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 Cedar Top Road, just off of Route 724, east of Shillington. The only thing that identifies this piece of land as anything other than an empty field is a decorative iron arch that stands in the middle of it; the top of the arch has the words “Potters Field” cut into it.
Almost every county had a Potter’s, or Pauper’s, Field – a place where the poor, the homeless, the unknown, and the unclaimed were buried. The Berks County Potter’s Field is located on the grounds of what was once the Berks County Home, also known as the 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. Please 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 refer to 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 had brought me here. That did not stop me from visiting the cemetery in order to say a quick prayer for her and the other nameless forgotten people who rest here eternally.
The lost grave is not the only unsolved murder victim, nor unidentified person buried here, but was one that brought me to these burial grounds. This particular young lady has the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first recorded unsolved murder victim in Berks County.
Before I continue with the mystery of Eugenia Martineau, I need to state two things makes this case nearly impossible to solve.
First, the young lady’s real name was never discovered. She would become known as Eugenia Martineau because this name was found embroidered on some of her personal effects. While detectives believed that Eugenia was her real name, they had no definitive proof it truly was her birth name. For the purposes of this article, I will continue to refer to her as Eugenia.
The second thing is the question of when this murder occurred. The Reading Eagle, which is the only newspaper I’ve found mention of this murder, over the years has presented a number of different dates and times when it took place. The tragic events happened in 1839 according to older newspaper sources. Or it may have been the summer of 1842 as some modern articles claim. I personally lean towards the earlier of the two dates, which is the date I am using here. It happened in June, or maybe it was July, or possibly even August, but at least all of the articles agree it happened in the summer of the year.
Despite the fact that the year of the murder has been lost and the lady’s name was never identified, the details of her story have changed little.
The unsolved murder of Eugenia Martineau begins one Saturday in the summer of 1839. That fateful weekend started with the arrival of Eugenia in the town of Reading with a well dressed, unidentified man. Having arrived in town by train that ran from Philadelphia to Reading, the two took lodging at the White Horse. The hotel and tavern run by Jonathan Greth was 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. Due to the customs of the day, the couple was not required to sign a register, so their identities were a mystery even to the tavern’s owner.
The couple kept to themselves while in town. Though they may have exchanged pleasantries with some of the residents, 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, the one thing that people did remember was the young couple made a lovely pair – she was a beautiful lady and he was a stout, handsome man. Those who saw them 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 about to shock the residents of 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. Once they finished eating they announced that they were going to walk around town.
What happened that afternoon remains 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.
His story at this point already would have caused me – and should have caused Jonathan Greth – to ask questions, yet no questions were asked.
Greth and his family left the stranger in the tavern, eating a hastily prepared dinner, to await his wife’s return while the family went to Sunday evening services. When they returned the man was gone from the dining area and they figured his 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. The former beauty 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 said that the lifeless body was that of the young lady who had been staying at his hotel.
The trunk that had been abandoned was opened in hopes of identifying the woman. The only clues within were some expensive clothing, some fine linens, and the name Eugenia Martineau embroidered on one of the handkerchiefs she possessed. 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 bought the trunk upon her arrival.
An article from the July 9, 1911 The Reading Eagle suggested that among the items in the trunk were a number of draft notes that she could have cashed. This is the only article I uncovered that mentioned the discovery of uncashed draft notes. If this is the case, then those investigating the murder should have been able to definitely identify the woman with that piece of information.
In searching for information about Eugenia’s murder, the impression is the story never 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. I have to wonder if the police in Philadelphia and New York were notified about the murder and if so, how much information was given.
It is sad to think that with the few clues given this would be a solvable case in today’s society, but yet it remains unsolved. However, the woman has never been identified, nor has her companion, who police believed murdered her – in the hours between Eugenia’s death and the discovery of her body, he vanished.
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? Was he a married? Was he from wealth or was he merely a con man? Where did he come from and where did he go?
While the majority of the clues have been lost and the events mostly forgotten, there are still enough pieces of the puzzle in existence that allowed me to put together some theories. One particular scenario kept echoing in my mind. He was married and from a wealthy family and this was his way of keeping her silent about their affair. I shuddered at the thought and hoped that it wasn’t true as I pushed that thought aside, blaming the thought on watching one too many detective shows on television.
A car horn brought me out of my thoughts as I stood there. A police officer waved from his car as he slowly drove past. He didn’t stop to question, but I had the feeling that it was the sign it was time to go. I said a quick prayer for those forgotten ones buried in the hallowed spot before climbing back in the truck and leaving those buried here to rest silently in their eternal slumber.