SOMERSWORTH, N.H. (AP) – It’s been 25 years since Earl and Ruth Davis, cleaning out their basement, opened an old steamer trunk left with them years earlier by a neighbor.

Inside was a gruesome discovery that April 6, 1983: the decomposed remains of five infants, wrapped in stained old newspapers, and tucked into hat boxes and suitcases.

Investigators ultimately learn a woman named Shirley Thomas, a former Dover resident and Somersworth General Electric employee, gave the trunk to the couple in the late 1950s and that the babies all died between 1949 and 1952.

The remains were buried in the pauper’s plot at Forest Glade Cemetery in Somersworth in 1988.

“Baby snuffing” ring

In the days following the discovery, Thomas told police of a “baby snuffing” ring years ago and that the person responsible for the infant’s deaths had died. She shared no other information after being read her Miranda Rights. Thomas, who was never arrested, moved to North Adams, Mass., and took any other information she may’ve had with her to her grave soon afterward.

Back in the 1950s, the Davises had met Thomas while living in Dover’s Wentworth Apartments. When they were getting ready to move, Thomas asked them to keep the trunk for her, saying she didn’t have enough space in her apartment.

That trunk had moved with them from the home to their present one. The trunk stayed in the basement.

Bearing down on the corroded lock that night in 1983, Earl Davis popped open the trunk, lifted the lid and pulled out one of the many suitcases and hat boxes tightly packed within. Laying it on his basement floor, he opened the black leather suitcase, lifted a newspaper and froze.

There, wrapped in a cloth, was what appeared to be the remains of a newborn child. They called police.

Eventually, more police, the Strafford County attorney, the county medical examiner, the chief of the State Police forensic lab and others arrived at the house.

The group uncovered the remains of five babies, packed into briefcases and hat boxes with area newspapers from the 1940s and ’50s, knitted doilies, plastic wrapping and assorted other items.

“Every time we opened something, one more was discovered. We asked ourselves ‘what does this mean? What have we found and what are the implications.’ We left with a lot of questions and speculation, but unfortunately no answers,” Lincoln Soldati, the Strafford County attorney at the time, was quoted as saying in a 1988 newspaper article.


When Thomas was questioned the day after the remains were found, she appeared very pale and her mouth was dry, an investigator Perron wrote in his report. She confirmed there was a ‘baby-snuffing’ operation, then added, “‘I thought the trunk had been disposed of a long time ago,’ ” according to the report.

“I said, ‘like 22 years ago,’ and she nodded affirmatively. At this point, I advised her of the Miranda Rights and suggested she talk to an attorney,” the investigator’s report said.

A week later, she had hired a lawyer, and provided no more information to the police.

Many interviews later, investigators kept coming back to Thomas, who married Alfred Thomas right after graduating from Peterborough High School in 1938. She divorced him after he returned from World War II.

Among the many interview transcripts were statements from General Electric employees during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Thomas worked at the Somersworth plant and the same period she told Perron the infant deaths dated to.

Thomas was 28 when she started working there in 1948. She left in 1953 after refusing to take a physical.

Mysterious pregnancies

Walter Osgood, who supervised Thomas from June 11, 1952 to Sept. 11, 1953, told Somersworth Police Lt. Pat Boyle he remembered she was pregnant at least twice. On the second time, he questioned her about it, and she stated she had a “water tumor,” leaving work appearing pregnant then returning in a few days not appearing pregnant.

Other employees corroborated Osgood’s recollections. Some said they remembered Thomas being pregnant at least three and four times. Thomas did not have any children at home, one said.

According to the company’s internal “gossip magazine,” Thomas was absent three times between early 1951 and the middle of 1953, each for about a week, although her departures were characterized as a “brief illness,” and “short holiday.”

Boyle followed reports of Thomas’ boyfriends and rumors of love trysts, some of them with prominent men. Meanwhile, the remains had finished undergoing inspection in Maine, but autopsy results were not conclusive. Four of the babies were full term; one was 28 weeks developed.

The trunk was also sent to the FBI, where investigators hoped a new laser scanning technology would turn up fingerprints, but to no avail.

Boyle’s investigation led to the mysterious death of a nurse, Irene Copeland, on May 16, 1950. As he searched for more records on Copeland’s death, Boyle discovered most were missing, both in Dover and with the state.

A few weeks after a 1984 conversation with a retired police officer on the Copeland case, Boyle was told he had just two months to tie up the case, effectively pulling him off the trail.

“I don’t know if it was just local, or if it was connected to something bigger,” Boyle said. “With most cases, you start with a bunch of information. You get answers and get closer to solving them. With this case, there were always more questions than answers. There still are.”

Information from: Foster’s Daily Democrat,

AP-ES-04-06-08 1255EDT

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