The story of Jessica Stanmeyer’s great-grandparents is straight from the movies: intrigue, secrets, murder, betrayal, forbidden romance — it’s got it all. MyHeritage user Jessica, 57, from Wisconsin, U.S., together with her Aunt Sharyn, managed to solve the 100-year-old mystery of her great-grandfather’s identity using a combination of DNA, genealogy, and some sleuthing. This is her story:
My grandma, Esther “Sanie” Mertes, was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan in January 1916. Her mother, Florence “Florrie” Mertes, was only 19 and unmarried at the time of Sanie’s birth. Florence had been orphaned at the age of 13 after both her parents were killed: her father supposedly died in a farming accident in 1900 when a hay press “fell” on him, and her mother was killed by her second husband in 1909. The murder was splashed all over the headlines at the time. It’s been speculated that the second husband killed her first husband in order to marry her, but that was never proven.
The following year, Florence married Charles Wilkings, a nice, respectable widower. It was a rocky relationship. Charles was a good husband and father, but Florrie had an eye for other men and never appreciated Charles according to my grandma. She let Sanie believe that Charles was her father until one day her mother informed her that he was not. My grandma loved Charles and was devastated. From my grandma’s memoirs:
“In 1929, when I was 13, Mom told me I was not Charles’s daughter, but the illegitimate offspring of a liaison between her and one Roy Allie. I was shattered. The blight of my birth didn’t matter too much, but that I didn’t belong to ‘Dad’ whom I loved and that Florrie, whom I hated, was my real mother was more than I could bear. I sat in stunned silence as Mom told me about my father and his family. She sent me to her trunk in the attic to look for my father’s picture. I searched several times, but never found it.”
On more than one occasion, Florrie was dishonest, so my grandma never truly knew for certain that Roy was her father. Several facts about the man seemed off: he was French, blond, medium frame, liked to cook, was a partier. My grandma was none of these things. She yearned to press her mom for more details, and finally, in the 1970s, she confronted her mom, wanting to know more, and Florrie blurted out that Roy was not her father. By the time my grandma passed in 2007, she gave up hope that she’d ever know the identity of her real father.
Down the DNA rabbit hole
This is where the recent DNA technology really helped our family solve this family mystery. Around 2017, my father, Sanie’s oldest son, was gifted a DNA test. My grandma had researched our family tree extensively. She knew of her mother’s deep German roots. My dad’s father, Vladimir Floriani, had deep Croatian roots. The only piece that was unknown was the French side of our family — if, indeed, Roy was her father.
To everyone’s surprise, my dad’s results showed that he was nearly 25% Finnish! His sister, Sharyn, intrigued, also tested and got similar results. Our family was shocked, but knew that the Finnish in the results must be from Sanie’s father’s side. That’s what led Sharyn and I to dig deeper to see if we could actually find his identity.
Aunt Sharyn and I were complete novices at genealogy. All we knew was that we were looking for a Finnish man who lived in the UP that could have fathered Sanie. We used the advice of the large network of people on sites like MyHeritage, Geni.com, and Facebook groups to learn how to identify good matches.
I took the recommendation that we should concentrate only on the strongest Finnish matches to my father and Sharyn. I then used MyHeritage’s AutoClusters tool to try and figure out how those matches were related to one another. Through the help of our network, we were able to recreate many of their family trees until one day, I realized how many of them were connected.
We quickly got to work combing through their family tree to find a man who would have fit the criteria we were looking for. Because of the DNA matches, we knew there were entire branches we could ignore because the DNA matches on that branch were too distant for the man to be part of that part of the tree. I also used a probability tool to try and narrow down which branch to focus on.
We finally homed in on one man, Johannes Pakarinen, who met the criteria — but his trail dried up. He only had a wife, Jennie, and a son, Levi, who appeared to have spent his life in an institution. We couldn’t find any more information about them, so there was nobody alive to ask more.
Fortunately, Johannes’ sister, Alma, had a grandson that was still living. His name was Arto Helenus and he lived in Finland. Again, with the help of the network on MyHeritage, we were able to obtain a phone number and another myHeritage member and close DNA match offered to call and ask him to test for us if we sent him a test. He agreed and he tested with myHeritage. Weeks later we received the results that he shared 257 cm, the largest match we got to date. We knew we had hit the right branch.
The story of Johannes
While this match strongly supported our theory, we still wanted more solid proof and to know what happened to Johannes and family.
We found out his wife had a sister, and my Aunt Sharyn was able to connect with a relative who happened to have notes from an uncle about Johannes and Jennie Pakarinen. His information indicated that Johannes and Jennie had 4 children: Mamie, John, Martha, and Levi. It was a heartbreaking story: Johannes had deserted his wife around 1910 or 1911, and Jennie was forced to work to support them, but ended up dying of pneumonia in 1919. The children came to live with Jennie’s sister for a while.
We learned that their son, John, was adopted by a family in Michigan. Sisters Mamie and Martha went on to marry and the youngest, Levi, was institutionalized. Later, we learned he never spoke — perhaps from early childhood trauma? Mamie was only married a few years before she divorced. Martha went on to have 5 children, and then she was institutionalized. We eventually found out that Martha was later released from the institution and went on to have one more son in 1952: Paul Warrick.
Sharyn connected with Paul through Facebook who knew little about his family. He just knew that his mother had a traumatic upbringing and never talked about it. She suffered from postpartum depression and was institutionalized and missed raising her children. Her husband insisted on bringing her home, and that’s when she wanted one more child — Paul. He told us their family cared for his mom’s sister, Mamie, after her divorce, and he also cared for his much older siblings.
Paul agreed to take a DNA test. It revealed he was a half-first cousin to Sharyn and my Dad.
We knew we had enough proof to say that Johannes was my grandma’s father.
While we have not met Paul yet, both Sharyn and my dad have talked to him at length, and he’s been key in filling in some family stories that had been missing all these years.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Johannes Pakarinen. Paul said it was rumored that he stayed in upper Michigan, as people recall seeing him at local bars. There are some WWI and WWII registration cards we found online of a farmhand who has a similar name and uses the same birthdate, born in the same small town as Johannes, but we can’t be certain it was him. Finnish church records indicate there was only one Johannes Pakarinen born in that town that year.
I guess knowing what happened to him isn’t as important. It just would have been nice.
Either way, I’m just shocked that a couple of novices like ourselves could solve this crazy family mystery. I only wish my grandma would have been alive to be a part of it.
Many thanks to Jessica for sharing her incredible story with us! You don’t have to be an expert to make amazing discoveries using MyHeritage DNA. Order your kit now to start discovering!
The post My Aunt & I Solved the 100-Year-Old Mystery of My Great-Grandfather’s Identity appeared first on MyHeritage Blog.
Source: My Heritage