In 1951 or in any other year, if a fire broke out in an old abandoned farmhouse in a small town in New Hampshire the story would only attract local interest.
But the fire that partially destroyed the old farmhouse known as the Wigwam in New Boston on Sunday morning, Nov. 18, 1951 caught the attention of The Associated Press news agency. This was because, after the flames were extinguished, the body of a young woman was found in a cupboard on the second floor of the building where the fire had been concentrated.
Also, the house was located on the grounds of the New Boston Bombing Range, a restricted U.S. Air Force facility where no young woman would have been expected to venture. And, the identity of the unfortunate victim was a mystery.
The AP quickly put together a short news item for national distribution, which was published in several newspapers across the country on Nov. 19, 1951. County and state officials who were on site conducting the initial investigation were interviewed, and they freely offered their opinions.
According to the article, “County Solicitor Conrad Danais said ‘It looks like murder.’ State police added, ‘The abandoned house was evidently set afire to cover up a crime.’
Acting Hillsborough County Medical Referee Dr. Oscar Burns said, ‘The woman was dead before her body was brought to the house.’”
As it had been determined that the investigation of the untimely death was a civilian matter, the only comment officials at Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester would make to the AP was that “they knew nothing about the fire or the body.”
Today, as the investigation reports apparently no longer exist, the facts of the case must be pieced together as well as possible from newspaper accounts. Although later articles would mention that the woman’s body had not been terribly burned, on the day of the fire Dr. Burns had a different take.
According to the AP article, “He said there were no marks of violence on the head — the only part of the body not seared by flames…” And he reportedly said, “Her body was so badly burned we couldn’t tell if she had been stabbed or choked to death.”
The 42-inch high cupboard that contained the crumpled body was located under a staircase in the area where the fire had apparently started. On the day of the fire, a New Boston volunteer fire fighter searched the nearly empty house for evidence of arson. While inspecting a closet, he discovered a thermos bottle hidden under a board. When the aluminum cap and the cork stopper were removed, the bottle emitted a gasoline odor.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, an autopsy of the body was performed at the L. Paul Ecklund Funeral Home in Milford. It was conducted by the state pathologist, Dr. Ralph E. Miller, eminent professor of pathology at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover. He was assisted by Dr. Burns, a Milford resident.
The physicians discovered that the woman had been six months pregnant at the time of her death. They determined that she had not died from her burns, and they found no traces of drugs or poisons, nor signs of trauma.
From examining the lungs, Dr. Miller concluded that the woman had been alive when she entered the cupboard and that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling the fumes of the gasoline-fed fire. He suggested that she had committed suicide.
Hillsborough County Solicitor Conrad Danais was uneasy with that line of thinking. He was quoted in a news item on Nov. 21, 1951, as saying, “‘There is no doubt the fire was set, but maybe she did it herself.’
However, he said the theory of foul play has not been eliminated.” He concluded, “The investigation will continue.”
In fact, Danais persisted in theorizing that the young woman had been murdered. An article in the New York Daily News would later summarize the essence of the disagreement that emerged between him and Dr. Miller in this imagined exchange: Dr. Miller, “We are inclined to think it was suicide — because of the child.”
Danais said, “And it could have been murder — because of the child.”
Next Week: Identifying the victim.