One night in the waning days of the Great Depression, a woman from Harford County told Baltimore Police she’d found a baby in the back seat of her car, which was parked on a street near Pennsylvania Station.
The story made the front page of The Evening Sun. The infant, taken to an orphanage, grew up to have a happy life.
Now, one of that infant’s grown sons, curious about his father’s origins, has turned the story on its head.
Vic Svec, a businessman from Belleville, Illinois, took a DNA test in January, and genetics experts say the results directly connect him and his late father, Joseph Svec, to the woman who reported finding the baby on the Charles Street viaduct on Aug. 24, 1934.
The finding stunned Svec, 57, who had never questioned the portrayal of Clara Bradley of Havre de Grace as a bystander who happened on the child and contacted police for help.
Instead, she was probably the baby’s grandmother and had come to Baltimore to dispense with a family problem, recent sleuthing by Svec strongly suggests.
“It was a eureka moment for me when we determined that this was actually, quite possibly, an inside job,” Svec says.
Joseph Svec, the foundling in question, never seems to have been very curious about his biological family.
He was adopted, apparently as a 1-year-old, from St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore by Alphonsus and Katherine Svec, a working-class couple who had been unable to have children.
Katherine, described as a cheerful and outgoing sort, is said to have stopped by the orphanage one day during a grocery run. She fell in love with the boy and brought him home, where she introduced him to a very surprised Alphonsus, according to family history as told to Vic.
Raised in a rowhouse in what is now the Belair-Edison neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore, the boy attended the now-closed Shrine of the Little Flower School and what was then called Loyola High School. He joined the Air Force and soon was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois. That’s where he met Eileen Kalert, a malt-shop waitress who would become his wife and the mother of their three boys.
He was a big, generous, happy man who loved telling stories, says Vic, adding that Joseph died in 2000.
“Sometimes I’d ask him, ‘Aren’t you curious?‘ He’d just say, ‘No, [the Svecs] were my parents. Why would I need to know about anybody else?‘ ”
Vic was more inquisitive.
He grew up in the 1960s reading The Evening Sun story, a copy of which his parents kept in a photo album. One detail always intrigued him.
Mrs. Francis Bradley, the article said, didn’t merely tell police that she and two of her sons, Edward and Francis, had found the baby in the car when they returned from a one-hour walk that Sunday night in 1934.
She also told them a woman she didn’t recognize had approached her earlier in the evening and asked whether she knew directions to the St. Vincent orphanage. Told that Mrs. Bradley didn’t, the woman allegedly sped off, at which point Washington, D.C., license plates on her car supposedly became visible. The details sparked a police inquiry in the nation’s capital, the story said.
“What I always wanted to find out was who this mystery woman from Washington was, since there was a chance she was some sort of family member,” Vic Svec says.
It was last Christmas that Vic’s wife, Diana, gave him a present she thought might help — a test kit from 23andMe, a genomics company that offers analysis of DNA samples, including information on ancestry. He spat in a test tube, submitted the sample and waited.
When the results came back, they spoke of strong connections to a single extended family that had no ties to the District of Columbia. Instead, many had ties to Maryland in the mid-20th century, including the Havre de Grace and Baltimore areas.
The most common surname in the group: Bradley.
“It didn’t jump out at me right away, but Diana remembered that was the name of the woman in the Sun story who said she’d found the baby,” Vic Svec says.
To Svec’s amazement, the report showed he had a DNA match of 2% to 4% with several members of the Bradley clan — more than enough, genetics counselors say, to prove a blood connection and the right amount to suggest some degree of cousinhood.
Carolyn Applegate, a genetics counselor with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says 23andMe and similar companies do generate reliable and accurate match percentages, but there are limits to what those mean.
Because each percentage suggests a range of possible blood relationships — 50% indicates a sibling or parent-child relationship, for instance, 25% an aunt, uncle, half-sibling or grandparent connection — it’s up to clients to use other family information to formulate a full picture.
Given the available DNA and other information, Applegate says Clara Bradley was almost certainly either the baby’s mother or grandmother — and that since Clara was 54 in 1934, the latter is a much likelier possibility.
It also suggests The Evening Sun and Baltimore Police fell for a red herring.
“We can say with near certainty that the story Mrs. Bradley told the police was not true,” Applegate says.
Amanda Altman, a senior products specialist with 23andMe, says that while customers often turn up relatives they didn’t know they had, she’d never heard of test results clearing up a decades-old mystery.
“As far as I know, that’s definitely a new one,” she says.
The Svecs’ months of sleuthing have opened new doors. It was in February that they started reaching out to Bradley family members whose DNA is in the 23andMe database.
Everyone was perfectly friendly, Svec says, but none seemed to have heard about an abandoned baby or to be interested in researching ancestors they knew little about.
The plot thickened last month, though, when Svec’s 34-year-old daughter, Stephanie Mueller, also from Illinois, found her way to a Facebook page with an interesting title: “We Are Bradley.”
The site, she realized, is a virtual gathering place for about 100 descendants of none other than Clara and John Joseph Francis Bradley, a married couple who lived on a farm near Havre de Grace in the early- to mid-1900s, raising 10 children.
Two of the children often mentioned on the site, Edward J. “John” Bradley and Francis “Rush” Bradley, were described in The Evening Sun as accompanying Clara Bradley to Baltimore that fateful night.
Energized, Svec began posting material on the Bradley site two weeks ago. He included a scan of the 1934 article, photos of Joseph at various ages, and an account of his family’s quest.
Some commenters expressed skepticism about Svec’s story and materials at first, but several noted a family resemblance in Joseph.
Then a senior clan member weighed in with a game-changing analysis.
“The story is all true,” says Clara Valeck, 79, who lives in Michigan.
Valeck, as she later told Vic on the phone, is the granddaughter of Clara Bradley and was named for her. She’s also the daughter of Edward J. Bradley, who was 24 when, according to The Evening Sun, he accompanied his mother on her journey to Baltimore.
“At first, some of the people in our family said, in effect, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie,‘ but I believe Vic deserves to know the truth,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m only sad that so many people had to carry this knowledge around with them for so many years.”
That truth is hard to know in every detail, but Valeck has developed a working theory, and Vic agrees with most of it.
In all likelihood, both say, Joseph’s mother was Mary Elizabeth Bradley, John and Clara’s only daughter, who was 21 and unmarried in 1934. They figure the Bradleys, unremarkably for the time, saw the situation as shameful and decided the ordinary adoption process would draw unwanted attention.
Little is known about Mary Elizabeth, who went by Betty or Liz, except that she had a son in Philadelphia in 1948, then moved to Washington state, where she largely lost touch with the family. She died in 1983.
Several Bradleys have now friended Vic Svec on Facebook and extended warm welcomes, and plans are in the works for a family reunion.
Questions remain of course. Why, for example, did the Bradleys choose Baltimore as a destination, and why did they park near the train station? Were Clara’s sons part of her scheme? Why concoct such an elaborate story? Where was Betty that night, and who was the boy’s biological father?
Even the modern science of DNA likely will never provide all the answers, Svec says, so he and his family will have to keep investigating to learn more.
He’s looking forward to the task.
“I tend to live by the slogan that the pursuit of happiness is a never-ending process,” he says. “Happiness lies in the pursuit.”