On Dec. 6, 1951, the state of New Hampshire certificate of death, file No. 51-5542, was received and accepted by Fred M. Hodges, town clerk of New Boston. It had been prepared by Dr. Oscar Burns, acting Medical Referee for Hillsborough County.
It laid out the bare facts concerning the death of 27-year-old Gertrude C. White in an abandoned house on the New Boston Bombing Range. As stated, the cause of death was “carbon monoxide poisoning – burning building with small amount of gasoline. Gasoline used to start fire ‘probably.’” The time of death had been determined as “probably” 8 a.m. The use of the word “probably” was an indication that the investigators had not been able to satisfactorily uncover the full story.
Dr. Burns, however, was confident in pronouncing that Gertrude’s death had been a suicide, and not an accident or a homicide. The story that was pieced together was that she had deliberately set a fire on the second floor of the house. She had then squeezed her 5 foot 5 inch body into a 42-inch high cabinet on that floor located under the stairs to the attic, and had closed the door.
Perhaps she had believed that she would burn to death, but the fire had only scorched her body and clothing. Instead, she had died by smoke inhalation. An empty thermos bottle found in the house that smelled of gasoline was presumed to have belonged to Gertrude.
If Gertrude had decided to commit suicide, then she had also decided to end the life of her unborn child. She had been six months pregnant when she died and her family had not known of her condition. She was a single woman with no apparent boyfriend, so her pregnancy may have occurred under traumatic circumstances. She had been depressed in the weeks before her death. Perhaps her pregnancy was the source of her psychological troubles.
Adding to the suicide theory was the fact that Gertrude had carried out an elaborate plan to return to her hometown of New Boston, where she had not lived for 13 years. Her parents had divorced in 1938, and her father still resided there, but she had not sought to contact him. She had left her apartment key and a check for a month’s rent in her apartment in Trenton, N.J., apparently as notice to the landlord that she was not returning.
Gertrude had dressed in black for her trip to New Hampshire, as if she had been heading to a funeral. Could she have planned to commit suicide in her childhood home located on a road in the bombing range territory? This building would have been just a short distance from the house known as the Wigwam where she ultimately perished. These farmhouses and several others had been acquired by the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 when the bombing range had been established.
Gertrude may not have known that her family’s former home had been demolished. Having discovered this, she may instead have entered the Wigwam. It was known that she had been familiar with the layout of this house since she had played there as a child.
Although the verdict of suicide was entered into the public record, the person who had led the investigation into Gertrude’s death, Hillsborough County Solicitor Conrad Danais, remained skeptical.
He had witnessed the gruesome scene of the charred body in the cupboard, and could not accept that Gertrude had forced herself into that small space voluntarily. And, early in the investigation he had uncovered a package containing, among other personal belongings, Gertrude’s false teeth and eye glasses. He could not believe that she would have removed and hidden these intimate items.
A feature article about the Gertrude White case entitled “The Corpse Wore Black” published in the Daily News, New York in December 1952 ended with Danais’ plea, “If any readers have information which will throw any light on what I still consider to be an unexplained mystery I will assure them that whatever they care to tell will be treated with the greatest confidence…”
The haunting, unanswered questions in the New Boston Bombing Range mystery of 1951 still remain.
Note: The author is grateful to Dan Rothman of the New Boston Historical Society for his generous assistance with this series.
Next week: The life of Chandler E. Potter, New Hampshire historian.