Bertha Berner

(June 12, 1861 – March 11, 1945)

Best known as the private secretary and companion to philanthropist Jane Stanford, and perhaps her murderer, Bertha Berner was in the U.S. by the time she was three. It is unknown if she was born in Germany, or in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Her parents, August and Marie Berner, had seven children, but only Bertha and a younger brother survived. For a time, Bertha worked as a bookkeeper in Kansas, before she, her mother and younger brother moved to California hoping it would improve her mother’s health. Her parents no longer lived together, and Bertha became the family breadwinner. Jane Stanford was the wife of railroad magnate Leland Stanford. Their only child, Leland Jr. died tragically at the age of 15 from typhoid fever. Bertha and her mother attended the boy’s memorial service in 1884, and Bertha then wrote to Jane Stanford for employment, offering to help with her correspondence. Jane was a firm believer in spiritualism and received a message from their son from “the other side” to “educate the citizens of California”. His parents decided to fund a school in his name. From the time of her husband’s death in 1893, until her own death in 1905, Jane was the driving force behind what became Stanford University but known as Leland Stanford Jr. University at the time. Bertha was 23 when she started to work for Jane Stanford, and they were together, on and off, for the next twenty years. Their relationship was at times rocky, with Stanford wanting to control the lives of everyone around her. Sometimes Bertha left for a time, and sometimes Jane fired her, but Bertha always returned to Stanford. Bertha lived with the couple in D.C. when Leland Stanford served as a California state Senator until his death in 1893.

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