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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, June 1, 2006

Berne witch: fact or fiction"

By Matt Cook

BERNE — Eva Messer’s troubles didn’t end with her short life. The 21-year-old’s grave is the source of one of the Hilltowns’ most persistent rumors: that there’s a witch buried there.

Graveyards in this area don’t get much more isolated than the Turner Burying Ground, where Messer was interred. In the heart of the Partridge Run preserve, it’s accessible only by an unpaved road and surrounded by forest and a crumbling stone wall. The gravestones, dating from 1812 to 1937, are mostly intact, and, thanks to a volunteer restoration effort a few years ago, straight.

Until 10 or 15 years ago, Messer’s was one of the most prominent. An undated photo on file with the Berne History Project shows a tall white stone enclosed by an iron fence. Vandalism, however, presumably motivated by the rumors, has taken its toll. What remains, an overgrown rectangle of stones, is guarded by a large, ominous black tree.

When the rumor about Messer, who died on Dec. 26, 1870, began, is unknown. Harold Miller, a native Hilltowner who now heads the Berne History Project from Texas, speculates that it’s only a few decades old. He and his brother, Ralph Miller, the town historian, get at least one call or e-mail per year from someone interested in the grave. Usually, to discourage vandalism, they don’t give out too much information, Miller said.

"I wish people would let her rest in the peace she deserves," Miller said.

Charlie Scott, a Berne native, described a trip he took to the grave one night in his youth with his brother and a friend.

"There was a pink candle in the middle of the circle of rocks," Scott said. "I was very afraid that night and I couldn’t sleep."

Internet message boards, an increasingly popular haunt for ghost hunters, mention Messer’s grave more than once. At unsolvedmysteries.com, one poster tells the "true" story of a man who was chased by a ghostly woman in black after he stole a post from the iron fence. Another says Messer was buried upside down.

Judging from the empty bottles in the brush nearby, Messer’s grave continues to be a hangout for young people.

Witch rumor

Rachelle Petersen contacted The Enterprise in search of the witch’s grave. Her husband, a Marine, grew up in Bethlehem and Selkirk about 20 years ago, and told his wife tales of visiting the grave.

"The group he went up there with had ‘spooky’ stuff happen," Petersen said.

Petersen, who identifies herself as a "practicing witch," said that, if Messer were a witch, she was a hero.

"In the Pagan community, we look up to those who were persecuted for their beliefs as heroes who paved the way for our acceptance in society," Petersen said. "I know many that went through the horrors were not witches, just misunderstood, or were people that were simply disliked."

There is, however, no evidence that Messer was a witch, was accused of being one, or was persecuted for it. She died long after witch hysteria had waned in Europe and North America, 178 years after the Salem Witch Trials.

According to Miller’s research, Messer was born Eva Beckel in Bavaria, Germany, in 1849. She married George Messer, another German. The couple is listed on an 1870 census as living in Middleburgh and having a one-year-old daughter, Jane.

After Eva Messer’s death, George married Christina Hock. In an 1880 census, Christina and George were listed as having an oldest child, Anna, who was 10. It appears, Miller said, that Eva Messer had Anna after the census, but before she died in 1870. Jane must have died before 1880.

In a 1900 census, Christina Messer is listed as having seven children, none of whom were Anna or Jane.

"It’s pretty clear to me that [Eva Messer] died in childbirth," Miller said. On her grave site, he said, "She must have been well loved by her husband because it was a large stone and there was a fence around it."

Though he never saw the grave before it was destroyed, Miller said he has heard from others that there was a symbol on it. A misinterpretation of the 19th Century German symbol by 20th Century American teenagers might have been the source of the witch rumor, Miller said. He noted, "Any gravestone has a symbol on it; most of them we’d recognize."

If someone has a picture of the grave in which the symbol is visible, he’d like to see it, Miller said.

Newspapers that covered Berne or Middleburgh didn’t exist at the time of Messer’s death, or haven’t been archived. The rnearby Schoharie Union, available from the New York State Newspaper Project, records nothing out of the ordinary.

Miller, who said he doesn’t believe in the witch story, only "in facts," said he wishes all talk of Messer being a witch would stop, at least out of respect for her descendants, who may still live in the area.

"They probably haven’t even heard the story yet," he said.

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