Unsolved: The Tragic Death of Etna Bittenbender

Grave of Etna Bittenbender, Mount Zion Cemetery, Sciota

There was a feeling of rain in the air as I stepped out of the vehicle and glanced at the stones clinging to the hillside of Mount Zion Cemetery. Overlooking Routes 33 / 209 just north of Sciota, the cemetery holds a secret that I had somehow missed the first time I had visited it years before. Within the sacred grounds is the resting place of a murdered girl whose murder remains unsolved and mostly forgotten.

The search began when I received an email about the ghost of a murdered girl who supposedly haunts the area. The email failed to have much detail and with no date for the murder or name for the deceased girl, it proved almost impossible to discover the history of the tragic event.

It would not be until a number of years later that I found a brief reference in a collection of ghost stories which gave me the key to discovering the story of the unsolved murder that was the basis of the ghost story. The mention was every brief, but gave me the victim’s name when it stated Etna Bittenbender haunted the spot where she was killed near Sciota.

I made my way the steep hillside towards the grave I had spotted when entering the cemetery. I knelt down in front of the stone and read the words etched into the stone. “Etna / Daughter of / Samuel & Margaret / Bittenbender / Murdered by some person / unknown on Sunday evening / October 31st. 1880 between / the hours of 4 and 6 o’clock / Aged 17 years 1 month / and 8 days.”

On that fateful Halloween evening, Etna, the eldest daughter of Samuel and Margaret, had set out around four in the afternoon for the home of Jacob Marsh, where she worked as a maid. Unfortunately, she never arrived at her employer’s house that evening.

The next morning when Etna’s younger sisters passed the Marsh’s house Mrs. Marsh asked where their sister was; Etna had never arrived at work. The sisters started home to inform their parents that Etna was missing when they made the horrific discovery. Etna’s body was located about two hundred yards off the road in a fence corner along Pensyl Creek Road.

The sisters ran home and reported that Etna had been killed. Samuel, her father, arrived at the scene to discover his eldest daughter’s body. Etna had been struck in the head by a piece of wood that lay nearby. The attack was violent and blood covered parts of the fence and the stones nearby.

It was initially thought Etna’s murderer may have been a member of a group of tramps spotted in the area in the days leading up to her death. However, it soon became obvious that the person who killed her had to be someone local. Authorities followed the trail of blood through a patch of woods Etna traveled to get to the Marsh home and discovered the place where her attacker waited. This knowledge of her routine caused authorities to believe that Etna’s attacker was somebody local.

While the exact events of what happened are not known, her killer may have surprised her from ambush or maybe the two of them had a confrontation, what is known is that their meeting turned violent and deadly. Etna was struck as she attempted to flee her attacker.  She made it as far as the fence corner where her attacker violently  struck her in the head, ending her life.

A number of people were arrested and questioned, but all were released when their alibis checked out. One of the men arrested in this round-up was Samuel Hainey. While most of the men held were immediately released, Hainey was held and questioned for a couple more days before he too was released due to lack of evidence. On February 6, 1881, The New York Times stated Hainey was again arrested for Etna’s murder and was being held at the county prison in Stroudsburg. A couple days after his second arrest, the judge again let him go due to lack of evidence.

While searching through the archives of The Reading Eagle, I stumbled upon an article published in late February 1881 about another assault that occurred in the area, this time near Saylorsville. The article mentioned that three young girls were physically assaulted by a group of six young men. The girls had left church on the evening of February 22 and were headed home when the attack occurred. The girls were indecently assaulted and one of the girls had her dress ripped to shreds by the attackers. The trio were saved when one of them screamed “Murder!” A number of men arrived at the scene and drove the pack of boys away. One of the attackers had been identified as having already been arrested and questioned for the death of Etna Bittenbender. The identify of their attackers were not revealed and sadly it appears the group of attackers got away with the assault.

I almost missed the next article regarding Etna’s murder due to a spelling error. The article identified Etna as Emma, which had prevented this article from coming up in my searches. On March 17, 1881, The Reading Eagle reported that John Pfeiffer (also spelled Peiffer) had murdered his cellmate, John McBride, at the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, before killing himself. The initial article did not provide a connection to Etna’s murder, but the following day an article about the murder-suicide created a link between the two.

After Pfeiffer strangled McBride, he left behind a message on a piece of slate. On the front of it was written: “Miss Emma Bittenbender Jackson Township last fall me and my cousin George Kraft. I am.” Here the message ended abruptly. On the back side of the slate was a second, similar message: “I also kill that girl in Jackson County (Township). Cousin George Kraft last fall was arrested his brother. They call me the divil and a wich, so if you all knew all the people I have kill you would astonish go in New York ther you find out all about me I am sorry for me owen family for I know they use them ruf on.”

The only other major suspect in the case was now dead. A distant relative of the Bittenbenders, John Pfeiffer had been questioned about Etna’s death, but left go. A couple days after the murder, he was arrested and imprisoned at Wilkes-Barre for a burglary. Pfeiffer had a long list of robberies and other petty crimes and had spent time in a number of prisons, including a stay at the infamous Sing Sing Prison in New York. While on trial in Wilkes-Barre, he tried to commit suicide by swallowing powdered glass. In March of 1881 he was transferred to the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. A few days after his transfer he succeeded in killing himself, taking any information about Etna’s murder with him to the grave.

While the “confession” left behind by Pfeiffer caused much debate — some thought that he had not written it, but that the words written on the slate were by someone else — the “confession” seemed to have brought the case to a close. With one suspect freed and the other one deceased, the case faded into history.

Only one other name was ever connected to the murder and it is in the April 2, 1881 edition of The National Police Gazette. There is a brief mention of a George Kraft being one of the men initially held for Etna’s murder. Pfeiffer’s “confession” puts George at the scene, but it does not appear that anything happened to George in the aftermath of the murder.

Officially, the case remains unsolved and has been forgotten by most. I can only imagine how the members of the community must have whispered behind closed doors, voicing their thoughts about who killed Etna. I remained at her grave wondering what happened that night to cause anyone to savagely beat this beautiful young woman to death. Had she known her killer or was her killer a complete stranger? What had caused this unidentified attacker to savagely beat Etna to death? More than one hundred forty years have passed since the events of that night. Any evidence is gone and all of the people involved have long since passed. The truth of what happened may never be known.

I finishing paying my respects as the storm grew closer and shivered despite myself. I don’t know if it was due to the facts of the case or because of the storm. Either way, I knew it was time to leave her resting on the hillside as the rain began to fall.

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