Modern history


Game, set, match! Anna Anderson is out! This is the scuppering of the pro-Anna party!” exulted Sir Brian McGrath, who was with Prince Philip at Sandringham when the news got out. “It’s over,” declared Prince Rostislav Romanov in London. “It’s about time,” said Prince Nicholas Romanov in Switzerland. No one was happier than Prince Alexis Scherbatow. “I’ve been vindicated,” he rejoiced in New York. “From the beginning I knew she was a fraud.”

On the other side, Anna Anderson’s supporters and Anastasia Manahan’s friends were shocked, dismayed, and incredulous. “I knew her for twelve years,” said Peter Kurth, the author of Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson. “I was involved in her story for nearly thirty years. For me—just because of some tests—I cannot one day say, ‘Oh, well, I was wrong.’ It isn’t that simple. I think it’s a shame that a great legend, a wonderful adventure, an astonishing story that inspired so many people, including myself, should suddenly be reduced to a little glass dish.”

Brien Horan, a Connecticut lawyer who first met Anna Anderson in 1970 and subsequently produced a never-published dossier of all the evidence, pro and con, pronounced himself “stunned” by the Schanzkowska identity. “You have to forgive me,” he said. “I’ve learned about the Schanzkowska results so recently that, after so many years, it’s virtually impossible for me to process this information. But it is just not possible that a Polish peasant in the 1920s, long before television made us all so similar, could have become this woman. I would have had much less trouble if they had found simply that she was not Anastasia. But for them to say that she was a Polish peasant, that’s difficult for me to swallow.”

Richard and Marina Schweitzer, like Brien Horan, refused to accept the Schanzkowska identity. “I know one thing for certain,” said Schweitzer immediately after the London press conference. “Anastasia was not a Polish peasant.” Schweitzer made clear that he did not challenge Peter Gill’s findings that the Charlottesville tissue Gill had tested was unrelated to Empress Alexandra and probably was related to the Schanzkowska family. Instead, he challenged the legitimacy of the samples Gill had tested.

“To say that Gill was correct, but that Anna Anderson was not Schanzkowska, means that the tissue tested was not Anna Anderson’s,” Schweitzer explained while he was still in London. “We now feel that there had to be some form of manipulation or substitution. Specifically, that means that somehow, somebody got in and switched or substituted tissue at Martha Jefferson Hospital. The first thing I will do is go back to the hospital and get the documentation on all of their procedures: how the hospital kept its archives, how certain their security system was, how sure they were that it could not have been breached. Then I want to investigate various potential scenarios. When Willi Korte came to see Penny Jenkins in November 1992, how much material did she have on her desk in front of her at the time? Did she have files out that might have had numbers that showed? Were the files arranged in a way that somebody might have read the numbers upside down? Or were the files in her office so that somebody could slip in later, open the file drawer, and say, ‘Here it is,’ take it out and get the numbers themselves? Penny did tell me that when the doctors first went to find the tissue, they couldn’t find it and she had to get up and together they found the right box in the right hole. Then the hospital put it under special guard, in ‘proprietary custody.’ ”

What could be the motive for such a conspiracy? Schweitzer suggested two: “When it looked as though they were going to be thwarted by Lovell from getting access to the tissue by legal means, they took the real tissue away and put something else there [the “something else” would have been Schanzkowska family tissue]. Then, later, after feigning a long search, they could come up with the lost tissue, the real tissue, produce the right results, and get credit for solving the mystery. Or, if their objective was to make sure that she was recognized as Schanzkowska, a substitution would achieve that nicely. Who might ‘they’ have been? Many people had many reasons—family reasons, almost hereditary reasons—for not wanting her to be Grand Duchess Anastasia. Money would not be a problem for these people.”

Schweitzer intended to ask other questions: “Can we determine the sex and the age of the person from whom the tissue was taken? [Gill subsequently informed Schweitzer that the tissue had indeed come from a woman.] Can we determine how old the specimen was as a specimen? That is, was it about fifteen years old, as it would have been as a result of a 1979 operation? What part of the human body was it from, the lower bowel or somewhere else? Was the same kind of preservative used by the hospital at that time? Do the medical records support the fact that the tissue brought out was gangrenous?”

Richard Schweitzer’s friends, even those who shared his views, believed that the odds against him were great. Brien Horan, a loyal Anna Anderson supporter, said, “The conspiracy theory is not going to be taken seriously. It’s just too hard to imagine that a substitution could be pulled off. It boggles the mind!” But Schweitzer was not backing away. Asked if he minded being called a conspiracy theorist, he said, “I’m seventy years old. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I don’t have a theory. All I have is a series of conjectures. I’m looking for the truth.”

Penny Jenkins, who was responsible for keeping Martha Jefferson Hospital’s medical records, including blood and tissue samples, had great respect for Richard Schweitzer, as he did for her. Knowing that he was focusing on a possible substitution of the tissue at the hospital, she telephoned him and said, “That’s not possible and here’s why.” Later, she repeated what she had said to him: “We have two separate backups. In 1979, when Dr. Shrum did surgery on Mrs. Manahan, we took slides of the tissue, in addition to preserving in paraffin the larger blocks of excised tissue. Taking slides when doing surgery is routine; you take it, look at it, and say, this is cancer, or it’s not cancer, or it’s an infection, or whatever. We preserve these slides in one place and the tissue in paraffin wax in a totally different place.

“Further, when we moved this tissue from storage back to the hospital early in 1993, Dr. Thomas Dudley, the assistant pathologist, cut some new slides from one of the blocks. We compared these new slides cut in 1993 with those original slides cut in 1979. They were identical. If someone had swapped them in storage during the last couple of years, they would not have matched. And the chance that somebody was able to get to both locations and switch both slides without access to specimen numbers is impossible. I don’t think Dick wanted to hear this, but I had to tell him.”

While he was in London, Richard Schweitzer learned the results of two other DNA tests, one on tissue, the other on hair, both alleged to have come from Anastasia Manahan. Neither was encouraging to Schweitzer’s belief that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia. The tissue report came from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Scientists there had extracted mitochondrial DNA from the tissue sample which Susan Barritt had brought to Bethesda from Charlottesville. This profile was compared to Peter Gill’s published profile of Prince Philip. The result was the same as that achieved by Gill: there was no match. Thus, AFIP’s Charlottesville tissue, like Gill’s, was excluded from a relationship with Prince Philip and Empress Alexandra. The institute did not make a comparison with the Polish profile obtained from Karl Maucher. They did not report, therefore, who the donor might be, only who she was not.

Further confirmation of Gill’s results came from a surprising source. Susan Burkhart, a thirty-one-year-old Blue Cross-Blue Shield supervisor in Durham, North Carolina, had been intrigued by the Anastasia mystery since she was twelve. In 1992, learning that John Manahan’s large library had been sold to a Chapel Hill rare book store, she began spending time in the basement of the store, going through hundreds of boxes of old books. One day, the store’s owner, Barry Jones, discovered in one of these boxes an envelope on which Manahan had penciled, “Anastasia’s hair.” Inside was a matted clump of hair, which appeared to have been removed from a hairbrush. The hair was “salt and pepper with some strands of auburn” and, significantly, still had follicles attached at the roots. Burkhart, married to a DNA researcher, knew the importance of follicles and bought the envelope and its contents for twenty dollars. Eventually, Peter Kurth put Burkhart in touch with DNA enthusiast Syd Mandelbaum, who arranged for Dr. Mark Stoneking at Penn State to test the hair for DNA.

On September 7, 1994, Susan Burkhart sent six strands of hair to Stoneking. He managed to extract mitochondrial DNA and confirmed that it had the same DNA sequence as that obtained from the Charlottesville tissue by Peter Gill. Stoneking then compared the profile obtained from the hair with the published Hessian profile taken by Peter Gill from the blood sample provided by the Duke of Edinburgh. Stoneking found that the two did not match; therefore, not being related to Prince Philip, the owner of the hair could not be related to Empress Alexandra. Stoneking concluded that “if the hair samples are from the claimant Anna Anderson, this analysis indicated that she could not be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.”*

Stoneking’s results on the hair greatly reassured Peter Gill about the accuracy of his own DNA tests. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had used the same source, the Charlottesville tissue, and derived the same results; Mark Stoneking, using a different source, had come up with the same DNA sequence and the same results. For Richard Schweitzer’s theory of tissue substitution, however, Stoneking’s hair results were harmful: how likely was it that conspirators had not only penetrated Martha Jefferson Hospital to substitute Schanzkowska tissue for Anastasia Manahan’s but also had planted a clump of hair in an envelope with John Manahan’s writing on it and left it to be found years later in the basement of a North Carolina bookstore?

As Schweitzer continued to fight, he was criticized for his refusal to accept the findings of science. The London Evening Standard described him as “displaying the tireless enthusiasm of the sort which keeps the Flat Earth Society in business.” Nature Genetics, a usually authoritative journal, editorialized, “Why is it that Schweitzer and his supporters refuse to accept the results and are even now exploring other ways of proving themselves and the late Anna Anderson right? What, given such reluctance, does the scientific community have to do to convince the public that it knows what it is talking about?” Unfortunately for its own reputation, Nature Genetics stumbled badly in handling the editorial. The writer was the same Dr. Adrian Ivinson who had testified on behalf of the Russian Nobility Association in the Charlottesville courtroom. In addition to displaying an ill-tempered bias against the Schweitzers (Richard Schweitzer was described as being “married to a woman who claimed to be the granddaughter of Dr. Botkin”), the editorial was marred by numerous errors involving the persons concerned in the case, the sequence of events, the findings of various scientists, and even the science of genetics. Eventually, the journal apologized.

Maurice Philip Remy continued through the winter and spring of 1995 to look for a way to make his own contribution to resolving Anna Anderson’s identity. Ironically, after two and a half years of intensive effort, he had achieved little. He never obtained access to the Charlottesville tissue. He did not possess any of the Chapel Hill hair. His only source of what he believed was Anna Anderson DNA was the 1951 blood slide from which Charles Ginther at Berkeley was unable to extract DNA. Remy’s scientist, Dr. Bernd Herrmann of Göttingen University, did find nuclear DNA on the slide. Comparing short tandem repeats taken from this slide to the published STRs of Nicholas and Alexandra, Herrmann declared that Anna Anderson could not have been Anastasia. Unfortunately for Remy, Peter Gill declared at the October 5 London press conference that the DNA from Remy’s slide and the DNA from the Charlottesville tissue did not match. No one, therefore, knew who the donor of Remy’s blood slide had been. In addition, Gill has quietly expressed doubt about Dr. Herrmann’s technique. An attempt to get DNA from a slide which is highly vulnerable to contamination is almost certain to go wrong, Gill believes; a scientist is more likely to get DNA from his own breath or his own saliva. Finally, Dr. Gill said that, until the name came up in connection with Remy’s claim of triumph in the Sunday Times, he had never heard of Dr. Herrmann.*

Nevertheless, in May 1995, Remy was still urging his scientists to try to extract more DNA from the blood slide and send it to Ginther for comparison with his Hessian profiles. If Ginther were to obtain a match (indicating that the donor was related to Empress Alexandra), this would indeed be news, and all previous test results would have to be reevaluated. The irony is that this result would delight Remy’s erstwhile antagonists, the Schweitzers, and dismay his former allies, the Hessians and Prince Scherbatov.

A new result would not, at this stage, have greatly concerned Dr. Willi Korte, who, no longer employed by Remy, had returned to tracking stolen art. The relationship between Remy and Korte was distant. Korte, a professional investigator, was not pleased that Remy had claimed credit for most of the original thinking in the case. (Korte told the Abendzeitung of Munich that the idea of identifying Anna Anderson by tracking down samples of remaining tissue or blood—which Remy had claimed was his—had come to him in August 1992 as he was sitting in the lobby of Moscow’s Slavanskaya Hotel.) “To make a long story short,” Korte said, “I set this whole thing up. But I don’t consider it one of my better cases. It did fall apart. I had too many amateurs running around. At the end, certain people sort of lost their nerve. They were all over the place, trying to save their skins.”

Who was Franziska Schanzkowska, the woman who for over sixty years had claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia? She was born in 1896 in the Prussian province of Posen, adjacent to the border with Poland, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. Two hundred years before, her family had belonged to the lesser Polish nobility, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the family were farmworkers. Franziska’s father, an impoverished alcoholic, died when his children were young. In the village where she grew up, Franziska always was different and solitary. She did not make friends, and she tried especially to distance herself from her sisters by assuming what they considered an affected, upper-class manner. At harvesttime, when the entire village was out in the fields bringing in hay, Franziska would be found lying in a cart reading books on history.

“My Auntie Franziska was the cleverest of the four children,” said Waltraud Schanzkowska, a resident of Hamburg. “She didn’t want to be buried in a little one-horse town. She wanted to come out into the world, to become an actress—something special.” In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Franziska, at age eighteen, left the Polish provinces for Berlin. She worked as a waitress, met a young man, and became engaged. Before she could marry, her fiancé was called up for military service. Franziska began working in a munitions factory. In 1916, the young man was killed on the western front. Soon afterward, Franziska let a grenade slip from her hands on the assembly line. It exploded nearby, inflicting splinter wounds on her head and other parts of her body and eviscerating a foreman, who died before her eyes. She was sent to a sanatorium, where her physical injuries healed but the shock remained. Franziska was declared “not cured, but not dangerous,” and discharged. She was taken in, almost as a charity case, by Frau Wingender, who gave her a room of her own. Incapable of working long periods, Franziska was in and out of sanatoria; in between, she remained bedridden at the Wingenders’ apartment, complaining of headaches, swallowing pills, and reading history books from the local library. In February 1920, her favorite brother, Felix, received a last message from her. On February 17, 1920, she disappeared.

According to Peter Gill, DNA is infallible, and therefore we know that Fräulein Unbekannt, Anna Tschaikovsky, Anna Anderson, and Anastasia Manahan all evolved from Franziska Schanzkowska. Her Polish family identity explains the central flaw in her claim: that is, her ability to understand Russian but not to speak it as a native. Nevertheless, it was an astonishing and brilliant performance. Almost certainly, she did not start out as an impostor. She was in Dalldorf asylum for two years; she had a strong resemblance to one of the tsar’s daughters; people around her wanted to believe. Then she went out and lived among the emigres. Here was an interesting new life. People paid attention to her; some bowed and curtsied and called her Your Imperial Highness. In time, her mind absorbed this alternative identity and she was transformed.

After Peter Gill’s press conference, some of Anna Anderson’s supporters said that perhaps she was not the daughter of the tsar but she could not possibly have been a Polish peasant. Yet many famous professional actresses, of equally humble origins, have convinced audiences playing the roles of majestic grandes dames. A great lady is not necessarily a woman of ancient pedigree and expensive schooling; she can be someone accustomed to a certain milieu for a long time and confident of her position. Anna Anderson had sixty-three years to learn the part.

She had a strong and emphatic personality, and she was sure of the role she had found for herself. Even her enemy Dr. Gunther von Berenberg-Gossler, who opposed her claim for years in the German courts, paid tribute to that “exceptional” quality and to her “life achievement.” “Be prepared,” he said to a young man about to meet her for the first time. “She will win you over. She has the greatest suggestive power of any person I have ever met.” In fact, after the early years, she herself never attempted to persuade people of her identity. Instead, it was others who adopted her cause, took her claim to court, and demanded of the world that she be recognized.

Now, more than a decade after her death, the mystery of her identity has been solved. The woman pulled from a Berlin canal was not Grand Duchess Anastasia; she was an impostor with astonishing physical similarities to the young woman who died in an Ekaterinburg cellar in 1918. Nevertheless, her life was exceptional. If, once upon a time, she was a Polish factory worker, she became—in her own mind and the minds of her supporters—a princess. Her performance, still so vivid that some cannot put it aside, lent color to the twentieth century. Many real grand dukes and grand duchesses survived the revolution and then lived and died in relative obscurity. Against this backdrop, only one woman will be remembered: Anna Anderson.

* Mark Stoneking did not test the Charlottesville tissue sample which had been sent to him. After Dr. Gill and AFIP both came up with similar results, Stoneking advised Richard Schweitzer that a third test on the same tissue would be unlikely to produce a different result. This tissue remains in Dr. Stoneking’s laboratory, preserved and frozen, for use in future research.

* Pavel Ivanov also is unfamiliar with the work of Dr. Herrmann. “You know, we read all the papers in our field and we know pretty much who is doing what,” Ivanov said. “No, I have never heard of him.”

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