Real Name: Rose Marie Platt
Case: Lost Daughter
Location: Buffalo, New York
Date: September 1954
Details: In March 1987, the coda to a poignant love story was played out in Buffalo, New York. Eleanor (Platt) Wozniak and John Phillip Elias were finally together again. They had fallen in love when they were young, but the ugly barrier of racial prejudice kept them apart for thirty-four years.
Their story began in 1953. Brown vs. the Board of Education had not yet been heard by the Supreme Court. A full six years after Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line, there was just twenty black players in the major leagues. Racial integration was an alien concept in most parts of the United States. Buffalo was no exception. When Eleanor, then a seventeen-year-old high school student, took an interest in John, a black man eleven years her senior, it was – by definition – controversial. It was also certain to bring trouble down on both of them.
One day, the two met at a social club and struck up a conversation. Right away, Eleanor was drawn to John. They started meeting at different places and began a relationship. Eleanor was fascinated by the feelings that they were having for each other. She soon fell in love with him. As they met and talked more, they developed a closer relationship. Eventually, he asked her to marry him. She told him that she would think about it. When he asked her again, she decided that she would leave home and move in with him in his apartment after Christmas.
For Eleanor, leaving home was easier said than done. She knew her father, Joe, would object violently. Nevertheless, on December 26, 1953, she ran away from her parents’ home to begin a life with John. They lived together until January 26, 1954. On that day, she discovered that she was pregnant. Against John's wishes, she decided to go back home. She wanted to tell her mother, Iva, about her situation, since she had been missing from home for so long. John warned her that there would be problems if she went home.
When Eleanor returned home and told Joe that she was staying with John, he told her to stay away from John. She wanted him to meet John, but he refused. Then, she told him that she was pregnant with John’s child. He immediately told her to leave. Iva recalled that Joe was an alcoholic who was “not himself” when he drank. In order to “keep peace with the family”, she let him take care of the situation.
Joe had Eleanor put in a home for unwed mothers, the Ingleside Home for Girls, because of her “mistake”. He then accused John of raping Eleanor. John’s arrest took place midday at the factory where he worked. According to Eleanor, charges that John had held her against her will were “trumped up” by a policewoman called by her parents. Because she was still three days shy of eighteen, John was charged with second-degree rape, also known as statutory rape. He pleaded guilty and was given a nine-month jail sentence. He said that he pleaded guilty because he did not want to have Eleanor go through the pain of being put on the stand at a trial. He felt that he was protecting her.
On September 13, 1954, in the unwed mother’s home, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Rose Marie. The authorities at the home had told her, over and over, that it might be best to give the baby up for adoption. However, she did not want to give her up; she wanted to keep her and raise her. Despite that, she could not figure out a way to keep her. Finally, the day Eleanor dreaded arrived. Rose Marie was taken from her and placed in the temporary custody of social services until the situation could be evaluated. She felt “torn up inside” because she knew that social services was going to take Rose Marie and she would never see her again.
Eleanor immediately re-established contact with John, who had been released from jail early for good behavior. They were determined to get their daughter back. Once again, he proposed marriage. She eagerly accepted, but insisted that they tell her parents face-to-face. When they went to her parents’ house, they demanded John to leave. When he refused, Joe pulled out a shotgun and told him not to come back.
In November 1954, Eleanor’s parents had her arrested for failing to obey their lawful orders, even though she was over the age of eighteen. She disappeared and John had no idea where she went. He was not able to contact her family because they did not want him at their house. He asked several people around town, but no one knew where she went. In fact, she had been sentenced to a three-year term in a juvenile detention facility. However, she was told that her sentence would be reduced if, and only if, she put Rose Marie up for adoption.
Eleanor recalled that she was naïve and did not know how the laws worked at the time. She was also scared of her parents and the social worker. She decided to sign the papers, not knowing what the consequences would be in the long run. She initially wanted to wait another week, but the social worker refused, saying that the longer she took, the harder it would be for Rose Marie and everyone else involved. Afterwards, Eleanor found out that if she had read and understood the law more, she would have realized that she did not have to give Rose Marie up because she was already eighteen. After she signed the papers, she felt that she had signed her life away. She knew, however, that there was nothing more that she could do.
Eleanor was released six months after she signed the adoption papers. She still wanted to see John and marry him because she loved him. However, he was nowhere to be found. Only later did she discover that he had literally been run out of town. He was continually harassed by the police department; he was repeatedly pulled over by them for no reason. He was also harassed by other locals. After he left town, he got a new job and tried to settle down after his ordeal.
Eleanor would never have another child. Because of complications resulting from Rose Marie’s birth, she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy at the age of twenty-two. Eventually, the pain of her shattered youth subsided. In 1977, she married Steven Wozniak, and together they raised four foster children. John married as well; he and his wife, Frances, had two children, Mark and Michelle.
In 1987, John began to search in earnest for Rose Marie. Along the way, he located Eleanor in Erie, Pennsylvania. With the blessing of their spouses and families, John and Eleanor resolved to find Rose Marie. Eleanor had a message for Rose Marie: “I want you to know that I do love you, and your father loves you, and that’s why we’re working together to find you. There’s so much we want to explain to you and to tell you, that we really do care, and we really did care at the time.”
John hopes that they will be successful in finding Rose Marie, who was literally taken away from them. They do not want to interfere with her life; they just want to know her whereabouts, how she is, and how she came out.
John and Eleanor located Rose Marie’s adoption records, but they are legally sealed unless Rose Marie herself chooses to open them. The only clues to her identity are her date of birth, September 13, 1954, and her place of birth, Buffalo, New York.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the February 12, 1992 episode.
Results: Solved. John and Eleanor’s search came to an end on the night of the broadcast, when a viewer in Elmira, New York, recognized their long-lost daughter as one of his coworkers, thirty-seven-year-old Sally Lou Briggs Riley of Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He immediately called her and told her that her birth parents were on “Unsolved Mysteries” and were looking for her. Her adoptive mother, Sarah Briggs, had previously told her that she was adopted and gave her some records, which listed her birth name, birth mother's name, date of birth, and place of birth. She shared this information with her coworker, who then realized that the information matched what was mentioned in the broadcast.
The day after the broadcast, Sally called the telecenter and was put in contact with Dominic Telesco, director of the Center For Reuniting Families. He had worked with John and Eleanor in their search and arranged a reunion between the three. On February 17, 1992, Sally was reunited with John and Eleanor at Dominic's home. When Sally saw them for the first time, she was flabbergasted and in awe that she was able to meet them, knowing that she was a part of them. Eleanor was unable to describe the feeling that she felt when she saw Sally for the first time, a feeling that could only be felt by people who have given their children away for adoption. John said that he had carried an imaginary picture in his mind of how she would look, but when he finally saw her in person, he had a very good feeling to be able to put a face to his daughter.
Two weeks after the broadcast, Sally and her fiancée Albert traveled to New York and introduced her children, Litonya and Thomas, to Eleanor and John for the first time. For John, Sally, and Eleanor, the reunion marked the beginning of an emotional healing process that was long overdue. Eleanor wanted to have as much of a mother-daughter relationship as possible with Sally. She also wanted to make up for the years that they had missed, along with the years that she had missed with her grandchildren. Sally was just happy to have a large, new family, filled with love and acceptance.
Sadly, on June 10, 2011, John died at the age of eighty-seven. On November 26, 2019, Eleanor died at the age of eighty-three.
- After 37 years, lovers who lost each other try to find their child - November 7, 1991
- Couple hope tv show can find child - February 8, 1992
- Parents meet the daughter they were forced to give up - February 18, 1992
- Obituary for John Elias
- Eleanor Platt Wozniak on Find a Grave