Monday, October 10, 2011


A little after midnight on April 15, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland and took the lives of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attention focused on the Douglas family because Walter and Mahala Douglas, along with their maid Berthe Leroy, were returning from Europe. They had boarded at Cherbourg, were traveling first class, and assigned to cabin C-86.

(If you google the name “Berthe Leroy: Titanic Survivor”, you will get some interesting information about this lady who stayed with Mrs. Douglas until her death, crossed the Atlantic 19 times, married, became an American citizen and died in France, July 4, 1972.)

Walter Douglas was the son of George Douglas, one of the founders of the Quaker Oats Company. Walter Douglas had been widowed at age 37 and in 1906 married Mahala Dutton Benedict. He had just retired on January 1, 1912. Walter and Mahala had built a mansion overlooking Lake Minnetonka that was said to be a copy of a French palace. The three-month trip to Europe was to obtain furnishings for their new home. Does anyone know if the mansion still exists? At the time of his death, Mr. Douglas was a director of the Quaker Oats company and his wealth was estimated at four million dollars. When his body was recovered, he was dressed in his finest and had helped lower the last lifeboat of the Titanic. It is reported that he refused to leave the ship with others, saying it would make him “less than a man.”

His body (No. 62) was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett. The crew reported they had recovered a man about 55 with gray hair, in evening dress with the initials W.D.D. on the shirt. They also recovered a gold watch and chain, a gold cigarette case, five gold studs, a wedding ring engraved May 19, 1884. In addition there was a pocket letter case with $551.00 and a one pound note and five note cards.

Mr. Douglas was first taken to his home in Minneapolis and then by special train to Cedar Rapids for burial in Oak Hill cemetery. Later, Mahala returned to her new home and became involved in the life of Minneapolis. She did some writing about the Titanic and actually wrote a poem about the sinking. You can find this poem on the Internet as well as her testimony before a Senate committee investigating the cause of the sinking. She died in 1945 in Pasadena, California where she had a summer home. She is buried with her husband.

Next year the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the sinking. I understand the movie will be released in 3-D and I am sure the History Channel will have many programs. The History Channel has already aired several programs about the Titanic and especially on attempts to raise a large section of the ship. After repeated attempts the section was raised and it turned out to be a portion of cabin C-86 where Mr. and Mrs. Douglas had their quarters.

The Illinois St. Andrews Society has had many connections with the Douglas family and Quaker Oats. We are grateful for their help and support.

The next meeting of the Scottish American History Club will be November 5th and we will share the program with the Scottish Home. Caroline Goldthorpe will present a program on “Life Aboard the Titanic.” Ms. Goldthorpe, formerly a curator with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is now Director of Museum Studies at Northwestern University.

This paid lecture is a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jamie McKechnie.

Wayne Rethford
President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew Society


  1. You are still the best!

  2. 2012 The 17 room mansion still exists and is in great shape in Walden (Deephaven, MN), I have play there as a child, caught butterflies in the formal gardens with fountains that always had frogs in them. PTR

  3. Walter Donald Douglas was my great-great grandfather. I have seen photos of the Walden house that my grandfather had after my grandfather died.

    1. My sister Annick Latil Douglas and me Fran├žoise Douglas Latil are Edward Bruce Douglas born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the 6th of November, 1887, dead in 1946 Minnesota. his second wife , our gran mother was french as us
      He was a sculptor ( We live in France

  4. Thanks for your comments. This has always been one of the saddest stories for me. I suppose it is one of life's realities that you can't depend on tomorrow. Would you please send me an email? Your messages never don't give me a way to reply except in the comment section.