Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bertha Palmer

Bertha Matilda Honoré was born in Kentucky in 1849. Her grandfather had immigrated to Maryland in 1781 and later moved to Kentucky. He married Matilda Lockwood and they had 4 children. Henry Hamilton Honoré became Bertha’s father. Her mother was Eliza Carr Honoré (Both Lockwood and Carr are Scottish names.)

Her family moved to Chicago when she was six and built a house on Ashland avenue. They later sold the house to Carter Harrison, Sr., mayor of Chicago, who was also from Kentucky. It was in this house that he was fatally shot and killed, March 3, 1879. The first people on the scene were William and Joan  (Pinkerton)  Chalmers who lived across the street. From the lunch room at Rush Presbyterian Hospital you can clearly see the old Chalmers mansion. I spent a lot of time in that lunch room but didn’t know that Bertha Palmer and her family lived across the street. The Honoré family moved to Michigan avenue after the Civil War.

Bertha attended the Covenant of the Visitation in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. She graduated in 1867 with honors in history, geography, the sciences, philosophy, literature, rhetoric and composition. She was honored for her talents in piano, harp and vocal music. After graduation, Bertha made her debut in the new family home on Michigan Avenue. She had many admirers but one uncommon man came to the front of the line. Potter Palmer, recently returned from Europe, had made up his mind. Bertha Honoré would become his wife. He was 42. She was just 21.

This story has survived the years and it may well be true. In 1862, Palmer came to the house on Ashland avenue to discuss various real estate developments that he and Henry Honoré had in progress. There, he met the very beautiful thirteen-year-old Bertha with sparkling eyes and long dark hair and graceful movements. “Finding her to be intelligent with impeccable manners and an aura of self-assurance, he was at once smitten. When Bertha came of age, he vowed, she would be an ideal wife and companion.” During the next few years, he often saw Bertha and her mother shopping in his department store. They always received his personal attention. By the age of 38, Palmer had amassed a fortune of $7 million but his health had suffered and he was lonely. It was time to find a wife but before that happened he would spend three years in Europe.

When he returned to Chicago in 1868, he built a ball field for the Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs), attended the horse races and enjoyed the company of pretty women. His work now consisted in making State Street the main shopping district. “He tore down old buildings, widened avenues, and constructed stores, banks and other buildings for commercial use. It was reported that by 1870, he owned 117 properties with a gross income of two hundred thousand dollars.”

“In the intervening years, Bertha had blossomed from a lovely young girl to a poised and beautiful woman.” Palmer asked permission of the parents to begin courting and they consented. He began sending flowers and asking permission to escort her to theaters, restaurants and galas.

They were married in the Honoré home on July 28, 1870 after a courtship of only two months. The ceremony took place at five o’clock and was performed by the pastor of the First Christian Church. There were no bridesmaids, groomsman or ushers - only immediate relatives of the bride and groom. A large reception was later held at the Honoré residence, Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. Refreshments were served on two thousand pieces of silver. After the reception, they left for New York and then to Europe for their honeymoon. In Europe, he bought her “anything and everything, particularly fine jewelry, high fashion apparel, and lavish furnishings for their homes.” The lived in the finest hotels, attended the theater, toured museums and gardens, visited historical monuments and castles.” Mr. Palmer was studying architecture because he was going to build a grand hotel for his bride.

In 1873, they moved into their spacious apartment at the Palmer House. In 1874, their first child was born. In 1875, the second son was born. “These domestic years were times of contentment for Potter Palmer who took great pleasure in his home and family.” He called his young wife Cissie. There was never a scandal, though at times he was jealous of the attention she received. From all accounts Bertha was a faithful and devoted partner.

“Bertha Palmer was an exceptionally progressive, astute, and accomplished woman who possessed the charisma and grace to captivate those who knew her. She was ambitious and opportunistic. She sought the limelight. It may also be said that she chose to live a life of frivolity, over-abundant acquisition and conspicuous consumption. She did it all with grandeur and style.”

After the death of her husband, she spent much time in Europe, buying expensive homes in London and Paris. Queen Victoria died the same year and her son, the Prince of Wales, ascended the throne and became King Edward VII. Bertha Palmer was a close friend. She attended races at Ascot, went to hunting events and often played golf with the King. “She learned of his particular preferences and gave intimate dinner parties of eight in London, at Sandringham Castle or at Biarritz.” When the King died in 1910, Bertha Palmer returned to America..

“Speculation sporadically arose about romances between Bertha and various wealthy and titled widowers. In fact, there were suitors of French ancestry with whom she was frequently seen. Some of the names circulated among the gossip mongers were the Earl of Munster, the Duke of Atholl, the Prince of Monace, and the King of Serbia.”

Nevertheless, she remained Mrs. Potter Palmer.

( I have borrowed extensively for this article from the graduate thesis of Hope L. Black, University of South Florida, entitled Mounted on a Pedestal: Bertha Honoré Palmer. You can download it on the Internet.) This is just a glimpse into the life of Bertha Palmer.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

November 1 - Next meeting of the Scottish American History Club.
Charles Gonzalez and his father will be our special guests.
They visited France for the D-day celebrations this year.
Come see how the beaches have changed.
We will listen to John LeNoble as he tells the story of our flag
Beth Brown will play the piano and lead us in singing.
We will pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

NOVEMBER 22, 2014 - The Scots of Chicago will celebrate St. Andrew’s Day and our 169 years of history at the Palmer House Hilton on State Street in Chicago, Illinois. Click here for information and reservations.


  1. Thank you for this blog, Wayne. A fascinating woman!
    - Heather

  2. She was an interesting woman who lived in a fascinating era. Chicago's PBS station, WTTW.org had a documentary about Berthe and Potter. It's well worth watching online or on DVD.