My Orphan Grandmother

95 years ago this week, my grandmother and her twin sister were born under mysterious circumstances in Kansas City, Missouri. Immediately after their births, they were placed in an orphanage. But this was no dark, Dickensian scenario –  a guardian ad litem saw to it that the girls were well-fed, clothed and cared for. Whoever the unknown birth parents were, there were plentiful funds emanating from them to oversee the girl’s growth into adulthood. My family and I have spent a good deal of time and effort over the decades trying to locate the birth parents of my grandma. Unfortunately, both my grandma and her sister passed away in 2015 – both 93 – without us having solved the mystery.

The Facts

The girls were born healthy and almost immediately adopted by a highly religious, middle-class couple. The guardian ad litem continued to funnel money towards them, meaning that they never had to go without, even during the Great Depression. The family lived a pious, sober, quiet life in the suburbs of Kansas City. Grandma was a good, obedient child who did well in school, blossomed into a beauty as a teenager and was placed in Anderson Theological Seminary school in Indiana upon her graduation from high school. Genetic testing of my grandma and her son Gary’s DNA showed them to be predominantly Irish-German, so that helped narrow down the possibilities to about ten million or so people residing in the mid-west during the 1920s.

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My grandma and her twin. Well loved.

The Myth

Grandma said that her stepparents always knew who the real parents were, but were bound to secrecy from telling the girls the truth per the terms of the adoption. But people like to talk and bits leaked out over the years. From the mouths of her neighbors and members of her family’s church, a story took shape; there was a doctor, a family man, who lived and worked in a city in a neighboring state. This man took up with one of his nurses and, as the story goes, planted his seed. This nurse was sent away to Kansas City to give birth, near enough for it not to be too out-of-the-way, but far enough away that the doctor could keep his reputation and family intact in his home city. This doctor allegedly handpicked the guardian ad litem, someone he trusted, to oversee care of the babies.

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What We Know 

  • At birth, the girls were given the names Billy Jean Brown and Bobbie Joe Brown. After adoption, Grandma was renamed Melvina Cora Whipple while her sister became Elvina Clara Whipple.
  • We know the birth father was well-off, enough so as to be able to administer funds to the girls through their guardian all during the Depression.
  • We know from the fact that the girls lived into their 90s that they had healthy, robust genes.
  • We know from DNA testing that the birth parents were of Irish-German descent.
  • We know that the birth parents hailed from a major city within range of Kansas City, in a neighboring state. Most speculation has centered around Indianapolis, as the adopted parents had ties there and had sent Grandma to seminary school in Anderson, on the outskirts of Indianapolis.
  • We know the birth parents were most likely brunettes with brown eyes and fair skin, like my grandma and her sis, like my mother and her brother.

The state of Missouri has extremely strict adoption laws that favor the parents, so as to give them peace-of-mind to allow them to give up their children rather than abandon them altogether. My grandmother and twin sister’s file remains sealed to this day, even though they’re both deceased. It is unlikely that my mom and I will ever uncover the whole truth, or that the file will be unsealed in our life times.

Mel and El
My grandma and her twin sister, all dolled up, circa 1937.