Unsolved: The Secret of the Neversink Skeleton

The Berks County Potter’s Field

The name “Potter’s Field” often gives a negative impression upon the burial grounds set aside for those who are buried within the plot of land. Many of those fields have been forgotten and have not received the proper care, leaving the identities of those interred there forgotten to the modern world.

I had arrived at the Berk’s County Potter’s Field, located along Cedar Top Road in Shillington, to pay my respects to Eugenia Martineau, who is buried in an unmarked and forgotten grave somewhere on these grounds. I could not help but be overcome by sadness as I scanned the grounds and saw the numerous depressions in the grassy field that marked the resting places of those buried here. Note: More about Eugenia Martineau and also some history of the Berks County Potter’s Field can be found here: Eugenia Martineau.

The sad story of Eugenia Martineau was the reason I had arrived at the cemetery, but she was not the only unidentified murder victim buried here on these sacred grounds. Although newspapers did not record the exact location of her burial, I believe somewhere within the grounds of this sacred piece is an unidentified woman who was discovered on Neversink Mountain on November 1, 1923.

November 1 was the opening day of small game season and that morning a group of men gathered to hunt on Neversink Mountain. Their outing came to an end when Charles Reedy made a gruesome discovery approximately three blocks from the end of South Seventh Street. In a small gully he discovered the remains of a leg with a shoe still attached to it.

Authorities were notified and as they searched through a pile of leaves and other debris, they found the mostly skeletal remains of the unidentified woman. It was determined she had been killed by a blow to the head due to a silver dollar sized hole in the skull.

The unidentified victim was believed to be about thirty-five years old, stood about five foot two inches tall, and weighed roughly one hundred and ten pounds. There were a number of clues at the scene that could have helped identify the woman. A string of synthetic pearls held together by piano wire were still around her neck. The shreds of clothing revealed that she had worn a light dress made of a light gray material, black silk stockings, and a pair of brown suede pumps with two straps fastened with pearl buttons. No hat, coat or cloak was found at the scene. Also found near the body was a spade, a business card – it proved not to be of any importance after the person named on it was questioned – and a scrap of newspaper from Pittsburgh.

Later in the day hunters turned two rings into the authorities. They had discovered the body earlier in the day and for some reason decided to take the rings from the body. Feeling guilty about their poor decision, they turned them over to the police. The first ring was a wedding band made of white gold with the initials S.Y.L.N. etched into it. The second ring was a yellow gold ring with a black onyx seal with a chip diamond in the center that had the initials W.C.X. etched into it.

From the start, police believed that she came from another place and was dumped here, which was a theory locals disagreed with – residents stated on September 14, the approximate date the body was believed to have been placed on Neversink Mountain, they heard a woman screaming from somewhere on the mountain. Since authorities were convinced the woman was killed somewhere else, all accounts by residents hearing a woman screaming were dismissed.

Despite believing the unidentified women came from somewhere else, authorities compared the skeleton to a number of missing local women. The strongest link to a missing local woman was the case of Mrs. Annie Stevens, who had been missing since September 1922. They believed William Stevens was guilty of killing his missing wife. William stated Annie disappeared the year before, a claim Mr. and Mrs. John Schnable, would verify. Despite the William’s statement, his neighbors testified she had been seen around town less than four months before. In addition to their claim of seeing her, more blame was placed upon William as his neighbors told authorities the couple fought often and loudly.

William was arrested and kept in jail while police investigated. In one of the most bizarre cases of police work, they took the jawbone around the neighborhood in hopes someone would recognize it. Some neighbors claimed the jawbone was that of the missing Mrs. Stevens, while others admitted they could not be sure if it was hers or not. William was released after his in-laws said neither the jawbone or the teeth resembled those of their daughter. Note: I’m not one hundred percent what it was about the jaw that police thought people could identify. I found one very brief mention that suggests the molars were not in normal placement, but the article did not go into detail, nor was it mentioned again.

There were two other local women who were believed to be the unidentified woman. The first was Violet May Starry. She had been reported missing by George Kazarak, who was staying in the same boarding house as Starry. When police showed the boarding house owner the jewelry he failed to identify any of them as belonging to Violet. The second was Anna Petrousky of Mount Carmel, who had disappeared from the local hospital where she had been studying. Anna would be discovered safe at her mother’s home in Mount Carmel.

Another possibility for the identity of the murdered woman was Mrs. Grace McBride who was last seen in Pittsburgh in August, 1923. Grace’s relatives say she was wearing a string of pearls and two rings the last time she was seen. The shoes the skeleton had on came from a Pittsburgh company, which strengthened the belief that the woman may have been Grace. Also, a piece of newspaper found near the body was from a Pittsburgh newspaper.

Despite all clues at the scene pointing towards the body being Grace, police in Reading had doubts of the body being Grace’s – they found no motive or reason for her to be in the area and even told her family not to come look at the body. Members of her family did arrive in Reading and failed to identify the remains as belonging to Grace.

In early 1924 the body was tentatively identified as Marie Lance. Marie was twenty-three years old at the time of her disappearance. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, she was last seen at a train station in Spartanburg, South Carolina on January 1, 1923. Authorities sent the jawbone – along with other evidence that may identify the murdered woman – to North Carolina. Note: Initial reports of the body being the missing Marie Lance stated it was the jaw sent to Asheville, though North Carolina newspapers reported it was a sketch of the jaw.

J. F. Polack, a shoe salesman claims Marie had purchased a pair of grey slippers from him shortly before she vanished. The claim was refuted by Lance’s sister who stated her sister never owned a pair of them. She also stated Lance only owned one ring at the time of her disappearance and it was unlike either of the two the unidentified body had on. While Lance’s sister maintained none of the remaining clothing or jewelry were familiar to her, authorities believed the body on Neversink Mountain was that of Marie Lance. Note: The shoes that were initially reported being with the skeletal remains were brown pumps, not grey slippers. I’m not sure why local authorities were convinced these were the shoes Polack supposedly sold to Lance because they are described as two very different types of footwear.

That leaves the question: whose body was discovered on Neversink Mountain? Was it one of the missing women, the unidentified woman or was it someone else? Sadly, the case has faded into the mists of time and anybody who may have held the important information about the woman’s identity have since passed.

With those thoughts lingering in my mind, I finished paying my respects before I walked back down the hillside to my vehicle, leaving those buried in the grassy field to their eternal slumber.

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