Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsNews

DNA tests reveal mother of babies whose remains were found in old trunk.

Los Angeles authorities now know the two infants belonged to nurse Janet M. Barrie. But the identity of the children's father and why their bodies were kept for decades in a steamer trunk are mysteries.

November 16, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

After months of detective work, police have solved one of the mysteries surrounding the mummified remains of two babies discovered in the basement of a Westlake apartment building.

DNA tests prove that the dead infants, who were found in a steamer trunk wrapped in newspaper from the 1930s, were the children of the trunk's owner, Janet M. Barrie.

The new evidence — coupled with a preliminary autopsy that found no signs of trauma — has led police to close the case that, since the discovery last August, has captivated mystery-lovers and armchair detectives around the world. But, police said, there will always be unanswered questions.

Among them: Who was the babies' father? And why did Barrie, who died in 1994, keep the bodies tucked among her possessions for so many years?

The babies' bodies were found by two women cleaning the basement of an apartment building near MacArthur Park. When they came upon the old trunk, they broke its lock with a screwdriver. Inside was a trove of antique books and clothing — and two leather doctor's satchels, each holding a small body.

The discovery made headlines across the world, and amateur genealogists offered the police plenty of theories. Detectives considered quite a few — including one scenario that the trunk had belonged to a relative of "Peter Pan" author J. M. Barrie. But eventually, using census and voting records, they tied the trunk to Janet Barrie, who was not related to J.M.

Detectives then tracked down Barrie's niece, Marlene Brown, in Alberta, Canada, and asked her to submit a DNA sample so they could determine whether the babies were Barrie's. Brown told them what she knew about her aunt, who lived in the Westlake building for decades as a live-in nurse for Mary Knapp, the ailing wife of a dentist named George Knapp.

Brown remembers her mother, Barrie's sister, talking about Barrie's unusual living arrangement with the Knapps and says her mother once hinted that her sister was having an affair with the dentist. "She said, 'I bet you when his wife passes away, she will marry him,'" Brown recalls.

That is, in fact, what happened after Mary's death in 1964. But Knapp died four years after he and Barrie wed. When Barrie died 27 years later, her ashes were interred in the same urn as those of the Knapps at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park.

Brown has wondered about the identity of the father and how the babies died. The autopsy could not say for sure how old the bodies were, whether the babies were carried to term or if they were aborted or died naturally. The police also couldn't find relatives of George Knapp to try to determine paternity.

"It's a strange case," said Brown, who in a way is grateful for the investigation. It reconnected her with a cousin with whom she had lost contact years ago.

While working out the logistics of collecting the DNA samples, an investigator with the Los Angeles County coroner's office mentioned to Brown that police had tracked down another relative.

John Holmes, 67, lives in Vancouver, Canada. He and Brown played together as children, but they lost touch over the years.

The case, Brown said, "has a real good ending as far as we're concerned. It put us back together again."

Brown never met Barrie. But Holmes remembers his aunt well.

In the late 1980s, he helped move her and his mother, who had been living with Barrie in Los Angeles, back to Vancouver. Barrie died there during surgery for a hernia.

Holmes remembers his aunt as a proud and feisty woman. A Scottish-born coal miner's daughter, she was one of 13 brothers and sisters. When she was 14, the family immigrated to Diamond City, Alberta, after her father saw an advertisement that said in Canada the streets were paved in gold. They were poor, Holmes said, but Barrie had big dreams.

Despite her family's misgivings, she moved to Winnipeg and went to nursing school. Holmes remembers her telling him once, "I showed them." Barrie moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s. And although she stayed in touch by sending postcards and Christmas presents — including an annual subscription to National Geographic magazine for Holmes and his siblings — her life in the United States was a mystery to the family.

According to 1930 census records, Barrie lived for a time with two other women in an apartment building in Westlake. Her occupation was listed as "private nurse."

It's unclear where she met the Knapps or when she started working for them. But voting records show the three of them living in the Westlake building as early as 1948.

Holmes said it was possible that Barrie had the children with another man.

"The social stigma of having a child out of wedlock was different than it is today," he said. "Maybe she just couldn't let go of the children. Maybe there was an attachment."

He was fond of his aunt and described her as "an independent woman, especially for her time." She drove a boxy Dodge roadster, used to frequent the horse races, and belonged to the Ebell Club, a progressive women's social group. Holmes hopes the case won't tarnish her reputation.

"You don't know the real story behind the story, you know what I mean?" he said. "They were her babies, we know that. But everything else, you can only speculate."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|