No Fairy Godmother, No Glass Slipper, No ProblemOn December 8, 2021 by Elyse
Once upon a time in a not-so-faraway land, there lived a young lady. . .
“Pretty Anna” is the name by which everyone knew the beautiful Bohemian Anna Witkower, who for many months was a chambermaid at the Palmer House Hotel, Chicago. . .
It’s not the most creative moniker, but it’s better than “Cinderella,” right? Like her forerunner, Anna worked in domestic service and was underpaid and underappreciated. It was the Gilded Age after all.
One summer day in 1892, a handsome prince rode up to the hotel atop a white horse and called out, “Pretty Anna, let down your hair!” Okay, he was actually an aristocratic Austrian millionaire named Baron Sohlberg, we don’t know what mode of transportation brought him to the Palmer House, and he definitely didn’t confuse Anna for Rapunzel. Still, close enough.
The world became different to Anna Witkower when the gallant and handsome foreigner spoke kindly to her in a way indefinably different from the hundreds who had spoken to the maid before. It was part of Anna’s duty to care for this pleasant-spoken man’s room, and he was nearly always about when she came to perform it. . .
In the meantime he had told the girl of his limited acquaintances in America, and that he knew absolutely no one in Chicago. In a most courtly, polite way he invited her to the theatre. She hesitated, but finally accepted.
Cue the singing mice.
Some people have all the luck. The only invitations I ever get on the dating apps are neither courtly nor polite:
Ahem, anyway. Moving on.
One of the clerks of the hotel was surprised that night to see the Baron and “pretty Anna” in a box at the theatre. He was indignant as well as surprised. After the performance he followed the couple. He was obliged to run through the streets, as the Baron and Anna took a carriage. . .
In this version of the fairy tale, the evil stepmother is played by a nosy clerk with too much time on his hands.
[A]fter luncheon the couple walked around on Wabash Avenue to the Palmer. At the alley the girl left her escort, and went into the hotel by the servants’ entrance, the Baron going to the guests’ entrance. Shortly after this the Baron went away.– The Dundee Courier, July 29, 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive
The baron had expected to stay at the Palmer House for only two days, but so enchanted was he that he extended his trip to two weeks. He clearly wasn’t worried about airline, er, ocean liner, change fees. However, all good things must come to an end.
[A]fter returning to his own country he could not rid himself of the bright eyes and pretty face of Anna Witkower.– The Mississippi Leader, August 1, 1893
Fortunately, the baron didn’t have to throw a ball and smell the feet of every woman in the land to find her.
[T]he mail clerk, who had been given the chase through the streets, found many letters in the mail addressed to “Anna Witkower, employed.”
Disappointingly from a narrative standpoint, no mention is made of the clerk withholding those letters from Anna. In fact:
Baron Sohlberg came again to the Palmer House last spring, staying another two weeks. There were more visits to the theatres, and on afternoons, when some one of Anna’s friends would volunteer to do her work, she and the Baron would enjoy drives about town.
A short time after the Baron brought his second visit to a close Anna announced her intention of leaving the Palmer House and going to work in a hotel in Waukesha. About the beginning of May she left, and the mail clerk noticed the absence of letters addressed to “Anna Witkower, employed.”– The Dundee Courier, July 29, 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive
Oh no! Did Anna hug the baron too often? Did he get cold feet and ghost her? Did cats tear them apart? The course of true love never did run smooth. But fear not, dear readers:
Saturday when the Baron made his third visit to Chicago the couple were married.– The Evening World, July 17, 1893
The girl and the Baron were almost forgotten at the Palmer, when he walked in the other day and wrote on the register, “Baron and Baroness Sohlberg, Austria.”– The Dundee Courier, July 29, 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive
The bride had dropped her plain workday dress and wore a rich satin gown, with diamond ornaments.– The Iowa County Democrat, July 21, 1893
They were leaving in a few minutes for New York, but although the minutes were few the Baroness Sohlberg carried a mammoth bouquet of roses when she stepped into the carriage that took her away from the hotel.
The Baron said they were going to visit some of the ocean resorts, returning to Chicago to see the [World’s Columbian Exposition] in the cool weather before leaving the country for Austria. . . In her happiness [Anna] did not forget the girls with whom she worked, and insisted she was going to take the first opportunity to write to each of them.– The Dundee Courier, July 29, 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive
Since the carriage didn’t transform into a pumpkin, we can assume they lived happily ever after. The end.
It is said that this little episode has caused a number to pretty young girls in the Windy City to apply for positions as waitresses.– The Mississippi Leader, August 1, 1893
Epilogue: They even spurred the local economy!
My own fairy godmother for this post was Jenni at The Girl in the Tiara, who kindly followed me down the rabbit hole and dug up and translated articles from several databases. Check out her gorgeous website for compelling tales of fascinating royal women throughout the ages!
Interestingly, although the story of Anna and the Baron appeared in newspapers across the U.S., we came across very few mentions of the couple in German-language newspapers. Moreover, I found precious little evidence of either in other historical records. It may very well be that neither ever existed and their relationship is as much a fairy tale as Cinderella and her prince.
But I like to think it happened. I was once accused of having a distinctly American bias towards happy endings. Guilty as charged. These days, who couldn’t use a happy ending, y’know?
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.
Hmmm, sounds kinda’ similar to a story in my own family tree. Even the building pictured looks similar. One of my ancestors was working in a candy shop on the ground floor of The Powers Building, owned by a banker, one of the wealthiest men in Rochester NY. His son came in and took a fancy to her.
But there was no happy ending in this one.
Over the STRENUOUS objections of his parents he married her. They did everything they could to torpedo the marriage and eventually -coupled with him being a spoiled rich kid, who kept forgetting he was married – they succeeded.
She ended up dying alone, slowly going blind, in the Binghamton State Hospital Asylum. 🥺
Poor lady! I’m sure there’s a lesson somewhere in there about taking, er, giving candy to strangers. But I’m glad your family has preserved her story. Thanks for reading and sharing it! I have some questions about some of my ancestors’ marriages, but the census records are frustratingly silent. -_-