By Jim Ignasher
Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2010
Few things would be more unnerving to the average homeowner than to be digging in one’s own yard and happen upon human remains. Fortunately such discoveries are rare, but at least one case occurred in Smithfield on the evening of April 11, 1977, when a man digging in his yard literally unearthed a mystery that has yet to be solved.
The man, who will remain anonymous to protect his privacy, had been removing a tree stump in order to widen his driveway when he uncovered a human skull. Smithfield police were called to the scene, and Patrolman John Whitecross later recorded in his report, “The skull had a full set of teeth and appeared to be that of a human. It was found approximately 3-4’ down in the ground and 20’ from the west corner of the garage.”
It was apparent by the skull’s brown coloration that it was old. Of course the obvious questions were, who did it belong to, and how did it get there? Had the homeowner uncovered an unmarked grave, or were the bones connected to something more sinister?
Smithfield police detectives Brian Burke and Joe Parenteau were assigned the case. There were no known cemeteries in the area, and further examination of the site showed no evidence of wood fragments, screws, or any other indications that the bones had been buried in a coffin.
The state Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted, but the detectives were informed that a forensic investigator could not respond to Smithfield until the following day.
The next morning Burke and Parenteau returned to the site, and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt where the skull had been found. After a few minutes they had uncovered several more bones which led them to believe that an entire skeleton was buried there. The depth at which the bones had been found left no doubt that they had been deliberately buried, and not simply covered by erosion.
Shortly before noon a forensic investigator arrived, and after examination of the bones, determined they were between 40 to 100 years old. If the police were dealing with a murder, it was definitely an old one. The investigator said he would send two technicians to conduct a more through excavation. In modern terminology, this would be known as a “forensic excavation”, where the dirt would be sifted through a screen to be sure that no evidence such as small bone fragments, jewelry, or even a bullet was missed. However, this procedure was never carried out, for apparently the technicians felt further digging was unnecessary. According to the official police report, the two technicians arrived at 1:30 p.m. and only wanted to collect the bones that had already been unearthed by the detectives. The bones were taken to Providence for further examination and testing.
In the meantime, Smithfield police continued with their investigation. Town records made no mention of any cemeteries in the area, and research of birth and death records of all previous property owners going back more than one hundred years proved fruitless.
Detective Burke interviewed long-time residents of the area. One man remembered hearing from his grandfather that a “sick house” had once been located near where the bones were found. The sick house was where people with communicable diseases such as Small Pox were brought and kept in isolation during the 19th Century to prevent epidemics. Could the bones be that of someone who died at the so-called sick house?
Police interviewed two women in their 80s who had lived in Greenville all their lives, but neither could remember any un-solved murders or missing person cases.
One elderly gentleman recalled a legend about a Native American princess who had supposedly once lived in the area. Details were hazy, but it seemed she had wandered off sometime in the mid 1800s and was never heard from again; but was it fact, or simply a folktale?
As one might expect, the case attracted the attention of the media, but there wasn’t much to report. On April 13, 1977, The Evening Bulletin reported that the Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings showed the bones to be of a young woman, buried, “more than 40 years ago, but not longer than 75 years ago.” It was also reported that investigators were still awaiting other test results.
Two days later, Detective Burke received a brief preliminary report from the Medical Examiner’s office that stated the bones appeared to belong to one person; “…buried for over 50 years with no evidence of foreign material (such as jewelry or bullets, etc.) and no evidence of ante mortem trauma.” (“Ante mortem” means, before death.) The report stated additional tests were in progress and could take several weeks.
On June 16, 1977, the Providence Journal reported that an orthopedic surgeon and anthropologist would study the remains for additional clues. It was further stated that the bones, “were buried no more than 50 years ago”, but their exact age was unknown. The article concluded with one of the investigators explaining that the case was “lagging because more recent deaths were given priority”.
Three days later, a small news item appeared in The Evening Bulletin, under the headline, “Bones May Have Been Teenager”, which stated that according to the chief medical examiner, the bones, “may have been those of a teenage girl who died of tuberculosis 50 to 100 years ago.” (Discrepancies between the various news reports were never explained.)
The medical examiner’s autopsy report does not offer much more in the way of clues. The report stated it was, “highly probable” the remains belonged to a white female, between 12 and 16 years old, who stood approximately 4’10” inches tall. The report went on to state that the person was, “probably in good health”, and that x-rays didn’t show any signs of disease, or signs of injury which would indicate foul play. Unfortunately, the report does not narrow down the time of death or state a cause.
So, who was this young girl, and how did she come to be buried where her remains were found? The autopsy report would seem to indicate that it’s unlikely she died at the “sick house”. It also seems unlikely that she was a Native American since the autopsy report also states, “The teeth do not exhibit distinctive racial traits.”, and the race is classified as “Caucasoid”. (White)
The Native American princess legend may have its origins in an actual incident that occurred in the Tarklin section of Burrillville in 1831. In that case, researched by former Smithfield resident Thomas D’Agostino, a woman named Hannah Frank, who was a Native American, but not a princess, was murdered by her two brothers who were opposed to her upcoming marriage to a Vermont peddler.
Thus, the simple act of removing a tree stump uncovered a mystery that remains unsolved. Although no evidence of a crime was discovered, that doesn’t prove one wasn’t committed because a forensic excavation was never conducted. However, after all these years the question seems moot, for if a murder was committed, those responsible would surely have gone on to their final judgment by now.
The story of this young girl may never be known. Who was she? How did she die? Perhaps the answers still lie buried with the rest of her bones under a driveway on Putnam Pike.