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How A Belleville Family Solved An 86-Year-Old Mystery

As a baby, Joseph Svec's photo was used to promote a benefit for the orphanage where he spent the first year of his life.
Provided by Vic Svec
As a baby, Joseph Svec's photo was used to promote a benefit for the orphanage where he spent the first year of his life.

Growing up, Vic Svec knew his father’s origin story as a ripped-from-the-headlines mystery — one that would probably never be solved.

When Joseph Svec was an infant, back in 1934, a woman named Clara Bradley told Baltimore police she’d found him abandoned on that city’s Charles Street viaduct. Bradley said a woman had approached her and asked for directions to a local orphanage before speeding off in a car with D.C. plates. Maybe it was the D.C. woman who’d left her newborn behind.

Joseph Svec was taken to an orphanage, then adopted by a local couple. His birth mother never did turn up. The Baltimore Evening Sun carried a story about the search, and Joseph Svec preserved it in a scrapbook. But he never seemed to wonder about his biological parents.

His son, Vic, did. So when Vic’s wife gave the Belleville businessman a 23andMe test kit last Christmas, he used it. After his daughter Stephanie Mueller helped him make sense of the results, a combination of DNA and social media sleuthing, he finally had his answer. It wasn’t just an explanation of the family’s lineage — but a remarkable story that Vic Svec never saw coming.

The Baltimore Sun did an in-depth piece on Svec’s findings last month, one later republished in the Washington Post. And on today’s St. Louis on the Air, Vic Svec shared how his family made sense of the DNA findings and ultimately made contact with his father’s biological relatives.

Clara Bradley, as it turns out, was almost certainly baby Joseph’s grandmother. The woman who claimed to have found the baby instead apparently traveled to Baltimore from her suburban home to see the baby was placed in an orphanage.

The baby’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Bradley, was 21 and unmarried at the time — the only girl in a family with 10 children.

For Svec, the story offers “the satisfaction of a puzzle solved.”

“We all go through the drab days of a pandemic and other concerns,” he said. “Some people pay good money for an escape room. We had a five-month puzzle going on that was ultimately solved. That was extremely satisfying and a conclusion that was far more rewarding than anything we could have imagined going into it.

“We certainly didn’t think a cold case would get warmer after 86 years,” he added. “But thanks to technology and people, we were able to bring it together in a really enjoyable way.”

Still, the resolution is only partial. Mary Elizabeth Bradley died long before Vic Svec discovered the connection and apparently took her secret of the baby her family gave away to the grave. So in solving one mystery, Svec acknowledged, he’s created another one for Bradley’s relatives.

One of them is Clara Valeck. The 79-year-old Michigan resident is Clara Bradley’s granddaughter and namesake, and as such is the niece of Mary Elizabeth, the birth mother. Valeck is now in contact with Svec and his family and hopes to be able to meet them in person one day.

But for now, she is filled with questions.

“I wish I knew who the dad was,” Valeck said. “I wish I knew why my grandmother and her other children felt it necessary to keep a secret. Why did they go to all the trouble to make up [the story about the car with the D.C. plates], which in my mind is such a fabricated story?”

“I don’t know,” she added, “if it was just the times.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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