• 52 Ancestors 2024, week 4: Witness to history
Painting depicting the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by the German U-Boat U 20. Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the first of May 1915, the RMS Lusitania left New York on a return sailing to Liverpool. Unlike many other passenger ships, Lusitania hadn't been called up for frontline duty in World War I. Instead, she was given a grey paint job and kept her regular route between England and the United States, assisting with the war effort by conveying personnel and small arms across the Atlantic.

The atmosphere aboard was probably a little nervous throughout as the Imperial Germany Embassy had placed advertisements alongside those of Cunard's reminding potential passengers that "a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies" - including the waters around Great Britain.

And, whilst the passengers may have felt a little more comfortable knowing they were just off the Irish coast and mere hours away from Liverpool, sadly any concerns they had were to become a reality.

At approximately 2.10pm on the 7th May 1915, the German submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo. After striking Lusitania below the bridge on the starboard side, it's believed to have triggered a secondary explosion. 

In less than 20 minutes, Lusitania had sunk. She took with her 1,197 lives, almost two-thirds of all those aboard.

Among the 1,267 passengers (including 3 stowaways!) and 693 crew, was my 1C4R , Ruth Logan (née McCorry). She was a third-class passenger travelling back to her hometown of Ayr, Scotland, with her two-year-old son, Robert.

Meet Ruth and James

Ruth McCorry
Ruth McCorry in a family photograph, c.1905

Born in September 1888, Ruth was one of at least 7 children. Her father Henry was a journeyman joiner originally from Ireland, but had settled in Ayr with his wife, Agnes.

I don't know quite how carpet-weaving Ruth and postman James got together - perhaps she was on his delivery route. They lived approximately 6 miles apart with Ruth in Ayr itself, and James in Tarbolton. They married at St Margaret's Roman Catholic church, Ayr, on 15th April 1912.

Yes, that's the day Titanic sank. No foreshadowing there whatsoever.

Almost one year later, Ruth and James welcomed their first son, Robert, in March 1913.

Between the June and December of 1913, Ruth and all her siblings permanently moved to the United States although there's no indication that their parents were looking to make the journey too; they remained in Ayr with Henry dying in 1911, followed by Agnes in 1920.

Moving to the US

I can only speculate why James and Ruth moved to the States by following the passenger lists back and working from there.

Upon arriving in New York on the SS California in December 1913, Ruth and Jane were heading to join James in Paterson, New Jersey. This was obviously a case where James had gone on ahead of Ruth and baby Robert joining them later, so I went back to find out when he made the crossing.

I didn't have to go back too far: he crossed just two months earlier on the SS Cameronia. He is listed as being a labourer and travelled with Ruth's younger brother, John, who was unemployed. They were both heading to Paterson, this time to Ruth and John's older brother, Henry.

You can see by now how this was turning in to a bit of a trail - who went there first?! I continued.

Henry made the journey in June 1913 with his brother William aboard SS Caledonia. They were both listed as being miners and were heading to join uncle John McMillan in Paterson.

Back to searching census records for uncle John does indeed find him and his wife Mary in Oak Street, Paterson, although they all give different dates of arrival - 1880, 1881, and 1886. That's something to work with but I haven't yet been able to find a passenger list to corroborate those dates.

One thing I notice from these documents are the occupations are miners, masons, and labourers. The area around Paterson, NJ, was known for the production of bricks and stone, as well as the mining of iron ore and copper. I feel this was the reason, or at least one of the reasons, why the McMillans and McCorrys moved to the States.

John himself turns out to be an interesting character, but I'll save his story for another time.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, James Logan was an army reservist. He returned to rejoin the Gordon Highlanders and was immediately sent to the front line although he wasn't there long before suffering a gunshot wound to his left side in November 1914. He lost his left thumb and forefinger as a result.

I've not quite worked out where James recuperated; newspaper articles and other sites simply say "at home". Piecing things together I'm assuming it's in New Jersey, as Ruth makes the decision to leave Paterson for the safety of her native west Scotland. If James was recuperating in the UK, I'd've assumed she would've made that trip earlier.

And so, Ruth and Robert boarded Lusitania in New York on 1st May 1915 and they departed just after noon. 

There were 129 children [on board], including 39 infants, gurgling, cooing and crying. As Cunard officials often said, the Lusitania did seem the safest, fastest way to cross the Atlantic - especially for mothers and their children who wanted to get where they were going in a hurry. Surely it was the most comfortable.

-- The last voyage of the Lusitania (Hoehling, A.A.)

A newspaper clipping showing a warning from the US German Embassy below an advertisement for the Lusitania crossings. The warning reads: Notice! Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. Imperial German Embassy Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915.
Robert Hunt Picture Library
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned in my introduction, there's no doubt that she would've been aware of the warnings issued by Germany and the feeling onboard. Newspaper articles published on the day of Lusitania's departure report that "scores of prominent passengers ... found anonymous telegrams awaiting them at the pier giving warning that the Lusitania would be sunk on her trip to Liverpool" and that "a number of strangers on the crowded pier" were circulating "similar veiled warnings." (Washington Times)

According to the book The last voyage of the Lusitania (Hoehling, A.A.), Ruth may not have seen these warnings and articles herself as, being a steerage passenger, she would likely have boarded early.

The first six days of the journey may have been tense but they were relatively uneventful. That would change when a German U-boat commanding officer ‘got lucky' in spotting Lusitania and took a shot.

Lusitania's crew were already prepared for an attack with the lifeboats readied. Despite this, the ship's list to starboard was too great and only 6 of the 48 lifeboats were launched.

In just 18 minutes, Lusitania slipped into the water and 1,197 people, almost two-thirds of those on board, were killed. There were 763 survivors.

As third-class passengers, Ruth and Robert's chances of survival were slightly lower than others on board; 36% of third-class passengers survived versus 39% for first-class passengers. (Lusitania Resource)

Ruth was one of the lucky 36%.

In Ruth's own words

Following the disaster, Ruth shared her account although, as widely shared and relatively well-known as it is, I haven't yet found the original source for it. The only places I've found it so far is on the Lusitania Resource and Gare Maritime websites.

Ruth's story starts on the staircase heading towards the open deck:

I never let him out of my sight, as I was afraid something might happen to him. There were people coming behind me, and when the shock came we were all jolted about. I immediately seized Robert and ran on deck. The vessel had a considerable list to one side, but she righted herself for a few minutes and several men clapped their hands and tried to reassure us that she would keep afloat.

The day before the disaster there were sports on board and as Robert was too wee to take part in the general amusement, I took to running after him crying as I did so "I'll catch you!" And, oh! The tragedy of it all. When the rush for lifebelts came Robert could not understand it all and lisped the words I had used the day before.

Everybody seemed to be running around, and everybody seemed to be getting lifebelts. I appealed to several, but no one in the excitement heeded me until a sailor came along. I took him to be an officer. "Wait a second and I'll get you one" he said, and he immediately reappeared with a life jacket and he put it around me. I said to him "What about the child?" and he replied "Put him in along with you" and he lifted my child and put him inside the jacket which was around me. He immediately began to struggle, and wanted down on the deck, and another sailor passing me a minute later advised me to put him down till he could get the jacket put on right. I asked him to get a lifebelt for the wee chap, and he hurried forward to get one, and at that moment the ship went over. I held onto his hood and we went down together, and I still had a grip of him when we came to the surface, but the child's struggles and the struggling of hundreds of others in the water around me caused us to be separated.

Ruth was hospitalised for around six days, according to a list published by Cunard, after being pulled unconscious from the water by a torpedo boat.

Before returning to Ayr, however, Ruth identified body number 42 as her two-year-old son.

Robert was buried in Common Grave C at the Old Church Cemetery, Cobh, Ireland. 

After the war

After being discharged in March 1919, James and Ruth spent some time in Scotland, returning to Paterson in November 1920 following the death of Ruth's mother in the August. They were aboard the SS Kaiserin Augusta Victoria (later known as the Empress of Scotland), but they weren't travelling alone. They also had 11-month-old Robert Logan with them.

I've never understood why people named a child after their previously deceased sibling.

Just over a year later and their third child, Jean, was born.

They continued to live in Paterson with most of the other McCorry siblings in neighbouring Totowa and eldest sister Agnes in Dillon, Montana.

In March 1929, however, Ruth died in St Joseph's Hospital from a bile duct obstruction.

James and Jean remained in Paterson for a few years before moving to a few miles north to the Midland Park / Ridgewood area. After leaving school, Robert joined the air cadets and then the marines. James worked for the Krug's Baking Company in Ridgewood, and himself re-enlisted with the army in 1942, although I couldn't find any record of him serving.

In June 1944, a number of local newspapers carried the announcement that Robert Logan and Dorothy Steenstra were engaged. Both graduates of Ramsey High School, Dorothy was employed by the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company by which point Robert was now a Lieutenant in the marines.

Tragedy never seemed too far away from the family, however. Just three weeks later, on 24th June, Robert was killed in a plane crash at the Marine Corps air station at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

Two weeks after his death, James passed away following a short illness.

Jean went on to live into her 90s, passing away in Florida in 2014.

Timeline

References

Hoehling, A., & Hoehling, M. (1956). The last voyage of the Lusitania. New York: Holt. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/lastvoyageoflu00hoeh

Kalafus, J., Poirier, M., et al. (2023-05-07). The Lusitania : Part 4 : The Families. Retrieved 2024-01-03, from Gare Maritime: https://www.garemaritime.com/lusitania-part-4-families/

Lusitania's passengers warned of ship's doom. (1915-05-01). The Washington Times (8521), p. p 1. Retrieved from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1915-05-01/ed-1/seq-1/

Twitchell, M. W. (1914). The mineral industry of New Jersey for 1913 (Bulletin 15 ed.). Union Hill, New Jersey: Dispatch Printing Company.

Wang, R.-H. J. (2003-2024). The Lusitania resource. Retrieved 01 03, 2024, from https://www.rmslusitania.info/