The Saga of Bertha Peth, Michigan’s “Island Queen”
Bertha Peth died at the age of 83 in 1956. She had been a resident of South Manitou and only left the island once in 22 years. She was called the “Queen of the Island” or “Island Queen” who lived in an old island shack.
Some island children and those who visited were afraid of her, thinking of the witch in “Hansel & Gretel”, but Bertha was not like that at all. She would happily sell candy to the kids and cigarettes to adults out of her little house.
Bertha was born in Germany in 1873. A few years later, her family came to America and moved to Chicago. In 1891 when she was 20 years old, she moved to South Manitou Island to begin work as a nursemaid for a Mrs. Tilton.
While employed, she met and fell in love with John Hutzler, a relative of Mrs. Tilton’s. They were married in 1893. In 1899, Bertha gave birth to a son, Stanley, and so begins the saga of Bertha Peth.
In 1901, when he was two years old, Stanley died. But from what? The death certificate states it was from “hemorrhaging of the bowels” due to infant leukemia. Signs included dark skin blotches, swollen glands, and bruises – which gave rise to the rumor that Stanley had been trampled to death by a bull while Bertha was in the house entertaining guests. To make things worse, gossipy islanders began spreading the word that it wasn’t other women that Bertha had to the house…but a sailor who was visiting the island and “spending time” with her. The family insisted the death was indeed from leukemia.
The loss of their son plus this vicious rumor put strain on Bertha & John’s marriage and they eventually divorced. After the divorce, Bertha moved into a different house on the island and lived alone for the rest of her life. She made money by hunting & gathering ginseng roots and selling them to a pharmaceutical company.
Living alone for so long without medical assistance, Bertha came down with a dangerous eye infection in 1955. She refused to leave the island for medical help and was finally forced to leave by the Coast Guard. She had only been off the island one other time, when someone talked her into visiting the mainland in 1946…it failed to impress her and she vowed to never visit the mainland again.
At 82 years old, she was admitted into the Frankfort hospital. She spent the rest of her life in a convalescent home in Frankfort and died the following year (1956). She is buried in one of South Manitou island’s two cemeteries.
If you get the chance to visit the island, pay a visit to Bertha’s grave. She would be honored. To see Bertha's gravesite and a picture of what she looked like when she was around 20 years old, click HERE.
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