Miss Bernice Gardner Palmer was born in Waterloo, Ontario on 10 January 1893. She was the daughter of Frederick Douglas Palmer, a US-born bookkeeper of English descent, and the former Florence Cleugh Brydon, the daughter of Scottish migrants. She had one sibling, her elder brother Douglas.
Bernice lived at Brant Road in Galt, Waterloo, Ontario with her family from where her father was employed at the sawmills.
Bernice was gifted with a Kodak camera shortly before she and her mother left Canada, bound for a Mediterranean cruise; they boarded the Carpathia as first cabin passengers and were aboard the ship when she rescued the survivors of the Titanic disaster. Interviewed years later, Bernice recounted that the bitter cold, coupled with the commotion on the decks above, stirred her from her sleep.
“A few minutes after that, the constant rhythm of the engines stopped and the boat was very still, so I knew something was wrong. And I looked out of the porthole and saw several small boats with people in them rowing toward the ship.” — San Bernardino Sun, 15 April 1982
She recalled how the people taken out of the lifeboats were in a mishmash of clothing, some well-prepared and dressed warmly, with others in evening dresses and suits and others in just nightclothes. Two first class men, she remembered, went around apologising for their survival, one reportedly only surviving because his wife would not leave him and the other because he had been ordered into a lifeboat to help man the craft.
Using her Kodak, Bernice took many candid snapshots of the survivors aboard the ship, some of the most well-known, including that of newlyweds George and Dorothy Harder conversing with a survivor (identified by the newspapers at the time as Mrs Hays, believed to be Mrs Beckwith).
Once landed in New York, Miss Palmer sold her undeveloped films for $25 to Underwood & Underwood, a New York news photographic agency, who published the photographs and which were reproduced in countless newspapers. Not realising the value of what she had parted with for such a meagre sum, Miss Palmer later took legal action over the use of her material:
Charles A. Palmer, a Rochester banker, on behalf of his ward, Bernice H. Palmer (sic), has begun an action against Underwood & Underwood of New York City for an accounting. Miss Palmer, who was a passenger on the Carpathia, took numerous photographs of scenes connected with the rescue of survivors of the Titanic, and parted with the films for $25 to Underwood & Underwood, who have profited to the extent of many thousands… — The Daily News, 14 November 1912
An extant, albeit undated contract, suggest that she was eventually able to buy back the images for a token sum of $1.
Bernice was married on 14 July 1920 to Bradford Hale Ellis (1879-1932), a US-born broker and Harvard-graduate originally from Ohio. The couple settled in Los Angeles where their daughter Cara was born in 1922.
Widowed at a young age in July 1932, Bernice never remarried; in later years she became involved with the Titanic community and struck up a friendship with survivor Edwina Troutt Mackenzie.
In 1986 she donated her Kodak camera and her historic photos to the Smithsonian Archive.
Bernice with survivor Edwina Troutt Mackenzie in 1982
(Tampa Bay Times, 14 April 1982)
Titanic survivor Edwina MacKenzie, right, now 97 and living in Hermosa Beach, exchanges memories with Bernice Ellis, 89, of Apple Valley, who was on the rescue ship Carpathia. Ellis holds the Brownie camera she used to photograph [the] disaster.
(Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1982)
Bernice Palmer Ellis died in Los Angeles on 11 February 1989 aged 96.