Paul Auger was driving down Main Street in Sanford in 2017 when he saw an unusual sight: a group of police officers and construction workers huddled around a hole in the ground where a new Cumberland Farms was being built.

He knew immediately what had happened.

Workers digging at the construction site unearthed skeletal remains and pieces of a Victorian-era coffin, touching off a long process to identify the child who had been buried in Woodlawn Cemetery some time in the latter part of the 19th century and then left behind when the cemetery was relocated to make way for a school.

Five years later, Auger and the city of Sanford are close to finally having answers about the child whose name and life was at risk of being lost to time. The DNA Doe Project, a California-based nonprofit that identifies Jane and John Does using investigative genetic genealogy, has taken on the Sanford case and expects to provide more information about the child’s identity within the next few months.

“This was a person that was probably loved by many people and not having a name when we could have a name is, to me, just unacceptable,” said Auger, a historian and history teacher at Sanford High School who removed the remains after they were found, and worked with students to try to identify the child.

Paul Auger, a historian and teacher from Sanford, stands in a hole at a construction site on Main Street where the remains of a Victorian-era child were found when crews were building a Cumberland Farms store in 2017. Auger approached the DNA Doe Project this spring for help identifying the remains and DNA specialists, have determined the girl likely had strong Scottish ancestry.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The child’s remains were found on May 4, 2017, on a piece of land across the street from the Goodall Mansion. The land had once been owned by Thomas Goodall, who founded the Goodall Mills in the 1860s, and later became the Woodlawn Cemetery. Local historians say it is not known exactly when it was founded, but a map of Sanford from 1889 shows the property being used as a cemetery.


The town began moving graves out of the cemetery around 1900 to make space for the Emerson School, which was built in 1901 and opened to students in 1902. The brick school – named for Ralph Waldo Emerson – closed in 2013 and was demolished in 2017. The city sold the property to Cumberland Farms in 2016.

Some of the cemetery’s graves remained in a side lot next to the school for years. More graves were moved in the decades following the school’s construction.

“It was a long-winded affair. They were still moving graves in the 1930s,” Harland Eastman of the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society said after the remains were recovered in 2017.

Many graves in that era were not marked and did not have headstones, so it was difficult to know where people were buried, Eastman said. City records show 77 bodies were exhumed and re-interred at Oakdale Cemetery by 1933 when Emerson School purchased the lot to build a playground.

After the remains were discovered, Sanford police contacted the state Medical Examiner’s Office and provided information showing the grave was found in a known cemetery. The Medical Examiner’s Office told the city the remains had to be hand excavated, the local historical society notified and the remains re-interred.

Auger, a member of the city’s Historical Committee, was called in to help and has been working on the project ever since.



The day after the discovery, Auger found co-workers to cover his classes at the high school and spent the day in the pit with City Manager Steven Buck and Pete Smith, a public works foreman. They sifted through the dirt one handful at a time to pull out shards of glass, pieces of metal and bones caked in dirt and encased in root hairs from an oak tree that had grown around the coffin.

Auger measured everything from the length and width of the grave to the exact placement of the bones. They found ribs, finger bones and pieces of jawbone with a half-dozen teeth still intact. Other bones, including the pelvis, had disintegrated.

Intent from the start on honoring the child by discovering who they were, Auger decided to bring a group of his students in to help. They helped determine the metal hardware on the coffin’s handles braces were nickel-plated and researched a pair of rare, Victorian-era coffin keys found in the grave.

Students also cleaned each piece of bone and arranged them for examination and documentation. Working with teachers and a local funeral director, they were able to determine the child likely was between 9 and 12 years old. A scrap of gingham fabric — possibly from a bow or dress — indicated the child may have been a girl. The sex was later confirmed through DNA testing.

Local dentists Drs. Derek and Elizabeth Jones helped students extract teeth from the jaw bone so the city could send them away for DNA testing. Auger found that DNA testing technology was evolving quickly and that many labs had long waits, especially for cases that were not connected to crimes.


The city paid for two rounds of DNA testing using proceeds from the sale of the Emerson School property, said Buck, the city manager. The results were somewhat limited.

In the days after the remains were found, a local woman reached out to city officials with suspicions that the child might have been a member of her family. Auger and his students were able to use the DNA results to rule out that possibility, but they didn’t have the expertise to take the genetic genealogy research to the next level.

Coffin braces were recovered by students in Paul Auger’s social studies class at Sanford High School. Students helped to unravel the mystery surrounding the remains of a child found in 2017. Now a nonprofit DNA project is helping to further identify the girl from the late 1800s, the Victorian era. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The DNA Doe project offered to take on the case at no cost to the city.

“It’s a longstanding mystery for the city and we’d like to take all viable steps toward identification and reunification of these remains,” Buck said.


The DNA Doe Project was founded in 2017, months after the Sanford remains were discovered. Since then, the organization has solved more than 90 cases. Some were homicide victims, while others died natural deaths but could not be easily identified by authorities. Rarely, remains have come from an accidental disinterment like the one in Sanford, said Jennifer Randolph, the director of case management and lead on the Sanford investigation.


In one case from Hudson, Ohio, investigators from the project were able to identify a man whose casket was unearthed from an area where there were no formal records of a cemetery. The man was born in 1793 and died in 1852, then was buried on his family farm.

“This kind of case is unusual for us,” Randolph said. “It’s not a homicide victim or someone from the past few decades, but we’re just as dedicated to this case.”

Genetic genealogists from the DNA Doe Project identify Jane or John Doe by using DNA profiles labs develop from the remains. Once a genetic profile is ready, it is uploaded to two databases that have profiles people have uploaded after doing testing through services like Ancestry and 23 and Me.

Ideally, the profile will generate a list of relative matches, or people who share common DNA with the unidentified person, Randolph said. Genealogists look at those common ancestors to narrow down the family tree and ultimately identify the person.

There are some limitations because the databases are heavily skewed toward people with northwestern European ancestry, Randolph said. It can be challenging to identify people who are Hispanic or African-American because records can be in other languages or lacking, especially in the case of people who were enslaved.

When Auger approached the DNA Doe Project in April about working with the city, he was able to provide the complete genetic profile to be uploaded to the databases. Randolph, who is leading the work on the Sanford case, was impressed by the work Auger and his students had already done.


In June, genealogists started their investigation of the Sanford case and so far the results have been “very encouraging,” Randolph said. An initial look at relative matches indicates the child had strong Scottish ancestry. Some of the relative matches were pretty close, she said, and the team is confident they will know the girl’s identity in the next few months.

“We’re really excited for the day we can give this person their name back,” Randolph said.

Auger also looks forward to knowing that name and, if possible, notifying relatives of the child.

“Even in death, people deserve respect. To not have a name is a real indignity,” Auger said. “Whoever the relatives end up being of this person, I think we’re all going to feel a great sense of closure and the city will feel like we did the right thing.”

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