Between the ages of 5 and 18, I lived in a split-level ranch house on a hill between two nearly identical houses. To our right were the Judkinses. We knew them very well; they had a daughter, Kristy, who was close to my age. My sister and I grew up running out of the side door of the garage and into Kristy Judkins’s house, banging into her kitchen and opening her fridge to hunt for orange soda.
To our left were the Hansens. Though they were our neighbors for more than a decade, with only a big pine tree separating our houses, I never learned a single personal thing about them. All I knew was that we weren’t supposed to walk on their front lawn. Ever. Mr. Hansen was around 70 years old, and very grumpy—he hated our dogs, and he wouldn’t let us use his backyard as a shortcut. He went outside about four times a year, and that was usually to yell at us about (a) walking on his lawn, (b) our dogs, or (c) crossing his backyard. Mr. Hansen was supposed to be married to and living with Mrs. Hansen, and they were said to have grown children who had long since moved out, but I never saw Mrs. Hansen even once.
Our block was a friendly one—most of the neighbors knew one another and there were lots of kids on our street. We all attended the same schools and there were block parties every summer. We grew up together, we knew each other’s parents and what everyone’s backyards and bedrooms and basements were like. We made snow forts in a nearby field and we roved in packs to play glow Frisbee and Ghost in the Graveyard. But the Hansens were a mystery to everyone. No one had ever seen the inside of their house, and neither had anyone had so much as a conversation with Mr. Hansen.
The fact that this family lived right there, right next door, and yet were so out of reach made me insanely curious. How, I wondered, could I spend my life 20 feet away from someone and never know them?
It happens. Sometimes you never really get to know your neighbors. There are things happening next door, across the street, two houses down, that you will never learn. Every house and apartment is a mini world unto itself. If you’ve ever flown in a plane and looked down as you were taking off or landing, you’ve seen hundreds and thousands of houses. All of them hold strangers you’ll probably never meet. We’ll never really know what goes on under any roof but our own.
Which leads me to this story—it’s a really gruesome story involving death and decay, so stop reading now if that kind of thing is not for you. In November 2008, police officers in Evanston, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago, and very close to my apartment), entered a roomy old house on an upscale street and discovered a secret. A big secret. The owner of the house, Margaret Bernstorff, in her mid-90s and described as reclusive but “sweet” by her neighbors, had been living with the bodies of her three deceased siblings, one of whom had died over 30 years earlier. The corpses, described as “skeletal” in news accounts, were found in their respective rooms, covered by blankets.
The siblings were a brother and two sisters—Anita, who had just died that May at the age of 98; Frank, who died in 2003 at 83; and Elaine, who died in the late ’70s when she was in her 60s.
Nobody had any idea. Margaret’s neighbors told the police and reporters that she was a nice lady who was often seen outside tending to her flower garden. She gave people flowers when they stopped to help her carry her groceries to her door or dropped off food for her (they were never invited inside). No one had seen Anita, Frank, or Elaine for a while, but when they asked after them, Margaret would say they were sick, or had moved away.
Margaret was taken to a senior care facility, and the county medical examiner found no evidence of foul play—all three siblings had died of heart disease.
But why? Why would someone do this? This is the part of the story that draws me in. A neighbor speculated that maybe Margaret just didn’t know what to do when her sisters and brother died, but that doesn’t make sense. Since all the siblings died at completely different times spanning three decades, that means that…Margaret, Anita, and Frank had all consciously chosen to live with Elaine’s dead body in the house for a very long time. One person might not know what to do about a dead body, but three people? And when Frank died, Anita and Margaret knowingly lived with their brother’s and their sister’s remains.
Maybe there was a lack of funds for a burial. Maybe the four siblings were extremely (EXTREMELY) attached to one another. Maybe they made a pact to always stick together, to die, all of them, together in that house. But even if you’re not scared of death or repulsed by dead things, our society has such a horror of the dead that the most plausible explanation here is mental illness, and if that’s the case I’m glad that Margaret is in a place where she might get some treatment and some care.
Even accepting that commonsense and sad theory, though, there are still so many questions! For example: What could it have been like getting up to get a drink of water in the middle of the night in that house? And…what about…the smell? The smell of death is unmistakable and unforgettable. A dead mouse in the basement smells so bad it can make you retch in the upstairs bedroom, and we are talking about three adult human beings who stayed in the house until they turned into skeletons. How did no one ever notice anything at all?
Also: How is it that in 30 years, the only outsider who ever set foot in the house was a neighbor who rented garage space from Margaret, and he only did so once? (He said every room was filled with stacks of newspapers, some piled all the way to the ceiling.) How isolated would poor Margaret have had to have been? How did the Bernstorff siblings live, when they were all alive? Why did none of them ever marry, choosing to live together their whole lives in a two-story Victorian-style house in the suburbs? What happened to them—did they have any other family, and if so, why weren’t their relatives watching over them? What would you do if you were all alone and very old? How is it possible to live next door to or across the street from a sad and scary thing like this and never even know?
It makes me wonder what other mysteries and secrets lurk in all the millions of homes we fly over and drive past. Who lives next door to you? I live in an apartment building, across the hall from people I’ve never met. I share a wall with people I’ve never even seen. Total strangers live above and below me. We all live our lives within 10 feet of one another, and we would never recognize each other on the street. Unless I go knock on their doors and introduce myself (not happening), I may never meet the people I share my living space with. Our worlds are totally different—so close and so far away. It’s actually really weird when you think about it.
I’ve driven past the Bernstorff house a few times. It looks no different from any other house on the street. A couple bought it three years ago; it’s been cheerily repainted, there’s a wreath on the front door, and yellow light shines from the windows. It looks cozy and warm, just like all the other houses on that block, and all the other houses on all the other blocks that make up the neighborhood, and the city. You’d never suspect that anything abnormal ever happened there. What’s happening in all those other houses? ♦