Like all new technologies, DNA testing has a good side, a bad side, and, as author Margaret Atwood said, a “stupid side you hadn’t considered.” Eight years ago, 72-year-old Washington native Alice Collins Plebuch made a decision that would change her life forever: She sent samples of her saliva for a “just for fun DNA test.”
Seeing as both her parents were devout Irish American Catholics, Alice thought she had a good idea about what the DNA test results would say. But when the test results came back, Alice was shocked. She wasn’t who she thought she was. This revelation sent Alice and her siblings on a years-long journey to uncover the mystery surrounding their identities.
Questions about her family had preoccupied Alice for years. Her mother, who was also named Alice, was into genealogy. She kept an old family book with the handwritten names and births and deaths of their relatives. Alice found her mother’s side easy to follow, even before genealogy records were available online. Her mother was Irish on one side, and Scottish and English on the other.
Some of her relatives had even been in America as far back as colonial times, and Alice was able to trace some of her mother’s ancestors back to the 1500s. But with each update to her mother’s lineage, Alice felt guilty because her father’s side of the family was a different story. “My dad had nothing. He had no history,” she told journalist and author Libby Copeland.
Her father, Jim Collins, was the son of Irish immigrants. He knew little of his family history. His mother had passed away when Jim was just a baby, and his father was unable to care for him and his older siblings. So, he gave them away to a Catholic orphanage.
For most of his life, Jim didn’t know what year he was born in, believing he was a year older than what he really was. As her father grew older, Alice decided that it was time to dive into his lineage and discover where he came from. Before she began the project, she had already known some of the details of his childhood. She knew that living in the orphanage had been hard.
Alice knew that her father had most likely been malnourished while living there because a doctor later told him that this most likely explained his small build. She also knew that he had left the orphanage in his teens and was a rebel before he joined the US Army Corps of Engineers and married her mother.
She also knew that her father had a sister, who had died when she was younger, and a brother he was not close with. Jim was also a devout Catholic who cooked a wicked corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day. But what Alice didn’t know was where he came from and what happened to his parents.
When her father died in 1999, Alice couldn’t really tell him more than what he already knew. In the years that followed, however, Alice was able to find some sort of paper trail. Jim was born in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. His father, Josef, worked as a driver, and his mother, Katie, passed away at the age of 32 when Jim was only nine months old.
She also found the name of the orphanage where he grew up. It was the St. Agnes Home and School, and although the school was no longer around, she was able to find the names of some of the sisters who worked there. Alice wrote them a letter, asking if they had any helpful information about her father.
Besides Jim’s admission and discharge dates, the orphanage couldn’t provide Alice with any other helpful information. Years passed, and Alice’s research came up fruitless. Then, in 2012, at-home DNA kits became available. Alice was elated. She had just discovered what she thought was her father’s family’s village in Ireland, and she was considering a trip overseas to see where her grandparents had come from.
Alice knew that an at-home DNA test would make her research a whole lot easier, so she put her name down on the company’s waiting list. When the tests finally arrived, she and her sister Gerry swabbed their cheeks and sent in their tests. But when their results came back a month later, Alice and Gerry were more than a little confused.
Only less than 50 percent of the sisters’ DNA results were of Irish, Scottish, and English descent. The other half of her DNA was an unexpected combination of European Jewish, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern. This was odd, Alice thought because both of her parents were from the British Isles.
Surely someone at the testing lab had messed up her results or accidentally switched them with someone else’s. Alice wrote the testing company a letter explaining their mistake. She decided to take the test again. But when the same test result came back for a second time, Alice knew that the report was correct. Several questions popped up in her head. Who were her parents? Did her mother have an affair?
Alice was determined to get to the bottom of whatever family secrets had been kept from her. If her parents weren’t who they said they were, that meant that Alice, by extension, wasn’t who she thought she was. The DNA test results were only the beginning, as they provided Alice with the what, but not the why.
While intense research and analysis might intimidate some people, Alice was not thrown off. She had worked as an IT manager at the University of California before she retired. “I did data processing most of my life, and at a fairly sophisticated level,” she said in 2017. Alice likes to find patterns in chaos and answer big questions with complex answers.
After getting over her initial shock, Alice got straight to work. Maybe her mother had an affair? Or her grandmother? But this scenario seemed unlikely. Cheating was out of character for Alice’s mother, and all of Alice’s siblings shared her father’s eyes. Still, the question lingered in the back of her mind.
“My father, he was in the Army, and he was all over the world, and it was just one of those fears that you have when you don’t know,” Alice told author Libby Copeland. Alice and her sister had a gut feeling that the lineage came from their father’s side, especially since he was adopted. Were her father’s grandparents secretly Irish Jews? Or maybe Eastern European Jews who said they were Irish when they immigrated to America?
As a precaution, Alice had two of her cousins, one from each side, take a DNA test. The results from her maternal cousin came back normal. The two shared 12.5 percent of the same DNA, meaning that they were first cousins. But the test results from her paternal cousin were peculiar. The test showed that Alice and her cousin, whose mother was Jim Collin’s sister, shared no DNA.
In other words, the two were complete strangers, genetically speaking, and weren’t actually cousins. This also meant that Alice’s father’s sister wasn’t actually his sister. Alice was frustrated with the results, to say the least. Not only was she back to square one, but she was scared of being rejected from her dad’s side of the family since they weren’t biologically related.
With the data results in front of them, Alice and her sister Gerry came to the conclusion that their father Jim was not related to his parents. “I really lost all my identity,” Alice said in 2017. “I felt adrift. I didn’t know who I was, you know, who I really was.” But for her Gerry, the test results confirmed a feeling she had had for a very long time.
For years, Gerry had thought that Jim’s father bore no resemblance to anyone in her immediate family. And when she traveled to Ireland in the ’90s, she realized that no one looked like her 5-foot-4, dark-haired father. Gerry carried this feeling around with her for years, but with the DNA test results in front of her, her hunch turned to fact.
With their father and his parents long dead, Alice and Gerry knew they had to unravel their father’s mystery by speaking with the living. Did their father have any biological siblings? Did those siblings have any children? Was there a chance that Alice and her siblings had long-lost first cousins? By 2013, the Collins children were finally getting closer to solving their father’s mystery.
They had their father’s birth certificate, and they had also learned that Jim had been sent to an orphanage by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Maybe, Alice wondered, her dad had somehow been confused with another child when he was taken from his home?
Maybe the orphanage mixed up her father and another baby? Going on this hunch, Alice sent a forensic artist pictures of her father sitting on his father’s lap when he was just under a year old along with photos of Jim when he was an adult. Alice wanted to know if the people in the photos were the same people. But, again, this line of thinking was a dead end.
The forensic artist ruled that it was, in fact, the same person, meaning that the orphanage hadn’t confused her father with another baby. So, Alice began thinking of a different idea. Maybe, she thought, her father was switched at the hospital? Was there a chance that the hospital had made a mistake?
Alice decided to take a closer look at all of the babies who were born in the same hospital as her father in 1913. But this was no easy task. Not only was the list of children who were born in the Bronx in 1913, 159 pages long, but it also was not ordered by date, nor did it differentiate between home and hospital births.
After carefully scanning through the file, Alice was able to narrow the list down to the names of children born around the same time as her father, that sounded either Jewish or ethically neutral. Alice’s list totaled 30 babies. Her hope was that one of those babies on her list had living relatives who shared the same DNA as Alice and her siblings.
Alice went through all 30 baby names, but, again, nothing came up. Alice then combed through more than 6,000 people who were tagged as potential biological family members, according to the DNA’s online database. She searched for two and a half years, but couldn’t find a match. Alice began to lose hope.
All she could do at this point in time was to wait for someone to reach out to her. Then, on January 18, 2015, Alice’s life changed forever. It was a Sunday morning, and she was feeling particularly down. She decided to write to her cousin (whom she wasn’t biologically related to) to update him on her stalled search.
After sending her cousin an email, Alice randomly decided to check his list of DNA relatives on his genealogy account. This was something that Alice rarely did, especially since new relatives rarely showed up. But, on this day, Alice decided to check, and this time there was a new person. A stranger had sent in her DNA sample, and her results showed that she was a close relative to Alice’s cousin.
Alice then decided to message the stranger to ask if the test results were what she expected. “I was actually expecting to be much more Ashkenazi than I am,” the woman wrote. The stranger, whose name was Jessica Benson, took a test on a whim, hoping to learn a bit more about her Jewish roots.
Instead, Jessica said, she discovered, “that I am actually Irish, which I had not expected at all.” Alice felt chills. She wrote back to Jessica that her grandfather was born at Fordham Hospital on September 23, 1913. Had anyone in Jessica’s family been born around that date? Jessica quickly replied: Yes, her grandfather, Phillip Benson, was born around that time.
Alice began to cry. She had a feeling that she knew what had happened, but first, she needed proof. So, she combed through New York City’s birth records from 1913. There was no “Benson” born on that day in the Bronx. But a few hours later, Alice finally found what she was looking for.
There was a Philip Bamson born on the same day and at the same hospital as her father, Jim. This had to be Phillip Benson. Alice knew in her bones what had happened to her father. There was no family mystery buried by shame. Someone at the Fordham hospital had made a mistake that day, a mistake that could only be uncovered with new technology.
Somehow, a Jewish baby had been sent home with an Irish family, and an Irish baby with a Jewish family. The women were stunned. They compared the birth certificates and discovered that Jim and Phillip were processed one after the other and signed by the same doctor. Alice then began to research how hospitals used to keep track of newborn babies, and what she found shocked her.
Alice found that hospitals didn’t really have a system at all. Most of the newborn babies were kept in the same cart, making it very easy to switch a baby accidentally. When Jim was born in 1913, hospital births were still unusual, and most hospitals had yet to come up with a way to identify babies. Some hospitals kept newborns in a crib next to their mothers’ hospital beds, but others kept newborns in nurseries.
While it’s hard to know for sure the type of practices that were in place at Fordham Hospital (because it was closed in 1976), it’s safe to assume the latter. It wasn’t until the late ’30s that hospitals gave mothers and their newborns identifying bracelets. In 1913, nurses typically relied on the nurses’ memory or the mother’s recognition of her newborn.
After the truth was revealed, the Benson and Collins families exchanged pictures, which made everything clear. Jim Collins looked much more like Phillip’s 5-foot-4 father and 4-foot-9 mother than 6-foot Phillip did. “My grandfather came to my dad’s shoulders,” Phillip’s daughter Pam Benson said. The Collins sisters also had their own explanation about why their father wasn’t as tall as his siblings.
They always just assumed that Jim had been malnourished while growing up in the orphanage. After all, that is what the doctor told them. Never in a million years did Alice think that her father wasn’t biologically related to his brother and sister. It’s a mystery that only DNA technology could have uncovered.
Alice soon discovered that she had a biological first cousin named Phylis Pullman, who was the daughter of the sister Jim never knew he had. In 2015, Alice decided to fly to Florida to meet her. Sitting on opposite sides of the couch, the two women could have been mistaken for sisters. They definitely shared the same DNA.
Phylis shared a story about when her tall uncle Phillip was dating his first wife, her observant Jewish parents didn’t believe that he was Jewish. “He had to bring his birth certificate,” Phylis told author Libby Copeland. “Little did we know it wasn’t his birth certificate.” The two families have kept in touch over the years, but neither of them can shake the “what if” questions that linger in the back of their minds.
On the one hand, the two families are happy that they found each other, but, on the other hand, the revelations feel like a loss. How could Alice and Pam come to terms with the fact that their fathers weren’t who they thought they were. And then there were the questions about religion.
Was Jim Collins Jewish because he was born that way? Or Irish because he was raised that way? And what does that mean for his daughter Alice? Alice and her sister agree that if their father was still alive, it would have been the right thing to tell him. But they consider it a blessing that Jim wasn’t alive during the era of at-home DNA testing.
“My dad would have lost his identity,” Alice said. “He’s been kind of spared that.” Alice and her siblings also think about what would have happened if their father had gone home to his biological family. As the Bensons and Collins families exchanged photos, Alice felt a sting of jealousy. Jim wasn’t supposed to end up in an orphanage.
Alice wondered what kind of life her father would have had had he been raised by the Bensons, his biological family. Well, for starters, Alice thought, Jim would have been raised in a solid home. He would have graduated high school and definitely done something with his gift for mathematics. Instead, Jim dropped out of high school, served in the army, and later worked as a California prison guard.
At the end of the day, Jim made a decent life for himself, but Alice and her family can’t help but grieve for their father as a child. “In the orphanage, my father got an orange for Christmas,” Alice said. Yet, had the switch not happened in 1913, then Alice and her siblings would not have been born. The Collins children owe their life to a simple mistake (with complex consequences) made by a nurse’s lapse in attention.
It was a terrible mistake, but how can Alice resent what happened? And yet, were it not for what happened in 1913, Alice Collins Plebuch would not exist. The Collins children owe their lives to administrative oversight or a nurse’s momentary lapse of attention.
Now this next man’s world was turned upside down when he went looking for his biological parents. Little did he know that he would find them in the most unexpected of places.