Woodcutter John Small headed out with his cart on Oct. 15, 1873, to a little lot he had purchased alongside Lewiston’s Switzerland Road so he could tote home some timber left there the previous winter.

Long seen as a favorite drive for area residents, the road offered “glimpses of scenery of surpassing beauty” along the banks of the Androscoggin River, just upstream from a picturesque old mill, according to The New England Magazine.

The exact location is now under water, a consequence of the construction of the Deer Rips dam nearly 120 years ago.

Until Small cut down the trees, the spot had been in the middle of a thicket, surrounded by evergreens near a long farm driveway that led to Hiram Loring’s house a mile away. Small said a carriage could easily have used the little byway, winter or summer.

Small couldn’t quite drive to the location where he’d left the wood so he parked the cart nearby, walked over to the pile he’d left and began tossing the pieces he’d cut toward the path.

Then he noticed something unusual.


“I discovered some little spots” in two straight lines beneath leaves and pine boughs on the ground below.

They seemed like tiny buttons, he thought, so he took a closer look.

When he did, Small discovered a bit of black silk cloth between the two lines on the ground.

Peering more closely, he noticed button holes between the two rows below.

“I then looked down, and, under the leaves, saw the remains of an entire human being, with the exception of the head,” he recounted.

Small said he didn’t touch the mostly hidden remains. Instead, he rushed to the main road, about 60 yards away, and called for passersby to have a look as well. Nobody disturbed the bones.


Rendering of the murder site included in Maine Attorney General Harris Plaisted’s 1875 book about the case.

Small quickly sent someone to fetch the coroner, Ham Brooks. City Marshal H.H. Richardson, who owned a paint shop at Bates and Main streets, arrived about 45 minutes before Brooks. But he waited for instructions before touching anything.

Brooks drove up on the river road, about a mile and a half past Barker’s Mills, before coming to a stop where a small crowd had gathered. He explored the site further, determining that any flesh on the bones had already vanished. He also found pieces of what he thought was a hoop skirt. The high-heeled boots on the skeleton’s feet were laced. They appeared little worn.

Lewiston City Coroner Ham Brooks Lewiston Evening Journal

Studying the scene, observers quickly discerned that by the standards of the day, the woman had been well-dressed, with beads and silk lace trimming her sleeves down to her wrists and extending over her shoulders to cover down to her waist. Also present were large buttons, each almost an inch and a half in diameter, covered with silk and an oval center.

“No medicinal gum could glue those bones together and no medicine man could put flesh on them,” The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial floridly declared of the scene. “The whispering air would not divulge the secret of how they came there, but the moaning pines seemed to bewail a murder.”

After eyeballing the ground thoroughly, Brooks announced, “We will proceed to take the remains up.”

Brooks and Richardson, began scooping up the bones, one by one. They bound them up in a big cloth the coroner had brought along.


Richardson, standing where the head would have been had it not vanished, started picking up the bones from the top of her body while the coroner started with her feet — and made faster progress. Brooks wound up gathering most of what could be found.

As Small watched, he noted the skeleton’s arms lay nearly straight, within four or five inches of the body, with her feet pointing to the southwest, about 10 inches apart.

Richardson picked up a cloth button or two and an unidentified woman handed him another. He also collected many beads that formed a circle of sorts on the ground “well up around the shoulders,” though some others also turned up further down when the marshal opened the tattered dress to reach more bones.

He said he also unearthed the remnants of a hoop skirt, though it consisted of little more than the tin clasps that held its springs together. Hoop skirts, popular at the time, helped hold dresses in a fashionable shape.

Richardson said he scooped up the clothing remnants, beads and bones “except one or two,” then he carried them in his carriage back to the city building at Park and Pine streets. He put them in a prisoner’s cell, where a deputy marshal saw to it that the bones were kept under lock and key.

“That was the last I saw of them that day,” he recalled.


But that’s not how Brooks remembered it.

On his deathbed in 1898, he told a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter that he’d brought the bones back and stored them that night in the Journal’s building.

Later, he said, he locked them in “the darkest cell at the police station” in the basement of the city building. He said he told the officer in charge not to put anyone in the cell.

Nobody could find the head at the scene, despite much searching all around in the woods.

Clipping of the Lewiston Evening Journal on Oct. 16, 1873.

The Journal, with the skeleton apparently somewhere in its own newsroom, managed to get a short piece about the discovery in its edition the next day, under the small-print headline “Skeleton of a Woman Found.”

“The headless skeleton of a woman was found Wednesday in this city, in the woods, three miles upriver. The remains of a black silk dress, serge boots and a hoop skirt were all the clothing that could be found. There is yet no clue to the mystery.”

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

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