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Bertha Never Looked Back

July 2024
2min read

A lively Victorian love story has emerged around an infant that we once erroneously described as General Custer’s child. Last February we published a letter from the western historian Robert M. Utley, who, speaking of a photograph that ran in the June, 1970, issue, said that the people shown on a porch in Fort Leavenworth were not Custer and his wife—as we had claimed —but rather the Indian fighter Albert Barnitz, his wife, Jenny, and their daughter Bertha.

This revelation prompted Betty Byrne, the Marquesa de Zahara, to write us from her home in Ireland:

I have just received a copy of your publication, which contains a picture of my grandparents Albert and Jenny Barnitz holding their baby daughter Bertha, who is my mother.

I do think that the house in the picture must previously have been Custer’s headquarters, because when Custer was court-martialed, my grandmother Jenny wrote to her mother that she had got the Custer quarters and had three cleaning women, as “Mrs. Custer did not leave the quarters as clean as she might.”

As for baby Bertha, Leavenworth was to play a very large role in her life. Bertha grew into a handsome young woman. One day, while she was traveling on a Hudson River Day Line steamer, she caught the eye of C. A. White, who promptly dedicated to her a song called “Marguerite” that he had just written, and followed up by making her his fiancée. The entire Barnitz tribe, complete with a parrot in a cage, set forth to Europe to buy a trousseau.

Representatives from White’s publishing house—for he also published music—came to the sailing and brought the bride-to-be a bouquet of marguerites and a gold bracelet with a large heart on it containing Mr. White’s picture, and the ship’s band played “Marguerite.” It was an immensely popular song and sold two million copies, or so it says on the sheet music. It is a wistful ditty, rather unfortunately prophetic as it says: “But O, the time is coming Marguerite, when you’ll forget us all.”

No one seemed to hurry, as they took months getting the trousseau—not that it was so large. In the meantime the bridegroom was busy. He built a house for his bride, with white wallpaper adorned with gold bars of the music of “Marguerite” in her bedroom. A portrait of the prospective Mrs. White in black velvet with diamonds in her ears hung on the drawing-room mantel.

But when Bertha came home, she carried on the tradition of Leavenworth girls returning to the spawning field like salmon, and went back out west for one last visit before her marriage. One of the girls at the post persuaded a reluctant Bertha to come out to the hop on Saturday. “I’ll send Ben Byrne to fetch you,” she said. That did it. Bernard Byrne was a handsome young infantry lieutenant, and Bertha decided to marry him instead.

Ben—my father—felt she was an unusual young lady for a reason I have never heard before or since: she knew the names of all the trees they passed en route to the dance, and he was overcome.

The family kicked up a row about switching bridegrooms in midstream, but finally my grandfather said, “Damned little fool! Let her marry as she pleases!” My grandmother was elected to return the jewels to White, but Mother always claimed that a ruby ring was “forgotten” in the excitement. It clasps my pearls.

I regret to say that Mr. White cut the black velvet portrait out of the frame, burned it, and died of an overdose of morphine forthwith.

Bertha never looked back. Ten years later she and my father were still writing each other letters like a pair of romantic teen-agers.

For the fun of it, I have included a picture of Bertha in her Worth dress, in which she opened the Washington Birthday Ball at the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine on her honeymoon, and one of her leaning on a cannon in Leavenworth.

Mother had a curious moonlight quality, very pale gold hair, dark blue eyes, and no other coloring. Very slim, alas, in an age when Lillian Russell was the toast of America. She upholstered herself to bulge in the right spots.

Mother raised me to marry into the Army, of course. Told me how to get on with the colonel’s wife, etc. I was a great disappointment, but at least my brother Colonel Bernard Albert Byrne (Infantry) saved the family face.

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