Search of home yields 3 corpses

Brian Rosenthal

There was “something unsettling” about the large Victorian house, neighbors said.

The lone occupant of 1216 Judson Ave., 90-year-old Margaret Bernstorff, was a private person who never invited anyone inside. The neighbors occasionally talked about what was going on behind the white and green walls.

They were shocked to learn Friday that police responding to the home had discovered the bodies of three siblings, one of whom had been dead for 30 years.

Anita Bernstorff died in May at age 98, Frank Bernstorff died in 2003 at age 83 and Elaine Bernstorff died in her 60s sometime in the late 1970s, the Chicago Tribune reported Sunday.

The bodies, two skeletons and one badly decomposed, were covered with blankets and in different rooms.

All three died of natural causes related to arterial sclerotic cardiovascular disease, a spokesman for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office said Saturday afternoon. Anita Bernstorff is still a registered voter in Cook County, according to clerk’s office records.

Evanston Police Department officers discovered the bodies at 10:15 a.m. Friday, said EPD Cmdr. Tom Guenther. A senior-citizen advocate employed by the city who had counseled Margaret Bernstorff called them to the scene.

Margaret Bernstorff, whom Guenther said has been taken to a senior care facility, “neglected to report the deaths of her family members,” an EPD release said. Once police were on the scene, she was lucid and cooperative, Guenther said.

She was known as a normal but private person who often tended to her garden, said neighbor Gianna Panofsky, who said she last saw the elderly woman “giving treats to the kids” on Halloween.

“We saw her going shopping,” Panofsky said. “She participated in neighborhood activities.”

Neighbors said the Bernstorffs had lived in the home for at least 80 years. The owner of the property, according to Cook County public records, is Frank Adolph Bernstorff.

According to a Chicago Tribune obituary, Frank A. Bernstorff, 94, lived at the home and died in 1966. The retired assistant professor of German at Northwestern was survived by his wife Lilian, who died in 1974, a son, Frank, and three daughters: Margaret Anita and Elaine.

The retired NU professor left his children with enough money to not have to work, Panofsky said.

Neighbors John Nitschke, Robert Dreeben and John McKnight said they had never talked to any of the residents at the old house. Dreeben said he’d lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.

“They were private people,” he said.

Panofsky, who has lived in the house across the street for 45 years, said she hadn’t seen Margaret Bernstorff’s siblings for “many, many years.” There was “something unsettling” about the house, she said.

The neighbors occasionally discussed the siblings’ disappearances, said Panofsky, who said that in a way she “wasn’t surprised” to hear about the police’s discovery.

“I’m sure Margaret had nothing to do with their deaths,” she said. “However gruesome, many people have done that everywhere in the world. They don’t want to part with their loved ones.”

Still, the area was rocked by the discovery, said Nitschke, who described the neighborhood as a group of people who “loved living in the area and loved living in Evanston.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know all the facts. But you know, obviously, it’s a tough thing. It’s a sad thing. It’s a surprise. But I think we all learned that we didn’t know as much as we thought we knew.”

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