Mary Bartelme

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Mary Bartelme
Head and shoulders of a serious and dignified woman in her forties, with dark hair up and in a dress with high lace collar and a cameo at her throat, Edwardian style
Bartelme circa 1913
Cook County Public Guardian
In office
Appointed byGov. John R. Tanner
Cook County Circuit Court assistant judge
In office
Cook County Circuit Court associate justice
In office
Cook County Circuit Court -- Juvenile Court presiding judge
In office
Personal details
BornJuly 24, 1866
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedJuly 25, 1954(1954-07-25) (aged 88)
Carmel, California, U.S.

Mary Margaret Bartelme (July 24, 1866 – July 25, 1954) was a pioneering American judge and lawyer, particularly in the area of juvenile justice. She was the first woman appointed Cook County Public Guardian in Illinois in 1897, and the first woman elected judge in a court of high jurisdiction in the state in 1923. Earlier, appointed a judge assistant in 1913, she began hearing court cases involving juveniles and was referred to at that time as, "America's only woman judge", by The New York Times.[1]

Early years[edit]

Mary Bartelme was born in Chicago, the daughter of an immigrant from Saarland, Germany, Balthasar Bartelme and his wife Jeannette. She had three sisters and two brothers, and attended West Division High School. She graduated from Cook County Normal School, a teachers' college, and taught for five years,[2] before deciding to attend law school, at the age of 25. In 1892, she enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law, from which she graduated; she was admitted to the Illinois Bar by 1894.[3]

Professional career[edit]

Known as a social reformer, during the Progressive Era, Mary Bartelme devoted much of her life to the reform of juvenile laws and the welfare of children. In 1897, she was named Cook County Public Guardian, the first woman in this post.[4] She became known throughout Illinois as a tireless advocate for children; her compassion for the girls who came before her earned her the nickname "Mother Barthelme."[5] She would later acquire another nickname, "Suitcase Mary," because when she sent girls to foster homes, she always provided them with clean clothes, packed in a new suitcase.[2]

Bartelme believed that there was dramatic social neglect of girls, that parents must speak frankly with their daughters about sex, and that poverty was the main cause of delinquency. In May 1912, she was named an Assistant Judge in the Juvenile Court of Cook County.[6] Then, in March 1913 Bartelme convened a special Girls' Court, which heard cases of delinquent and dependent girls, many of them prostitutes. All personnel in this closed court were female, which was felt to encourage a more open discussion of sexual and other private matters.[7] Bartelme later established three Mary Clubs for girls who were not able to return to their parents, supported by volunteer services, as an alternative to state institutions. The first two clubs, which started in 1914 and 1916, accepted white girls; the last one, started in 1921, accepted girls of color. More than 2,000 girls passed through these group homes in a space of ten years.[8]

Throughout her career, Bartleme received national and international visitors, who came to study her pioneering work.[9] She was featured in the May 25, 1913, issue of The New York Times Magazine in an article entitled, "America's Only Woman Judge Is Doing a Big Work". In the 1916-1917, she served as vice chair of the National Woman's Party.[1]


In late 1923, she was elected Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and she was re-elected in 1927.[10] After a distinguished career, she retired in June 1933. Prior to her official retirement, in May, more than 2000 well-wishers honored her with a luncheon, at which she was praised for her many achievements.

Later years[edit]

After she retired, Judge Bartelme moved to the west coast, residing in Carmel, California, where she lived with a niece. She occasionally returned to Chicago for a visit.[4] In 1933, architect Guy O. Koepp finished constructing a residence built in the Carmel Highlands for her.[11]

In California, she continued to do speaking engagements, discussing the need to improve the juvenile justice system. In 1936, she received Primary Class Instruction in Christian Science from Bicknell Young CSD, having been a practising Christian Scientist for many years. She died in late July 1954, at age 88. One of her final requests was that upon her death, in lieu of flowers, donations would be made to the Mary Bartelme Clubs, which were still in operation.[2]

Mary Bartelme would later be described as the single most important person in the first 25 years of the Cook County Juvenile Court, the first juvenile court established in the U.S.[12]


In September 1957, a new Chicago elementary school that was named for her opened. It was able to accommodate more than 400 students.[13] The school was located on Ridge in Rogers Park. It was torn down sometime in the 1970s to make way for a senior citizen apartment home.

Mary Bartelme Park, in the West Loop area of Chicago, is also named in her honor.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Judge Mary A. [Mary Margaret] Bartelme, of Illinois, is second vice-chairman of the National Woman's Party. She is the judge of the Children's Night Court of Chicago". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-05-26.
  2. ^ a b c "Suitcase Mary, Famous Illinois Judge, Dies at 88". Corsicana (TX) Daily Sun. 26 July 1954.
  3. ^ "Mary Bartelme papers, 1904-1958". Explore Chicago Collections. University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved 2020-05-26.
  4. ^ a b "Judge Mary Bartelme, 88, Dies in West". Chicago Tribune. 26 July 1954.
  5. ^ "Miss Mary Bartelme to Serve as Judge". Connellsville (PA) Daily Courier. 26 December 1912.
  6. ^ "Woman is Named Juvenile Judge". Christian Science Monitor. 1 June 1912.
  7. ^ "Girls Court in Chicago". Albert Lea (MN) Evening Tribune. 5 March 1913.
  8. ^ Dohrn B (2002). "The school, the child, and the court". In Roesnheim MK, Zimring FE, Tanenhaus DS, Dohrn B (eds.). A Century of Juvenile Justice. University of Chicago Press. pp. 267–309. ISBN 0-226-72783-1.
  9. ^ Sawyers, June (March 12, 1989). ""Suitcase Mary" Leads a Crusade for Needy Girls". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2020-05-26.
  10. ^ "Mary Barthelme First Woman Judge in Illinois Courts". Chicago Tribune. 7 November 1923.
  11. ^ "Local Architect Plans Handsome Residence". Carmel Pine Cone. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. 1933-05-26. p. 10. Retrieved 2023-05-14.
  12. ^ Burton K (2002). "Mother knows best: Mary Margaret Bartelme and the Chicago juvenile reform movement" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-04-11. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ "Mary Bartelme Elementary School to House 435". Chicago Tribune. 29 August 1957.
  14. ^ "Bartelme (Mary) Park". Chicago Park District. Retrieved 2018-07-01.

Further reading[edit]