Thursday, May 07, 2015

Today -100: May 7, 1915: The Lusitania

Headline of the Day -100: 

The Cunard liner Lusitania is sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U-20, which gave no warning. 1,198 die, of whom 128 were Americans. 761 are rescued. The Lusitania was fast enough to outrun any u-boat (thus that “Safety in Speed” ad I posted on the 1st), or it would have been had it not slowed due to fog and the captain being an idiot and ignoring orders to go full-speed and to zigzag near Britain.

The newspapers are reporting that the Lusi was hit by two torpedoes. In fact it was (probably) just one, but that torpedo set off a much larger explosion, possibly because it hit a boiler just right or possibly because of all the munitions in the cargo hold. Which is already public knowledge: the Chicago Tribune reports [p.3] that “most” of the cargo consisted of munitions. Also cheese. 5,470 cases of ammunition and 217,157 pounds of cheese. There seems to have been more contraband, possibly explosives, than was admitted at the time, and the Germans may have doctored the logbooks of U-20’s Capt. Walther Schwieger to cover up a second torpedo, as both sides were anxious to blame the other for the ship going under so quickly (18 minutes, compared with the Titanic, which took well over two hours), with so few people able to make it off. So it all remains a mystery.

The ship quickly tilted to one side, so half the lifeboats were useless, as were some of the rest due to lax maintenance and a badly trained crew (all the experienced ones having joined the Navy) who didn’t really knew how to launch them.  Lifeboat drills for the passengers would also have been helpful, but there were none. A Royal Navy escort for a ship entering waters where three ships had been torpedoed in recent days would also have been good. There’s a lot of blame to go around.

The cruiser Juno was sent out to pick up survivors, but was recalled when it was nearly there, in fact when it was visible to screaming passengers on life boats, after someone belatedly realized it could be torpedoed too. Some of the survivors were rescued by the tugboat Stormcock, which is also the name of Thor’s penis.

What strikes me about accounts of the evacuation and the hours in the sea awaiting rescue is how many of the passengers and crew murdered each other for places on the lifeboats and on floating wreckage. Beat each other to death, threatened each other with guns, drowned each other.

Among the dead:

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius. A professional rich fuck, Vanderbilt was heading to England to inspect his stables (he was a “sportsman,” i.e. fox-hunter and coacher), who died (with his valet) after giving his life-vest to a woman with a baby, despite not being able to swim. Between the fox-hunting thing and the saving-the-mother thing, you don’t know what to think of him now, do you?

Theater dudes Charles Frohman, Broadway producer (including the first American production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), and Charles Klein, actor-playwright, who were going to check out the war plays in London to see which ones they wanted to bring to Broadway. Frohman died quoting Peter Pan (which he had produced – Maude Adams, the play’s star, will be forced this week to deny that she and Frohman were married), “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life,” at least according to stage and screen actress Rita Jolivet, who survived (although her brother-in-law, George Vernon, drowned, which will lead his grieving widow to kill herself in July).

Justus Miles Forman, 39, novelist and playwright, trying to bring his war play The Hyphen (an attack on German-Americans who still feel loyalty to Germany) to London.

Sir Hugh Lane, 39, an art collector who founded the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin and may or may not have had some Monets and Rembrandts with him.

Elbert Hubbard, writer and publisher, founder of the Roycroft Press and of the Roycroft Arts & Crafts Movement community in East Aurora, New York, author of Jesus Was An Anarchist, etc. Hubbard had been convicted in 1913 of sending objectionable material through the mails, specifically this joke in his magazine The Philistine:
The bride of a year entered a drugstore.  The clerk approached.  “Do you exchange goods?,” she asked.  “Oh, Certainly!  If anything you buy here is not satisfactory we will exchange it.”  “Well,” was the reply; “here is one of those whirling-spray [some sort of contraceptive] affairs I bought of you, and if you please, I want you to take it back and give me a bottle of Mellin’s [baby] Food, instead.”  And outside the storm raged piteously, and the across the moor a jay-bird called to his mate, “Cuckoo, cuckoo!”

For that joke he was fined $100 and lost his rights of citizenship, so when he wanted to go to Europe to report on the war, he was refused a passport because they were afraid he might make mildly salacious jokes in Europe, I guess. He went to the White House and got Wilson, Bryan and the attorney general out of a cabinet meeting to issue him a pardon on the spot, allowing him to get a passport and sail on the Lusitania. Hubbard coined the phrase (rather better than the lame contraceptive joke) “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive” and the first version of the thing about when life hands you lemons. He also said, “There are only two respectable ways to die. One is of old age, the other is by accident. All disease is indecent.” He and his wife Alice refused a seat in the life boats. He was 58, Alice 53.

Survivors: Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth, the future Viscountess Rhondda, a Welsh suffragist, head of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s Newport branch, who went to prison for trying to burn a letter box and went on hunger strike. At one point or other her cousin, both sisters, her aunt (who broke a shop window and later returned to buy a hat to make it up to them) and even her mother were arrested for the cause (her mother waiting until her father was no longer in Parliament). Rhondda will gleefully point out in her memoirs that just 8 years after her prison sentence, she was made a magistrate. Oh, her father, David Thomas, was also onboard and also survived. He was on a munitions-buying trip on behalf of the British government. He had extensive business interests (coal, insurance, publishing), which she took over on his death in 1918. But not his seat in the House of Lords, although she did apply for it – and then sued when she was refused. She started the influential magazine Time and Tide in 1920.

The captain, William Turner, survived. He remained with the ship until it went under, then climbed a ladder until he was above water, grabbed an oar that was floating by, then a chair, and was pulled out of the sea after two hours, when the yellow braid on his waving arm was spotted. He will also survive having another ship torpedoed out from under him two years from now. And he was also on a boat that sank in Scotland when he was 8. Dude did not know how to take a hint.

People who were supposed to travel on the Lusi, but didn’t, include conductor Arturo Toscanini, composer Jerome Kern (who overslept), Isadora Duncan, actress Ellen Terry (whose creditors were holding her luggage), future congresswoman Lacey Davenport Millicent Fenwick, talent agent William Morris, and actor William Gillette, the first stage Sherlock Holmes (who gave us Holmes’ curved pipe, because it was easier to talk around).

Headline of the Day -100 (Chicago Tribune):

The NYT editorializes that the State Department must “demand that the Germans shall no longer make war like savages drunk with blood, that they shall cease to seek the attainment of their ends by the assassination of non-combatants and neutrals. ... Germany must be called upon to bring her practices into conformity with the usages of civilized warfare.”

Theodore Roosevelt calls it an act of piracy and says “It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity but to our own national self-respect.”

Some recruiting posters which made use of the Lusitania:

Regular readers please note that there are two Today -100 posts today, of which this is the second. Collect them all.

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