Matilda Hales - Notable Women Ancestors

by Richard McOmie

The following article by David A. Hales first appeared in the Summer, 1987, Volume 55, Number 3, Utah Historical Quarterly. At the time the article was written David A. Hales was an associate professor of library science at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Two years ago in 1996 he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to help open the new Giovale Library at Westminster College.

Numerous accounts have been written about the midwives who sacrificed their time, energy, and talents to bring new life into the world and to minister to those gallant women who bore and raised children on the western frontier. This article concerns a midwife whose life has not been recorded previously. It provides insight into what life was like in a rural Utah community during the early part of the twentieth century.

From the early to mid-1900s Matilda Hales was a common sight and sound traveling throughout the communities of Deseret, Hinckley, and Oasis in Millard County. In spite of hot desert days, bitter winds, snow or rain, she was there when babies needed delivering or the sick needed nursing. One close friend, Myrle Bennett, reminisced:

I can remember one morning when I was up real early ... I could hear the rain beating against the roof. I could also hear horses hoofs and buggy wheels clatter ... in the road that passed by our place. I did not even have to look out the window to see who was passing by. Daytime or nighttime it made no difference. That sound was so familiar in our town that you instinctively said, "There goes Matilda." (Interview with Myrle Western Bennett, Deseret, Utah, June 1983.)

Another family friend, Eldon Eliason, recalled:

I can see this stately woman, slightly bent forward with a dress or skirt longer than that usually worn, walking from the corner a mile north of here with a little case in her hand, on her way to assist someone in need. Or, perhaps the little black buggy with the brown horse was carrying this woman to her place of labor. Long before I was old enough to know anything of Sunday School, I knew of a lady who came to our home frequently, particularly in time of sickness or distress. She took over the housework as well as waiting on those who needed care and medical attention. I was not able to understand why this lady showed up in the house at a time of need, particularly sickness. I even remember that it was a common expression in our home among the children, when some minor difficulty arose, one would say, "Shall we send for Matilda?" (Funeral eulogy, Eldon Eliason, Deseret, Utah, October 31, 1957).

Matilda Hales (or Aunt Till as she was known by her many nieces and nephews and eventually by everyone in the area) was the eighth of fifteen children of Henry William Hales and his plural wife Sarah Jane McKinney. Matilda also had nine half brothers and sisters, children of Henry and his first wife Eliza Ann Ewing. Matilda was born on March 11, 1870, in Enterprise, Weber County, Utah, where her father was a county commissioner. The family lived in Enterprise until the high waters of the Weber River cut their farm in half and carried about ten acres of the best land away. Henry moved his family to Cedar Valley, West of Utah Lake, and then to Laketown, Millard County, where, according to his journal, the family "entered and fenced a quarter section of land and farmed and raised stock and sheep till 1891 when we moved to Deseret. As the presiding elder in Laketown, Henry arranged for his children and other children in this very small community to receive some basic schooling.

The family lived frugally, worked hard, and prospered after their move to Deseret, and Henry became a prominent figure in the community and in the local LDS church. Their home was relatively modest from the outside but was furnished, according to granddaughter Mable Crafts Peterson, "with elegant furniture for the period ... silverware ... from England ... a beautiful pump organ ... a wonderful library and many of the books were first editions." During local church conferences visiting General Authorities from Salt Lake City often stayed in the Hales home, an event that required days of cooking and other preparation and gave the family great satisfaction and pleasure.

Not much else is known about Matilda's girlhood except that she was required to work very hard to help provide for the needs of a large family in an isolated rural community. Later she attended Brigham Young Academy and received the training necessary for a certificate that qualified her to teach "pedagogics, reading, writing, English grammar, United States history, Physiology and Hygiene, written arithmetic, drawing, geography, spelling, nature study." Her brief teaching career included a short stay in Big Wash, Nevada.

As a young woman Matilda had at least one proposal of marriage but did not avail herself of the opportunity. In later years she would stand with her hands behind her, rock back and forth with a big smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, and remind other members of the family that she had had a chance to marry but was a spinster by choice. Her sister Mary Ann, who was considered one of the most eligible young women in the area, also chose not to marry. She was attractive and dressed very stylishly, and was an excellent cook and homemaker, and was a devout member of the LDS church. She once said that she never married because her father was so very protective of her he would not let anyone stay long enough to court her. All young men were required to leave by 9:00 p.m. Of the fifteen children, Matilda, Mary Ann, and two brothers, Hugh and Roy, never married. They continued to live in the family home and run the farm and later played vital roles in the care of their nieces and nephews. In 1917 their sister Elizabeth Hales Crafts died, leaving a young family. The four youngest children Ralph, Bill, Mary, and Mable, went to live with their aunts and uncles at the Hales home. Ralph recalled that:

Bill stayed a few months and went back to dad who was living in Oasis then and hauled all the drainage tile for Deseret and Oasis. I stayed about two years and Mary stayed until she was 16, then she came home to keep house for us. The aunts were very good to us and did everything they could to make us happy, but we just got homesick to be with our dad.

Later, a widowed sister-in-law, Emma Sloan Hales, died, leaving three teenage sons and a younger daughter. Aunt Till went to their home every week to cook, clean, wash, and do whatever she could do to help the family members. She also adopted a boy from a reform school whom she raised from age seven to seventeen when he went on his own.

Matilda pursued her life's work despite handicaps. She was, according to Bert Hales, "stricken with rheumatoid arthritis when a fairly young woman. Her hands were all misformed, but she would come and do so much for us. I can remember at the end of the day she would be so tired that she could hardly walk home. Later in life she was not able to wear shoes because of her deformed feet but had to wear slippers even to attend church.

In addition to her many family responsibilities, Matilda became a midwife and nurse. The minutes of the Deseret Ward Relief Society for November 6, 1902, report that:

Sister Alice Moody spoke of sending Sister Matilda Hales to learn to be a nurse. She was willing to help those in need. Sister Marie Damron thought Matilda was the one that should be sent to be a nurse for this ward. Sister Matilda Hales was nominated and voted as the one to be a nurse. Sister Fannie Cropper spoke a few words and encouraged the sisters to pray for Matilda. Brother Hales spoke on the same subject ... Victoria Black was chosen to go get donations for Sister Matilda Hales. 2nd Counselor Sarah J. Hales spoke of sending someone to be a nurse.

However, the December 4, 1902, minutes record that "Sister Damron spoke for some time about the nurse they had chosen ... said it had all fallen through." (Relief Society Minutes, Deseret Ward, Deseret, Utah). Apparently the Deseret Ward members could not agree on whether to send someone to learn nursing or midwifery, so the plans for Matilda were postponed until the issue was resolved.

The minutes record no mention of when it was decided to send Matilda to Salt Lake City to study midwifery, but a nephew, Ralph Crafts, believes it was in 1904. Although the Deseret Ward Relief Society had agreed to assist with the expenses, "She went and paid all her expenses," explained friend and neighbor Myrle Western Bennett. "She wouldn't accept any help from the ward."

Matilda was always very proud of the fact that she had had the opportunity to study under Dr. Ellis R. Shipp. It is difficult to say how much Matilda was influenced by her mentor or if the similarities were due to Matilda's upbringing and the influence of her religious training. Whatever their origin, definite similarities in their philosophies regarding nursing and the care of the sick and needy and in the principles they stood for did exist.

In the May 18, 1888, issue of the Utah Sanitarian, Shipp had lamented the lack of qualified women to take care of the sick and mentioned some desirable qualifications: "They should be pleasant, look clean, particularly the finger nails; should be good cooks and serve food artfully; see that there is sunlight and air; bathe patient; not be too talkative in the sick room; should not communicate a sick person's thought and actions to others." Throughout her career Matilda followed these recommendations religiously. Although she was never concerned about dressing in fashion, she was immaculate. Mable Crafts Peterson explained:

They [Matilda and her sister Mary Ann] were both very clean and fastidious about their person and surroundings. Each wore house dresses during the week and wore aprons over them. They changed their aprons daily. Aunt Matilda made herself long aprons out of overalls that she used to wear over her clothing when milking, feeding lambs, etc.

Blanche Dewsnup Jensen, a former patient of Aunt Till, described her:

She never complained. Everything was always well with her, and she never liked to talk about other people. She always said what she thought, and always gave more than her share. If she liked you she could not do enough for you. She charged very little for her services, and once she told you what you owed her she would never take more.

Dr. Shipp, a prolific writer, wrote extensively against the use of alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics. According to one source, "She regarded tobacco as a chronic poison. She advocated legislation prohibiting its sale to minors." (Alexander Neibaur, "Early Utah Medical Practice," Utah Historical Quarterly 10, 1942: 31.) Matilda, a devout member of the LDS church, believed fervently in the Word of Wisdom; but she may also have been influenced by Dr. Shipp, for she carried on her own crusade against the "evils" of tobacco until the day she died. She never hesitated to tell anyone who was smoking how harmful it was to both body and spirit. On one occasion, her zeal greatly humiliated her nephews. She had taken several of them to Saltair where they had a wonderful time; however, after they boarded the train to go back to Salt Lake City, she went down the aisles of the cars pulling cigars and cigarettes from the mouths of offenders and chastising them for the damage they were doing to their health. That was her largest audience but not her last. One evening a young man who was about to become a father for the first time went racing with his horse and buggy to the Hales residence in search of Matilda. She refused to get into the buggy until he threw away the cigarette he was smoking. The young man was rather arrogant and did not like her telling him what to do, but he relented when he realized that he needed Matilda more than he needed the cigarette. Later that night he became the proud father of a healthy baby girl.

Matilda's compassion for her patients was boundless. She took food to one expectant mother living in very humble circumstances so that she would receive the proper nourishment. Later, when the baby was about to be born, Matilda took the mother to the Hales home for the delivery.

In addition to surveying the larder on her visits and bringing the food where needed, Matilda also observed other family shortages. Mable Crafts Peterson recalled:

If they needed bedding, she took quilts that she and Aunt Mary Ann had made. They were mostly quilts made of old overalls, or used wool pieces, filled with wool bats. The wool had to be washed in many waters, and dried. Then it had to be pulled apart to make it light and fluffy. I have pulled wool so very many times. Then the wool had to be carded and made into the bats, which both Aunt Matilda and Aunt Mary Ann did.

For all her hard work Matilda's charges were minimal and her earnings meager, Ralph Crafts reported:

Aunt Till charged $15.00 if she had to make the delivery alone and $10.00 if there was an attending doctor. She made ten visits to each patient after the delivery. The Aunts had a hand-cranked washing machine and Mary and I would take turns running it. I could never figure out why they had so many blood stained sheets to wash. So she must have furnished her own. I remember one time I went with her. We left home about 9:00 a.m. and went down to Ben Bennetts and back up to one of the Cahoons and then out east of Oasis on Danish Lane. She would stay about two hours with each patient, taking care of the mother and baby and what ever household chores needed taking care of.

Since the populations of these rural communities were small, it might seem that the arrival of babies would have been well distributed. The stork, however, was rarely concerned with good timing. The night of May 16, 1917, was an especially busy time for Matilda. She was called to the Henry Dewsnup residence in the center of Deseret late that evening to deliver a baby. In the meantime, at the other end of town, Inga Black went into labor and was about to deliver. Her husband, Verno Black, got so excited that he sent his father to the Dewsnup residence to see if he could not "do something" to get Matilda to the Black residence faster. However, while Grandfather Black was pacing the floor at the Dewsnup residence, not knowing what he could possibly do to speed things up at that location, Matilda finished the delivery and was halfway to the Black's home before he even realized she had left. By the end of the next day there were two new residents for the community of Deseret, Arprilla Dewsnup and Dean Black.

Dr. Shipp once wrote:

One maxim I ever sought to impress. When called to maternal duty, pray unto God of his blessing. ... I hastened through inclement storm, through blinding rain, deep snows and muddy trails, speeding up and down the steepest hills, my inmost being pulsating with fervent prayer. I sought my Father and my God! He it was who inspired me with the higher intelligence, helped me to know my duty and all of its details, enabled me to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint. And with these same principles I tutored all who sought usefulness, enabling them to usher a new life into this world ­ that life so precious to the suffering mother and most sublime in the sight of God. (Elias Shipp Musser, ed., The Early Autobiography and Diary of Ellis Reynolds Shipp (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1962, p. 283.)

Aunt Till had the reputation of being "the most prayerful woman around," Myrle Bennett remembered:

I don't think she ever got into her buggy without having a prayer. Sometimes when she was delivering a baby and it was a really rough labor she would disappear for a while and have a prayer and come back to carry on. She bore her testimony many times and gave the Lord credit for helping her with the mothers and babies.

She worked some with a Dr. Hamilton, but she did not care for him. He was not a Mormon and she did not like the things he said or did to her LDS patients. One time he told a lady that she should be happy that she did not have any children to be bothered with. That upset Matilda very much. Another time he gave the same patient some medicine in coffee. It made her very sick and she started to vomit. Extremely distressed, Matilda said that the combination would make anyone sick. She even told Hamilton that he would not have so many problems in his practice if he believed in prayer.

Edna Hales Christensen, another niece of Aunt Till, experienced her ministrations firsthand:

In 1932, during the great depression, I was expecting my second child. Banks all over the country had closed, so money was scarce. Aunt Till and my mother-in-law Carrie Christensen, who was a practical nurse, decided that to save money, they would deliver the baby without a doctor. They did and although it was quite a difficult birth everything went just fine. My husband was in Idaho at the time working on the railroad. When the baby was two or three days old, I was stricken with scarlet fever and was in bed for three weeks and we had to have a doctor after all. Aunt Till came every day and between these two good women I received excellent care. One day Aunt Till didn't feel good. She was afraid she was getting my disease. My mother-in-law persuaded her to take an aspirin and go to bed. Aunt Till was reluctant to take the pill but finally she did. I think it was the first aspirin she had even taken. She felt better the next day and fortunately no one contracted the disease from me.

Matilda continued to assist in delivering babies until she was in her late sixties and to care for the sick on into her seventies.

The stories of her success vary. Myrle Bennett said, "I have heard her bear her testimony [in LDS church meetings] many times and tell of the hundreds of babies she had brought into the world and never lost a mother or baby." (Funeral eulogy by Bennett). However, Ralph Crafts stated that she "lost three babies, one alone and two with doctors, which I think is a good record for that time."

In addition to bringing babies into the world, Matilda spent many hours nursing the sick. Edna Hales Christensen related, "I don't remember Aunt Till's maternity cases as well as I remember the help she gave in cases of sickness or accident. She was always there to help no matter how tired or sick she felt herself." Christensen remembered that as a young girl she fell off a ladder and scraped her shin on the head of a rusty nail. It was a painful wound and soon became infected. Every day, all summer long, I went to Aunt Till's house and she treated my leg. It was slow in healing and I remember how patient Aunt Till was with me and how she spent time pouring sterile water on the sore to loosen the gauze that was stuck to the raw flesh." In the fall of 1917, when Christensen's three brothers were stricken with typhoid fever, Matilda was always there to help. The two youngest brothers recovered, but the oldest did not survive. The following year, Christensen said, the flu epidemic kept "Aunt Till ... really busy going from one house to another. I don't understand how she kept going as long as she did. Sheer will power, I suppose." Later, "When my mother contracted typhoid fever in the fall of 1924, and was bedridden for two months before her death, Aunt Till came every day to offer help and advice, although my sister Hulda and I were adults, capable of taking care of our mother. I believe Aunt Till knew mother was sicker than we realized."

Even when Matilda was not the midwife she came when there were delivery complications. After Rose McCullough had her first baby and got blood poisoning, Matilda was called to take care of her. She stayed night and day, never leaving until Rose was well. Rose's mother cared for the baby until Rose was well enough to do so. Mr. McCullough was concerned about paying for Matilda's services, but she told him not to worry. He called her an angel of mercy and said that he would always be grateful for her assistance. If it had not been for the excellent care Matilda had given Rose, he doubted that she would have lived.

Most of Aunt Till's memorabilia were destroyed when the old family home burned to the ground in January 1960. A few items in the possession of another niece were destroyed when Deseret was flooded in 1983. Some of her effects that remain were stored in an old shed; they include patent medicine bottles. It is not clear now if she ever used the contents for her patients, but the labels of two of the bottles, revealing large alcohol components, are especially interesting in view of the fact that she was such an ardent teetotaler.

In addition to patent medicines, Matilda also had access to such commonly used remedies of the day as black salve, a concoction of beeswax, turpentine, rosin, and olive oil into which one slowly added powdered red lead, stirring the mixture over a slow fire. It was used extensively for cold sores, ingrown toenails, mashed fingers and toes, or about any other ailment known to man. Between the pages of an old medical book that belonged to Matilda was a handwritten slip of paper with a recipe for liniment that called for equal parts of laudanum alcohol and oil of wormwood. It was supposed to reduce swelling quickly and remove soreness. According to the note, "No better liniment for bruises on man or beast was ever used."

One of Matilda's favorite cough remedies was to give the patient some sugar with a little turpentine in it. It was said to be very effective.

Matilda also used consecrated oil extensively. "We used consecrated oil for everything when I was a child," said Mable Crafts Peterson. "It was given internally by the Aunts and only used for blessing when it was done by the Priesthood. They called it Œsweet oil'." In addition to the use of consecrated oil, Matilda was a believer in soaking swollen or bruised limbs in hot water with boric acid or Epsom salts. She also used poultices, flaxseed poultices being a favorite. The flaxseed was cooked, placed in a cloth and then on the patient. Peterson also noted, "The only tonic I recall them ever using was to dose us with sage tea in the early spring, to purify the blood."

Matilda was known for her fastidiousness. "She used a great deal of lysol and boric acid," Blanche Jensen said, and "pads and dressings were rolled up in newspaper and baked slowly in the oven to sterilize them."

It was said that Dr. Ellis Shipp "never refused to return to a home where her former services remained unpaid." (Claire Noall, Guardians of the Hearth: Utah's Pioneer Midwives and Women Doctors (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1974, p. 129.) Matilda followed the same philosophy. Lenora Bennett Elkington, another niece, related, "I think half of the babies were not paid for, but it didn't bother her." It is also remembered, however, that during the summer months some of the men in the area would help haul hay at the Hales farm in payment for services their families had received from Matilda.

Matilda sometimes walked to see her patients; other times, "She would take Old Babe, a brown short-legged mare, in the one-seated buggy without a top," recalled Ralph Crafts. In later years Matilda's brother Roy bought a 1924 Chevrolet. He tried to teach her to drive, but "she would scare the daylights out of you. ... She ran into the fence and ditches a couple times and gave up and went back to the horse and buggy."

Matilda was always known to say what was on her mind. Mable Peterson said she "had a sort of caustic tongue, but a heart of absolute pure gold," while another niece recalled, "Some people thought Aunt Till was too outspoken. Maybe she was, but she only said what she thought. Sometimes the truth hurts."

As far as Matilda was concerned no woman was properly dressed unless she wore a dress with long sleeves and a skirt that was ankle length. Heavy wool stockings, summer or winter, pantaloons, and a chemise were also the dress of any proper woman. In the 1950s when a young woman who was visiting her sister in the town came walking out of the church, Aunt Till stopped her and said, "My dear, if this isn't something: a coat on your back, but nothing on your legs. Your legs need cover just as much as your back." The young woman looked shocked but did not say a word, and Aunt Till just continued on her way.

Matilda also had a quick wit. One time John Henry Western asked her in jest, "Matilda, if you had a chance to marry N. S. Petersen or me, which one would you marry?" She said, "I would marry N. S. Petersen, he's older and would probably die sooner."

In addition to her nursing and caring for the sick and needy, Matilda was very active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She made many quilts for the Relief Society, and when she could no longer see to quilt she still attended workday and would tear rags for making carpets. She was also a member of the burial committee and made temple clothes for burying the dead. For many years she sang in the ward choir. Mable Peterson related, "She sang many times while milking, ironing, and doing various other chores. ... all kinds of songs, lots of them hymns. And she did have a nice strong voice." Her niece Lenora Elkington elaborated that statement, saying, "When Aunt Till went out to milk she would start to sing, and you could hear her all over town on a nice clear, crisp day."

From her youth until she was an old woman racked with arthritis, Matilda worked very hard, not only serving others but also maintaining a large and busy household. Mable Peterson, who lived with her aunts for a time, remembered a rigorous routine that called for rising at 4:00 a.m., feeding the farm animals, including some fifty hens, four or five cows, turkeys, and pigs, milking the cows and running the milk through a cream separator, tending a large kitchen garden, canning fruits and vegetables, and, of course, washing on Monday and cleaning house on Saturday.

Matilda and Mary Ann were known for their hospitality, and they welcomed those in need of a place to stay when times were hard. They enjoyed entertaining their large family, especially during the holidays. Mable Peterson remembered with fondness "the family gatherings on Christmas Day" at her aunts' home and "how I used to look forward to it as a child. I think I looked with anticipation more to that than the visit from Santa." Lenora Bennett Elkington recalled that after the parades on July 4 and 24 "everyone would go there [the Hales home] ... to have cake and ice cream."

Several years before her death Matilda was honored on her birthday by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. The following tribute by Myrle Western Bennett was read:

The soothing touch you've given those in pain
Has carried through the years of memory,
And in your heart you carry gems of love
That constant service lets us humbly see.

You've mothered hundreds in your span of life
Through motherhood was not one of your goals,
And God has place perfection in your hands
To help deliver many infant souls.

Great tribute should be paid your selfless deeds
While serving us you served your God above.
Though late protectively we pledge
To keep you in the circle of our love.

And may your crown, invisible as yet,
Shine always forth that we may not forget.

In thinking of the life of Matilda Hales, one is led to contemplate the many other "Aunt Tills" who offered the same love and concern in hundreds of other rural communities throughout the West. Their names must be legion.

Matilda died peacefully on October 29, 1957, at her home in Deseret, Utah, at the age of eighty-seven. She had been the last surviving child of Henry and Sarah Jane's fifteen children. In the closing lines of his eulogy, Eldon Eliason, who had been a beneficiary of Matilda's service over the years, summed up her life's achievement in these words: "And long after monuments have crumbled into dust and been forgotten, her influence for good and her effect upon the community shall live on, and where mercy, love and service are needed, that influence will live with us and the same feeling prevail as when we said, "There goes Matilda."

email icon

If you wish to exchange family information,
please e-mail Richard McOmie.

Return to Health Care/Humanitarian Page

home icon

Return to Notable Women Ancestors.