THE SECRET LIFE OF DORA MAE PROFFER

A Story about a woman with a secret identity March 19, 2024

In some of my genealogy searches I've come across people who decided to change their identity and disappear.  Over eighty years ago, this happened more often than you might think.  In the days before Social Security, the government didn't have a way to track people down like they do today.  If a person wanted to simply start a new life under a different name, it was a lot easier to get away with it back then.  Why would someone do this though?  Perhaps they were running from something, or maybe they had a troubled past that they wanted to put behind them.  Thanks to the power of DNA, some of these secrets are being discovered, but finding all the answers requires more than just DNA.  This story is particulary interesting because it took a lot of small details and findings to really get an idea of what happened here.  I find it completely amazing that a person's life can be put back together with genealogy research. There are still a lot of unknowns however.  Parts of this mystery may go unsolved forever.

I was asked for help by a man named Marc Boucher who was looking into his mother's mysterious life.  His mother never talked about her past and Marc didn't really have much interest when he was younger.  When Marc did DNA on 23 and Me, an unknown half-sister showed up on his list who had the same mother.  He is now very interested in finding out everything he can about his mother and who his new sister is.  The story became much more interesting then we could have imagined though.  His mother's entire identity was fictitious and he had no idea where she was from or even what his mother's real name was.  Yeah, I'm not kidding!  There's a whole lot more too...  I discovered his mother was married twice, to men that Marc never even heard of.  Another mystery needed some research as well.  Marc has a collection of WWII Air Force Medals that were in his mother's possession.  No one in his family was in the Air Force however.  Discovering who they belonged to was a very interesting part of this story.

Dora Mae Proffer

This is the story of Dora Mae Proffer.  DNA, census records, obituaries and newspaper articles played an important part in learning about this mysterious person's life.  Dora was born around 1923 in the town of Belleville, Illinois.  She had five siblings: Juanita, Jeanette, George, Ruth and Olive Proffer.  Dora's exact date of birth is unknown but is shown as 1925 on documents, and 1927 on her grave stone.  There is no doubt that both dates are clearly falsified as you will soon see.  Dora definitely had a troubled family life as a child.  This may have led future problems and the secrets that are only now being revealed.

George and Grace Proffer

Dora's parents were Oliver George Proffer (often known as George), and Emma Grace Hayden (often known as Grace).  Grace died in April, 1924 when Dora was a baby.  Perhaps there were problems from childbirth.  We are unsure what caused the early death of Dora's mother.  It was shortly after Grace's death that things went downhill for the Proffer family.  In 1927, Dora's father ran off with a young girl named Veronica Gwendolyn Sweitzer.  She became pregnant at age sixteen.  George then deserted her and their child, Byron Proffer, as well.  He was arrested and sentenced to six months hard labor for not supporting his children.  The children, including Dora, were put in an orphanage or placed with other families.  Census records show Dora living with a family named Wangelin in 1930, and a family named Cole at age 17 in 1940.


James Robert Thede

Problems continued for Dora as she got older.  Thanks to newspaper records, we can track her life in the early 1940s.  In late 1941, Dora married a man named James Robert Thede.  James was from Wisconsin, but was in the military and stationed at Scott Field (now known as Scott Air Force Base), located just outside of Belleville.  Records show that Dora and James were separated after just three months of marriage and divorced after just five months.  She divorced James on grounds of cruelty and her name was restored to Dora Mae Proffer.

Patricia Ann O'Connell

This is where the real mystery begins.  Something happened between May, 1942 and October 1944.  It was at this time that Dora Mae Proffer ceased to exist.  She began using the name Patricia Ann O'Connell.  This is the name Marc knew his mother by.  The name Dora Mae Proffer was never mentioned to him and never seen on any records after 1942.  It is highly unlikely that Dora ever had her name legally changed to Patricia.  A falsified document a few years later will show that she was clearly not being honest about her identity (more on that later).  I had a theory that maybe the name change had something to do with James Thede.  Maybe she was abused and was hiding from James.  This however is unlikely for two reasons:  One, the records show her name was restored to Dora Mae Proffer after the divorce, and two, Dora continued to live in the same place in Belleville Illinois.  James could certainly find her if he wanted to.  It's not likely she'd change her name and try to hide in the same town.

Harold Walter Ewald

Patricia's name appeared in newspapers several times in the mid-1940s.  She remarried to a man named Harold Walter Ewald, and did so using her fake name.  I believe Harold is a big part of this puzzle.  Harold was from New York City and was stationed at the same Air Force base as Patricia's previous husband.  This new husband seemed to be somewhat of a local hero at the time.  Several of his military accomplishments were posted in the newspapers from 1944 to 1945.  These newspapers often mentioned that Harold was the husband of local woman Patricia Ewald.

Information from Harold's obituary shows that he had quite an exciting Air Force career. "...he went to Montreal, Canada, in the fall of 1941 to become a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force and fight in World War II since the U.S. was not yet in the war.  However, after the Pearl Harbor attacks he was back in the U.S. to join the U.S. Army Air Corps.  He was initially an instructor in the Training Command and then was based in southern Italy in 1944.  He flew the first of his 35 combat missions on his 24th birthday. Some of those missions were documented in Stephen Ambrose's book, "Wild Blue".  He was then assigned to the Air Transport Command at the Reno Army Air Base where he flew to Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere in China, Okinawa and eventually Tokyo."


In August of 1945, we see the last record of Harold in Belleville, Illinois.  After returning from a mission in Italy, he was sent to Reno, Nevada for military training.  Harold married Kathleen Hansen in 1947 and moved to Danbury, Connecticut.  In a newspaper article about the marriage of Kathleen and Harold, one line really caught my attention.  It says, "Mr. Ewald was stationed for several months at the Reno Army Air Force Base, and it was during this time that the romance began."  I did find a record of Patricia remaining in Belleville while Harold was in Reno.  Did they get divorced before he left for Reno?  Keep reading, there's some unanswered questions about this relationship.

Robert Ewald?

This will sound crazy, but it's true.  Shortly after Harold Ewald married Kathleen Hansen, he also changed his name.  All future mention of him shows his name as Robert Ewald.  The first mention of him using the name Robert that I could find was in a newspaper article from 1948.  Even his obituary lists him as Robert W. "Bob" Ewald.  His long and detailed obituary never even mentions him as Harold.  Why?  Did it have something to do with Patricia?

New Jersey?

The next record of Patricia appears in 1949 in East Orange, New Jersey.  Why New Jersey?  No one knows for sure, but I have a theory.  The only reason I can think of for her to move there would be because Harold's family was from New York City.  They were not far from where Patricia was living.  I suspect she may have gone there to try to find him.  Again, this is only speculation.  Harold was living in Danbury, Connecticut, not too far from there as well.  However, he didn't live there very long.  Sometime before 1950, as shown in census records, he moved back to Reno, Nevada.  It's possible he already left that area and was all the way across the country by the time Patricia made her way to the East Coast.

Below is a picture of Patricia's Social Security application form from 1949 in New Jersey.  It contains lots of false information.  We know the date of birth can't be correct since her mother died in 1924.  We know she was not born in Memphis, Tennessee, and probably had never even been there.  We know her father's name was not George O'Connell, and her real name was not Patricia O'Connell.  The mother's name, Grace Hayden, is correct however.  The fact that she used a fake O'Connell name for her father is enough for me to confirm that she never legally changed her name.  If she did, why would she be pretending her maiden name was O'Connell on this document?  This strange name change and the secrecy about her past may remain a mystery.  Patricia married again a year later to Norman Boucher and had a son, Marc.  Unfortunately, Patricia died in a fire at a young age in 1970.  We're not done yet though...

The War Medals

As I mentioned earlier, Marc has a collection of WWII medals.  The medals Marc has match up with the medals that Harold received.  These are clearly his.  The good conduct medal, air medal and aerial gunner's wings are shown here.  That brings us to the next mystery though.  One of these medals, the red one with multi-colors stripes is a WWII victory medal.  This medal was not issued until after WWII.  The design of that medal was not even created until 1946 according to information I found online.  So, if Harold divorced Patricia in Belleville and moved to Reno, how could Patricia have this medal?  Wait, there's one more medal.  The multi-colored medal with the eagle on it is an "Expeditionary Medal."  It was created for people who participated in the armed forces between 1958 and 1963.  I have no doubt the other medals belong to Harold, but who does that one belong to?

Amazing Discoveries

Thanks to genealogy and DNA, lots of amazing discoveries were made here.  Imagine finding out you didn't even know your mother's real name?  Well, it happened here.  The DNA in this case was a no-brainer.  Marc clearly is related to the Proffer and Hayden families and has plenty of first cousin DNA matches to Dora's sibling's children.  What really helped pull this all together was the newspaper articles however.  There was one in particular that contained one tiny detail that led to a lot of this being revealed.  Take a look at this obituary for Patricia's sister Juanita.  It mentions her sister, Patricia Ewald.  Without that mention of her married name, we could never have known about her marriage to Harold and never found out who the medals belonged too.  What makes this more interesting is the fact that this obituary was from 1979, nine years after Patricia's death.  She was married to Norman Boucher when she died in 1970.  This means, Patricia lost contact with her family after leaving Belleville.  They did not know she remarried and had passed away.  They did however know she was using the name Patricia.

Unanswered Questions

  • Why did Dora Mae Proffer change her name to Patricia Ann O'Connell?
  • What really happened with Dora and James Thede?
  • How and why did Patricia end up with the war medals including one that was issued after the war?
  • Why did Patricia end up in New Jersey and lose contact with her family?
  • Where did she get the name O'Connell from?
  • Why did Harold start using the name Robert?
  • Does the Ewald family even know Patricia existed?
  • Are the Ewalds curious about what happened to Harold's medals?
  • Oh yeah, let's not forget about the secret half-sister I mentioned at the beginning.  We're still looking into that.  We'll save that story for another day.

Conclusion

This story is a good example of how the smallest details can reveal a whole lot about the past.  For those of you who are looking for information about a family member, you never know, there might be something out there that will lead you to the answers you're looking for.  Keep seaching!  Marc and I are currently in process of contacting the Ewalds to get Harold's medals returned to the his family.  Perhaps they will have some information about Patricia as well.

Next, a simple DNA match turns into something unexpected.


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