Searching for my Adopted Grandmother's Birth Parents

“Your mother was adopted.”  That’s what my grandfather told my father on the night of his mother’s passing.  This kind, wonderful woman grew up too ashamed to tell anyone her big secret, not even her 7 children.  It’s heartbreaking and I can’t imagine what was running thru my father’s head at that exact moment when his dad drops the bomb.  Here he is, dealing with the death of his mother Helen at the age of 74 from Breast Cancer, and now he has to process the fact that her parents were not her parents.  Or were they..........

Fast forward 30+ years later, and I’ve decided it’s time to find out exactly where I came from.  It started out as a simple concept.  Let’s do a little family research on my ancestors and see what I can find, maybe even understand who I was named after.  Someone named Ellen.  That’s it, that’s all I wanted to do.  But one day into my initial search, I was hooked.  My great grandfather worked at the Cracker Jack factory in Chicago.  Very cool.  I had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower.  I was related to Liza Minelli.  Wow.  My great-great grandmother had 16 children. Forget it. 

At this point, my search was spiraling out of control and I couldn’t stop.  My sister and her husband called my office the “war room”.  But I wasn’t touching the adoption situation, at least not yet.  That was too daunting a task and I was convinced I wouldn’t find out anything.   So I let it sit at the bottom of the pile, at the bottom of my list of things to do.

About a month later, I decided it was time to peek into the file and see what I could find out about my grandmother’s adoption and birth parents.  Basically, all I remember hearing over the last many years was a story about how her father really wasn’t her father, and the birth mother was a servant named Fanny.  But then there was this little whisper in my family that maybe her adopted Bohemian father Frank really was her birth father after all.  Yet the birth certificate said the father was a German man named Fred.  Where that rumor originated from is still unclear to me, but hopefully one day I could get to the bottom of that issue. 

Fanny, Fred and Frank.  Seriously, could you have given me at least one name that didn’t start with an F? 

To begin, I had 2 documents to help me in my search.  One of my dad’s siblings actually petitioned Cook County and got Helen’s adoption transcript.  In the transcript, it names the birth mother, which led to Helen’s birth certificate.  That’s all I had.

Oh, did I mention that the birth mother lied about her name and address on the birth certificate?  She used a fake name of Kate on the birth record, but was quoted in the adoption record as Fanny.  What I will eventually uncover is that this is one of many lies that I would come across in my search.  She obviously had something to hide and that’s what I needed to understand.  So what else was she lying about?  The birth father listed on the certificate?  Probably.

I initially felt lucky because my grandmother was born in Feb of 1900, and the once-every-10-year census came out in June of 1900.  I thought it would be fairly easy to find a 4-month old baby Helen in the census records of Chicago, but I was wrong.  So where was Helen in the census, and where was she for her first year?  According to the adoption transcript, Frank says that he took Helen home around the age of 1, and eventually adopted her at the age of 11.  I was convinced the birth mother took her home in an attempt to raise her, although it was possible she could be at an orphanage (Frank gave money to a Bohemian Catholic Orphanage in his will). 

My first serious search was to look thru all the Chicago orphanages in the 1900 census.  It is a painstaking process to flip thru many pages trying to drill down to the exact location of each orphanage, but it had to be done.  Yet I came up with nothing.  So then I wrote to the Catholic Archdiocese and spoke to the woman in charge of the archives.  She agreed to research the Bohemian orphanage run by the nuns in the year 1900.  But after waiting 2 months for a response, all she came back with was that the records couldn’t be found for that timeframe. 

Then I went back to the census record, and searched for baby Helen and mother Fanny, or Helen and Kate.  I did this search multiple times with no luck until I decided to do a generic search for 4-month old girls.  That’s when I came across a very interesting entry = Baby Helen, born in Feb, living with mother Annie (no father with them).  When I looked closer at the document, the mother’s name was actually Fannie.  It had been indexed wrong after having missed the first letter of her name.  I was convinced this could be them.  I also notice that they list the place of birth of baby Helen’s father as Hungary (not Germany, which is the nationality of Fred listed on the birth certificate).  Very interesting indeed.  The only hiccup was that it had more lies – the last name of the mother was wrong, the age of the mother was off by 10 years, and she said she was from Hungary, not Bohemia.

Here is the interesting part on this census record.  This woman Fannie lived next door to a policeman in the census.  And why that gave me chills is because Frank (the adopted Bohemian father) was a cop.  So now this story begins to form in my head.  Adopted Father Frank is the real father, and has squirreled mother and daughter away with a co-worker so no one would find them.  I was also convinced that Fred, listed as the father on the birth certificate, was another lie and they were never married.  That is until I found Fanny’s marriage record to Fred 5 years before the birth of Helen.  Ugh, I mean, yeah !!

So now I know that Fanny and Fred were actually husband and wife.  But I never did find them living together in the 1900 census, much less with a baby.  Of course, they got married by the Justice of the Peace in 1895, which means they didn’t marry in the church, which means there isn’t a church record to look at.  When I searched the Chicago City Directory of Addresses for Fred, I found him listed during the 1st year of their marriage, and then I never found him living in Chicago again.  I searched about 20 years of directories, and only found him twice – in 1894 and 1895.  Now I am back to my theory that he is not the father, and had left Chicago long before baby Helen was born in 1900. 

I’m now months into this search before I finally come across another hit – Fanny living in Yellowstone Wyoming.  She is living as a servant in the house of a military officer in the 1910 census.  The entry does say that she is married and is the mother of 1 child, but she is not living with a husband or a daughter.  At this point, I know that Helen is living with her adopted parents as a 10 year old.  Nonetheless, I found Fanny again, and that’s progress.

Yet I’m running out of ideas and fear I will never figure this out.  But I had one big idea left and that was to search for divorce records since I never did find Fanny and Fred living together in a census.  Not knowing what this meant, I ventured down to the Cook County Archives and sat at the microfilm desk.  (I knew Illinois was broke, but for Pete’s sake, could they get a machine that you didn’t have to crank by hand?  What year is this, 1912?)  So I cranked away for an hour, and I’m getting highly annoyed I might add.  That is, until I hit the jackpot.  Finally.  I found a divorce index – Fanny and Fred, March 1911. 

To quote Harry Carey, HOLY COW.  Now I’m fired up and it’s all I can focus on.  I also realized that the divorce date was 1 month before the official adoption papers were issued for Helen, and the lawyer on the adoption was the same lawyer for the divorce.  That cannot be a coincidence.  Frank, did you pay the bill?  It took 2 weeks of patience, which is not a virtue I possess, but the day finally arrives for me to go back to the courthouse and view the record.  I’m giddy and bouncing in my shoes as I walk the 15+ blocks to the Loop. I can’t imagine what it will tell me, but I’m beyond excited.  What I get is a document folded in 3 parts that hadn’t been opened since 1911.  The original rusty staple holding the pages together was still there. 

The first word I saw was “abandoned”.  According to Fanny’s testimony to the courts, husband Fred abandoned her in 1899 (Helen was born in 1900).  In addition, there is a sister named Anna who testifies to the abandonment.  And finally Frank, the adopted father, testifies that he knew Fanny for the past 10 years, she lived alone, and did laundry for a living.  But the part that still breaks my heart is that Frank tells the court that Fanny would occasionally go to his house to visit her little girl.  Remember when I said I was bouncing with excitement on my way to view the record; well, my walk back home was met with a somber tone, and a few tears. 

My whole perception of my great grandmother changed in an instant and I began to feel a connection that I cannot explain.  Whether I am right or wrong, this is what I think went down.  She came to the US in 1889 to live with her siblings in Chicago, and eventually got married in 1895.  1 year later, her husband left her and never returned.   She was broke, lonely and she got pregnant out of wedlock.  Fanny attempted to raise Helen by herself, but had no money, and lived the life of a servant in someone else’s house, doing someone else’s laundry of all things.  I’m sure bringing an infant into this situation was problematic with her employer.  So she had to give up the baby to a better life, which I’m confident broke her heart.  I truly believe this just based on the fact that she often went to visit her as a child.

Fanny’s sister in the divorce record was my goldmine to their family.  I found sister Anna and 2 other siblings living in Chicago, and I even confirmed their parents’ name and birth location in Bohemia.  However, it was sister Anna’s obituary in 1935 that mentioned her sister Frances.  But now Fanny has a new last name.  Obviously, she remarried and it only took me a couple weeks to piece it all together.  I found Fanny’s 2nd marriage record in Ohio, which took place 2 months after the divorce, and 1 month after the adoption. I found her in the 1920 census with her new husband Clyde and a 6 year old son living in Idaho.  I immediately found her death record in 1942 and subsequently received her death certificate 2 weeks later. 

And yes, there was more lying that I uncovered.  On the marriage certificate to her 2nd husband Clyde, she used her first married last name as the name of her parents, instead of her real maiden name.  Then she checked the box that said she had never been married before, which probably means she didn’t tell her husband about her past.  She also said she was born in Chicago, even though I have her immigration record  and a picture of the boat she came over on from Bohemia.  But who cares at this point.  She lived in an era where shame was the devil, and god forbid you made a mistake.   Yet that mistake led to a wonderful mother of 7 and grandmother of many, including me.  That is not a mistake in my book.  Fanny just stumbled into an unconventional path to motherhood that other people had a hard time accepting.  The hardest thing for me to reconcile is how it affected my grandmother.  I hope to god she isn’t mad at me for uncovering everything.  I wish she were alive today because I believe she would have felt more comfortable telling others.

So there it is.  9 months of brick walls, all to come tumbling down from a divorce record.

I want to meet Fanny in person, but that can’t happen until I see her in Heaven.  So for now, I’d settle for a picture.  I haven’t been able to come up with that yet.  And I will definitely visit her grave in Twin Falls Idaho.  Hopefully soon.  Maybe one day I will get the guts to reach out to the children of her son who now live in Utah.  But I’m too chicken to do that.  I fear they have no idea that grandma had another life.

As for the birth father, I briefly mentioned that I thought Helen’s adopted father was really the birth father.  I have yet to uncover one single hard fact to substantiate this claim.  My theory is based on whispers, and gut.  Frank knew the birth mother and let her into his house.  I doubt that would happen if he picked up a baby at an orphanage.  Also, Frank and his 2nd wife were 46 years old & childless when he brought Helen into his home.  I can’t imagine he wanted to be changing diapers and chasing a toddler into his 50’s.  Don’t forget another key fact - Fanny lived next to a cop in the 1900 census.  Ok, that may be a stretch, but it doesn’t shut the door, just helps to keep the theory alive.

In addition, my grandparents grew up as neighbors, which is how they met and eventually married.  Thus, my grandfather knew Helen's "adopted” parents.  Last year I ordered Helen's death certificate, which was filled out by my grandfather.  The birth father was listed as Frank, but birth mother was listed as unknown.  That's a huge clue, because if they were both adopted parents, then he would have listed her too. 

There is one other factor in my gut speaking to Frank as the real father.  In 1972, my journalist father did a taped interview with his parents so he could document their family history.  What a blessing this has been to my research.  But it is haunting to listen to my grandmother speak, especially now that I know the full story.  Keep in mind nobody knew she was adopted during this interview.  So when my father began asking questions, she ran away from the microphone and told him she didn’t want to do it and didn’t know anything.  He eventually coaxed her over, and we get to listen to her speak glowingly about her father Frank.  Yet, when he asks about her mother, she said she doesn’t know anything and changes the subject.  It’s definitive that something is not right, yet she speaks with such reverence to Frank.  So now I ask you, why would she love her adopted father so much, yet avoid speaking about her adopted mother?  See what I mean? 

This past summer, I traced Frank’s roots to a distant cousin in Chicago.  We met in person and are discussing a DNA test.  I’m all for checking that box on my research skills, and adding to the story, even if it’s only in my head.

MAJOR UPDATE = I am beyond excited to confirm that my research was correct all along.  Frank is the father of my grandmother !!  My cousin and I both took a DNA test. We had to wait a few anxious weeks once the test was taken, but it was an amazing moment to see the results come back positive and confirm her as a 3rd cousin.  If you have any doubts in your family about possible lineage, I strongly recommend taking part in a DNA test such as Family Tree DNA, or 23andMe.  Any first or second cousin matches could lead you to confirm a birth parent. 

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