Family Mystery Solved with 23andMe

We’re returning one more time to the story of Jessica and Alice, and how they used 23andMe to unravel a century old mystery.

Jess's grandfather Phil and her great grandfather Sam.

Jess’s grandfather Phil and her great grandfather Sam.

We first wrote about the story back in February 2015 and again a few weeks later, and we aren’t the only ones fascinated by it.

Scott Fisher, the host of the syndicated family history radio program Extreme Genes, dedicated his most recent show to their story.

Fisher has a great interview with Jess, Alice, and genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who each detail how they worked over three years to piece together a mystery that probably couldn’t have been solved any other way, and it all started when Alice tested with 23andMe.

“I took a DNA test and the results came back all the way wrong,” Alice told Fischer.

Or at least that’s what she thought.

Raised to believe she was three-quarters Irish, Alice’s ancestry results came back showing that she had 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. This sparked what turned into years of trying to figure out if this was all a mistake or something else. Her mother and father weren’t around to ask anymore, so Alice eventually had all seven of her siblings tested with 23andMe. They all showed the same result. They were half Ashkenazi.

How that was possible was the mystery to Alice, so she began working to solve it. She enlisted the help of CeCe, no stranger of difficult family mysteries, and the two got to work.

“There are unexpected surprises in pretty much every case I work on,” said CeCe.

This one was no different, and CeCe and Alice dove deeper looking at paper records and came up with some theories. If it was just Alice’s results that were different, perhaps the difference could be explained by a single infidelity, but everyone in her family had the same ancestry profile. Obviously something about their family history was different than they suspected. Alice’s father, James, had had a tough upbringing. He knew his parents but had been raised in an orphanage. Alice began zeroing in on her father and the possibility that  he was switched at birth. But how could you figure something like that out?

He was born at Fordham hospital in the Bronx in 1913, so CeCe and Alice began looking at birth records for babies born on the same day, in the same hospital. Perhaps, they thought, a nurse accidentally put Alice’s father in another child’s crib. CeCe and Alice even went so far as approaching the descendants of a man born that same day with a similar last name and had him test with 23andMe, but they found no match.

And then last year, Jessica, who lives in North Carolina, signed up for 23andMe. Like Alice she also got a big surprise.

“I knew my mom is Japanese, Filipino and Native American,” Jessica said.

Her dad was a bit of a mystery because he’d died when Jessica was still young, but she knew that he was Jewish. But the results came back and instead of showing she had Jewish ancestry, it showed she was a quarter Irish.

“It didn’t match what I knew,” Jessica said.

That might have been it, but that one of Alice’s nephews also tested with 23andMe. Alice found that she shared no DNA with him, that they in fact were not biologically related. Although that would seem to be another dead end, Alice knew that his results could help her solve the mystery.

When he shared with Alice some of his DNA Relative matches, she saw a name she didn’t recognize, Jessica.

“When I saw her listing, I started shaking,” said Alice.

She knew this could be the key.

So Alice sent her a message.

“Help solve a hundred year-old mystery,” Alice said in her message.

Jessica was intrigued.

When they connected, Alice immediately asked whether Jessica had been surprised by her ancestry results. And then Alice floated her idea, that Jessica’s grandfather and Alice’s father, who were both born on the same day at the same hospital in the Bronx in 1913, had been switched at birth.

For Jessica, the whole thing sounded intriguing. She wanted to know. For Alice, who’d resigned herself to never solving the mystery, she could hardly contain herself.

When they shared family photos, it seemed even clearer that the mystery had been solved.

“You can’t look and come to any other conclusion,” said Fischer in the show.

For CeCe, the photos illustrate something she’s seen in many cases. Here are these two men, clearly not biologically related to the parents who raised them, and for those men how out of place they sometimes must have felt.

It’s also intriguing to think about how their lives might have been different, said Jessica.

“That might be the strangest part,” Jessica said. “They ended up living different lives.”

  • robertdaniels

    dont trust these results i had test from another dna tester and it wasnt even close ,diffrent test different result

    • 23blog

      We have a very robust and scientifically sound test that has proven very accurate. I’m curious what results you saw that were different, and what company you tested with.

  • Shell D

    My results were not a surprise however; It was interesting to see I did have Ashkenazi Jewish. Another interesting find in my DNA was that I had ZERO sub-Saharan African.
    Aren’t we all supposed to originate from Africa ??

    • 23blog

      Hi Shell,
      Yes ultimately we can all trace our roots back to Africa, but that is back hundreds of thousands of years. 23andMe Ancestry Composition is looking at more recent ancestry and what it indicates about your ancestral roots — are you Asian, European, African, Native American or some mix of those.

      • Shell D

        I’m 100% European as per 23&me, however; when I plugged my raw data into GEDmatch, results came back with .04 Sub Sahran African, 4.5 Native American, some minuscule Asian and a a few other “hits” that were not noted by 23&me.

        • 23blog

          Hi Shell D,
          You can look how we arrive at our estimates. We have pretty established science behind the predictions. We also break down your European ancestry. It would also be important to look at percentages below 1 percent carefully.

        • Shell D

          Question. Does our DNA with 23&Me get updated with any new DNA Ancestry findings ?

        • 23blog

          Your DNA of course doesn’t change, but what we know about it and what we can report about it does. We do update reports on both the health and ancestry side of our product and plan to continue to do that. On the ancestry side, what has change is how fine grain we can get in reporting ancestry. That has improved over time. So for example we’ve updated where in Africa people with African ancestry can trace their roots. We will likely be able to improve that reporting as we get additional reference samples. And that is happening for other ancestry as well.

      • Debbie L Bullard

        but that is turning out to be questionable since they are uncovering older humans in England.

  • humpfh

    Oh my god, what a completely horrifying situation.

    • 23blog

      I think it also begs the question about how often something like this would have happened. The comment from Jess toward the end about living the life of someone else is quite arresting.

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