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My Ancestors and Relatives

Look Beyond the Black Sheep

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This tale is mostly just presentation of information. However, the information may elicit a strong negative emotional response. You may not like learning about the black sheep in this story.

link to a story about black sheep

Let's Start With Great Grandma Ida Ehrman

Ida Ellis during her Childhood
From left to right: Jess Pound, Mr. Jersey, Ida Clifford Ellis, Bob (probably Robert Clifford Ellis). This photo was probably taken around 1920.
Photo courtesy of Ida Hinks.

My Great Grandmother Ida Victoria (Ellis) Ehrman, born in 1909, said that she was adopted, and that her original maiden name was Clifford. She also had a brother Bob (Robert) Clifford, born in 1908, who was also adopted into the same family, and an older sister Isabelle (Clifford) Dehn, born in 1896. I am unaware if she ever claimed to have other brothers and sisters.

This information matches the 1915 New York State Census and 1920 United States Census records that list Ida and Robert as part of the Charles Ellis family. The 1925 New York State Census shows Ida Ellis living with a different family as a boarder, but another page of the same census lists the Ellis family with Robert named as their adopted son.

By the time of these censuses, Isabelle Clifford had married William M. Dehn, and their family is also easily found in the census records. However, the 1925 New York State Census shows that Isabelle Dehn had two brothers living with her: Charles Clifford (age 19) and John Clifford (age 24). Knowing the names and ages of these brothers may make it easier to find records for Isabelle prior to her marriage in 1913.

Starting Tree
1915 - Ellis
1920 - Ellis
1925 - Ida
1925 - Ellis (A)
1925 - Ellis (B)
1915 - Dehn
1920 - Dehn (A)
1920 - Dehn (B)
1925 - Dehn

Some Additional Information

In 1958, Isabelle Dehn filled out four pages of documents to amend Ida Ehrman's birth certificate. I doubt these documents were ever actually filed, but they contained some rather interesting information, some of which was new to me, and useful for continuing genealogical research.

The first thing of note is that Ida's mother's name was Isabella Dolan, and aged 34 at the time of Ida's birth. This is also a great source of confusion due the similarity of the name with her daughter, Isabelle. In writing this, I have attempted to keep them distinguished here with Isabella as the mother, and Isabelle as the daughter, but there may be additional instances of confusion when sources transcribed Isabelle (daughter) as Isabella. Isabelle Dehn also claimed to have been acquainted with Ida's mother for 13 years before Ida was born, which would technically be the entirety of Isabelle Dehn's life, and maintained the claim that she was Ida's sister. Supposedly, eight children were born to Ida's mother. In all cases, Ida's father was listed as unknown. I struggled to find much evidence to corroborate these claims and identify the family.

The second interesting bit of information is that Ida's name at birth was Barbara Victoria Clifford. There was nothing odd about the different name, as Ida sometimes mentioned her several names. In addition, it is common for some name changes to occur in adoption.

The final interesting bit of information is that Isabelle Dehn knew the exact date when Ida was adopted, as well as the judge involved in the process. I would speculate that knowledge of this exact date is not something one would expect to be known or remembered by a sister, nor would it be easy to obtain in 1958 since New York state had sealed off access to adoption records over twenty years earlier. If the claimed mother of Ida, Isabella Dolan, was still alive to provide the adoption information in 1958, she would have been in her eighties. Perhaps Ida or Isabelle Dehn had possession of additional documents from the actual adoption?

Second Tree

Back to the Records

Moving past the census data, I discovered that the United States Social Security Applications and Claims Index record for Ida's brother Robert Clifford listed his birth parents as George W. Clifford and Isabelle Kuhl. This led me on a confusing wild goose chase as I tried to piece together the family based on the assorted fragments of information I could find.

Eventually I found a family that lived in Buffalo, NY, at the turn of the 20th Century: a George William Clifford married to an Isabella Clifford. They also had three children named Matthew, Katherine, and Isabella, but no mention of Charles, John, Robert, or Ida, so I presumed those additional four children had probably been placed for adoption shortly after birth. Unfortunately, this was all wrong. I eventually discovered obituaries and other records to show that George William Clifford died in 1904, and his daughter Isabella a few months later. As for the rest of that family, records show at least the wife and some children survived that year, with the wife eventually remarrying, and the children moving away. I also discovered the wife's maiden name did not match any information I had. These facts told me this was not the family I was trying to find, and no other families in Buffalo, NY, matched the information. I never did find an Isabelle (Kuhl) Clifford.

Returning to census data, I decided I was most likely trying to find Isabelle Clifford as an orphan, particularly since her sister Ida was an orphan. I also expected her to be accompanied by the brothers mentioned on the 1925 New York State Census. I could not find any mention of Isabelle Clifford in the 1910 United States Census, but the 1905 New York State Census was a different matter. The census page recorded at St. Mary's Infant Asylum in Buffalo, NY, lists Isabel Clifford (age 8), Geo. F. Clifford (age 5), and John Clifford (age 3). The ages for Isabel and John Clifford, while not necessarily a precise match with the ages given on the later census, are close enough to suggest a match.

Discovering the brother George F. Clifford was the link I needed to find Isabelle's parents, although I did not find them in Buffalo, NY, as I had expected. The New York, New York, Index to Birth Certificates has a record for George Francis Clifford born in Manhattan during 1899 to George Francis Clifford and Isabella (Dolan) Clifford. In addition, the 1900 United States Census record for the family lists George Francis Clifford (born April 1872) and his wife Isabella (born January 1874), along with their children Isabella (born December 1894) and George F. (born August 1899). The census record also lists a brother-in-law, P. Dolan (I cannot make out his first name), who lived with the family at the time, and learning of his existence may aid in researching the genealogy even futher back. I noticed their daughter Isabella was listed as being born two years earlier than the Isabelle Clifford in later records, but I have found many instances of actual ages being forgotten or purposely changed. Perhaps Isabelle (Clifford) Dehn was actually two years older than even she believed. Who knows? Additional records of either parent are difficult to locate.

The question now, is where was Isabelle Clifford between the 1905 United States Census and her marriage in 1913?

Third Tree
1900 - Clifford
1905 - Asylum

An Inconspicuous Newspaper Article

newspaper clipping
Buffalo Courier, January 10, 1912, Page 6.
Clipped on

Relying on census data and other commonly used genealogical sources sometimes fails to provide the facts or insight needed to find a specific person. Names may be misspelled, dates could be wrong, and any number of errors can make a record impossible to find. To move beyond these records, I turned to newspapers. It was then that I found an article from 1912 about a man named Paul Stelmeyer. I had never heard of Paul Stelmeyer, but the article also mentioned a young Isabella Clifford.

The brief article was published on page six of the January 10, 1912 issue of the Buffalo Courier, and for the most part, the focus of the article is about Paul Stelmeyer's divorce from his wife. Enough biographical details were included to find the exact person in genealogical records. However, the mention of Isabella Clifford and the details about her relationship with Paul Stelmeyer were what made everything finally begin to make sense. This is when I stopped believing Isabelle (Clifford) Dehn was a sister of Ida, and the story took a dark turn.

The article mentions that a young Isabella Clifford had moved in with the Stelmeyers seven years prior to their divorce, which would be about 1905, the same year Isabelle Clifford showed up as an orphan in Buffalo, NY, on the 1905 New York State Census. It also mentions that Paul Stelmeyer had been living with her for seven years, suggesting that he was not living in the same house as his wife and son. And then there is the most informative tidbit: Paul Stelmeyer and Isabella Clifford had two children sometime between 1905 and 1912!

The obvious conclusion? Paul Stelmeyer and Isabella Clifford were the parents of Ida and Robert Clifford.

I dare not stop the research there. Taken at face value, Isabella Clifford would have been between 11 and 13 years old when Robert was born, and between 12 and 14 years old when Ida was born, depending on which census is used to determine Isabella's birth year, and Paul Stelmeyer would have been 37 and 38 years old for the two births. 11 through 14 is very young for having children, and a man having that type of relationship with a child is immoral and criminal. I want proof before I take this as fact.

Fourth Tree

Paul Stelmeyer, Ugliest of Black Sheep

Let me paint a picture of Paul Stelmeyer, and the sort of man he was. To begin with, Stelmeyer is not even the correct spelling. Correctly, it would be spelled Stadlmier. Newspapers and other genealogical records, however, often mispelled the name in many ways: Stadelmeyer, Stellmyer, and more. It makes the man very difficult to find, but knowing that the name was most likely misspelled made finding it easier in some respects, especially in the newspapers.

In July, 1886, at the age of fifteen, Paul Stelmyer and a friend were arrested and charged with burglery and larceny for breaking into a variety store and stealing $30 worth of merchandise. Accounting for inflation to convert that $30 to what it would be worth in 2020, it would have a value of almost $830.

In December, 1898, around the age of 27, Paul Stellmyer was court-martialed for enlisting in the Army while claiming he had no wife or child, and dishonorably discharged as a result. I am uncertain about the particulars, but Paul also had to pay a $300 bond for non-support of his wife, but defaulted on the payment. In 2020, that $300 would be the equivilent of over $9,365. Paul's wife, also, seemed a pretty sketchy person based on newspaper articles I neglected to save.

By contrast, siblings of Paul Stelmeyer were less rambunctious. One brother even went on to become a well-known game warden in Erie County, NY, and at one point performed the job at the Federal level.

And what about Paul and Isabella in the 1910 United States Census? The misspelling is extreme in this case, but I believe I found them listed as Paul Stelmer (age 40) and Jenny (age 34) living together with a nine-month old daughter named Barbara. As the census was based on residents in April of that year, it would put the age of the infant Barbara right where we would expect it to be. Robert Clifford is nowhere to be found, but perhaps he was already adopted at this point. It could also be possible that this family is a coincidental find unrelated to the family I believe it to be.

One thing to note is the woman listed on the census as 'Jenny' is the same age as the woman Isabelle (Clifford) Dehn claimed Ida's mother was at the time of Ida's birth, and Barbara was listed as Ida's original name. Is it possible 'Jenny' was Isabella's birth mother or another woman? It theoretically could be possible if the woman were still around to reconnect with her orphaned daughter, but evidence strongly suggests it is far more likely someone lied on this census and other records.

1910 - Stelmer

DNA Does Not Lie

Over the last few years, sensationalized stories of arrests and convictions based on DNA spread through the news. Using DNA to solve crimes is not a new thing, and has been done for several decades. What changed is the method. Rather than just compare a suspect's DNA with samples obtained at the crime scene to find a match, more recent cases compare samples obtained at the crime scene to a huge database of samples, find a variety of near matches, and use the known identity and genealogy of those near matches to triangulate and find the identity of the suspect. The process is complex, but amazingly accurate. This is the same thing companies such as Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and others do with the samples provided by their users. It is up to their users, however, to do the actual genealogy, and piece together the family trees.

A note about accuracy: I occasionally hear or read claims that the commercially available 'ancestry' tests are nothing more than inaccurate voodoo, and are not to be trusted. In fact, I have personally tested with all three of the companies I previously named, and as an example of this inaccurate voodoo, my results suggest I have Scandination heritage at 5% (Ancestry), 31% (FamilyTreeDNA), and 1.8% (23andMe). None of these is incorrect. Rather, they are estimates based on each company's datasets and extensive research, and since each company has a different dataset and research, the results will be different. The science, however, and the raw DNA results are the same. I can place all three raw DNA files side by side, and the number of errors and mismatches would be statistically insignificant. As for the Scandinavian heritage, did you ever learn about the Vikings invading the British Isles and mingling with the populace? Anyway, the ethnicity is only an estimate of limited use; what I want is the list of DNA matches that are accurate, indisputable, and extremely useful.

Back to the investigation at hand. With all the evidence suggesting Isabelle Clifford and Paul Stelmeyer were the Great Great Grandparents I have been trying to find, DNA is the final test I can use to prove this relationship.

Excluding matches directly descended from Paul Stelmeyer, I have 11 DNA matches through his parents, 3 more through his paternal grandparents, and 5 more through his maternal grandparents. That is a total of 19 matches through his ancestors. I also have one match descended from Isabella Clifford who does not match with anyone on the Stelmeyer side, meaning that match had a different father.

Paul Stelmeyer's Parents
Paternal Gparents
Maternal Gparents
Isabelle Clifford
cM Chart

Measuring the genetic distance between two people is done with a unit called a centimorgan (cM). I may not fully understand exactly what it measures, but the more centimorgans between two matches, the more closely related the matches. For example, I share 3,485 cM with my father, 1,768 cM with my grandfather, 600-800 cM with first cousins, etc. It may even be possible to detect a match with someone as genetically distant as an eighth cousin, but the centimorgan count at that distance is so low that it could just as easily be a random match with someone unrelated. To avoid random unrelated matches, amounts lower than 8 cM tend to be ignored, and sometimes a cutoff at higher amounts is useful when narrowing down a certain group of matches.

Sorting through hundreds or thousands of DNA matches and their cM amounts to determine who matches whom is a difficult process. Several complex methods have been created to assist with this task, but one of the latest attempts is Ancestry's new ThruLines. This not only compares matches, but also compares the family trees associated with those matches to determine where they might overlap. I find the accuracy of ThruLines to be rather good, although it entirely depends on the accuracy of individual family trees. A few wrong ancestors in a branch can result in no matches being found through that branch. A well-researched family tree, however, can result in suggestions for quite a few potential ancestors and distant relatives whose potential relationship can be evaluated before actually adding them to the family tree. I had zero suggested matches past Isabella Clifford until Paul Stelmeyer was added to the tree.

Just like math, DNA does not lie. Just be sure to check your work for errors.

The Final Family Tree

Moving On

The facts pretty strongly support the conclusion that Paul Stelmeyer commited statutory rape or worse, and fathered two children as a result. He was not a good person, and is not someone I am proud to include in my family tree. People often say not to talk about the black sheep of the family, or even try to ignore or wipe out knowledge of their existence altogether. Paul Stelmeyer is one of the blackest sheep I have found in my family tree thus far. That does not cancel out the fact that he is among my ancestors.

I have never been one to shy from the truth, no matter how horrific it might be. In this case, I even actively sought it out. There is not a single person alive who can truthfully claim their ancestry does not include someone lacking in moral character. The thieves, slavers, murderers, rapists, and others exist in the family tree, but I do not need to let them have any influence on my identity. There are plenty of others in my family tree, such as my Great and Great Great Grandmothers who chose to live worthwhile lives, and those are the ancestors who deserve my attention.

I also realize this knowledge may be somewhat hurtful to the memories of those who knew Isabelle and her children, and even to those on his side. No one wants to learn that someone they knew was a victim of statutory rape or was the adult who committed the crime, or that they themselves could not exist had it not occurred. I prefer not to dwell too long on the details and trying to make sense of it all. We cannot change the past, but what we can do is change ourselves for the better. And when we do encounter a black sheep, look around. Chances are, it will be surrounded by far more white sheep.

As for Isabelle (Clifford) Dehn, I honestly believe she loved her children with all her heart. She removed Ida and Robert from her situation, and placed them in a home where they could thrive. Isabelle, though distanced by adoption, tried to stay in their lives. She claimed to be a sister to shield them from the hurtful truth from which they were born. Once Isabelle escaped her situation and married, I know her other children were just as loved.

My Great Grandma Ida (Ellis) Ehrman passed away when I was nine. I never knew her very well, and only have a few memories of her, but I believe she too would rather focus on improving the future rather than dwell on the evils in the past. Even though she never knew the truth of her lineage, she chose to live her own life, focusing on her family and those around her instead of the unknown past. She too loved her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Despite the black sheep looming in the background, Ida and her mother are both ancestors worthy of mention.

Ida Ehrman with grandkids
Ida (Ellis) Ehrman with her husband Fran and great grandchildren Ben, Karen, and Amy. This photo was taken in 1989.

© 2020, by Ben Hinks

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