Monday, December 28, 2015

Tragedy at Stornoway

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1919. The Armistice has been signed and the “Great War” is finally over. Scotland had paid a high price. Almost 150,000 Scots lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. A generation was gone, the country’s brightest and ablest young men.

For an example, look at the Isle of Lewis. The Isle of Lewis is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides, the only settlement is Stornoway. The population was about 30,000 when the war began. More than 6,000 from the Isle and Lewis and Harris served in the war and more than a thousand died before the war ended.

Now the war is over and the warriors are returning home. In London, two trains headed north carrying troops. They were dressed in full uniforms, with heavy shoes and backpacks. Everyone was joyous and happy. There was singing and drinking because at last they were going home, back to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Waiting for them at the Kyle of Lochalsh was the Iolaire. (The Iolaire was an Admiralty yacht built in 1881.) The ship was not equipped for its next and final journey. There was a shortage of lifeboats and jackets and the ship would be overwhelmed with soldiers and sailors. The Captain hesitated to leave, but it was New Year’s Eve and the soldiers were anxious to get home. No adequate arrangements had been made for them to have a safe journey.

Back on the Islands, the celebrations had already begun as homes were decorated and bunting had been hung along the streets. It was going to be a joyous event. Some families had walked to the quay side in order to be there when the boat docked at Stornoway. The ship never arrived.

“Making its final approach into Stornoway Harbor on a dark night and in a strong gale, it changed course at the wrong point. With the lights of the harbor in sight, the ship struck the rocks at full speed and began to tilt. The reef was called the “Beasts of Holm.” It was 2:30 in the morning.

Out of a crew of 27 there were just 7 survivors. Among the dead 174 men from Lewis and 7 men from Harris. Only 75 of the 280 passengers survived. Families gathered to claim the bodies but more than a third were never found and six were never identified. One family that had already lost three sons in the war, lost a fourth on the Iolaire. It is said that women wore black for two generations. No one spoke of it, a “veil of silence” descended on the Islands. It was forty years before a memorial was built.

Not a family or village escaped. Lewis never recovered.

The Glasgow Herald on the 4th of January, 1919, wrote: "An old man sobbing into his handkerchief with a stalwart son in khaki sitting on the cart beside him, the remains of another son in the coffin behind --- that was one of the sights seen today as one of the funeral parties emerged from the barrack gate. Another, an elderly woman, well dressed, comes staggering down the roadway and bursts into a paralysis of grief as she tells the sympathizers at the gate that her boy is in the mortuary. Strong men weeping and women wailing or wandering around with blanched, tear stained faces are to be seen in almost every street and there are groups of them at the improvised mortuary”

Thirty-one men with the name MacLeod died. The mother of Donald Trump was Mary Anne MacLeod born on the Isle of Lewis in 1912. She would have been seven at the time. For more information about Mary Anne MacLeod, click here.

There was an official inquiry but they did not find a satisfactory explanation for the disaster. (The report was not made public for seventy years.) The last survivor died in 1992. Fifteen days after the tragedy, the Iolaire was put up for sale by the Admiralty even though eighty men were still missing. The ship’s bell was recovered from the bottom of the sea in 1971.

          “Two hundred more were plucked from us with home almost in reach.
          New Years dreams and Christmas presents washed up on the beach
          Now the winds will blow and the waves will break upon this lonely shore
          Where the ghosts of those young men that died must roam forevermore.”                                            
A memorial was dedicated in 1958 at Holm, just outside of Stornoway. A stone pillar sticks out of the water at the site of the wreck, which can be seen today on the right side as the car ferry approaches the harbor entrance.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

Friday, December 11, 2015

Your Loving Mother

I don’t know much about her early life but her maiden name was Ella B. Slocum and she was born in Rhode Island around 1847. Her father was a salesman and at some point in her young life they moved to Chicago.

The next event in her life of which we are certain occurred in 1867. She was 23 and an attractive woman with blond hair. She fell in love and married a Scottish man prominent in Chicago history. (I will not use his name.) He was 30 and a Civil War hero who fought both days at Shiloh.

The marriage did not go well because I have divorce papers dated September 20, 1880. The hearing was held in open court before the Honorable William H. Barnum. The husband did not attend but was represented by O. H. Norton, Esq. The charges were “extreme and repeated cruelty toward his said wife.”

The husband was given custody of the child until he was fourteen. The husband was also “charged with the full support, maintenance and education of said child, but said child shall not be removed by said defendant beyond the limits of the United States without the further order of this Court.” .

The child involved was twelve years of age and there is no explanation as to why the father was given custody except it was by mutual agreement. The mother was given full access to the child through visitation rights. No alimony was awarded to the wife but she was given “certain real estate and personal property.” The son later graduated from Notre Dame with an engineering degree.

By November of that same year (1880), Ella was married to Baron Ernst von Jeinsen, which may explain the divorce and the custody of the child. (The mother would later explain that they had been separated for more than a year.) The Baron’s estate was located about two miles from Hanover, Germany. They spent the winter (1880-1881) at the Commonwealth Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. He was 46 and Ella was 33.

In 1904, her first husband was sued by Charles Mackie for “alienation of affection.” It seems that he and Mrs. Mackie had made trips to Cuba, Philadelphia and Washington. The case was dismissed by the judge. This article dated January 12, 1904, states that his first wife divorced him for cause and married “an Italian nobleman.” We could find no other references to her life with the Baron. The next event occurred in 1892. Ella is now 45and perhaps the Baron has died.

Franklin Simmons, the sculptor, lived and worked in Italy and in 1892 married “...the beautiful and distinguished Baroness von Jeinsen, who was an accomplished musician, a critical lover of art and the most graceful and delightful of hostesses. Mrs. Simmons drew about her a very charming circle in Rome, and made their home in the Palazzo Tamagno, a notable center of foreign social life.” Ella also maintained a home in Chicago at 181 Park Avenue for more than 25 years.

She died at her home in Rome, December 21, 1905 of pneumonia and is buried in the Swan Point cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island. She was 58. Her sister was Mrs. Charles W. Clingman, 4748 Kenwood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

The following is a letter Ella wrote to her son:

Palazzo Tamagno
83 Via Agostino Depletes

June 26, 1902

My Dear Son:

In the past twenty years I have written more than twice that number of letters to be given to you in the event of my death. The first were documents defending myself, so that you might know from me (despite anyones version) that I had right on my side when I left your father, also that I did not live with him for nearly a year before the final parting.

The last letter also contained words I feel better unsaid (at this time) for I would not disturb any good feeling that may and I sincerely hope does exist between you. I will only say that I did the best in my power.

My last prayer dear is for you - that you may be led to know how to live up to the highest ideas of your highest moments. My heart goes out to you. I have never wavered in my affection for, and my trust in you, my Son.

May God bless you ever and ever.

                               Your loving Mother.

Enclosed in the letter was a lock of his mother’s hair. It has faded in color, in a circular shape and bound by a blue ribbon. You will find it in an envelope in the three ring binder of her first husband’s documents.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

PS. My thanks to all of you for your interest and support during my recent illness. It has been a slow process recovering from heart surgery, but I am gradually regaining my strength. Your phone calls, emails, cards and letters were much appreciated.