'Private people' hid a grim secret

Flynn and Cox write for the Chicago Tribune.

Maybe the most troubling thing for those who knew Margaret Bernstorff is that they never really knew her.

In all the years neighbors helped the elderly woman carry groceries to the door of her Evanston, Ill., home, she never spoke of her sister Elaine. When they stopped seeing Bernstorff's brother, Frank, on tree-lined Judson Avenue, she told some of them he had moved to Indiana to live with relatives.

And when a local contractor who did repairs on her home inquired a few weeks ago about her other sister, Anita, Bernstorff told him she was upstairs, not feeling well.

Just days after neighbors tried to persuade the 94-year-old to move into a nursing home, police discovered she had been living with the bodies of her three siblings. Elaine Bernstorff died in her 60s in the late 1970s; Frank Bernstorff died at 83 in 2003; and Anita Bernstorff died in May at 98.

"They were private people, and we wanted to respect their privacy," said Gianna Panofsky, who has lived on the street for 45 years. "They didn't belong to society; they belonged to each other, and that's it."

Police were called to Bernstorff's home Nov. 7 and discovered the bodies. They were found in different parts of the two-story, Victorian-style home, police said. All three died of natural causes, the Cook County medical examiner's office said.

There is no evidence of Social Security fraud, and Bernstorff has not been charged with a crime, police said. It's unclear how the siblings survived financially over the years.

Police Cmdr. Thomas Guenther said that although Margaret Bernstorff was "fairly lucid," her rationale for keeping the bodies in her home "is still up for questioning."

It's not uncommon for elderly people to retreat into their own worlds and try to preserve their independence, experts say. And it appears that the Bernstorffs did not have informal watchdogs such as churches, family, friends and doctors, neighbors said.

"If you don't have any of those safety nets, you fall through the cracks," said Celia Berdes, an assistant professor of medicine in the Buehler Center on Aging, Health & Society at Northwestern University in Chicago. "I think that's what happened in this case."

Nancy Flowers, Evanston's community health division manager, said she had contact with Bernstorff but was not allowed in the home until last week, when she reported the case to police. Bernstorff, now at a nearby nursing home, is doing "just fine," Flowers said.

Margaret Bernstorff's attorney, Eric Parker, said she is cooperating with police.

"She's a nice lady. She's led a very private life. She wants her privacy respected," he said.

Officials at the facility where Bernstorff is staying said she was not up to speaking with anyone.

By all accounts, none of the four Bernstorff siblings ever married or had children. Their parents, Frank and Lilian, died decades ago. Margaret Bernstorff was most recently seen out at a Fourth of July block party, and she occasionally gardened in her yard. But neighbors said they never saw anyone visit the home, and it was rare for anyone outside the family to cross its threshold.

Al Redmond did odd jobs from time to time for Margaret Bernstorff and rented garage space from her.

He said he went inside the home only once and saw stacks of old newspapers piled up -- in some cases to the ceiling -- in every room.

"She usually never let me in," Redmond said. "I just assumed she was embarrassed because of the way things were in there."

He said Bernstorff sometimes walked with a cane, and he offered on occasion to drive her to a doctor, but she always refused.

Flowers, Parker and police declined to comment further on her case.

The family moved into the Evanston home in the 1920s, when Bernstorff's father was a professor of German studies at Northwestern University.

Neighbors said Bernstorff is a "sweet" woman who would smile and make small talk and thank them for kind deeds by bringing them flowers from her garden.

"She was very reclusive," said neighbor Patricia Krafft, who has lived on Judson Avenue since 1960.

On Halloween, Bernstorff passed out crackers to trick-or-treaters. A neighbor said he sent his son over with candy so she could hand that out instead.

Berdes, the assistant professor of medicine, said that Americans generally place a high value on independence and that senior citizens can carry that too far for fear of being placed in a nursing home.

"It's a very sad, very extreme case," she said.

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