DOVER — An unsolved mystery from decades ago surrounding a steamer trunk full of baby bones is still on Mike Gillis’ mind.
The Dover native has followed the case for years. He is currently producing a documentary about the five infants’ remains found in 1983, the Somersworth police officer who investigated the case and two deceased women believed to be connected.
A sneak peek at the feature-length documentary can be seen on his website, madeindover.com. “Made in Dover” is a labor of love for Gillis, who is a journalist and filmmaker.
Gillis spoke about the baby bones case with the New Hampshire Union Leader recently.
“It really is a story about what turned out to be, although no one has ever talked about it, a really interesting time when people kept their secrets to the grave. It involves black market babies, illegal adoptions, a lot of really nasty stuff going on that actually makes its way into the highest seats of power in the state, and also, too, to the country, so it’s a pretty fascinating story,” Gillis said.
On April 6, 1983, Earl and Ruth Davis, of Somersworth, were cleaning out their basement and opened a steamer trunk left with them decades earlier by former neighbor Shirley Thomas. The General Electric employee had given the trunk to the couple in the late 1950s.
Investigators determined all the babies in the trunk had died between 1949 and 1952.
In the days following the gruesome discovery, Thomas told police about a “baby snuffing” ring “years ago” and that the person responsible for the infants’ deaths had died. She shared no other information after being read her Miranda Rights.
Within a week, Thomas hired attorney Danford Wensley. Thomas was never arrested and took any information she had to the grave soon afterward.
Rod Doherty was the executive editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat newspaper in Dover at the time. He remembers the mystery surrounding the case and the questions they had.
“Was it abortions? Did she kill them? Or did people come to her with babies they had killed?” Doherty said on Tuesday.
Doherty also remembers Wensley refusing to give up anything Thomas may have told him.
“He would not tell me a thing about it. I tried. I tried multiple times. He just wasn’t going to say anything, and he didn’t have to. It was privileged information,” Doherty said.
Wensley died on Feb. 4 of this year.
Somersworth Police Lt. Patrick Boyle worked on the case for two years. He connected Irene Copeland, who was found dead on Watson Road in Dover on May 16, 1950, to the baby bones case.
Copeland, a Somersworth District nurse who may have known too much about the black market for babies in the area, was found face-down. Even though it was determined by officials that Copeland had died accidentally from excess alcohol and some derivative of barbituric acid, her death has always been considered suspicious by people following the case.
In the video titled “This Day in Dover History: The Mysterious Death of Irene Copeland,” Boyle said he had been able to start connecting Thomas and Copeland to important people in Strafford County. But soon after he started investigating the Copeland side of things further, he was directed to stop by the chief of police.
Boyle believes there was a cover-up. Doherty agrees.
“We always thought there was a cover-up,” Doherty said.
Gillis oversaw a 2008 series on the baby bones case as an editor at Foster’s. He said it was an attempt to dislodge some more information about the mystery.
“Nobody came forward,” Gillis said.
Gillis said even the Attorney General’s office was stonewalled when it came to the baby bones case. There was an attempt to interview hundreds of people who didn’t want to speak; eventually the case was turned over to Foster’s after a Right to Know request.
Gillis said a “Made in Dover” piece he created and posted online in 2017 was the first time he had people come forward with information to contribute to his documentary.
“Granted, a lot of time has passed and maybe some people are more willing now to talk a little bit about this, but because we’re talking about things happening in the ’40s and ’50s, a lot of these people are dying and just taking their secrets to their graves,” Gillis said.
Anyone with information about the baby bones, Thomas or Copeland is asked to contact Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org.