Anna Anderson (AP Photo/Carpenter)
In 1920 a woman in Berlin, Germany, attempted to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. She carried no identification and refused to tell her rescuers her name. She stayed silent for years –– and then said she was Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only surviving member of the Russian royal family.
Two years earlier the deposed Russian czar Nicholas II, his family and four attendants had been killed by a firing squad. The bodies were buried quickly and, almost immediately, rumors circulated that one or more of the five Romanov children had survived. Anastasia, the youngest of the czar's daughters, was most often named as the one who could have gotten away.
Anna Anderson, who died Feb. 12, 1984, maintained until her death that she was the lost grand duchess. Her claim wasn't the only one made in the years after the Romanov murders, but it was the one that persisted the longest and captivated the world, even after it was definitively proved false by DNA evidence in the 1990s.
Anderson explained that she had survived because she and her sisters had jewels sewn into their corsets, making them difficult to pierce. When bullets didn't kill her, the assassins attempted to end her life by bayonet, but the blades were blunt. She pretended to be dead, revealing herself to a soldier sent to take away the bodies. That soldier helped Anderson escape, and she said she had come to Berlin to seek out relatives but, worried they wouldn't recognize her, she tried to end her life.
There were similarities between Anderson and Anastasia. Both reportedly had the same foot deformity. Anderson had scars on her body that she said had been caused by gunshots and bayonets. Anderson spoke English, French and German, and could understand Russian. She said she would no longer speak it because it was the language of those who had killed her family.
Supporters, including a childhood friend of Anastasia's, a cousin, and the son of the Romanov court's doctor, said Anderson knew things only the real grand duchess would know. When she first met the doctor's son, for example, she asked him about his "funny animals." Years earlier, the man had drawn Anastasia animals wearing court clothes.
Detractors, including the czar's youngest sister, the czarina's sister and Anastasia's tutor, said Anderson was a good actress likely seeking an inheritance. As Olga Alexandrovna, the czar's sister, put it, according to the book Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. "My telling the truth does not help in the least, because the public simply wants to believe the mystery." Those who believed Anderson was Anastasia provided her with housing, health care and travel opportunities. In 1964, a German doctor who had examined photos of both women declared that Anderson was Anastasia. A handwriting expert said the two had identical script.
In 1968 Anderson married an American professor named John Manahan. Anderson and her husband lived in Charlottesville, Va., where they became known as eccentrics. "Though Jack Manahan was wealthy, they lived in squalor with large numbers of dogs and cats and piles of garbage," according to Anderson's Wikipedia page. Anderson died of pneumonia in 1984.
In 1991, the bodies of the czar, czarina and three of their daughters were exhumed from a mass grave. The bodies of their son and remaining daughter were discovered in 2007. DNA tests confirmed that the remains were the seven members of the Romanov family, and that none of the four daughters survived the shooting, according to Wikipedia. DNA taken from Anderson's tissue and hair samples confirmed that she was not Anastasia.
But Anderson still has supporters who claim the DNA was doctored. There's even a Facebook page titled "Anna Anderson WAS Anastasia Romanov."
Anderson's story has inspired books, movies, Broadway shows and even a ballet. In January, Deadline.com announced that actress Glenn Close would play Anderson in a new movie called Duchess.
Time magazine dubbed Anderson one of history's greatest imposters. One popular theory, which the DNA evidence appears to confirm, is that she was Franziska Schanzkowska, a mentally troubled Polish factory worker who disappeared in 1920.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."