A Place of Vanishing: Barbara Newhall Follett and the Woman in the Woods
By Daniel MillsApril 5, 2019
He is on Pulsifer Hill in Holderness, New Hampshire, following the Durgin Brook where it skirts the Mount Prospect trail, when he comes to a shallow depression beside the water. Birches grow along its edge, and there is a pine tree down in the hollow.
The bones are lying in the open. Unburied, awash in pine needles and thatched with tree-roots. An animal, Huckins thinks. Then he sees the shoes.
Elsie Whittemore was 25 in the summer of 1936, mother to a 16-month-old daughter and pregnant with another child. Her husband Edward was employed as an ironworker and construction foreman. His work frequently took him away from home, and the young family had moved in with Edward’s parents in Plymouth to save money.
Little is known of Elsie or of her life in Plymouth. Newspaper reports describe her as “highly esteemed” in her community but also “of high character and proud […] quiet, never divulging her feelings or giving expression if in trouble.”
And she was in trouble, of a kind. In late 1935 or early 1936 she became pregnant again. In the summer of 1936, Edward was in Fairlee, Vermont, working on a bridge project, leaving Elsie at home to take care of their daughter. During this time she was said to be “slightly depressed” on account of her pregnancy and had taken to walking alone in the evening.
On June 29, 1936, just after supper, Elsie complained of indigestion and informed her in-laws Carl and Pearl Whittemore that she was going for a walk to settle her stomach. This was not unusual. It was a windy night and Elsie wore a brown overcoat and brown beret over a light summer dress. She took nothing with her — and she never came back.
Her in-laws grew concerned. Edward came down from Fairlee and the family spent the night of the 29th and the 30th retracing Elsie’s usual routes through town. In the morning, they reported Elsie’s absence to the Plymouth police, who initiated a massive search under the direction of Chief Felix McCarthy. Authorities scoured the woods outside of town while volunteers sounded the Pemigewasset River to its bottom.
Sniffer dogs from Northampton, Massachusetts, followed Elsie’s scent as far as the corner of Avery and Highland Streets where they lost the trail, leading some to speculate that she had accepted a ride. The police, however, treated this possibility “lightly.” Apparently, they did not suspect foul play, though Elsie’s stepmother was adamant in her belief that Elsie had been abducted.
Missing flyers were distributed across northern New England. Elsie was described as “slight” and with a protruding tooth on her upper right jaw. A truck driver learned of her disappearance, probably from the posters, and contacted the Plymouth Police Department.
This truck driver was passing through Hill, New Hampshire, on the morning of June 30 when he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker roughly matching Elsie’s description. The young woman was carrying a loaf of bread under her arm. She told him she was en route to New York and had walked through the night. At her request, he dropped her off in Franklin, near the New Hampshire Orphans Home.
Investigators traveled to Franklin, where they learned that the young hitchhiker had spent the entirety of June 30 at Webster Rock, a local landmark. She was just sitting there, they were told, doing nothing. A detective showed Elsie’s photo to boys from the orphanage, but they were unable to identify her, and authorities would later announce that they had determined the young hitchhiker was not, in fact, Elsie. On what basis isn’t known.
After that, there is nothing. Elsie’s daughter was raised in Plymouth by her paternal grandparents while Edward waited 12 years to divorce his wife. The decree, issued June 30, 1948, cites her “absence of three years together” — and, really, after June 29, 1936, absence is all we know of her.
Absence — and silence. No sound in that lonesome hollow save the rustle of blowing pine needles, the rush of running water.
In subsequent days, the scene is investigated by officers of the New Hampshire State Police and the Grafton County Sheriff’s Office. The woman’s remains have been scattered — either by animals or by the brook — but searchers are able to salvage various bones, including the left tibia and right radius as well as the bones of two feet, still in their shoes.
The shoes in question are moccasin-style “sport” oxfords, fashioned from natural leather, with rubber Du-Flex soles. In addition to the pocketbook, a woman’s purse is recovered and found to contain the upper portions of a cash-purse as well as a metal glasses case with a pair of “pretty, well-preserved” horn-rimmed spectacles inside.
Other items emerge out of the pine needles. An empty medicine bottle. A metal flask with built-in cup. A fragment of wool overcoating. The remnants of a straw belt. The neck of a canvas duffel bag and a distinctive compact enameled with the image of a bird in red, gold, green, and black.
In November 1948, Carl and Pearl Whittemore are still living in Plymouth with Elsie’s daughter, now 14. The distance from Pulsifer Hill to Pleasant Street in Plymouth is around five miles. Sgt. Currier of the New Hampshire State Police calls on the Whittemores at home. He brings with him the glasses case, compact, pocketbook, and purse, but the Whittemores are unable to identify any of them as belonging to Elsie. In fact, they are certain that they are not Elsie’s because she did not wear glasses and did not take her pocketbook with her the night she disappeared.
Before leaving the Whittemore house, Sgt. Currier requests a fabric sample for comparison with the overcoating material recovered from the hollow. Pearl Whittemore produces a square of brown herringbone tweed said to be “similar or identical” to that of Elsie’s brown overcoat, which Sgt. Currier takes with him.
Meanwhile the investigation continues. In 1948, forensic science is in its infancy and the state of New Hampshire does not employ a medical examiner. Drs. Alan R. Moritz and Michael Luongo of the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine are contacted to oversee the removal of the bones from the scene. They are then taken to Harvard for examination.
Moritz’s approach is remarkably thorough. From a soils expert he learns that the process of soil formation from pine needles is believed to take around three years. The roots recovered from the fabric are sectioned and found to exhibit five years’ growth. Based on this evidence, Dr. Moritz concludes that the bones have lain beside the brook for a period of at least eight years — i.e., since 1940 or before, consistent with the timeframe of Elsie Whittemore’s disappearance.
He measures the woman’s left tibia at 36.8 centimeters in length and the right radius at 23.5 centimeters. Using “Krogman’s Table,” Moritz is able to estimate the height of the individual in question at around 62–63 inches, matching Elsie’s height.
Hairs recovered from the hollow range in length from two to eight inches, suggesting a long bob like that worn by Elsie. In color, these hairs are described as “light brown” like Elsie’s but with a distinctive “reddish sheen” under strong light.
A lone incisor tooth shows signs of unusual wear, possibly related to dental malocclusion, and is confirmed to belong to an individual of age 25 or older.
Moritz also compares the two fabric samples under infrared light. The Pulsifer Hill sample is badly degraded but reveals a pattern of dark and light threads similar to the chevron pattern of the Whittemore sample. They do not appear to be identical, however, and the Whittemore sample likewise contains an admixture of viscose rayon whereas the Pulsifer Hill sample does not. Moritz attributes this possible discrepancy to the acidifying action of decomposing pine needles.
Another discrepancy proves more difficult to reconcile. Elsie Whittemore was a petite woman with a shoe size of 5 or 5 ½ shoe while the moccasin recovered from the scene is measured by Moritz at size 7, roughly 23.5 centimeters. Moritz documents this discrepancy but offers no explanation. A January 1949 article in The New Hampshire Sunday News, published in collaboration with the Grafton County Prosecutor’s Office, speculates that a combination of root-action and weathering may have stretched the rubber Du-Flex sole.
Finally, Moritz turns his attention to the flask and medicine bottle. The flask holds only water, but upon analysis, the empty medicine bottle is found to contain traces of an unidentified barbiturate, leading Moritz to conclude that the Holderness female most likely ended her own life in the hollow via an overdose. In a table summarizing his findings, Moritz suggests that the dead woman is far more likely to be Elsie Whittemore than any other missing woman in New Hampshire, citing height and clothing similarities, among other factors.
He reports his findings to the Grafton County Prosecutor Robert Jones, who shares these conclusions with the press on December 1, 1948. At this point, Jones announces that he is discontinuing the investigation. He contends that Elsie Whittemore left her in-laws’ house on Pleasant Street on June 29, 1936, and crossed over the Pemigewasset River into Holderness, where she died in the woods on Pulsifer Hill, a likely suicide.
The case is closed.
But Elsie’s story hasn’t ended, has no ending.
In the years that followed the 1948 discovery, the Whittemore family continued to contest the county’s findings, citing discrepancies such as shoe size as well as their own failure to identify items recovered from the scene.
Perhaps they were trying to protect Elsie’s daughter. Or, perhaps, they were right.
Moritz’s identification of Elsie Whittemore was strongly informed by his height estimate of 62–63 inches from Krogman’s Table using standard regression formulae. These formulae, however, were derived from 19th-century cadaver samples and, for this reason, are not appropriate to use when calculating stature for 20th-century individuals as they tend to underestimate height, especially in females.
The landmark 1952 stature estimation study by Mildred Trotter and Goldine C. Gleser, which appeared within five years of Moritz’s examination, provides a more accurate series of regression formulae. If we assume that Dr. Moritz’s bone-length measurements are correct, then we can derive an estimated height range for the Holderness female of between 64.799 and 67.681 inches, with the most likely range falling between 65.1 and 66.0 inches. These estimates are consistent with a taller individual than Elsie Whittemore (62 inches) and likewise in accordance with the larger shoe size observed.
Prior to Moritz’s examination, the New Hampshire State Police provided him with a list of missing women from Vermont and New Hampshire along with relevant identifying information such as age and descriptions of clothing. Moritz then reviewed and discounted every one of these individuals apart from Elsie Whittemore, whom he was unable to rule out.
But there were other missing women whom Moritz did not consider, including one with a lifelong connection to Holderness and the Squam Lake region who was reported missing in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1939.
Barbara Newhall Follett was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in March 1914. Her parents were Helen and Wilson Follett, both writers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbara proved remarkably precocious. As a young girl, she studied birds and butterflies, invented a language, and taught herself to use a typewriter at the age of five. When she was just 12 years old, her first novel was published by Knopf to critical acclaim.
The House Without Windows (1927) details the adventures of a young girl named Eepersip who craves the freedom of the natural world. She runs away from home to explore the woods, the sea, and, finally, the mountains, until at the last she leaves behind even the constraints of her body to become “a spirit of nature.”
House is a strange and compelling work, as beguiling and poignant as a fairy tale by George MacDonald or Walter de la Mare, but possessed of a child’s raw imagination.
The book’s success coincided with the collapse of Barbara’s family life. In 1928, Wilson Follett abandoned his family and remarried. Barbara was devastated. In subsequent years, she accompanied her mother on an extended trip to the West Indies and the South Pacific and afterward to Los Angeles, where she was placed in the custody of a well-meaning family friend who sought to provide her with a stable home life following years of travel and turmoil.
It didn’t last. Probably it couldn’t.
Barbara ran away and was apprehended in San Francisco. The House Without Windows had made her into a minor celebrity and the newspapers were full of the scandal. Her parents, naturally, were horrified. Helen moved with Barbara to Washington, DC, and eventually to New York, where they worked together on an account of their experiences in the West Indies, published in 1932 under the title Magic Portholes.
Around this time Barbara wrote her final novel, which was never published. Lost Island is a distinctly melancholy adventure story inspired, principally, by her relationship with the sailor Edward Anderson, to whom the manuscript is dedicated. The novel follows the course of a love affair between a young woman and a sailor, from their first meeting aboard a schooner to their final parting in New York.
Much of Lost Island takes place on a lush Pacific island, where the couple find themselves marooned after a storm. They quickly become lovers, and the island becomes for them a kind of Eden. In time, they are rescued and return to New York, where their Edenic relationship collapses. In a climactic scene, the novel’s protagonist flees to the Maine woods and clings to a pine tree, holding fast to it as the world spins around her:
She held on and watched, and drifted more and more into the swinging illusion of the thing. She and the pine tree were falling through space together. It was a long fall, and an oddly companionable one. She laughed a little at that. Life was relentless, but there was nothing more it could take away from her.
If only that were true.
Barbara met Nickerson “Nick” Rogers in 1931. The two became friends, then lovers. In 1932, they hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Vermont as far as the Massachusetts border and not long afterward embarked together on an extended backpacking tour of Europe.
They were married in 1934. Barbara took her husband’s name, becoming Barbara Rogers, and settled down with Nick in the Boston area.
The sailor Edward Anderson was forgotten, left behind. His last surviving letter to Barbara is dated March 1935, not long after her marriage to Nick, but it isn’t known if she responded. Two years later, in 1937, Anderson was living in Seattle, recently married to a young woman named Willma Crayne. His mental state, however, was deteriorating, and in October of that year, while traveling by taxi through Yakima, he directed the cab driver to stop before taking off running into the woods. A search effort was launched and then abandoned after Willma received a telegram from Anderson originating in Chicago.
From Chicago, Anderson made his way to Boston, arriving in town on the Columbus Day Holiday, October 12. He booked a hotel room for a week in advance but only stayed a single night. His movements in Boston are not known. On October 16, he boarded the night boat for New York. At 8:30 that evening he accepted a final drink from the steward, then leapt unseen to his death in the waters of Buzzard Bay. A month later, his body washed up on Chapoquoit Island in Falmouth. His watch had stopped at 8:33 p.m.
Barbara, it seems, never learned of his death. Certainly she never wrote of it. In the fall of 1937 — perhaps even when Anderson was in Boston — Barbara was in New Hampshire with Nick in the region around Squam Lake encompassing Holderness, Plymouth, and surrounding towns. The area was one of great personal significance to Barbara. She had camped in Holderness on multiple occasions early in her relationship with Nick, including two weeks in 1932 prior to embarking on the Appalachian Trail, and another extended stay in 1934.
As Barbara writes:
Way back in October we were prowling around the region near Squam Lake in New Hampshire when our eyes lit covetously upon an old farmhouse on a hill — a farmhouse that was in quite reputable condition compared with most of the abandoned houses thereabouts. […] We were quick to cart up some old furniture from Nick’s family attic, and place same upon the floor of the farmhouse. Follett, over in Bradford Vermont, crashed through with the very important item of one kitchen range he was not using. So we set up house-keeping — week-ends. And, as easily as that, we had our much-longed-for, often-discussed Place in the Country. […] Of course the main idea in the back of our minds is a skiing headquarters. We haven’t yet been able to try it out as such, so far; but we shall be doing that soon now.
In the mid-1930s, Plymouth was among New England’s preeminent skiing destinations. Every weekend “ski trains” carried passengers from Boston and New York to the ski areas around Plymouth. These included Frontenac, Mount Pero, and Wendy’s Slope (all in Plymouth) as well as Huckins Hill in Holderness and the Mount Prospect trail.
Barbara never mentions the precise location of their “skiing headquarters,” but we know they continued to rent the property for at least one year, and perhaps longer, as surviving correspondence indicates they visited the house in the fall of 1938 to assess the damage from the Great New England Hurricane.
The next year, 1939, proved to be one of crisis. Barbara spent much of that summer in California, where she attended a dance workshop at Mills College. Nick did not accompany her. Later, he wrote to request a divorce. He had met another woman. Barbara was gutted — reminded, perhaps, of her parents’ own failed marriage. She cut short her trip and traveled home to Boston in an attempt to save her marriage.
It was no good. This, too, would be taken from her. The couple’s home life deteriorated, and Barbara began taking sleeping pills (or “dope,” as she calls it), which she obtained from a family friend. In a letter dated November 4, 1939, Barbara hints at suicidal thoughts.
On the surface things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong — just as wrong as they can be. I am trying — we are both trying. I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one; but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!
Barbara was in a tailspin. Matters came to a climax on Thursday, December 7, 1939. Early that evening after work, Barbara quarreled with Nick, then walked out of their Brookline apartment with $30 (around $500 in today’s money) and some shorthand notes from her work as a secretary.
Nick waited two weeks to report her as missing. Likely he was thinking of the 1929 incident in San Francisco because he specifically requested that there be no publicity — and there wasn’t. Five months later, in April 1940, Nick returned to the Brookline Police Department and asked them to publicize her case, but by then it was too late. No newspapers carried the story and Barbara Newhall Follett’s 1939 disappearance would not become widely known until the 1960s.
On April 22, 1940, Brookline PD dispatched the following teletype to eight states:
Brookline. 139 4-22-40 3:38PM McCracken
Missing from Brookline since Dec. 7, 1939, Barbara
Rogers, married, Age 26, 5-7, 125, fair complexion
black eyebrows, brown eyes, dark auburn hair worn in
a long bob, left shoulder slightly higher than right.
Occasionally wears horn rimmed glasses.
Like Elsie, Barbara was 25 when she vanished. She was around 67 inches in height — corresponding to revised stature estimates for the Holderness female — and wore horn-rimmed glasses like those that were recovered. In December 1939, she was depressed, perhaps contemplating suicide, and known to be using sleeping pills.
She was intimately familiar with the Squam Lake area and might have had access to a rented farmhouse nearby, assuming Nick and Barbara had continued to pay the rent after 1938. Regrettably, the precise location of the Rogers family's “skiing headquarters” isn’t known, but Barbara’s letters suffice to create a vivid portrait of an abandoned hilltop farmhouse “sitting idle” on the land of “a prosperous farmer” who lived nearby.
In a 1937 letter, she details how they “rounded him up [the landowner] and persuaded him to rent it to us [Barbara and Nick] on the incredible and absurd basis of $2.50 a month.” Later, she adds, “Don’t mention this around — it’s a secret (the amount, I mean).”
The White House, still standing today, is a small farmhouse on the northern side of Pulsifer Hill around half a mile from the Mount Prospect Trail. It was formerly owned by the White family but passed into the possession of the Pulsifer family in 1916.
The Pulsifers were an old and prosperous farming family who owned several farms and farmhouses on Pulsifer Hill. They had no need of the White House and rented it out to various families and individuals during the period of roughly 1920 to 1968.
In 1930, the White House was rented by one Milford Morgan at the rate of $5 per month, according to the 1930 federal census. The 1940 census does not include the White House, suggesting that it was vacant at that time. In 1940, Milford Morgan is given as the owner of a different farm in Holderness where he had been resident since at least 1935. Presumably, then, he gave up the lease of the White House at some point between 1930 and 1935, potentially leaving the house abandoned but in “reputable condition” and, indeed, “sitting idle” on the Pulsifers’ property.
In 1937, the patriarch of the family lived nearby, much as Barbara describes, and might have been persuaded to rent out the house at the lower rate of $2.50 per month — i.e., half the rate paid by Milford Morgan. As Morgan still lived locally, it is easy to understand why Nick and Barbara might have been discouraged from telling anyone about their “incredible and absurd” rent.
And the rent would remain low long after 1939. We know this because — bizarrely — Elsie Whittemore’s in-laws began renting the White House as a second home and weekend getaway either shortly before or shortly after the discovery of human remains on Pulsifer Hill.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Carl and Pearl Whittemore arranged for rental of the house at the rate of $25 per year (or $2.08 per month). They continued to rent the property for another 20 years until 1968, when the house was sold.
Elsie Whittemore’s sister-in-law Eunice K. Halfmann writes fondly of the White House in her 1985 memoir Clothespins and Calendars, recalling: “There was no plumbing or electricity. The sagging floors creaked and the windows were crooked and drafty, but it had a nice fireplace in the living room and an old cookstove in the kitchen near the table. […] The place had charm!”
Elsie is mentioned only briefly in Halfmann’s account:
During the days of the Great Depression my brother Edward was married to Elsie Lufkin. […] [M]oney was scarce and jobs were few, so PJW [Pearl Johnson Whittemore] and my father took them into their home while my brother worked for a construction company around the area. The poem “Patchwork,” which my mother [Pearl] wrote, tells the story of Elsie’s disappearance more gently than I can …
Our son’s wife went to walk
One windy night.
We cannot find her anywhere.
She left her little daughter in our care.
I made the baby’s ‘jamas longer yesterday.
We’ll warm her with our love as well.
It is unclear what connection, if any, Elsie Whittemore might have had to Pulsifer Hill, or what might have caused her to walk the four to five miles hard uphill from Plymouth to end her life beside the Durgin Brook. Nonetheless, investigators in 1948 were firm in their belief that this is what happened.
And their case is not without merit. While evidence such as shoe size and bone length would seem to argue against Elsie Whittemore as the Holderness female, there is a correspondence between the clothes in which Elsie disappeared and the evidence recovered from the hollow.
The night she vanished, Elsie was said to be wearing low oxford shoes, a dress, a brown overcoat, and a brown beret. The following items of fabric were found beside the brook: a scrap of wool top-coating, fragments of coarse cotton possibly from a dress, and the remnants of a machine-knit garment believed to be from a sweater, gloves, or a hat.
Elsie did not take her pocketbook with her when she left the Whittemore residence, but she might easily have secreted some of her belongings outside the house — perhaps in the duffle bag that was recovered at the scene. The Whittemores could not identify the purse or compact, but these could have been older items or new: Elsie’s in-laws need not have seen them before. Likewise, Elsie might even have “once wor[n] glasses,” as the 1949 New Hampshire Sunday News article attests, though without attribution.
Like Barbara, Elsie was known to be depressed at the time of her disappearance, and in the 1930s, barbiturates were prescribed for all manner of ailments, including depression.
Numerous newspaper reports inform us that Elsie was “soon to become a mother for the second time” or “soon again to become a mother.” From this we might infer she was in the latter stages of pregnancy, though no evidence of a fetus or infant was recovered from Pulsifer Hill.
But, of course, this doesn’t mean the evidence was never there since the body was slowly taken to pieces, carried off by scavengers or swept away by the Durgin Brook. Ultimately, we can only guess at what was lost. Eighty-two years since her vanishing and Elsie remains as un-divulging as in life, as inexpressive as the absence she left.
With Barbara, it is different: we have her writing, not only her novels but also her letters, which were preserved by her mother and donated to Columbia University. In one letter, dated June 16, 1930, Barbara reflects on her time aboard sailing ships in the Pacific:
I suppose it will be years before I go to sea again, and I may never even see that schooner. I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea-trip in her. […] Life was beautiful then. This doesn’t seem like the same era. Here the beauty consists of great stone towers against the sunset — sublime, symbolic, but away above the plane of us poor ants that hustle along the swarming streets at their feet, so engrossed in ourselves that we never even see a fellow-mortal, but bump into him with a bang, and then hurry and hurry on.
Oh, my God, my God! It makes one’s heart and soul suffer — it stabs them to the quick.
Oh, for wings, for wings! Wings!
Her anguish is palpable. So too her yearning for freedom — wings! — an escape like Eepersip’s.
Picture it this way.
On December 7, 1939, Barbara leaves her apartment in Brookline and makes her way by streetcar to Boston’s North Station, where she boards a B&M train. She reaches Plymouth around midnight, then crosses over the Pemigewasset River into Holderness. It is over four miles uphill to the crest of Pulsifer Hill, but Barbara is an avid outdoorswoman: the climb would pose no difficulty.
Perhaps she stops at their rented farmhouse. Or, again, perhaps not. She is making for the woods, the mountains. In the dead of night, with light snowfall in the air and no one about, Barbara passes into the trees off the Mount Prospect trail. She follows the brook until she finds a shallow depression, a place of vanishing. She swallows the overdose she has prepared and clings to the pine tree as the world drops away.
From Lost Island: “She looked straight up at the sky through surges of silver-green […] and then felt the swift sensation that she, her pine tree, and all the woods, all the world, were falling slantingly.”
She sinks into pine needles, into the black earth. Years pass, and animals scavenge her body. Tree roots pierce her clothes and shoes. She is scattered down the hillside and joined with it: a spirit of nature, a part of the hills. If this is her ending, then it is beautiful and terrible, but we may never know if this is, in fact, what happened.
Because the Holderness female vanished not once but twice. First in 1936 (or in 1939) and then again in 1948 after her remains were discovered.
Prosecutor Jones concluded his investigation on December 1, 1948. The case file was lost or discarded. For unknown reasons, a New Hampshire death record was never issued, either in Elsie’s name or in association with an unidentified person. The bones presumably were returned to the State Police Crime Laboratory, but it is unclear what happened next or if they were ever released for burial.
In the absence of a definitive identification, the bones might have remained in the custody of the State Police or the Grafton County Sheriff’s Office and/or Medical Referee. New Hampshire did not have a medical examiner’s office at the time, but files or records associated with the Crime Laboratory and/or the Medical Referee would likely have been turned over to the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) at its inception. However, as of 2018, New Hampshire’s OCME has no record of these remains in their storage files.
It is also possible that the bones were released for burial. A New Hampshire statute in effect in 1948 stipulates that unidentified or unclaimed remains should be returned for burial to the County Commissioner, the town’s Overseer of the Poor, or to Dartmouth College for research purposes. Unfortunately it would seem that this protocol was not followed, as inquiries in Holderness, Plymouth, Concord, and Hanover — as well as Grafton County — have failed to turn up any record of death or burial associated with these remains.
The bones, simply, are gone — and a woman’s name along with them. Whether she was Elsie or Barbara, she is likely lost to us forever, “invisible to all mortals,” as Barbara writes of Eepersip, “save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see.”
And, really, there is little enough to see. After 70 years, we have only photographs.
A woman’s bones, arranged upon a table. Tibia, fibula, radius. Ribs and phalanges. Two fragments of wool overcoating with similar patterns. A woman’s oxford shoe, size 7. A plain brown medicine bottle.
A photograph from the Manchester Union Leader dated November 29, 1948, shows a woman’s purse and pocketbook, glasses case and spectacles. The enamel compact is pictured as well, but its design cannot be made out.
Elsie Whittemore, aged 10 or 11. She smiles broadly, revealing a jutting canine tooth at upper right. A portrait of her in adulthood shows a petite woman with bobbed hair. Her lips are closed, perhaps to hide her teeth, and she is wearing light-colored shoes and a long dress, a straw belt.
Barbara Newhall Follett, aged 12. Hiking in the White Mountains or hunched over a typewriter. Aged 16 in low oxfords, her red-brown hair newly bobbed. Or 22 and smiling, wearing a blouse and straw belt. In her last known photograph, Barbara is 25 years old, her hair worn in a long bob. Her expression is imperious, even defiant. She does not look at the camera but rather beyond it, as though to a place we cannot see, and where we cannot follow.
The author extends his deepest thanks to Stefan Cooke and Laura Smith for their assistance in researching this article. He is likewise grateful to Richard Jantz, PhD, for his help with stature calculations. Finally, he acknowledges the assistance of the New Hampshire State Library, the New Hampshire State Archives, the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit, the Plymouth Historical Society, and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University.
Postscript - April 2021
On December 16, 1943, the following legal notice appeared in The Plymouth Record newspaper published in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Nickerson Rogers v. Barbara F. Rogers [...]
In the matter of a libel for divorce and other relief, which is now pending in the Superior Court of Grafton [...] It appearing that the address of the libelee is unknown it is ordered that the libelant give notice to the libelee to appear at the superior court next to be holden at Lebanon in said county of Grafton on the third Tuesday of January 1944 [...] by causing a true and attested copy of this citation or order of notice to be published in the Plymouth Record, a newspaper printed at Plymouth in said county of Grafton, it being a newspaper published at or nearest the last known place of residence of the libelee in this state […]
Nick hadn’t seen Barbara in over four years. Nobody had.
In 1941, he had attempted to divorce her on grounds of cruelty, but the judge dismissed the case. “Making Hubby Uneasy Not Cruelty, Says Judge,” The Boston Globe reported.
The next year, Nick accepted a position as a research fellow at the Dartmouth Eye Institute. He was subsequently appointed to the physics faculty in 1943 and took up lodgings in Norwich, Vermont, across the river from Hanover.
He was 35 years old, anxious to remarry. In December of that year, he filed for divorce in Grafton County, New Hampshire, on grounds of desertion. While Nick lived in Vermont during the academic year, he also maintained a residence in Campton, New Hampshire, near Plymouth.
Barbara’s whereabouts were unknown. For this reason, Nick arranged for a copy of the divorce libel to be sent to her mother in New York and paid for notices to run in The Bristol Enterprise as well as The Plymouth Record, “it being a newspaper published at or nearest the last known place of residence of the libelee in this state.”
In a letter dated December 13, 1943, Nick’s attorney justified his client’s decision to post in The Record and Enterprise as follows:
As I explained to you over the telephone, the libelee and libelant lived together briefly in the summertime at Campton prior to her disappearance, but their actual legal domicile at that time was in Massachusetts.
The notices ran for three weeks, as required, but nothing came of it. Barbara didn’t appear in court, and a divorce was granted to Nick in January 1944.
Six months later, he remarried. By that time, it seems, he had left Campton for good, since a wedding notice published in Vermont newspaper The Landmark describes Nick as “the bridegroom whose home was formerly in Campton [...]”
In 1945, Nick resigned from Dartmouth to take a teaching position at the Loomis School (now Loomis Chaffee School) near Hartford, Connecticut. He was living there in November 1948 when a woman’s remains were found in Holderness near the Campton town-line.
Many New England newspapers reported on the discovery as well as the brief investigation that followed, but The Hartford Courant, notably, did not. Possibly Nick never learned of the woman in the woods, “Holderness Female 1948,” or of her connection to Pulsifer Hill — a place, it transpires, that Nick knew well, if in another lifetime.
As mentioned previously, Barbara’s surviving letters confirm the Rogers began renting a farmhouse in the “region near Squam Lake in New Hampshire” in October 1937 and that they continued to rent this house as late as October 1938 when they visited to survey damage caused by the New England Hurricane. The Rogers v. Rogers divorce file definitively places the location of this rented farmhouse in Campton and indicates the couple lived there part-time in the years prior to Barbara’s disappearance, i.e. 1937–1939.
At that time, The Plymouth Record was a weekly paper serving the Pemigewasset Valley and Squam Lake region. In addition to legal notices, The Record published classifieds, advertisements, and news items such as births, deaths, and marriages, as well as the details of less newsworthy events, including illnesses, vacations, church services, and social gatherings.
Like other small newspapers of its time, The Record relied on the services of numerous local correspondents. In 1938, the newspaper’s Campton correspondent mentioned “Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas [sic] Rogers” on three occasions:
January 22, 1938: “Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Rogers spent the week end at their house on Pulsifer Hill and enjoyed the skiing.”
June 4, 1938: “Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Rogers spent the week end at their camp on Pulsifer Hill.”
July 9, 1938: “Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are spending their vacation in ‘The White House’ on Pulsifer Hill.”
There is no mention of “Mr. and Mrs. Rogers” during 1939. However, a final item dated June 6, 1940, suggests Nick had continued to rent the so-called “White House” as late as the summer of 1940, implying Barbara would have had access to the house at the time of her disappearance in December 1939.
June 6, 1940: “Mr. Rogers and family from Cambridge, Mass. spent the week end in their cottage on Pulsifer Hill.”
In conjunction with the divorce file, these clippings appear to confirm Nick and Barbara’s second home was indeed on Pulsifer Hill. This places Barbara a little more than a half-mile from the hollow on Durgin Brook, where in 1948, Harold Huckins happened across the remains of a young woman while hunting deer at dusk.
Daniel Mills is the author of the novels Moriah (2017) and Revenants (2011) and of the upcoming collection Among the Lilies (2020). He lives in Vermont.
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