Real Names: Elizabeth May Hanson and Walter Dean Parry
Case: Lost Parents
Location: Petersburg, Virginia
Date: April 1949
Details: Brenda G. Abbey is a forty-five-year-old mother of three from Chester, Virginia, who was adopted as an infant. She knows little about her birth parents, except their names, and that they worked for the Cetlin and Wilson Traveling Carnival during the 1940s. She says that every time she hears the news that there is a carnival, she will go. While there, she will go up to every booth, every concession stand, and every person that is employed by that carnival. She will look at them just to see if she can find somebody that looks like her.
In April 1949, Brenda was adopted by Solon and Thelma Zehmer of Petersburg, Virginia. When she was sixteen, she found out that her birth parents had been with the Cetlin and Wilson Carnival. She began searching on-and-off for them. In 1983, she developed a serious health problem. In 1992, she suffered a heart attack which led to her being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because of her acute need for a family medical history, Virginia officials released a copy of her birth certificate. Her biological parents were listed as Elizabeth May Hanson and Walter Dean Parry. She was stunned to learn she had two siblings.
But for Brenda’s search, the most important clue from her birth certificate was Walter’s occupation: representative of the “Midget Review.” She believes that he was a barker; he would go out into the carnival and try to get people to see the midgets and their show. The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. She set out to find everything she could on the Cetlin and Wilson Carnival. She looked in the newspaper archives back to 1948. She came across the announcements of Cetlin and Wilson. She found a group of midgets that were called “Singer’s Midgets.” She believes that is the group Walter worked with. In excitement, she yelled out “I found them! I found them!” to the whole library.
Finally, Brenda had a tangible clue. And it led straight to the carnival circuit. In April 1994, Unsolved Mysteries joined her in Virginia to experience her search firsthand: the excitement of each promising lead, and the heartache of near misses and dead ends.
Brenda visits every carnival that passes within 200 miles of her hometown. Old-timers like Joe Stevenson, a sixty-year veteran of the carnival, offer rare glimpses into a “strange and exotic world.” He says that they made up a language, known as “carny”, which was just vowels switched around. This would allow them to talk about things without customers understanding. Another woman has worked several jobs at the carnival, such as the “alligator girl”, and “the world’s strangest mother.” She would go on the stage and talk to the public. Another carnival worker said that many workers in the “old days” had to sleep in or underneath wagons because they did not make enough money.
Brenda hopes that she will one day “ring a bell” with one of the carnival workers, and they will know her parents. She believes that mentioning the “Midget Review” might be enough for someone to remember them. She just keeps hoping that there is someone in the carnival that is old enough to remember them.
For a brief instant, Brenda thought Joe and the others had actually known Elizabeth. However, the woman they were talking about, “Mama Lee”, was old at the time they knew her, so it seemed unlikely that she would have been Elizabeth. Elizabeth was supposedly twenty-four when she had Brenda. However, he said that Elizabeth might be Mama Lee’s daughter. It was just another avenue she would have to follow.
Brenda did uncover one exciting lead – the phone number for a man named Ward Hall, a prominent booking agent for East Coast carnival side shows. He knew carnival people going back some fifty years. But he had never heard of her birth parents. She had a lot of faith that he was going to help find her parents. However, he was unable to help her. She was disappointed that she was no closer in finding them.
Just before Unsolved Mysteries had traveled to Virginia, a judge had granted Brenda access to her sealed adoption papers. She traveled to the Department of Social Services in Richmond, to look through her papers. They finally revealed where her birth parents had gone after the adoption: Alaska. She also discovered that the documents varied on Walter’s middle initial. One said it was “L” and the other said it was “D”. She was told that it could have been a typographical error, but possibly not. The office was not sure.
Despite the information in the adoption records, it turns out that the Cetlin and Wilson Carnival never once traveled to Alaska, nor has Brenda found any evidence that her birth parents moved to Alaska on their own. Perhaps the next carnival will yield the clue that finally leads her to them. She says that she wants to find them and her siblings more than anything in the world. She wants to tell Elizabeth before she dies that she does not think she did anything wrong. She thinks she did what she had to do. She says that she can understand it. She says she has "a heart big enough” to understand it.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the May 25, 1994 episode; it was updated on the December 2, 1994 episode.
Results: Solved. The response from the broadcast was far greater than even Brenda had hoped for. Not only did Elizabeth call the tele-center, but so did two sisters and a brother. Additional calls were logged in from friends of still more siblings. She was saddened to learn that Walter had died in 1959. But she was thrilled to discover a total of eleven brothers and sisters. One of them, Martha Oke, of St. Clair Shores, Michigan, hosted a reunion in August 1994. Although Elizabeth was unable to attend, Brenda finally met four of her long-lost brothers and sisters face to face.
As hostess for the celebration, Martha was the first to welcome Brenda. A brother, Thomas Chillog, flew in from Louisiana, 1,000 miles away. A half-sister on their father's side, Susan Donner, came in from Port Clinton, Ohio. She had called the show after recognizing their father's name. She had lived with him and was able to tell her siblings all about him. Another brother, Frank Smith, grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi. Like Brenda, he never imagined he had so many siblings. He says that he did his own search for his birth family; however, he kept running into dead ends, and finally, he gave up. But when he found out that Brenda was searching for them, it was "incredible."
Brenda says it is amazing and unbelievable that she has found so many family members. She says, “it is funny to actually walk up to people, and touch their skin, and know they’re related.” The get together in Michigan promised to be just the first of many. Plans were already underway for the next reunion. Brenda says that her siblings are her “flesh and blood” and they are something that nobody can take away from her. She says it is a great feeling, and it is worth the thirty years that it took for her to find them.
When this story re-aired, Brenda found another brother living in Florida, and a pair of twin siblings, Jeanne and James, from Ohio. Her eleven brothers and sisters have now all been located.
Sadly, on August 12, 2018, Brenda passed away at the age of sixty-nine. Jeanne, James, and Susan have also since passed away.
- TV reunites family (Page 1)
(Page 2) - October 2, 1994
- Brenda Abbey and Walter Parry at Find a Grave
- Susan Donner's Obituary
- Jeanne Miller's Obituary
- Brenda Abbey's Obituary