By Andrew Blankstein and Kate Linthicum
LOS ANGELES _ Who was Jean M. Barrie, the woman whose steamer trunk stored for decades in the basement of an L.A. apartment building contained the mummified remains of two babies?
That’s the question investigators were mulling Thursday, two days after the babies _ wrapped in newspapers from the 1930s _ were discovered when the basement was being cleared out. As the coroner began an autopsy on the bodies Thursday, detectives were left to sift through a crime scene that is also a time capsule.
Inside the trunk police a fox wrap, a flapper dress, a pearl-beaded purse and rolled-up stack of blank medical records.
The medical record, the detectives said, point them in the direction of woman named Jean M. Barrie, who lived in the area and may have worked as a nurse. She was born in San Francisco in 1916, and the trunk contained postcard from her brother Thomas.
Los Angeles Police Department sources said the biggest challenge is determining whether a crime was committed. Detectives with the juvenile division’s abused child section are hoping medical tests can determine whether the babies were stillborn, aborted or subjected to trauma.
But they are also considering other leads, including the possibility that the trunk may have belonged to a different woman _ also named Jean M. Barrie _ who was a well-known storyteller and performer at the time.
This Jean Barrie apparently lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast and was a relative James M. Barrie, the author of the children’s book “Peter Pan.”
Several clues point in her direction. There was a copy of “Peter Pan” found inside the trunk Tuesday along with a membership certificate for the Peter Pan Woodland Club, a Big Bear resort.
But it’s unclear whether Barrie ever lived in Los Angeles. An ad in the 1918 edition of Lyceum Magazine shows a stern-faced Barrie in a decorative lace and velvet dress. The ad hails her as a “Reader of Plays and Miscellaneous Programs.”
According to Gloria Gomez, the manager at the Glen-Donald, the trunk had been sitting in storage, unclaimed, for decades. Tuesday night Gomez and building resident Yeming Xing broke the lock with a screwdriver to see what was inside.
They found books, postcards, a beautiful crystal bowl and two leather doctor’s satchels. Inside each satchel was the body of a baby. Each was swaddled in a blanket and wrapped in a faded L.A. Times newspaper.
Xing, who discovered the first body, said Wednesday that it appeared to be a fetus.
“It looked like a baby, but it didn’t have any shape to it,” she said. A geneticist at the University of Southern California, Xing said she believes the baby had been miscarried or had possibly been aborted.
John Medford, the building manager, also thinks the bodies may be linked to illegal abortions.
“It was kept secret for 74 years and my theory is that this rolls back the cover on a cruel, tragic and unjust time in America for women,” Medford said. “Ending pregnancies this way would have been commonplace. This was business as usual in all social strata.”
A team of coroner’s investigators, including a pathologist and an anthropologist, will use DNA, toxicology and other tests to determine how the babies died, while detectives try to piece together the life of the woman who kept their bodies tucked carefully among her possessions.