A detail of a bird’s-eye view image of Sanford from 1889 shows Woodlawn Cemetery, right front. Courtesy of Harland Eastman/Sanford-Springvale Historical Society

Her name was Edith Patten.

She was born in 1867, the daughter of Ferdinand W. Patten and his first wife, Lois. She lived in Fairfield as a toddler and was working as a live-in housekeeper in Lewiston by the time she was 13.

At some point, Edith Patten moved to Springvale, where she died of consumption in 1891 at the age of 24. She was, according to the newspaper notice published after her death, “beloved by a wide circle of friends, who sincerely mourn her untimely death.”

She was buried in a coffin with a glass window and nickel-plated handles in Sanford’s Woodlawn Cemetery. But when dozens of others buried there were relocated in 1931 to make way for a school playground, she was somehow left behind and her name was lost to history, until now.

Her unmarked remains went unnoticed until 2017 when they were unearthed during the construction of a new gas station. For the past six years, historian Paul Auger and others in the city have worked to identify the person who they initially believed to be a young girl based on the size of the bones – and give her back her name.

Edith Patten’s name was discovered with help from the DNA Doe Project, which announced the findings Wednesday in Sanford, just a few blocks from where she was laid to rest 132 years ago. The case was one of the oldest for the California-based nonprofit that uses genetic genealogy to identify unidentified remains.


The end of the long identification process came as a relief to Auger.

“This woman was not very well-documented in history. She was kind of a footnote and didn’t even have a known burial place,” he said. “Now we’ve restored her identity.”


The town began moving graves out of Woodlawn Cemetery around 1900 to make space for the Emerson School.

At a press conference, Jennifer Randolph from the DNA Doe Project joins Paul Auger, who has been a champion for the case of Edith Patten since bones were unearthed in 2017. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Some graves remained in a side lot for years. More were moved in the 1930s to make space for a playground. Auger has heard stories of students using a gravestone as a first base during schoolyard baseball games.

Many gravesites in that era were not marked and did not have headstones, so it was difficult to know where people were buried.


When the coffin was found, construction ceased immediately and a delicate, hand excavation process began.

Paul Auger, a historian and teacher from Sanford, at the excavation site on Main Street where the remains were found in 2017. Now identified through forensic genealogy as Edith Patten, she died of consumption in 1891. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Auger, his son Andrew, City Manager Steven Buck and public works foreman Peter Smith sifted through the dirt one handful at a time, pulling out shards of glass, pieces of metal and bones caked in dirt and encased in root hairs. A large root from a nearby oak tree had grown around the coffin, perfectly outlining three sides of the grave. They documented each bone and artifact, including two keys and a scrap of gingham fabric.


City officials knew from the beginning that they did not want to rebury the remains without first trying to identify them. The city council agreed to use some proceeds from the sale of the Emerson School to pay for DNA tests.

Auger recruited a small group of students to help. They researched the artifacts and used soft-bristled toothbrushes, chopsticks and water to remove dirt and root hairs, then identified each bone, laying them out on an examination table to form the skeleton at Carl Heald & Black Funeral Home.

Braces from the coffin were laid out in Paul Auger’s social studies classroom at Sanford High School where his students helped to unravel the mystery surrounding the remains of a woman that were unearthed during the construction of a new gas station. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The pelvis was missing, but the teeth would provide enough DNA to uncover answers to some of the questions on everyone’s mind.


Initial DNA tests indicated the remains belonged to a woman. Further testing through Parabon Nanolabs in Virginia opened up the search to forensic genetic genealogy, a relatively new and rapidly developing practice that has become increasingly common in criminal investigations and older unidentified persons cases. It uses DNA samples to develop a genetic profile and upload it to public databases.

Last spring, Auger contacted the DNA Doe Project and Woodlawn Cemetery Jane Doe’s profile was uploaded to the GEDmatch database. There were a few thousand matches.

Paul Auger explains some of the coffin artifacts to students, from left, Shealyn Kane, Vanessa Hodge and Sydney Littlefield in his classroom at Sanford High School in 2017. The students helped to unravel the mystery surrounding the remains of a woman found at a construction site in 2017. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But among them were three key people: a paternal half-great-great niece, a paternal half-great-great nephew and a maternal third cousin three times removed. Those clues led researchers to the daughters of Ferdinand and Lois Patten, said Jennifer Randolph of the DNA Doe Project. 

The 1870 Census showed Ferdinand and Lois Patten lived in Fairfield, in Somerset County, with 3-year-old Edith and 2-month-old Elfreda.

By the 1880 Census, Edith Patten was working as a live-in housekeeper in Lewiston, where her father was employed at a sawmill. It’s unclear where the rest of the family was living, but court records show Lois Patten and Ferdinand Patten divorced that year after alleged adultery.

Ferdinand Patten remarried twice. He and his third wife, Agnes, had three sons and a daughter named Edith May, which Randolph said could have been a tribute to her older half-sister.


But researchers found no further clues about Edith Patten’s life until they discovered her death announcement in the Biddeford Daily Journal in 1891. She died of consumption, or tuberculosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and was a leading cause of death – killing one in seven people – in the United States in the 1800s.

“It was a bit of a surprise how little we could get about her,” Auger said. “She was just young enough she didn’t have much of a paper trail and then she disappeared.”

Paul Auger holds a nail and a bracket from a grave discovered at the grave site on Main Street in 2017. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It is unlikely it will ever be known what brought her to the manufacturing area of Springvale. It’s possible she worked in a shoe shop, a common job at the time for women her age, Auger said.

Now that she has been identified, the city will decide where to inter her remains, this time with a marker bearing her name. Maybe, Auger said, she’ll be buried near her family at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

“It seems like they’d all want to be together if they could,” he said.

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