, which is a hypnotic drug, and morphine," Dinges said. "Then they darkened the room and it was like a form of hypnosis really."

Dr. Benjamin Angear learned about the procedure in Germany and brought it to the rural farming community.

"This doctor said, 'I have never seen a place where all of the barns are painted red and it's so neat.' He said, 'This is where I want to start my practice,' " according to historian Dinges.

"Twilight Sleep" Gains Popularity In Sublette

Word of mouth spread. Mothers traveled from neighboring states to get the unique procedure, often coming back for subsequent births. The hospital has since been converted into a home, but an old medicine cabinet still sits at the top of the winding stairs up to the old recovery rooms.

In the town's archives is a neatly typed packing list asking mothers to bring four nightgowns for themselves and three dozen cloth diapers for the new baby.

Sublette recently held a reunion for the Twilight Sleep babies to coincide with the town's 160th birthday celebration. 89-year-old Keith Barrett brought along his birth certificate bearing Dr. Angear's signature.

It doesn't list his full middle name, which he jokingly says is "Puddin' Puddin' Honey."

Clearly, loss of humor wasn't a side effect. But there was skepticism for the procedure elsewhere in the United States.

"Whenever you give two medicines, it's almost the combination that makes them more potent," said Angela Reidner, a certified nurse mid-wife. "They each have their own effects, but they can attenuate each other."

She remembers learning about Twilight Sleep in her training, but as an outdated procedure, not as a modern alternative.

"It depends on your perspective. Is pain in childbirth something we totally want to eradicate and it is un-useful? Or is it something we want to augment the natural process and help women cope with as helpfully as possible," Reidner said.

Jeffrey Edwards is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Illinois Valley Community Hospital in Peru, Ill. He says the mix of drugs could have had fatal effects if improperly administered.

He says the drug combination would certainly help a woman forget the birthing process.

"I guess I would liken it to a guy who goes on a bender," Edwards said. "He does all of these things while he's drunk at the bar and then the next morning doesn't remember any of it. Well, he did a bunch of things, he just doesn't remember it."

Dr. Angear retired in 1940.

Oral History Keeps Method Alive

With fewer Twilight Sleep babies still living, the method has largely fallen to oral history. But even that is difficult, since childbirth wasn't exactly something that came up over the tea table. Dinges' wife Donna is a Twilight Sleep baby.

"My mother never really told us," Donna said. "We were little, and by the time we were old enough to ask her about it, she was gone."

Fellow "twilighter" Rose Leffelman also says there is some mystery to her birth.

"The only thing that my mother mentioned wasn't during her giving birth to me, she said. "It was about all of the other people that would come from out of state and everywhere to have the Twilight Sleep."

Leffelman doesn't judge her mother for her decision.

"These days, you know, they have medicines that make them more comfortable," Leffelman said, "so you are doing the same thing except with different medicines I guess."

Her husband Larry also was a Twilight Sleep baby.

"They just always assumed that's what you did. It was a way of life here," Larry Leffelman said.

As one of the oldest living Twilight Sleep babies, Keith Barrett says it doesn't bother him that he doesn't know much about the circumstances behind his birth.

"I just knew I was precious," he said.