On a rainy April day in 1856, a small girl, no older than two, was left at the Hillsboro Train Station. Strangers bustled around and paid her no attention as they boarded the train. The wide-eyed, sandy-haired toddler, dressed in strangely lavish clothing, stood alone in the crowd. Her name was Sarah Dorney.
Dorney’s story begins somewhere in England, where the woman claiming to be her mother boarded a boat and set sail for America. Ellen Dorney was a widow as well as a mother to both a boy named Wystan and, supposedly, Sarah. Ellen came to America in search of her sisters, Mary and Margaret, whom she wished to live with in Hillsboro. Once in Hillsboro, Ellen was furious to find that Margaret had moved to Indiana.
As Ellen was boarding a train, she announced to the conductor and all of the passengers gathered at the station: “Whoever wants this child can have her! I don’t want to be bothered anymore.” She pushed the toddler away and was never seen again.
Four Hillsboro women from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church heard of Dorney’s abandonment. The wives of William Scott and Roger Smith as well as Eliza Jane Thompson and Alice Shanks took Dorney under their wings. Together they hired the widow Bessie Jones Harper to take care of Dorney at her home, and the others would pitch in with clothing the girl by sewing her dresses.
Dorney was taken care of, but she had to do her share of work as well. It was common for children, especially orphans, to be put to work outside the home to make enough money for the family. Seven-year-old Dorney worked at the sprawling mansion of General Charles Sheif and his elderly mother Clarissa. Dorney did not enjoy being away from home. Night after night she cried for “Mrs. Harper” and was eventually taken back to Bessie’s house, where she worked for her keep.
Dorney was a bright, hardworking student. She and Bessie Harper were very close, and Dorney became like a daughter to the widow. When Bessie Harper decided to move to Indianapolis, Dorney went with her. In Indiana, the two had a rich and happy life together. According to Dorney, her days in Indianapolis were full of adventure and excitement. As Sarah would later recall, she shook hands with nine governors and four presidents.
When Dorney was only 10 years old, tragedy struck. Bessie Harper was struck and killed by a train in Cincinnati. Dorney’s four “godmothers” from Hillsboro heard of this accident, and Dorney was sent back to Ohio, to the James Stroup family farm in Dodsonville. Dorney moved into the large, rural estate and cooked and cleaned the house.
Dorney found love and happiness on the Stroup farm. Young Dorney fell in love with John Stroup, the son of her employer. John was a widower with a daughter, Eldora. Dorney was 15 when she married John in 1869. John was a tall, thin outdoorsman and a gentle and kind husband. Dorney and her stepdaughter Eldora reportedly got along well. John purchased land in Danville, Ohio, and they settled down. Dorney referred to her marriage to John as “the happiest 37 years of my life”.
While Sarah Dorney Stroup lived happily ever after on her family’s successful farm, she still had questions about her past. Meanwhile in Hillsboro, a retired professor formerly from Bath, England, heard her story. Professor Isaac Ishmael Sams set out to discover Dorney’s true identity.
There were several clues to her origins, but the fact that Dorney had silky blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and dainty features was most apparent. Her “mother,” Ellen, was most likely her nurse, Sams and Dorney speculated. Sams theorized that Dorney was actually English nobility, kidnapped from her home and taken to America as a child to prevent her from inheriting royal status. Her facial features and expensive dress, lack of resemblance to Ellen Dorney, and the time period of her abandonment make this theory plausible. Dorney tracked down Ellen’s sisters in Indiana but learned that Ellen had moved to Missouri, and no one had heard from her. The clues to Dorney’s past were still hidden, but she continued to look for them throughout her adult life.
Dorney and John had a daughter together named Harriet. Sarah also adopted a 17-month-old boy who had been abandoned, whom she named Charles.
Later in life, Charles left to fight in World War I but went missing in Europe before ever seeing action, and Dorney never heard from him again.
Sarah Dorney Stroup lived with her daughter Harriet in her final years, reflecting on her past and always trying to figure out who she was. She died in 1942, the mystery of her family and true identity a mystery to this day.
Information for this story came from the July 12, 1957 edition of The Press-Gazette and “Buckeye Legends: Folktales and Lore from Ohio” by Michael Jay Katz.
Isabella Warner is a local high school student and a freelance writer for The Times-Gazette.