Thursday, April 5, 2018

RMS Titanic - Chicago Connections

At 3:00pm on Sunday April 15, 2018, Glessner House will host a special program commemorating the 106th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic.  Being held in partnership with Friends of Historic Second Church and the Greater Chicago Chapter of the Victorian Society in America, the program will take place at Second Presbyterian Church, where organist John Sherer will perform music from 1912, music performed aboard the Titanic, and music written to honor those who perished in the disaster.  Stories of some of the more than 1,500 victims will be shared, including those with a connection to Chicago.  Tours of the National Historic Landmark sanctuary and a reception featuring dessert items from the last dinner menu served to first-class passengers will begin at 2:00pm.  Tickets are $25.00 and can be purchased by clicking here. 

In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, the pride of the White Star Line and the largest ship afloat at the time, sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg 2-1/2 hours earlier.  Of the 2,224 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished, making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.  The RMS Carpathia arrived about two hours after the ship went down, rescuing the survivors.  The Titanic was hailed as one of the safest ships ever built, but the severe shortage of lifeboats was the major factor in the enormous loss of life.  Significant improvements in maritime safety resulted from the investigation which followed.

The disaster was featured in headlines around the world.  Early reports had incomplete information on survivors, so many family members and friends had to wait days to learn the fate of their loved ones.  The death toll increased as more information became available.  The first headline in the Chicago Tribune from April 16 (shown above) showed 866 survivors; the final count was just over 700.

In the weekly society column in the Chicago Tribune dated April 18, written by “Madame X” (in reality Caroline Kirkland, a friend of Frances Glessner), she began by noting why the disaster had had such an impact on the residents of the city:

“In what smug, complacent security we face each day – those of us who are wrapped and cradled in all the comforts and safeguards of our twentieth century civilization!  The Chinese may perish by the thousands of starvation; we have plenty to eat.  The Italians and Turks may lose lives and property in their Tripolitan battles; we are at peace.  Aviators may dash headlong from the skies to death and destruction; they do not fall on us.  And nowhere do we feel more protected, more secure, more capably cared for than at sea on board one of those monster steamships which modern navigators, with insolent arrogance, pronounced superior to any possible destructive force of nature.  Then comes such a disaster as that of the Titanic and the foundations of our faith in our imperturbable security totter.” 

In the Glessner journal, by this time being written by John Glessner, the following notation was made on April 23, “In the terrible disaster a week ago Sunday to White Star steam Titanic, Lizzie Isham was lost and Arthur Ryerson of our friends.”

Ann Isham was born in January 1862.  Her father, Edward Swift Isham, was a prominent Chicago attorney and was a partner with Robert Todd Lincoln in the firm of Lincoln, Isham, and Beale.  She joined Second Presbyterian Church in 1883 and was an active member of Chicago society for twenty years, being a member of both the Friday and Scribblers’ clubs.  In 1903, she moved to Europe where she spent most of her time living with her sister Frances (Mrs. Harry Shelton) in Paris.  On April 10, 1912, she boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France, traveling to the United States to spend the summer with her brother Edward “Ned” Isham in New York City. 

Isham was one of 144 first-class women aboard the Titanic and one of only four to perish.  The fact that space on the lifeboats was given first to women and children has led to speculation as to why Isham did not survive.  Although it has not been proven, it is believed that she refused to leave her beloved Great Dane behind.  One account stated that she had already boarded a lifeboat and when she was told she would have to leave her pet behind, she jumped back on to the Titanic.  A female victim was observed to have her arms frozen around her dog in the water following the sinking, but it is not known if the woman was Ann Isham.  Her body, if recovered, was never identified.  The family erected a memorial to her in Manchester, Vermont, where they maintained their summer estate, Ormsby Hill.

The story of Arthur Ryerson was a double tragedy.  Ryerson, who was 61 at the time he went down with the Titanic, was born and raised in Chicago, the son of Joseph T. Ryerson, founder of the iron and steel company of J. T. Ryerson & Co.  Arthur Ryerson had served for many years as the president of St. Luke’s Hospital.  The Ryersons left Chicago about 1905 on account of Arthur’s health, residing in a country home at Otsego Lake in New York.  They maintained close ties to Chicago, visiting frequently. 

In the spring of 1912, Arthur Ryerson, his wife Emily, and three of their children traveled to Europe and by early April had taken a house at Versailles for two months.  No sooner had the family settled in then they received word that Arthur Ryerson, Jr. had been killed in an auto accident in Philadelphia.  The Ryerson’s son was just 20 years old and a student at Yale.  Anxious to return to the United States as soon as possible, they made arrangements for passage on the first American bound liner leaving France – the Titanic – which was set to sail from Cherbourg on April 10. 

As Madame X noted in her column:

“Now we have learned that Mr. Arthur Ryerson was one of that never to be forgotten band of brave men whose lives were sacrificed to secure those of the women and children.  The position of those among the small group of men who were saved is not an enviable one . . .”

NOTE:  Ryerson’s wife and children survived and soon moved back to Chicago.  Emily Ryerson, who was described as having a “resilient character,” purchased property on North Lakeview Avenue and constructed one of a series of four elegant Georgian townhouses designed by David Adler and Henry Dangler.  She moved into her home at 2700 N. Lakeview Avenue in early 1917, soon after converting the large elegant rooms to a convalescent home for Children’s Memorial Hospital during World War I.  In 1927 she married Forsythe Sherfesse; she died in 1939.  The grouping of row houses, of which hers served as the southern anchor, was designated a Chicago landmark - the Lakeview Avenue Row House District – in 2016. 

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