Wigwam, the Peirce family home

The home known as the Wigwam, at the foot of Joe English Hill in New Boston, is pictured here prior to 1942.

ON THE COLD Sunday morning of Nov. 18, 1951, New Boston Fire Chief Robert Barss was at his home on Joe English Road just south of the intersection of Meadow Road. Looking eastward at around 8:30 a.m. he saw smoke coming from a building on the New Boston Bombing Range.

The old wooden farmhouse, known for decades as the Wigwam, was located at the foot of Joe English Hill, a prominent local landmark. The Wigwam was one of several properties in New Boston, Amherst, and Mont Vernon that had been acquired by the federal government in 1942 to create the 2,800-acre bombing range that was part of the Grenier Field (later Grenier Air Force Base) military establishment.

Barss alerted the town’s volunteer firefighters by phone and then called Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester to summon the base’s fire department. When he arrived at the Wigwam, he found the doors and windows of the steep-roofed wooden building boarded up. The roof was burning and partially collapsed, and smoke poured out of the structure.

New Boston Police Chief Kenneth Purington was already at the house, and soon fire trucks from Grenier AFB arrived, as did the New Boston volunteers with the town’s equipment. The Grenier crew took the lead. The firefighters removed the boarding from the front door and entered the building. They made their way through the heavy smoke to determine the source of the fire and learned that the flames were centered on the second floor.

Now that the hot spots could be targeted with a blast of water from the hoses, the fire was soon extinguished. The Grenier AFB fire chief and his men began assessing the conditions on the second floor. They discovered charred walls and floors, and found a hallway had been blocked by the door to a cupboard that was tucked away under the stairs leading to the attic. The door had apparently fallen open due to the force of the fire.

When the fire chief shone his flashlight into the cupboard he saw what looked like a pile of clothing. His men brought up portable lighting to fully illuminate the interior of the space, which was about 42 inches high. The bright light revealed a shocking sight — the crumpled body of a young woman.

It appeared that she had fallen over on her left side from her original kneeling position. Her brown hair was partially covered by a black turban. Her sweater, pants, and wedge-style shoes were also black.

Barss and Purington were immediately called upstairs to examine the scene. They were stunned by the distressing discovery. Officials from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) were called in to investigate. They arrived later that day, and after surveying the scene, pronounced that, although the death had occurred on military property, the investigation was a matter for the civilian authorities.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the New Hampshire State Police were notified. Soon the county’s High Sheriff Thomas G. O’Brien arrived, as did state police Sergeant John Conti. The two men conducted a thorough investigation, acting as combination homicide detectives and arson inspectors.

Conti found nothing on the first floor that could have caused the fire. He noticed a single piece of furniture in the living room, a rocking chair standing in front of the fireplace. The ashes in the fireplace appeared to be from recently burned wood.

O’Brien examined the body. He determined that the woman was likely in her 20s and that she was about 5 feet 5 inches tall, and weighed around 125 pounds. The cupboard’s walls were blackened, but the body only had superficial burns on the face, on one arm, the hands, and the legs. The clothing was largely intact.

The body’s description did not match that of any missing New Hampshire woman. No handbag was found. The only clue to her origins was the package of cigarettes in her pants pocket which had a New Jersey tax stamp. Also, the victim had a small scar above one of her eyebrows.

And then one of the New Boston volunteer firefighters found an item of interest under a board in a closet.

Next week: The investigation continues — was it murder or suicide?

Correction: In the Looking Back column published July 12, the 23rd Space Operations Squadron which operates the New Boston Space Force Station should have been referred to as the 23rd SOPS.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter