Name That Skeleton!

The Historical Society of Easton presents part of its annual tribute to Halloween!

This front-page headline is from the morning edition of Bridgeport Evening Farmer, Thursday February 25, 1909 – Sometimes paraphrasing just doesn’t do an article justice, so here it is, in its entirety, exactly as it was originally printed – including more than a few disturbing grammatical and editing errors:

The skeleton of a woman, shreds of flesh desiccated by long exposure to the air clinging to it, was discovered in a field on the Adams Road (the Andrews farm was actually located on North Park Ave near Everett Road, nearly a mile north of the Adams Road intersection), in Easton, last night, by boys. The remains had evidently been disturbed by wild animals. But the clothing was still about the grisly exhibit and the frame-work was embedded in the grass in a way to indicate either that death had overtaken the woman as she lay at rest or else if the body had been brought to the spot, it had been carefully composed in the attitude of a person sleeping.                 

The people of Easton are much excited about the discovery and two theories prevail, which are in conflict with each other in the minds of the many who have now visited the scene.                                                              

The first theory is that the skeleton is that of a friendless woman, who exhausted and penniless found herself on the highway at this point and lay down to rest or die.                                                                                     

This theory was supported by Elmer S. Andrews, the owner of the farm upon which the remains were discovered.                                                

Mr. Andrews remembers that about four years ago a very old woman applied for lodging and for food. The family was then under quarantine, scarlet fever being present in the home, so it was necessary to deny the petition for lodging. But Mrs. Andrews refreshed the wayfarer with food and drink, and the visitor went on her way, after profusely thanking her hosts.     But after thinking the matter over Mr. Andrews can not reach the conclusion that the clothing upon the skeleton was like the clothing worn by the visitor four years back. It appears to him also, as he said to the Farmer, this afternoon, that the several members of the skeleton are more coherent than they would be after an exposure of four years.                                                  

As no person is missing from Easton, or has mysteriously disappeared, the second theory falls back upon the idea that a murder has been committed as in the Rose Ambler case, and the body disposed of by the expedient of throwing it over the fence of Mr. Andrews’ field from a vehicle.                        

The discovery was made last night by Johnnie Logan, the 14 year old son of Homer Logan, who with a party of boy companions was playing in the neighborhood. He ran from the spot horrified, to tell some older men whom they knew of the sight they had seen.                                                               

Their story was ridiculed by those to whom they told it, until it reached Frank Strong, who is employed by Charles Gilbert, whose farm is near the Adams Road about a mile from the Andrews Homestead.                   

Andrews (reporter actually meant Strong) accompanied the boys to the spot described to him and found the story true. He immediately informed Mr. Gilbert who informed Mr. Andrews. They with others made as careful an examination of the skeleton and the place where it lay, as the law permits.             

Said Mr. Andrews this afternoon, “The limbs were stretched straight out like someone who had lain down to rest. The shoes and stockings were on the feet, the stockings were pulled up. The clothing was huddled. I did not examine that enough to give an accurate description of it. The waist, however, was a handsome black silk. The other garments left an impression on my mind that they are coarser.                                                                               

“The feet were small. The shoes were fine. The rubbers, which were pulled over the shoes, were all in good condition, excepting that one of them was worn through the sole. There was a black straw hat. It had been torn to pieces in some way. It was shapeless. Fragments of what had been trimming on the hat were scattered about.                                                             

“The skull had become separated from the trunk and lay about three feet away. When I saw it there were no teeth in the upper jaw. The boys told me, however, that when they first saw it there were teeth in the lower jaw. I do not know whether the teeth will drop from the jaw after death.”                                     

In the matter of the probability that the skeleton is that of the old woman who visited his house, Mr. Andrews said: “It is true that some four years ago in March, or perhaps in April, along about dusk, an old lady came to us to ask for lodging. She was hungry and we gave her food. She went her way and that was the last we saw of her. I cannot recollect that the clothing she wore corresponds with the clothing on the skeleton. Neither do I remember, at this time, the black straw hat and the black silk waist.”         

Mr. Gilbert made a statement in which he said the remains presented an appearance to his mind of having been clawed over by wild beasts. He said that some of the smaller bones lay as far away from the main portion of the skeleton as 20 feet.                                                                                  

This morning Coroner Doton was notified of the finding of the body. He communicated the news to Medical Examiner Downs, who is expected in Easton momentarily.

If you notice some inconsistencies in this tale, you certainly wouldn’t be alone, but this somewhat haphazard style of reporting appeared to be the norm during the early part of 20th century. Many papers went to press every twelve hours – morning and evening editions were common and quite often the mistakes and inconsistencies found in an early edition were corrected by the time the paper went to press for the following one. Or not.

Apparently, no one in the editorial room thought it odd that a body could have been “embedded in the grass in a way to indicate either that death had overtaken the woman as she lay at rest or else if the body had been brought to the spot, it had been carefully composed in the attitude of a person sleeping” in one paragraph and then appear to have been  “disposed of by the expedient of throwing it over the fence of Mr. Andrews’ field from a vehicle” just a few paragraphs later.                        

This story would develop into a series of interesting conjectures over the ensuing days and weeks, each a bit stranger than the last.

Easily worth the penny price for the entertainment value alone!

On the following day, Friday, February 26, 1909, the very same newspaper ran another front-page story that appeared to have identified the remains found in Easton as those of Mary Chapman (whose name would suddenly change to Clara towards the end of the very first paragraph– but who had the time to proofread an article before the next edition went to press?). Another name change saw Medical Examiner Downs suddenly become Medical Examiner Dunham – well, they both started with the letter “D”, so no big deal there.

In 1909, Easton had no police force. Crimes there would have been investigated by the office of County Sheriff with some assistance from the Bridgeport Police Department. In Bridgeport, the police department was led by Chief Eugene Birmingham whose official title was that of superintendent. The office of superintendent of police had been inaugurated in August of 1895 with then Captain Birmingham being appointed to the post

Apparently, Birmingham had a memory like that of the proverbial elephant. In less than 24 hours, he came to the conclusion that the skeletal remains discovered in Easton had to belong to Mary/Clara Chapman. Birmingham recalled that Mary/Clara had visited him in his office three years prior to seek his advice. Once a beautiful young woman, Birmingham claimed she was small of stature, had greatly aged, lost most of her front teeth, was “dressed in a black waist that day,” and that he hadn’t seen her since. That must have been enough to convince the editors at the Bridgeport Evening Farmer that the skeleton was that of Mary/Clara, because the front page on the next day’s evening edition read, “Easton Skeleton May be That of Mary Chapman…”

Perhaps it never occurred to anyone connected with this case that many “aged women” were small in stature, had gray hair, and dressed in black. It was an absolute tradition for widows to dress in black from the time their dear husband passed away until they followed suit and travelled to the great beyond themselves. And what about those missing teeth? Any medical examiner who had ever attended university should have been able to explain that teeth often fall away from the skull as the gums decay and recede. The previously reported fact that “The remains had evidently been disturbed by wild animals.” and “the remains presented an appearance of having been clawed over by wild beasts,” might also have had something to do with the missing teeth.

The story reported on the 26th also mentioned Mary/Clara’s “vividly romantic past”. Apparently, she had been recruited by the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate the Bridgeport jail in an effort to “worm her way into the confidence” of several “famous crooks” who had been arrested for allegedly robbing a train containing a safe that belonged to the Adams Express Company that was then tossed alongside the tracks somewhere between Stamford and Bridgeport and subsequently buried nearby. After her mission was completed, she remained in the city, living in the Tenderloin district, and was later “arrested for such offenses that women of that district usually commit.” There are several juicy choices here, so take your pick.

After serving a thirty-day stint in the city jail in 1875, Mary/Clara somehow “got religion” and moved to New York in 1880, not to be seen again in Bridgeport until her sudden visit to the steel-trap minded Superintendent Birmingham in 1906.

Mary/Clara was also reported to have been married to Joseph Chapman, a man “who attained unpleasant international fame” and was then imprisoned in a Turkish jail. “Unpleasant international fame” – sounds so intriguing. Again, reader’s choice, so take your pick. Cary Grant comes to mind as cat burglar/ jewel thief John Robie in “To Catch a Thief.” But feel free to pick your own, as obviously that is what the cracker-jack Evening Farmer reporter had in mind.

By April 21, 1909, the story was again metamorphizing into another wild theory. By then, the immediacy of the mystery was waning, as it was relegated to page 5. Mary/Clara Chapman was then only referred to as Clara Chapman. Her husband was then identified as a bank robber who had been caught, sentenced, and died in France where he had been imprisoned. Turkey being in such close proximity to France – only about 2,000 miles, it’s understandable how the story from sixty days earlier could have gotten some – if not all – of the facts confused.

Clara was then being described as having been a large woman. So much for being small of stature. It had been two months since that skeleton had been discovered on Elmer Andrews’ Easton farm and the police were no closer to determining the dead woman’s true identity than they had been on day one. Birmingham was still convinced it was Clara, but others were now less certain.

Desperation was setting in. The Evening Farmer was eager to put a name to Easton’s mysterious skeleton. Apparently, just about any name.

So, a new name came into play. She was Maggie McGuire, a mysterious woman whose home, friends and origins were unknown to anyone on the Bridgeport police force. She reportedly never answered a question unless obliged to do so. She was apparently “well known” only in that nobody knew anything significant about her. She was a total enigma. Because she was slight of build, known to dress in black, and she hadn’t been seen for several years, she became the latest and greatest candidate to become the persona behind the Easton skeleton, so her name was added to the list and the headline read in part, “Police say if skeleton is not Clara Chapman’s it must be Maggie M’Guire’s.” Why not? They had to know by then they couldn’t verify that assumption one way or the other either.

That was the final mention of Easton’s mysterious skeleton in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer, or any other newspaper for that matter. Neither can we find any further mention of Clara Chapman or Maggie McGuire. What was a mystery then remains a mystery today.

Easton’s mystery skeleton was buried in a pauper’s grave in either Center or Union Cemetery that would have only been marked with a wooden cross that is long gone today. Halloween is right around the corner, so be on the lookout for the ghost of a toothless little old lady wearing a black waist. If you do see her, please ask her what her name is. Inquiring minds want to know!

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