May 7, 2015: A good story never gets old, even a century later. It was 100 years ago today that the RMS Lusitania sailed on its final voyage with more than 1,900 passengers on board. The British luxury liner departed New York City’s Pier 54 on Saturday, May 1, 1915. Throngs of well-wishers lined the pier to watch this floating palace embark on its 101st round-trip Trans-Atlantic passage. Passengers were on edge as the crossing was being made during wartime. World War I was well underway and Germany’s submarine fleet was becoming more brazen where its targets were concerned.
The first six days of the Lusitania’s journey were pleasant and uneventful. But all that changed on the seventh day. The passengers on board included Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune; Charles Frohman, acclaimed Broadway Manager and Producer; and Mary Picton Stevens and her husband, Ogden Haggerty Hammond, a state legislator and businessman.
On Friday, May 7, the Hammond’s were enjoying afternoon tea in the first class lounge. The morning fog had lifted and the sun was shining as the ship approached the Irish coast eleven miles away. All seemed mundane until they felt a strong vibration. Ogden went on deck, inquired about what happened, and was told everything was fine. However, the passengers on the other side knew better. For they saw a white streak barreling through the water. Everyone’s greatest fear was now realized in an instant.
The Lusitania had been targeted, and torpedoed, by the Germans. At first all was calm before folks realized what had happened and clamored for lifeboats and life vests. Ogden wanted to return to his cabin and get life vests, but Mary was adamantly opposed to the idea. Instead they went to the stern side of the ship and climbed into a lifeboat. They thought they had been spared, but they were not. As the boat was lowered, one of the crewmen lost his grip. Ogden grabbed for the rope to help ease the plunge, but to no avail. His hands were torn in shreds and the boat, and passengers, were tumbled into the frigid waters.
“I went down and down, with thirty people on top of me,” recalled Ogden. “I thought I never could come back and must have been partly unconscious, for I can only remember getting almost to the surface, sinking back again, and doing this three or four times. Then I was hauled in some boat, but no one else from the boat that fell was ever seen again.”
His beloved Mary was among the nearly 1,200 passengers to perish including 128 Americans. The irony is that it was Mary who was insistent on making the voyage on the Lusitania despite warnings from the German Ambassador and pleas from her husband not to leave. But Mary was determined to cross the ocean to help victims of WWI. Her devoted husband would not let her make the journey alone so he joined her leaving their three young children home – Mary, 7-years-old, Millicent, 5-years-old, and Ogden, Jr., 3-years-old.
The Stevens, like the Vanderbilts, were another wealthy family. On the day the Lusitania set sail, Mary Picton Stevens signed a will worth more than a million dollars. In the will she created trusts for her three young children. Little did she know she would never see her husband or her children again. Nor would she see her middle child, Millicent, be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
With many great tragedies, there are many good reads. One of the earlier books was published was in 1956 by Adolph and Mary Hoehling entitled, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania. Next on my reading list was The Lusitania written by Colin Simpson in 1972. And three decades later was Lusitania: Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston. The latter was so well done and well-researched that I thought it would be the last of the Lusitania books. But earlier this year, best-selling author Erik Larson came out with Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Like his predecessors, he has written another captivating account of the tragedy. However, if you are interested in learning more about Ogden Hammond’s experience and survival Millicent Fenwick: Her Way is still the only book that provides his gripping account leading up to the voyage, the trip itself, and the aftermath.
For those of you who would like to hear more about Ogden’s heart-wrenching story, I will be speaking in New Jersey on Saturday, June 20, 2015. Hope to see you there!
Lusitania: 100th Anniversary & its ties to a famous NJ Congresswoman
Saturday, June 20 – 10 a.m.
449 Halsey Road
Saturday, June 20 – 2 p.m.
42 Mountain Blvd.