Pair track past to dispel Berne witch lore
— Photo from Jayson Romanczuk
In memoriam: The gravesite of Eva Messer (née Bökel) is pictured with its original iron fence. The image is attributed to Douglas Michaels, taken in 1977, with the gravestone facing its original direction. Two men are hoping to have a new gravestone and kiosk at the cemetery, to educate people on the young woman’s life story and quell the myth that she was a witch.
BERNE — As she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from her home in Germany, Eva Messer’s maiden name was written as “Boeckel,” “Beckel,” and “Bockel.” Typical of the time, its spelling was varied in period documents, which more than a century later were used to trace her life in an effort to pull back the veil of myth obscuring the young woman, who moved to Berne in 1868 and died here in 1870.
Jayson Romanczuk and Christopher Restifo hope that, as more of Messer’s story is uncovered, the more the myth that she was a witch will recede. Their research is ongoing, and they hope to have a kiosk and new gravestone placed at the Turner cemetery.
Before he met Romanczuk, Restifo found the ship’s manifest listing passengers on the S.S. Atalanta that left London, England, and Le Havre, France, for New York in 1868. Before she was met George Messer, Eva Messer was listed as “Eva Bockel,” a 19-year-old clerk in steerage, which coincides with the dates on the gravestone in Berne.
The two men were part of a generation which told stories about Messer, known as a witch buried in the hill-top Turner Family burying ground in Berne, where teens had secluded parties and, later, vandals destroyed her gravesite which had been surrounded by a black iron fence with tridents atop.
Now middle-aged, Romanczuk and Restifo are doubtful of the stories and eager to find a photograph of Messer, or a death certificate.
“Look, see, there she is, a human, not some witch you can go up and kick her gravestone,” said Restifo of an image’s effect.
The Berne Town Board is planning to support a kiosk at the cemetery in the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area that would describe Messer’s story. Romanczuk moderates a Facebook group, called “Friends of Eva Messer,” where people have posted photographs and information about Messer’s era.
Historian Harold Miller told Messer’s story years ago. In the 1930s, a clothing salesman, William V. Hannay, spent his leisure time researching his family’s geneology with his wife, according to Miller’s research. Hannay was in his twenties and thirties when they visited cemeteries in the Hilltowns to record gravestones’ inscriptions. Hannay surveyed the faces of gravestones for the Dutch Settlers’ Society and the American Legion Registration Graves Committee. Miller wrote that Hannay's transcription of Messer’s stone reads, “Eva Breckel / Wife of George Messer / Died / Dec. 26 1870 / Aged 21 yr.”
The original stone was destroyed by vandals, according to Romanzcuk, with its pieces scattered in the cemetery. The iron fence, which Restifo says was customary for Bavarians’ gravesites, is no longer standing and presumed to have been stolen.
Jeff Alexander, a town employee who cleans the town’s parks and more than 70 cemeteries with teens during the summers, stacked flat rocks around the gravesite.
“We’re not trying to embarrass anybody,” Romanczuk said of vandals. “All we’re doing, we want to right her wrong.”
Romanzcuk, who refers to Restifo as his “partner” in research, said he grew up wanting to be a police officer and is taking classes to be a private investigator. He lives in Knox and Restifo, a truck driver for Cart-Away in Delmar, lives in Clarksville.
Messer, then Eva Böckel, was aboard the S.S. Atalanta, with her destination on the manifest listed as New Orleans. A man named Jacob Messer was also aboard, Romanczuk notes. They arrived in Castle Garden, New York.
The small Turner burying ground where Messer was buried is lined by a hand-laid stone fence. A dusty road leads to the graveyard where she was buried after dying on Dec. 26, 1870. Witch hysteria had already weakened, nearly 180 years after the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts.
In this century, some modern-day witches have proudly claimed Messer as a persecuted pioneer.
Why Eva Messer died is unknown. Rumors had spread that she was murdered or killed herself by drowning in a pond. Romanczuk and Restifo say it’s unlikely she was near an open pond in December.
“You would have thought if somebody murdered somebody, it would have been all over the press,” said Restifo.
George P. Messer and Eva Messer are listed on the 1870 Census as having a 1-year-old daughter, Jane, and living in Middleburgh, but records from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church show Anna Messer was baptized in 1869, said Romanczuk. George Messer was remarried, to Christina Hock, who is listed with him in the 1880 census as having a 10-year-old daughter named Anna.
Restifo believes the witch story developed as people talked about it. Still, he says, people aren’t as interested in Messer as the story of her grave.
“They see something on Facebook and share it without verifying whether or not it’s true,” he said.
Strange activity at the cemetery still intrigued Romanczuk and Restifo, as they visited the Turner cemetery with the Helderberg Paranormal Society, wearing night vision goggles and, on a separate visit, invited a psychic medium.
One of the aspects of Messer’s grave that possibly fueled the myth was the orientation of her gravestone in the opposite direction of many of the others in the cemetery. The earliest pictures of the stone, however, show it faced the road, as all the others in the cemetery.
When the two men were standing near their parked cars, waiting for darkness to fall for a ghost-hunting visit with the paranormal society, Restifo noticed that Messer’s stone was facing the same way as the others around it. He surmised that the stone may have been knocked over and moved incorrectly.