Military history



THROUGHOUT THE WEEK BEFORE DEPARTURE, PASSENGERS who lived in New York started packing in earnest, while the many who came from elsewhere began arriving in the city by train, ferry, and automobile. They found a city steaming with heat—91 degrees on Tuesday, April 27, with four days yet to go until “Straw Hat Day,” Saturday, May 1, when a man could at last break out his summer hats. Men followed this rule. A Times reporter did an impromptu visual survey of Broadway and spotted only two straw hats. “Thousands of sweltering, uncomfortable men plodded along with their winter headgear at all angles on their uncomfortable heads or carried in their hot, moist hands.”

The city seemed untroubled by the war. Broadway—“the Great White Way,” so dubbed for its bright electric lighting—came brilliantly alight and alive each night, as always, although now with unexpected competition. A number of restaurants had begun providing lavish entertainment along with meals, even though they lacked theater licenses. The city was threatening a crackdown on these maverick “cabarets.” One operator, the manager of Reisenweber’s at Eighth Avenue and Columbus Circle, said he would welcome a ban. The competition was wearing him out. His establishment was running a musical revue called “Too Much Mustard,” featuring “a Host of BEAUTIFUL GIRLS,” and a separate “Whirlwind Cabaret” with a quintet of minstrels and a full lunch—table d’hôte—for a buck, with dancing between courses. “The public,” he complained, “is making such ridiculous demands for elaborate entertainment with meals that it is really dangerous for everybody in the restaurant business.”

In case any of the newly arrived passengers needed some last-minute clothing for the voyage, there was New York’s perennial attraction: shopping. Spring sales were under way or about to begin. Lord and Taylor on Fifth Avenue was advertising men’s raincoats for $6.75, less than half their usual price. B. Altman, a few blocks south, didn’t deign to list actual prices but assured female shoppers they would find “decided reductions” in the cost of gowns and suits from Paris, these to be found on its third floor in the department of “Special Costumes.” And, strangely, a tailor of German heritage, House of Kuppenheimer, was advertising a special suit, “the British.” The company’s ads proclaimed, “All men are young in these stirring days.”

The city’s economy, like that of the nation as a whole, had by now improved dramatically, owing to the wartime boost in demand for American wares, especially munitions. The lull in shipping had ended; by year’s end, the United States would report a record trade surplus of $1.5 billion, or $35.9 billion today. Real estate, ever an obsession in New York, was booming, with large buildings under construction on the East and West Sides. Work was about to begin on a new twelve-story apartment building at the corner of Eighty-eighth and Broadway. Expected cost: $500,000.There were extravagant displays of spending. It’s possible that some of the Lusitania’s first-class passengers attended a big party at Delmonico’s the Friday night before departure, thrown by Lady Grace Mackenzie, “the huntress,” as the Times described her. The party had a jungle theme, with fifty guests, among them explorers, hunters, zoologists, two cheetahs, and “a black ape.” Delmonico’s had filled the banquet room with palm trees and layered the walls with palm fronds to create the effect of dining in an African glade. Black men in tights and white tunics kept watch on the animals, though in fact the black pigment proved to be the effect of burned cork and low lighting. The list of appetizers included stuffed eagles’ eggs.

Although the city’s newspapers carried a lot of war news, politics and crime tended to dominate the front page. Murder was a fascination, as always. On Thursday, April 29, in the midst of the heat wave, a city produce merchant who had recently lost his job sent his wife to the movies, then shot his five-year-old son to death and killed himself. A Bridgeport, Connecticut, man presented his girlfriend with an engagement ring and handed her one end of a ribbon; the other end disappeared into his pocket. “A surprise,” he said, and urged her to pull it. She obliged. The ribbon was attached to the trigger of a revolver. The man died instantly. And on Friday, April 30, four criminals escaped from the drug ward at Bellevue Hospital, wearing pink pajamas. Three of the men were found, “after a thorough search of the neighborhood by policemen, hospital attendants, and small boys,” the Times said. The fourth man was at large, presumably still dressed in pink.

And there was this: a report that plans had been completed for a ceremony to dedicate a memorial fountain to Jack Phillips, wireless operator aboard the Titanic, and to eight other Marconi operators likewise killed in maritime disasters. The article noted, “Space is left for the addition of other names in the future.”

THE LUSITANIAS roster of passengers included 949 British citizens (including residents of Canada), 71 Russians, 15 Persians, 8 French, 6 Greeks, 5 Swedes, 3 Belgians, 3 Dutch, 2 Italians, 2 Mexicans, 2 Finns, and 1 traveler each from Denmark, Spain, Argentina, Switzerland, Norway, and India.

The American complement, by Cunard’s official tally, totaled 189. They came from locales throughout the country. Two men from Virginia were officials of a shipbuilding company on their way to Europe to explore the acquisition of submarines. At least five passengers hailed from Philadelphia, others from Tuckahoe, New York; Braceville, Ohio; Seymour, Indiana; Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Hancock, Maryland; and Lake Forest, Illinois. A number came from Los Angeles: the Blickes, husband and wife, traveling in first, and three members of the Bretherton family, in third. Christ traveled among them as well: Christ Garry, of Cleveland, Ohio, in second class.

They stayed in hotels and boardinghouses or with family and friends, at addresses in all parts of the city. At least six stayed at the Hotel Astor, another six at the Biltmore. They arrived at intervals during the week, bearing mountains of luggage. Cunard allowed each passenger 20 cubic feet. They brought trunks, some brightly colored—red, yellow, blue, green—and others with surfaces of leather embossed with checkerboard and herringbone patterns, braced with wood. They brought “extension suitcases” for transporting dresses, gowns, tuxedos, and business suits. The largest of these could hold forty men’s suits. They brought large boxes built especially for footwear, and these smelled pleasantly of polish and leather. They carried smaller luggage as well, mindful of what they would need while aboard and of what could be left in the ship’s baggage hold. Passengers arriving by train could check the most cumbersome bags straight through from their cities of origin to their staterooms or to the baggage hold of the ship, with confidence that their belongings would be there when they boarded.

They brought their best clothes, and in some cases, their only clothes. The dominant palette was black and gray, but there were cheerier items as well. A heliotrope-and-white-checked frock. A boy’s red knitted jacket, with white buttons. A green velveteen belt. Babies complicated things. Their clothing was intricate. A single outfit for one infant boy consisted of a white wool wrapper; a white cotton bodice edged with red and blue piping; overalls of blue cotton embroidered with dotted squares, plaited down the front, fastened in back with white buttons; a gray wool jacket with four ivory buttons; black stockings; and shoes with straps. He topped this off with a “sucking tube,” or pacifier, tied around his neck with cord.

The wealthiest passengers carried rings, brooches, pendants, necklaces, and necklets, embedded with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and onyx (and sardonyx, its red sister). They brought bonds and notes and letters of introduction, but also cash. A thirty-five-year-old woman brought five one-hundred-dollar bills; another, eleven fifties. Everyone seemed to carry a watch, invariably in a gold case. One woman brought her Geneva-made “Remontoir Cylindre 10 Rubis Medaille D’Or, No. 220063,” gold but with a face the color of blood. Later, the serial numbers of these watches would prove invaluable.

Passengers brought diaries, books, pens, ink, and other devices with which to kill time. Ian Holbourn, the famed writer and lecturer now returning from a speaking tour of America, brought along the manuscript of a book he had been working on for two decades, about his theory of beauty, whose pages now numbered in the thousands. It was his only copy. Dwight Harris, a thirty-one-year-old New Yorker from a wealthy family, brought with him an engagement ring. He had plans. He also had concerns. On Friday, April 30, he went to the John Wanamaker department store in New York and bought a custom life belt.

Another man packed a gold seal for stamping wax on the back of an envelope, with the Latin motto Tuta Tenebo, “I will keep you safe.”

FIRST-CLASS PASSENGER Charles Emelius Lauriat Jr., a Boston bookseller, carried several items of particular value. Lauriat, forty, was a good-looking man, with an attentive gaze and well-trimmed brown hair. Since 1894 he had been president of one of the country’s best-known bookstores, Charles E. Lauriat Company, at 385 Washington Street in Boston, several blocks from Boston Common, this at a time when a book dealer could achieve national recognition. It was “the golden age of American book collecting,” according to one historian, when some of the nation’s great private collections were amassed, later to become treasured libraries, such as the Morgan in New York and the Folger in Washington. Lauriat was an accomplished swimmer and yachtsman who played water polo and regularly raced his 18-foot sailboat and served as a judge in regattas that took place off the New England coast each summer. The Boston Globe called him a “born boat sailor.” Something of a celebrity himself, at least in literary circles, he dined regularly at the city’s Player’s Club, often with one of the foremost critics and poets of the age, William Stanley Braithwaite.

The store, originally situated directly opposite Boston’s Old South Church, had been founded by Lauriat’s father and a partner, Dana Estes, in 1872, under the name Estes & Lauriat, which also published books. Three years later, the two partners divided the business into two companies, with Lauriat taking over the retail side. By the time of the split the store had already become a Boston institution, “as much a debating society as it was a bookshop,” according to one account. It served as a meeting place for writers, readers, intellectuals, and artists and included among its regular customers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The elder Lauriat was said to see himself as a “guide, counselor and friend” to his customers and produced in the store an atmosphere that one newspaper writer called “homeness.”

The store was long and narrow and jutted far inward from the street, more mineshaft than showroom, with books shoring the walls all the way to the high ceilings and stacked on counters down the center. A flight of stairs led to a balcony full of collectors’ books and “association books,” those made valuable because their owners had been famous or otherwise noteworthy. One attraction for book aficionados was the store’s Old Book Room, in the basement, filled with “great gems” that, according to a privately published history of the store, had come into the marketplace mainly “through the breaking up of old English country house libraries.” The display windows on Washington Street drew crowds of onlookers at lunch hour. Rare books were displayed in the windows on one side of the front door, new books on the other, including those with the most garish covers known even then as “bestsellers.” (One popular American author who turned out a bestseller every year was named, oddly enough, Winston Churchill.) The store was one of the first to sell “Remainders,” stocks of once-popular books that remained unsold after the initial surge of sales and that publishers were willing to sell to Lauriat at a deep discount. He in turn sold them to customers for a fraction of their original price, a side of the business that grew so popular the store began printing a “Remainder Catalog,” released each fall.

But the thing that set Lauriat apart from other booksellers, from the beginning, was the elder Lauriat’s decision to make an annual trip to London to buy up old books and sell them in America for far higher prices, leveraging the differential in demand that existed on opposite sides of the Atlantic, while also taking advantage of the falling prices and faster speeds of shipping brought by the advent of transatlantic steamships. Lauriat made his first trip in 1873 on one of Cunard’s earliest steamers, the Atlas. His purchases routinely made news. One acquisition, of a Bible dating to 1599, a Geneva, or “Breeches,” Bible—so named because it used the word breeches to describe what Adam and Eve wore—drew nearly a full column in the New York Times. By century’s end, the store had become one of the country’s leading sellers and importers of rare books, manuscripts, and illustrations, its bookplates destined to be treasured by future bibliophiles.

Charles Lauriat Jr. continued his father’s transatlantic harvest and in that last week of April 1915 was preparing to set out on his next buying trip. As always, Lauriat planned to stay in London for several months while he hunted for books and writerly artifacts to acquire, these to be crated and shipped back by sea to Boston. He transported his most valuable finds in his personal baggage and never thought to insure them against loss, “for the risk,” as he put it, “is practically nil.” Nor did the war prompt him to change his practice. “We considered the passenger steamers immune from submarine attack,” he wrote.

He bought his ticket, No. 1297, from a Cunard agent in Boston, and while doing so asked whether the liner would be “convoyed through the war zone.” The clerk replied, “Oh yes! every precaution will be taken.”

Lauriat chose the Lusitania specifically because of its speed. Ordinarily he preferred small, slow boats, “but this year,” he wrote, “I wanted to make my business trip as short as possible.” At the Lusitania’s top speed of 25 knots, he expected to arrive in Liverpool on Friday, May 7, and reach London in time to start work on Saturday morning, May 8. He planned to travel with a friend, Lothrop Withington, an authority on genealogy who had a particular expertise in the old records of Salem, Massachusetts, and Canterbury, England. Both men were married, but for this trip were leaving their wives behind. Lauriat had four children, one a baby, whose picture he planned to bring along.

He packed five pieces of luggage: a leather briefcase, a small valise, an extension suitcase, a large shoe case, and his steamer trunk. Dinner required formal wear and all that went with it. His various day suits required shoes of differing styles. There were braces and socks, ties and cufflinks. He also packed his favorite Knickerbocker suit, with its characteristic knickers, which he planned to wear while strolling the deck.

He and Withington were set to take the midnight train to New York, on Thursday, April 29, but first Lauriat stopped at his bookstore. There a colleague opened the store’s safe and handed him two volumes, each with a cover that measured 12 by 14 inches. These were scrapbooks, but of a high order. One contained fifty-four line drawings, the other sixty-four drawings, all done by the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray to illustrate his own works. At one time, Thackeray, who died in 1863 and whose best-known work was Vanity Fair, had been nearly as popular as Charles Dickens, and his satirical stories, essays, and serialized novels were widely and avidly read in such magazines as Fraser’s and Punch. His drawings and books and just about any other artifact from his life—all known as “Thackerayana”—were coveted by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in America.

Lauriat took the scrapbooks back to his home in Cambridge, where he inspected them in the company of his wife, Marian. He then packed them, carefully, in his extension suitcase, and locked it. At the station later that night, he checked his trunk and shoe box for transport direct to theLusitania but held back his other three pieces. He kept these with him in the railcar.

He and Withington reached New York early the next morning, Friday, April 30, the day before the Lusitania was scheduled to sail, and here they temporarily parted company. Lauriat took a taxi to the home of his sister, Blanche, and her husband, George W. Chandler, at 235 West Seventy-first Street in Manhattan. Lauriat had one more task to complete before departure.

AT THE Waldorf Astoria, at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street, first-class passenger Margaret Mackworth, thirty-one, packed her things in a fog of gloom and depression. She dreaded her return to England. It meant going back to a dead marriage of seven years and a life oppressed by war.

She had arrived in New York the previous month, alone, after a tedious ten-day crossing, to join her father, D. A. Thomas, a prominent businessman, who was already in the city for discussions on ventures ranging from mines to Mississippi barges. She was delighted and relieved to find him waiting for her on the dock. “In 1915, to come out into sunlit April New York, care-free and happy, after being under the heavy cloud of war at home, was an unspeakable relief,” she recalled.

The city charmed her. “In the evenings—almost every evening—we went out, either to the theatre or to dinner parties,” she wrote. She bought dresses, paid for by her father, including a long black velvet gown that she loved. She saw her customary shyness—an “annihilating” shyness—begin to subside, and she began for the first time in her life to feel like a social asset to her father, rather than a liability. (Her shyness, however, had not kept her from fighting for women’s suffrage back in England, in the course of which she jumped on the running board of a prime minister’s car and blew up a mailbox with a bomb.) “Those weeks of openhearted American hospitality and forth-comingness, of frankly expressed pleasure in meeting one, did something for me that made a difference to the whole of the rest of my life,” she wrote.

She dropped her shyness “overboard” on that holiday. “I have always been grateful to New York for that,” she wrote. “And, finally, it was one of the last times when I consciously felt quite young.”

Although she and her father would be traveling in first class on one of the most luxurious vessels the world had known, all she felt now was sorrow and regret.

THAT FRIDAY morning, Captain Turner left the ship and made his way south to Wall Street, to the City Investing Building at 165 Broadway, an immense, ungainly structure that happened to stand beside one of the city’s most beloved landmarks, the Singer Tower, built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Here Turner made his way up to the law offices of Hunt, Hill & Betts, where, at 11:00 A.M., he sat before eight lawyers for a deposition in one of the most compelling cases of the day, the attempt in U.S. Federal Court by the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, to limit their financial liability in the face of claims by families of dead American passengers, who charged that the disaster had resulted from the company’s “fault and negligence.”

Turner, testifying on behalf of the families, had been summoned as an expert witness, an acknowledgment of his many years as captain of large passenger ships and of the respect afforded him by other mariners, but it became quickly evident to those present that being questioned by lawyers was not something he enjoyed. He offered only abrupt, clipped answers—seldom more than a single sentence or phrase—but nonetheless proved to be a damning witness.

The lawyers managed to pry from him his account of being at sea when he first learned of the Titanic disaster. He’d been captain of the Mauretania at the time. The Titanic had departed on April 11, 1912, and the Mauretania on April 13, a fact Turner remembered because the date posed a problem for superstitious passengers, even though in seafaring lore the number 13 presents no particular hazard. It is sailing on a Friday that causes sailors dread. Upon receiving reports by wireless of ice along his course, Turner decided to veer well south. His wireless man brought him first word of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg.

Asked now whether he thought it had been prudent for the Titanic to travel at 20 knots or more with ice likely to be in the vicinity, Turner offered one of his most energetic replies: “Certainly not; 20 knots through ice! My conscience!”

The best way to proceed, Turner explained, was very slowly, or simply to stop. He allowed that wireless had become an effective tool for alerting captains to the presence of ice but dismissed sea studies that suggested that captains might derive warning by carefully monitoring the temperature of air and water as they sailed. This was useless, Turner explained: “No more effect than a blister on a wooden leg.”

Turner also expressed ambivalence about the value of lookouts. The Cunard manual required two in the crow’s nest at all times. “I call them Board of Trade ornaments,” Turner said; “all they think about is home and counting their money.”

Asked whether he gave lookouts binoculars, Turner replied: “Certainly not; might as well give them soda water bottles.”

Still, he said, when traveling through waters where ice might appear, he always doubled the lookout, adding two men at the bow.

Turner warned that no matter what precautions were taken, what studies were made, ice would always be a hazard. Startled by this, one of the attorneys asked Turner, “Have you learned nothing by that accident?”

“Not the slightest,” Turner said. “It will happen again.”

At various points during the deposition, the lawyers focused on Turner’s own ship, with emphasis on the Lusitania’s watertight decks and doors, and in particular its longitudinal bunkers.

“Which is very unusual with merchant vessels, but common enough with naval vessels, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Turner said, “a protection.”

Further questioning taught the lawyers that the captain had little interest in the structural design of ships, including his own.

“You are not a mechanical man,” one asked, but “a navigator.”


“You don’t pay much attention to the construction of ships?”

“No, as long as they float; if they sink, I get out.”

Asked if there was anything “peculiarly extraordinary” about the watertight doors on the Lusitania and her sister ship, the Mauretania, Turner answered: “Don’t know.”

A few moments later, the lawyer asked, “Before the ‘Titanic,’ it was supposed these great ships were non-sinkable?”

“Who told you that?” Turner snapped. “Nobody I ever went to sea with proved it.”

The deposition concluded with a question as to whether a ship with five flooded compartments could continue to float.

Turner replied, “My dear sir, I don’t know anything at all about it; it all depends on the size of the compartments, the amount of buoyancy; if she has buoyancy, she will float; if she has not, she will go down.”

Turner returned to his ship.

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