A feeling of sadness lingered in the air as I paused at the open spot in the fence where a gate once existed to keep vehicles out. The setting sun cast eerie shadows across the small field located on the western side of Cedar Top Road, just off of Route 724, east of Shillington. The only thing that identifies this piece of land is a decorative iron arch with the words “Potter’s Field” cut into it which stands guard over the grassy field.
Almost every county has a Potter’s or Pauper’s Field – a place where the poor, the homeless, the unknown, and the unclaimed are buried. The Berks County Potter’s Field is located on the grounds of what was once the Berks County Home, also known as the Berks County Almshouse Farm. While the arch has been frowned upon by many because it denotes the land as the Potter’s Field, I’m not sure that the official name is much better – the Berks County Cemetery for the Unemployed – a name given to it in 1935 when the piece of land was recognized as a cemetery. Note: Before anybody states otherwise about the name. This is the name given in the April 4, 1935, Reading Eagle article and I have not discovered where, when, or if the name was officially shortened to the Berks County Cemetery, which many now call it.
Turning my attention away from the arch, I scanned the ground and quickly started to note the presence of unmarked graves between the entrance and the arch. None of the burials are marked and many of the earliest burials have been lost forever, including the grave of the lady that brought me to this sacred piece of land. Despite not knowing where she is buried, I made the stop while in the area to remember her and the other nameless, forgotten people who rest here eternally.
The lost grave that brought me here is not the only unsolved murder victim, nor unidentified person, buried on these grounds. This particular young lady has the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first recorded unsolved murder victim in Berks County.
The unsolved murder of Eugenia Martineau occurred one Saturday in the summer of 1839. That fateful weekend a young couple arrived in Reading – Eugenia Martineau and a well dressed, unidentified man. Having arrived in Reading by the train from Philadelphia, the two took lodging at the White Horse, a hotel and tavern run by Jonathan Greth located at the intersection of Seventh and Penn Streets. The couple rented the best room Greth had to offer, ate supper, and then retired to their room for the remainder of the evening. Unfortunately, the couple was not required to sign a register, so their identities were a mystery even to the tavern’s owner.
Note: Sadly, the exact year the murder of the unidentified lady has been lost to history. Most articles mentioning the murder, state it happened in 1839, but in a number of articles it is stated as happening in 1842. Even the month it happened remains a mystery. The earliest papers state the murder happened in July, but later articles mention it happened in either June or August.
The couple kept to themselves while in town. They may have exchanged pleasantries with some of the residents, but nobody seemed to recall much about the two strangers as they strolled about town. While the exact description of the pair seems to have been lost over the years, one thing remains consistent: people remembered the young couple made a lovely pair. She was described as a beautiful lady and he was a stout, handsome man. It was believed she was in her late twenties and he was in his mid-thirties, but their ages, like many of the details, have been lost to time.
Nothing Sunday morning hinted about the horror that was to descend upon Reading. That morning the couple awoke and ate breakfast before leaving to attend services at a local church. After the service the couple returned to the tavern to enjoy lunch. They finished eating and announced they were going to walk around town.
The events of that afternoon remain a mystery to this day. What is known is at dusk the man returned to the tavern alone and rushed upstairs to their room. After a couple of minutes, he came back down the stairs and asked Jonathan Greth if he had seen his wife. Greth reported he had not seen her since the couple had left earlier in the day.
The unidentified man claimed that he and his wife had been walking along the Schuylkill River when they spotted a fox lurking nearby. He left his wife at the river’s edge to chase after the elusive creature. Failing to capture it, he returned to the spot he had left her to discover she was not there. He rushed back to the tavern in hopes that she had returned and was waiting for him.
At this point the stranger’s story should have caused Jonathan Greth to ask questions, yet no questions were asked. Instead, Greth and his family left the stranger in the tavern, eating a hastily prepared dinner, to await his wife’s return while the Greth’s went to Sunday evening services. When they returned the man was gone from the dining area. Greth figured the man’s wife had returned and the couple had retired for the evening.
Nothing seemed amiss until Monday morning when the couple failed to arrive for breakfast. Jonathan waited several hours before going upstairs to their room. Receiving no answer when he knocked, Jonathan called out for them again. With no answer, Greth forced open the door to discover the room was empty except for the trunk that the lady had brought with her.
At some point Monday morning, fishermen along the Schuylkill River made a horrific discovery. The lifeless body of a young lady was discovered hidden among the bushes at the edge of the river. She had been brutally beaten with a club or stone – the weapon was never discovered – before being strangled.
At some point a connection was made; this was the same lady who had been seen staying at the White Horse. Jonathan Greth was brought to the riverside where he identified the lifeless body as the young lady who had been staying at his hotel.
The abandoned trunk was opened in hopes of identifying the woman. Within it was some expensive clothing and fine linens – the name Eugenia Martineau was embroidered on one of the handkerchiefs discovered in the trunk. Police believed Eugenia was the real name of the murdered woman but were never able to discover a missing lady by that name.
Police determined the trunk was made in New York City by a saddler, but nothing became of that piece of information. The theory put forth by police was that the lady had recently arrived in America, possibly from France, and had either 1) brought the trunk with her or 2) had purchased it upon her arrival.
An article from the July 9, 1911 edition of The Reading Eagle mentioned a number of uncashed draft notes were discovered among the items in the trunk. This was the only time the uncashed draft notes is mentioned. If this is the case, then those investigating the murder should have been able to identify the woman with that piece of information.
In searching for information about Eugenia’s murder, it does not appear the story of her murder ever made it out of the Reading area. It is mentioned that the saddler was contacted about the trunk, but nothing more appears about this connection, so if he knew the young lady, this information was never revealed.
The woman has never been identified, nor has her companion, who police believe murdered her. In the hours between Eugenia’s death and the discovery of her body, he vanished. The unidentified young lady is buried in the Berks County Potter’s Field and her unsolved murder vanished into the mists of times.
A cool breeze caused me to shiver, bringing me back to the present. Somewhere on the grounds of this cemetery, possibly a few feet away from where I was standing, rests the remains of the young lady.
A hundred questions raced through my mind. Was her name Eugenia? If not, who was she? Where was she from? Why didn’t anybody miss her? Who was her companion? Where did he come from and where did he go?
Note: the scenario I’m going to present is my opinion. One particular scenario kept echoing in my mind. Was the gentleman who was with her already married? Was he from a wealthy family and this was his way of keeping the young lady silent about their affair? Did he murder her to keep the affair a secret? Or was he a conman? I shuddered at the thought and hoped it wasn’t true. I pushed the thought aside, blaming it on watching one too many detective shows on television.
A car horn brought me back to the present. I turned to watch a police officer wave from his car as he slowly drove past. He didn’t stop to question, but I had the feeling it was the sign it was time to go. I left the hallowed piece of land and drove away, leaving Eugenia to keep her secrets as she eternally slumbered on the grassy hillside.