In the years after the Civil War, nothing beat taking a ride with one’s sweetheart along the tree-lined Switzerland Road beside the Androscoggin River just beyond Barker’s Mill.

In near seclusion, lovers old and young could savor the breathtaking drive along the packed dirt track up to the North Turner bridge and back. Someone once referred to it as open space for Lewiston’s laborers.

Legendary Maine journalist Arthur Gray Staples looked back in his later years with misty joy at memories of climbing into a Goddard buggy on a warm autumn day to roll along the road and enjoy the views of the leafy overhang mirrored in the placid waters.

Back then, nowhere in the entire region seemed more romantic.

Then came a murder that forever shrouded the sweetness of the journey.

This is the story of what happened to darken that drive and examine how it transfixed first the community and then the entire nation.


Almost from the day that news coverage of the killing began in the Lewiston Evening Journal, the tale defined its era and became the biggest story in the history of the venerable daily that once billed itself, with some justice, as “The Great American Family Newspaper.”

Relying heavily on the Journal’s coverage, but fleshed out with a wide array of other sources, this is such a long account of what transpired that we’re spreading it out to run in pieces over many weeks, like an old-fashioned serial, until the words finally come to an end and the entire story is told.

Some of the best stories, as Staples once pointed out, can be found “in quiet places, along crimson roads.”

So let’s go back in time to a crisp Wednesday in mid-October of 1873, beside a small clump of pine trees along the most romantic drive in Lewiston, a mile away from anyone’s home.

That is the very spot where woodcutter John Small stumbled across the headless corpse of a small woman lying on her back.

On her blanched bones, she wore a decaying black silk dress and laced boots.


It marked the beginning moment of what became the most spectacular murder trial of its day, followed closely by much of the nation and all but the most isolated Mainers.

The Journal immediately called Small’s find a ghastly discovery that left the town feeling “a weird sense of insecurity.”

“A sort of supernatural fear creeps over people,” it noted. “The possibilities are so vague and so endless that the imagination is restless — shadow is more terrible than substance.”

Found in a wild spot near the Switzerland Road, the paper said the skeleton created a mystery “more heart-sickening than the worst certainty.”

Despite the absence of a single lab test or the lifting of a fingerprint, crime-fighting advances not yet available, authorities managed to solve the city’s first-ever murder case and bring an accused killer to justice in little more than four months.

The man who prosecuted the case, Maine Attorney General Harris Merrill Plaisted, said afterward that “probably no capital trial in this country ever excited a more fascinating and weird interest” than the one he argued for 10 days in an Auburn courtroom during the winter of 1874.


“All cases of murder are, more or less, mysterious,” Plaisted wrote in an account of the case, “but this seemed to be all mystery and at once became known as THE MYSTERY OF THE HEADLESS SKELETON.”

“Who was she? When did she come to her death? How? Was she murdered? Who was the perpetrator? What was the motive? were the questions to be solved — and were solved by the trial.”

When Plaisted, who later became governor, wrote those words, though, some of the questions were not yet answered.

Even the most basic one — what happened to leave a woman lying dead in the woods? — remained uncertain for at least another decade following the closely watched trial at Auburn’s imposing brick and stone courthouse.

After all, a trial focuses on the facts that authorities can find and fairly bring to a jury. It’s a search for truth, yes, but within the parameters of the law, where some of what’s known or suspected must, for the sake of fairness, remain on the shelf.

There is always much more that could be brought out, much of it detailed in Journal stories before, during and after the trial. Other facts are lodged in ancient paperwork that captures in dry documents some of the sorrows and wonders that are also part of the story.

Consider this an invitation to follow along in the weeks ahead as the Sun Journal explores the mystery surrounding the headless skeleton in greater detail than ever before.

Though it all began more than 150 years ago, it remains, as the Journal put it in 1911, “one of the most singular, dramatic and sensational cases ever known in the annals of law.”

This is the first chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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