Friday, May 31, 2013

TWO BROTHERS STRICKEN - Benjamin and Louis Bernstein

People ask me why I spend so much time on this blog.  They wonder why I spend my weekends in cemeteries and free time researching the stories I write about.  I was a history major in college and always more interested in what happened here 100 years ago than what happened here yesterday.  As a historian I love to "catalog" the past - to research and write about people of days gone by.  We are products of those who came before us, and perhaps by learning a little more about them we can know a little more about ourselves.  

I spent Memorial Day in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery doing Find a Grave photo requests and, as always, looking for tombstones that look like they might have an interesting story behind them (or under them). Since it was Memorial Day, I paid my respects at the grave of Irving Narter ( and then just wandered among the graves at Gate 15 - B'nai Moshe. Not too far from the grave of Irving Narter, I came across a tall, imposing monument:

Taking a closer look, I saw that it was the final resting place of Benjamin and Louis Bernstein who died within two weeks of each other in 1918.  Louis on October 6, 1918 and Benjamin on October 18, 1918. Louis was 30, Benjamin was 31.  I had my suspicions about what happened to the Bernstein brothers, but let's see what we can find out about the Bernstein family:

Benjamin Hyman Bernstein was born July 1, 1887 in Lithuania to Isaak Bernstein (1849-1911) and Rose, nee Aronson (1849-1924).  I was not able to locate a photo of Rose, but here's a photo of Isaak Bernstein looking prosperous:

Isaak Bernstein (1849-1911)

The Bernsteins came to the United States in 1889 and became naturalized American citizens on March 25, 1893.  The family consisted of Anna (1872-1932), Sarah (1877-1953), Bernard (1887-1918), Louis (1888-1918), and Jacob (1891-1968).  Isaak and Rose had been married in 1868 in Lithuania.    

The 1900 Census has the family living in Hammond, Indiana.  There was Isaac (as he now spelled it), Rosa, Bernard, Louis and Jacob. Isaac Bernstein owned a saloon.  By 1910 the Bernsteins had moved to Chicago.  Isaac gave up the saloon - he was now a peddler of dry goods.  Their oldest son, who now called himself Bennie, was clerking for a lawyer; Louis and Jacob were working for a printer as typesetters. Interestingly, all the men listed their primary language as "English" but Rose's was "Yiddish".        

The happy occasion of Benjamin passing the bar exam in July of 1910 was tempered by the death of the family patriarch Isaac Bernstein on May 14, 1911.  On April 6, 1917 Benjamin married Perle Goldberg (1897-1985).  When Benjamin registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 he said he was living at 3509 Douglas Boulevard and was self-employed as a lawyer at 155 N. Clark Street in downtown Chicago. Benjamin and Perle celebrated the birth of their daughter Shirley Hope Bernstein (1918-2006) on May 1, 1918:

Unfortunately, 3509 W. Douglas Boulevard is now a vacant lot:

3509 W. Douglas Boulevard, Chicago

and there is a modern highrise where 155 N. Clark used to stand.

Benjamin Bernstein was considered to be a brilliant attorney.  Family lore says that he had received a special silver handled umbrella from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.  It is safe to say that the future was bright for Benjamin Bernstein as the autumn of 1918 approached. He was happily married, had an infant daughter and was a renowned attorney.  Globally, the First World War was drawing to a close.  Things couldn't be better for Benjamin Bernstein.
Before we enter that fateful autumn of 1918, let's step back a minute and take a look at Ben's brother Louis.  Louis Solom Bernstein was born in July 3, 1888 in Lithuania, also to Isaak and Rose Bernstein.  He came to the US with his family in 1889 and became a naturalized American citizen with them on March 25, 1893.  Although the 1910 Census showed him as a typesetter for a printer, he had decided to follow his brother into the practice of law.  

We don't know when Louis Bernstein passed the bar exam, but when he registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 he said he was a self-employed attorney with the law firm of Bernstein and Bernstein.  He listed his home address as 3146 Douglas Boulevard.  Unfortunately, 3146 W. Douglas Boulevard is also a vacant lot today:

3144-46 W. Douglas Boulevard, Chicago

Although Louis Bernstein had not found the right girl to marry yet, his future was bright as well.  He was in partnership with his brother and they shared a thriving legal practice.  They were both successful enough to have some spare time, and became involved in the Zionist movement in Chicago.  Yes, the future was bright for Louis Bernstein when he entered that fateful autumn of 1918.

Before we look at what happened to the Bernstein Brothers, let's take another quick look at the Spanish Influenza.  An excellent resource for those wishing more information about this catastrophe that changed so many American families can find it at DePaul University's website:

From the website:  "The Spanish Influenza was one of the deadliest epidemics in history, lasting from 1918 to 1919.  More than one-fifth of the world's population suffered from some of the disease's deadly symptoms, including aches and fevers.  The Spanish Influenza claimed the deaths of more than 21,000,000 people worldwide, including 600,000 in America alone.  Of those, 8,500 of the victims lived in Chicago.  Although people of all ages were susceptible to influenza, a majority of the people who died as a result of influenza were between twenty and forty years old.  The Spanish Influenza took the country by storm during another time of crisis- World War I.  This factor aided the spread of the disease considerably.  As soldiers traveled from port to port, they brought with them influenza germs as well as their weapons.  Red Cross units were already organized for the war effort, but they turned their attention to aiding flu victims as well.   Although the epidemic originated in Kansas, it quickly spread to other cities in the United States including Chicago."

Although Louis Bernstein was the younger of the two brothers he came down with the flu first.  Each of the brothers only lasted four days after they became ill.  Louis got sick October 2, the doctor was called in on October 5, and he died at home at 6:00 PM on October 6, 1918.

Benjamin got sick on October 14, but consulted a doctor on the same day.  Unfortunately this did not make a difference and Benjamin Bernstein died at his home at 10:45 AM on October 18, 1918.

Benjamin died just one day after October 17, 1918, the day known as Black Thursday, when 381 people died in Chicago and nearly 1,200 more contracted the illness in a single 24-hour period.

Louis was 29,
Louis Bernstein

Benjamin was 30.
Benjamin Bernstein

Here is Louis Bernstein's obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of October 8, 1918:

and Benjamim Bernstein's obituary from the Tribune on October 19, 1918:

This was still relatively early in the epidemic so public funerals were still being held.  Family lore says that Ben Bernstein's funeral was attended by both Supreme Court Justices Benjamin Cardozo and Louis Brandeis. Within a short time public funerals would be banned altogether and burials often took place just hours after death, even among those without a Jewish heritage.

The family decided to bury the brothers side-by-side at Gate 15 - B'nai Moshe at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park.  Their impressive monument is adorned with Hebrew and Masonic symbols.

Ben and Louis' mother, Rose Aronson Bernstein died in Chicago on August 20, 1924 at the age of 74.

Unlike his brothers, Jacob Bernstein remained in the printing business, eventually working for the Cuneo Press in Chicago.  We don't know if he had the Spanish influenza - but if he did, he recovered.  Jacob Bernstein died in Chicago in September of 1968 at the age of 77.

Benjamin Bernstein's widow Perle remarried, to Leonard Judah Krane on June 14, 1920.  They went on to have three children of their own. Perle Goldberg Bernstein Krane died June 21, 1985 in Chicago at the age of 88.

Shirley (Shirlee) Hope Bernstein died in Chicago in 2006, also at the age of 88.

What would have happened to the Bernstein family if the Spanish Influenza had never happened?  It is safe to say that Louis would probably have married and had children.  Benjamin Bernstein would probably have had a larger family than his one daughter.  His brilliant legal mind might have taken him to the judicial bench - possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court following Justices Cardozo and Brandeis - who knows?

The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 affected more families worldwide than even were affected by World War I.  It certainly devastated the Bernstein family of Chicago.

May Benjamin and Louis Bernstein rest in peace.  


  1. Fascinating post, as always. :) When I saw the year, I was thinking it was flu ---- it's staggering to think of that kind of epidemic moving so quickly.

  2. Thank you for your research. I am Shirley Hope's grandson. I was deeply moved to see her birth certificate. We were close. Benjamin Bernstein was my great grandfather. His widow, Perle, remarried an architect, Leonard Krane. They had three children, all boys. The youngest became a prominent attorney. Shirley had three children, two boys and a girl. One of the boys became a successful Washington D.C. tax attorney. I too am an attorney.