Episode 3: The Heiress
A common theme in a lot of fairy tales involves the poor peasant girl who one day becomes a princess, either by marrying the handsome prince, or finding out she was secretly royalty all along. There was a well-publicized case that was only resolved in 2016 involving a woman named Helen Kramer who claimed to actually be the long-lost daughter and heir to a large family fortune named Loraine Allison who reportedly died when she was two-years-old along with her parents on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It made for a good story, but D.N.A. testing proved her to be a fraud. A good story though, is part of what helps sell such remarkable claims.
On February 26, 1928, a young woman calling herself Anastasia Tschaikovsky arrived in New York City and promptly announced to the world that she was really Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the murdered Czar Nicholas Romanov II of Russia. She claimed that she alone had escaped the execution that took her entire family following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mind you, this wasn’t a unique claim. Several women throughout the years had come forward claiming to be the last remaining Romanov heir, although time after time these stories were all quickly disproven. But in this particular instance, the woman’s story stuck.
She told reporters a harrowing tale of a desperate escape through Europe that eventually led her to American shores. Many Romanov relatives and people who personally knew the royal family were impressed by this young woman’s resemblance to the Romanovs, and even though people were able to poke holes in her story, whenever the woman was questioned too hard about certain personal details she claimed she was so traumatized by what had happened that she couldn’t remember.
A lengthy legal battle ensued over the woman’s claim to the Romanov family fortune that dragged on for decades and resulted in a string of losses for her. In 1954, a French play about her life story called “Anastasia” debuted. A film version starring Ingmar Bergman appeared two years later. The woman, who had come to be known as Anna Anderson, married and settled down in the U.S. In 1970, she lost her last major lawsuit and her ultimate claim to the Romanov fortune. In 1991, amateur Russian sleuths uncovered what they believed to be the burial site of the Romanov family. Among the remains discovered were those scientists believed were that of Anastasia. Tissue samples from Anna Anderson were later used to try to capture a D.N.A. match against the remains of Czar Nicholas’s brother. The results proved conclusively that Anna Anderson was not a Romanov. They did however prove beyond a doubt that she was actually a poor Polish munitions factory worker who had suffered a head injury and disappeared decades earlier.
Life just doesn’t work like a fairy tale. We cast our lot in life and try to find our place in it. Along the way we ask ourselves the vital questions. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I belong? Helen Kramer and Anna Anderson weren’t the only people who ever made remarkable claims about their origins. One of the more intriguing stories to ever spring out of Detroit, Michigan involved another woman with a mysterious past who may also have been a kind of royalty. Her search for her past would unlock keys to a mystery that may have been put in place by a wealthy family with a massive fortune and a dark secret to protect.
I’m Nate Hale reporting to you from inside my palatial family estate somewhere in the Swiss Alps, and this is The Conspirators.
In 1968, a 54-year-old woman who would eventually come to be known as Frances “Pat” Mealbach discovered, much to her surprise, that she was adopted. The man she had known as her father had died recently, and during the reading of his Last Will and Testament she was shocked to hear her name referred to in the will as his “adopted daughter”. The only things her father left her were a box full of photographs and documents, and even more questions.
One of the photos jumped out at Pat immediately. It was a photo of her as a baby wearing a fancy dress and pearls, seated next to another nearly identical child wearing a matching outfit. She had never seen a photo of herself as a baby before, and she had no memory of where this photo was taken or who the child next to her was. Among the documents in the box was a birth registration dated 1941, which was also odd because Pat believed she had been born in 1914. For some reason the document hadn’t been officially registered for 27 years. The first name given on the document was “Frances”, but she had been called Lucille her entire life. The surname on the document was “Manzer”, that of the man she had believed was her father, but there was no indication of who her actual birth parents were.
Much of Pat’s early childhood was lost to time and memory. It had been a generally happy childhood she recalled, but for the most part unremarkable, and she never had any inkling she’d been adopted. But one particular memory did stick with her. She recalled being picked up at her home by a red-headed woman who rode with her in a large automobile to a grand home in a wealthy Detroit neighborhood. She was led up a long, winding walkway into the house, and from there up a massive staircase to visit a woman in an upstairs bedroom. The woman was visibly ill, and she lay in a large sleigh bed. After visiting with the woman for a brief time, Pat remembered being taken downstairs to another room where she was fed milk and cookies. And after her snack the red-headed woman took her home. When she returned home she told her parents over and over about the beautiful rose colored drapes she had seen in the sick woman’s bedroom, and eventually her father would make her very own set out of crepe paper which he hung in her bedroom window.
Before you disregard this story as just the fanciful memories of an imaginative child, there was in fact a house on Detroit’s Boston Boulevard that matched Pat’s recollections, right down to the rose colored drapes in the upper bedroom. It was built in 1906 by none other than John Dodge, who, along with his brother Horace, started the Dodge family automotive empire.
John and Horace Dodge got their start in the automotive industry supplying engines and transmissions for Oldsmobile and Ford Motor Company. They rolled their first Dodge car off the assembly line in 1914, and soon their company became the number two auto manufacturer in the country. They originally owned a 10% stake in Ford, and when Henry Ford bought them out in 1919 for $25 million, it made the two already rich men much, much richer. The Dodges were, by all accounts, inseparable. Though they weren’t twins—John was four years older than Horace—they might as well have been. They were known as temperamental workaholics, along with being serious binge-drinkers with a wild streak a mile long that was frowned upon by their high-society contemporaries. John was the first brother to marry. He had three children with his wife Ivy Hawkins: Winifred, Isabel and John Duval. After Ivy died of tuberculosis in 1901, he married Matilda Rausch with whom he had three more children, Daniel, Anna Margaret and Frances. Interestingly, John also had a secret second marriage to a woman named Isabelle Smith, though the marriage didn’t last long, and as far as anyone knew, produced no children.
All of this brings us back to Pat Mealbach. Pat wanted to know as much as she could about where she came from. She reached out to a cousin with a friend in the Detroit City Council building in an attempt to get a look at her adoption records. The person in the records office let Pat take a brief peek at the documents. The name listed as Pat’s birth mother was someone named Emma Jane Nelson. Although there was no direct evidence it was the same woman, Pat would later learn that Emma Jane Nelson was also the name of a maid who worked in the Dodge mansion.
Another piece of the puzzle Pat recalled from her childhood were a pair of frequent visitors to her family home named Frank and Viola Upton. Growing up, Pat thought they were just friends her parents knew through church. But, as it turns out, this particular Frank Upton was John Dodge’s personal secretary and close personal friend. Pat questioned Viola Upton shortly before her death about the possibility that John Dodge was her biological father, but Viola refused to answer, telling her she had made a promise to her late husband to never speak about certain secrets he had shared with her. Whatever answers Viola had, she took them with her to her grave.
Pat sent a letter to a Michigan records office requesting her birth information. She used the name Frances and her maiden name Manzer on the request form. The records office sent her back a copy of a birth certificate containing the name Frances Dodge, with a checkbox next to the spot for “multiple births”. At first Pat thought there had been some mistake and she sent the birth certificate back, but the state later sent the birth certificate back with a letter stating that there had been no mistake and that it was, in fact, her birth record. The date of the birth was listed as November 27, 1914, four days after the date Pat had always thought of as her own birthday.
Pat hired a lawyer to obtain the rest of her adoption and birth records. She was astounded when she walked into court and there was a group of Dodge Family attorneys waiting to contest her ability to obtain her own birth records. The court fight over Pat’s birth records dragged on, and at times it got pretty nasty. The Dodge attorneys tried to paint Pat as a conniving gold-digger. Pat simply claimed that she just wanted to know who she truly was.
There are a few possibilities as to what might have happened. The simplest solution is that Pat was simply mistaken and she took some circumstantial evidence to the wrong conclusion. Another possibility was that since John was a known womanizer he possibly could have gotten his maid Emma Nelson, or some other woman pregnant. Another potential suspect was John’s sister-in-law Amelia Rausch, with whom Dodge was also rumored to have had an affair. In fact, the year before Pat was born, John Dodge sent Amelia Rausch off to live on his farm Meadowbrook. Pat wondered if this perhaps may have been to cover for the woman’s pregnancy. Probably the strangest theory is Pat’s idea that she was one of two conjoined twins. In fact, Pat did bear some unusual scars on the back of her neck that she thought might have come from surgery to separate the pair as infants. And apparently there would have been some social stigma behind a couple of the Dodge’s status having conjoined twins, since back in the day, conjoined twins were still appearing in travelling freak shows. But that’s all still just conjecture. There’s no direct medical evidence Pat had been a conjoined twin of Frances Dodge. But, during the course of the legal proceedings, a few witnesses did come forth who knew John Dodge personally who claimed that the auto magnate had told them he’d had twins.
John Dodge disinherited one of his children, and in the trust he left behind after his death he stipulated that his fortune would be distributed among his remaining grandchildren after the death of his last child. So even if Pat Mealbach wasn’t his daughter, it’s no wonder the grandchildren would want their lawyers there when this mystery woman appeared out of nowhere and threw a monkey-wrench into the distribution of their inheritance. A Judge did ultimately split the trust among the grandchildren, but the court battle to prevent Pat from obtaining her birth records dragged on for eight more years. Against the wishes of her attorney, Pat claimed she submitted her D.N.A. for genetic testing, but the results were never brought up in court and she never received the results of the tests. When Pat pressed the University of Michigan hospital for the lab results, they claimed to have lost them.
On February 20, 1990, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a probate ruling and finally allowed Pat to view her birth certificate and adoption records. She was escorted into the records room by a pair of armed guards. She was allowed to bring a handwriting analyst with her, but the certificate was to be kept under glass at all times. Pat and the handwriting analyst both claimed the certificate was in poor shape and it showed numerous instances where it had been visibly altered. The mother’s name was listed as “Emma Jane Nelson”. The birth name said “Remilda May Bornalive”.
The adoption records also confirmed Pat’s mother’s name as Emma Jane Nelson. The records further stated that after being born, Pat had spent the first six months of her life in a Niles, Michigan Tuberculosis Sanatorium. No medical reason was listed why this infant girl was placed in the Sanatorium, although one of the witnesses who gave a deposition claimed she had witnessed Pat’s adopted mother applying mustard packs on her chest as a small child for lung issues. Pat speculated that perhaps she had been the weaker of two twins, and that was why she was sent to the Sanatorium. It should also be noted that Niles, Michigan was where John Dodge grew up as a boy and he still had relatives in the area. At the very least, it’s unusual that Pat was sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Niles, many miles away from Detroit where she was born when there were much closer facilities she could have been sent to. Both John Dodge’s first wife Ivy, and years later, John himself, died of tuberculosis.
The adoption records listed the name of the hospital where Pat was born as “Woman’s Hospital of Detroit”, but even though the hospital had kept meticulous records, there was no record of an Emma Nelson being a patient there around the time Pat was born. They also had no record of employment for the doctor bearing the name of the physician who allegedly delivered Pat. The adoption records listed Pat’s name as “Frances Lucille Manzer”, with no mention of the name “Remilda”, the name mentioned on Pat’s official birth certificate.
In 1984, Pat Mealbach filed a claim in court for $3.2 million of the $40 million Dodge family fortune. The following year a probate court judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the estate had already been divided and it was too late to file additional claims. An episode of the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” about Pat reignited interest in the case for a time in the late 1980s, and a book was later written about her. But that’s where things ended. Pat had taken her quest for answers to her lineage as far as she could go. She spent the rest of her life, right up until she died in 2009, believing she knew who she was, but ultimately never being able to prove it.
The Conspirators is written and produced by me, Nate Hale, and entirely fictional identity.
You can hear other episodes, get transcripts and show notes at the conspiratorspodcast.com. Thanks for listening.
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