“My dad told me I was left on the doorstep of Humboldt and Meinecke.”
Lawrence* was trying to recall any additional details about his search for his biological parents. He took a bite of toast and his wife Sylvia* added, “but now we know that’s not true.”
* Some names have been changed.
It was 10 am and I was eating breakfast with Lawrence, his wife Sylvia, and their grown children Dawn* and Russell*. We had all flown into Milwaukee a few days prior and were discussing the places we visited the day before. The five of us had piled into Russell’s rented sedan and driven by several landmarks from Lawrence’s youth. Although I had already figured out the identity of Lawrence’s birth parents and helped unite him with two half-siblings, there were still many questions left unanswered.
Lawrence’s biological identity was part of a larger story. The man responsible for Lawrence’s adoption assisted in the relocation of possibly dozens of other infants born in Milwaukee between 1930 and 1950. He also performed illegal abortions for over two decades, yet very little has been written about him or his clients. The enigmatic Doctor, Leland Lewis Trump (his real name, and no relation to the President), died over 60 years ago, but some of the babies he brought into this world may still be out there, searching for clues to their ancestry.
Lawrence and his family have encouraged me to share their story with the hope it may console and inspire other adoptees with seemingly unsolvable mysteries. Though Lawrence’s story does have a happy ending, this account would be incomplete without a solemn commentary on the harrowing plight of unwed mothers in depression-era America.
I’ve included Dr. Trump’s chronology to expose the unintended heroism of a man who many would perceive as a villain. Though an opportunist by nature and a criminal by definition, Leland Trump may have saved the lives of countless young women and numerous infants at a time in history when an unplanned pregnancy could be catastrophic to both mother and child.
I first learned about Lawrence nearly a year ago. He was born in Milwaukee in December 1936. The exact day is not known because Lawrence has no official paperwork to prove his date of birth. Unlike most adoptees who can request at least a few bits of information from their adoption agency, or, if they’re lucky, an unsealed copy of their original birth certificate, Lawrence had nothing to go on but his DNA and rumors.
Lawrence didn’t find out he was adopted until he was 26 years old. He had never suspected that Henry* and Clara*, the loving couple who raised him, were not his biological parents. When he confronted them with his discovery, they reluctantly admitted Lawrence was correct.
Henry worked in the same neighborhood as Dr. Trump. He and Dr. Trump became close friends, along with a pharmacist, Chester, who ran the drug store below Trump’s office.
According to Lawrence, Dr. Trump was a personable man. Leland and Henry’s families spent a lot of time together. Over the years, Trump became much like an uncle to Lawrence.
It was a friend of Chester the pharmacist who revealed the secret. According to Lawrence’s daughter Dawn,
In 1962, when my dad was living just outside Milwaukee, he ran into Chester and his wife. They were with another couple he hadn’t met before. One of them asked my Dad if he was the adopted son. My Dad had no idea! He asked them for more information, but they said they knew nothing.
Leland, was known for many things. In his younger years, he was the manager of the Marquette University football team and a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity. According to his obituary, friends said Dr. Trump bore a marked physical resemblance to Sir Winston Churchill. What the obituary didn’t say was that Leland spent much of his career skirting the law by providing illegal services to young women.
In 1935, the state of Wisconsin passed a law prohibiting the sale of birth control devices to all minors and unmarried persons1.” This law remained on the books until 1976. Before Planned Parenthood established its first clinic in Milwaukee, Dr. Trump had already been covertly offering most of the same services for years.
Not long before Lawrence was born, Henry’s wife Clara had a terrible fall during the final weeks of her own pregnancy. Her baby girl was stillborn. While the couple was grieving the loss of their daughter, Dr. Trump presented them with a newborn baby boy. They were overjoyed.
Perhaps for fear they would not be allowed to keep the baby, Henry and his wife did not register Lawrence’s birth with the authorities. They raised him as their own and tried their hardest to prevent Lawrence, or anyone else, from ever learning the truth.
When the secret was revealed in 1962, Henry and Clara insisted they knew very little about Lawrence’s origins. Initially, Henry claimed Lawrence had been left on the doorstep outside Trump’s office, but as Lawrence learned more on his own, Henry’s story changed. In time, they gave Lawrence a few small details in an attempt to assuage his curiosity.
As the story evolved, Lawrence learned he was “rescued” by Dr. Trump. Clara said they had been told Lawrence’s father was a baker and his mother was a teacher. Although asking the doctor directly would have provided more answers, that wasn’t an option because Leland died in 1954. Before the age of DNA tests and digitized genealogical records, Lawrence didn’t yet have the tools to identify his biological parents.
Nearly 82 years have passed since Lawrence’s birth, and all the people involved in his adoption are long gone. When Clara passed away, Lawrence found a calendar hidden among her personal belongings. The calendar had his birth date marked as Christmas Eve and December 29th was noted as the day Lawrence was placed in his adoptive home. December 29th was the date Lawrence had always celebrated his birthday. To Clara, it was the day Lawrence was “born” into her family.
Lawrence had a happy childhood and married his high school sweetheart. With hard work and determination, he advanced through the ranks of his chosen field and became quite successful. He raised two children with his beautiful wife, and later moved south to retire. By all accounts, Lawrence was living the American dream, but he never stopped wondering where he came from.
Lawrence searched for his biological parents for decades. By the 1980s, his son and daughter had joined the quest. While working with an adoptee-helper in Milwaukee, they learned Lawrence’s birth certificate was a forgery. Other genealogists were employed to assist, yet every promising lead turned out to be a dead end. They did however correctly predict that all four of Lawrence’s grandparents were immigrants.