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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Podcast #138 – Titanic’s Orphans

 

One of the first stories that I recorded for this podcast back in January of 2008 was that of Violet Jessop being the only person to survive the collisions of the three sister ships: the Olympic, Titanic, and the Britannic. (Link below.) Well, twelve years later, it is time for another story about the Titanic. I know that so much has been told and retold about the Titanic over the years that it is my hope that I selected one that you have not heard before.

To begin, I would like to introduce you to two women: 49-year-old Mrs. Lily Potter and her daughter Olive Earnshaw, who was 23 years old when the Titanic disaster occurred.  At the time, Olive’s marriage had failed and she had filed for divorce. Her mom, who had been widowed two years prior, came up with the perfect solution for the two of them to get away from it all: they would embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East beginning in December 1911.  And, to make their trip even more enjoyable, they invited 24-year-old Margaret Bechstein Hays to accompany them.  Olive and Margaret had become good friends while attending the Briarcliff School in New York. 

Titanic passenger Margaret Bechstein Hays.
Margaret Bechstein Hays. Image from Find-A-Grave.

They had already arranged passage home on another ship, but as they were about to leave Turkey, they learned that if they postponed their voyage by one week, they could sail on the maiden voyage of the grand RMS Titanic. It was a decision that would ultimately make the three women footnotes to history.

The Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and made a quick stop that evening in Cherbourg, France to pick up additional passengers. It was there that Lily, Olive, and Margaret first boarded the smaller SS Nomadic tender which transported them out to the Titanic, which had been unable to dock due to its immense size.

The Titanic sailing in ocean.
The Titanic sailing in ocean. Library of Congress image.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 14th, all three women had already retired to their cabins for the evening.  Upon hearing the engines cease operation, the two younger women, who were in cabin C-54, went to check on Olive’s mom in C-50. While they were assured by a steward that there was nothing to worry about, the three got dressed, wrapped Margaret’s Pomeranian named Bebe in a blanket, and headed to the C-deck. All three proceeded to put on lifejackets, boarded lifeboat #7, and, at 12:40 AM, it became the first lifeboat to set sail.

It is very well known that the Titanic only carried enough lifeboats to accommodate about half of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew that were on board. Had the ship carried her full complement of 3,339 people, that fraction drops to about one-third. Even worse, the majority of the lifeboats that were launched were not filled to capacity. For example, the boat containing Lily, Olive, Margaret and Bebe had a capacity of sixty-five, yet it sailed off with only twenty-eight passengers aboard.

The last lifeboat to be successfully lowered into the water was Collapsible D. Just as that boat was about to depart, a man appeared on the Titanic deck clutching two young boys in his arms.  Officers stepped forward to prevent him from boarding the boat, so he shouted down to the crew of the lifeboat to help save his babies. They agreed and he dropped the older boy down into the arms of a sailor.  After observing that he was safely caught, the man then dropped the other youngster. According to survivors, the man was last seen dropping to his knees, his hands clasped in prayer and with tears streaming down his face. 

After receiving the Titanic’s distress call, the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4:00 AM and its crew spent the next five hours rescuing survivors before its captain gave the order to set sail with 705 survivors aboard. More than 1,500 lives were lost. 

Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia.
Titanic survivors in lifeboats on their way to the Carpathia. Library of Congress image.

It was during the three-day voyage to New York aboard the Carpathia that Margaret Hays would take notice of the two young boys as they played with her dog. Since they were the only two children rescued without a parent or guardian, she took it upon herself to care for them. 

While little was known about the boys, it was clear from their striking resemblance that they were almost certainly brothers. One was roughly four years of age and the other two.  One survivor, Julian Pedro, said that the boys occupied the cabin next to his and that the man who accompanied them was named Hoffman, who he believed was their father. He described the father as being around 40-years of age, of medium height and build, with dark hair, a mustache, and a ruddy complexion.  While Hoffman had little interaction with others on the boat, survivors who did recall that he spoke French and believed that he was a widower. 

Ms. Hays, who also spoke fluent French, tried her best to learn what she could from the older boy but had no luck. To just about every question that she asked the boy, he would simply answer “Oui.”

Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic.
Passenger list for the Carpathia as it arrived in New York with passengers rescued from the Titanic. Lily Potter, Olive Earnshaw, and Margaret Hays are listed as number 8-10. Click on image to enlarge.

Upon arrival in New York, Margaret took the two children to her family’s home, which was located at 304 West 83rd Street in Manhattan. With the shocking sinking of the Titanic being front-page news nearly worldwide, the story of the “Two Waifs of the Sea” quickly spread worldwide. The press speculated that Margaret would probably adopt the two children. When interviewed, Ms. Hays told reporters, “I could not allow them to be sent to a foundling home.” She continued, “Just think of it – two little atoms of humanity, whose lives were been filled with happiness, who would’ve been gently brought up by loving parents, robbed of their names, condemned, through no fault of their own to become nameless things in an institution. I could not do that.”

Margaret, with the financial help of her parents, provided the boys with everything they would need until a relative could be found.  That is, should a relative ever be found. They provided the boys with food, shelter, toys and lots of love. The boys appeared incredibly happy and seemed oblivious to the great tragedy that took the life of their dad and so many others.

With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola.
With their names unknown, the two orphan boys from the Titanic called Louis and Lola. Colorized image. Original from the Library of Congress.

Still unable to determine their names, the French consul in New York offered his assistance. He stated, “I’ve read in the papers that the older boy has said his name is Louis, but I can get nothing from him to prove it. It seems to me more likely that he answers oui-oui to everything. He was understood to say that his name was Louis, which might seem to have the same sound to an American. I have cabled to France and will do everything I can to find the relatives of the children, but as yet I have gained nothing from them to aid in the search.” 

The Children’s Aid Society arranged for a native Frenchman to visit the children and he concluded that the boys spoke with a dialect that was unmistakably from the southern portion of France.

And the search continued.

Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

Margaret’s father, Frank B. Hays, remarked, “We have no intention of keeping them beyond the time when their relatives are found or the search for them is given up. A Montréal family who were passengers on the Titanic are anxious to adopt them, and my daughter says they shall have the preference. Of course, many persons here in New York have also offered to take them. The published story that the children were in the same boat with my daughter and clung to her instinctively is a misstatement. My daughter left in the first lifeboat and the two children followed on later boats. The smaller boy was tossed from the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat without a stitch of clothing. The older child wore only a shirt when he was taken aboard the Carpathia. The survivors of the Titanic on board formed a ladies’ committee, and as my daughter was the only one among them who had not suffered some personal loss through the disaster she was asked to care for the two children, and gladly did so. She was told that the two children had been in the second cabin of the Titanic in the care of a man named Hoffman, but we have been unable to get any clue to their whereabouts from the White Star line or anywhere else.”

Margaret Hays received more than 450 offers from all over the nation from people willing to adopt the two boys.  All of the inquiries were then forwarded to the Children’s Aid Society for handling. Offers came in from doctors, lawyers, a stockbroker, a French architect, and many others. Margaret’s personal preference, contradicting her father’s statement about the Montreal family, was that the boys be entrusted to the care of an unnamed friend, should a legitimate relative not be located.

Colorized photos of the two Titanic waifs.
Colorized photo of the two Titanic waifs. Original photo from the Library of Congress.

The first claim from a possible relative came within one-day of Carpathia arriving in New York with the survivors.  One year prior to the sinking of the Titanic, Mystic, Iowa resident Franck Lefebvre had emigrated to the United States from France.  He came in search of employment and, upon earning enough to send for his family, his wife and four youngest children secured passage on the Titanic. Upon hearing the news of the two unidentified French children, he headed for New York to determine if they were his or not. They proved not to be Lefebvre’s children. Sadly, the bodies of his wife and children were never recovered. 

There was quite a bit publicity regarding the two orphans in the French newspapers and one week after the Titanic’s sinking, a 21-year-old woman named Marcelle Navratil came forward believing that the two boys could be her missing sons.  She said that she had separated from her husband Michel and he disappeared with the children, telling friends that he was going to take them to the United States.  

Marcelle Caretto Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Mme. Navratil described her two boys as follows: the older is Michel, Jr, nicknamed Lolo, spoke with difficulty, and was a couple of months shy of his fourth birthday. His younger brother was Edmond, or Momo for short, who was two years old. Her physical descriptions of the two children also closely matched that of the two waifs.

Could she be their mother? That was still to be determined.  

The first problem was that there was no one with the name of Navratil registered as a passenger on the Titanic. Survivors clearly recalled that the man in charge of these two boys was named Hoffman, which was confirmed by an L. Hoffman on the passenger list. Mme. Navratil confirmed that her husband had a friend named Louis Hoffman, but that could be pure coincidence.

So, if the children were hers, it was possible that her husband either assumed his friend’s name for the voyage or that Hoffman himself had agreed to escort the children to the United States. 

The first step in resolving this mystery occurred in Monte Carlo.  Mme. Navratil provided a picture of her husband to the British consul there.  A ticket agent confirmed that he had sold tickets to the man in the photograph and the children who accompanied him for a voyage on the Titanic.

Colorized photo of Edmond and Michel Navratil, Jr. taken to aid in their identification after the sinking of the Titanic. Original image from Wikipedia.

The exact count is unknown, but it is estimated that 334 bodies were recovered from the wreck. 125 were buried at sea and the remaining 209 were transported to Halifax, Nova Scotia for burial. It was there that New York City resident Frederick Wenger traveled in hope of positively identifying the body of his brother-in-law, Sante Righini, which he was able to do. As Wenger moved among the many open caskets in search of Righini, another body grabbed his attention. “Why, I know that man,” he stated. “That is Louis Hoffman of Nice, France. His two little boys are in New York now.” Since Wenger was not aboard the Titanic, it is unclear how he was able to know what Hoffman looked like. 

With the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean lying between Mme. Navratil and the two children, she needed to find a sure-fire way to prove that they were hers. She prepared a series of questions that only her children would know the answers to. The questions and corresponding answers were telegraphed to New York and Margaret Hays asked them to the older child in French. 

Q – “Qu’est-ce que maman t’a donne la veille de Paques?” (What did mamma give you for Easter?)

A – “Des chocolats.” (Chocolates.)

Q – “Dans quoi?” (In what?)

A – “Dans des ceufs de Paques.” (In Easter eggs.)

Q – “Qu’y avait-il sur les ceufs?” (What was on the eggs?)

A – “Un lapin.” (A rabbit.)

Q – “Qu’est-ce faisait maman avec le petits carres en bois?” (What did mamma do with the little blocks of wood?)

A – “Le chien qui boit (???) du lait avec le petit garcon.” (She made the dog who drank milk with the little boy. – This is referring to a jigsaw puzzle.)

Grandma’s illness:

Q – “A Nice, a la maison de maman, qui c’est qui etait malade?” (In Nice, in mamma’s home, who was it that was ill?)

A – “Grandmaman.” (Grandma.)

Q – “Ou c’est que tu allais avec Marie?” (Where did you go with Marie?)

A – “A la mer voir les aeroplanes.” (To the seashore to see the aeroplanes.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui dechirait les carres en bois?” (Who broke up the wooden blocks?)

A – “Maman.” (Mamma.)

Q – “Qui c’est qui s’appelle Marcelle?” (Who is called Marcelle?)

A – “C’est maman.” (It’s mamma.)

Nearly any doubt that anyone had about these being her two children was removed when five of the eight questions were answered correctly.

On April 24th, ten days after the Titanic impacted the iceberg, the offices of the White Star Line in New York City received an unsigned cablegram from Liverpool stating that the sender would be coming ASAP to claim the boys.

Frank Hays told reporters, “I heard the woman claiming to be the mother of the boys had sailed from Liverpool, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about her and don’t know whether it is a new woman in the case or Mme. Navratil of Nice, France. The White Star people can’t or won’t give me any information.”

His daughter Margaret, in turn, questioned the newspapermen as to what they may know: “Have you learned anything?” She continued, “Well, I don’t believe that Frenchwoman is the mother of these children at all. Her story is not plausible.”

To which her dad replied, “It certainly seems plausible to me. The children speak French and are of southern France type. They are of the age that Mme. Navratil states her children are. They must have been brought up near the water, as they are crazy over boats. And they are children of manifest refinement and as fond of automobiles as boats.”

After reading of Mdm. Navratil’s story, Rudolph Navratil of 317 East Ninth Street in Manhattan was convinced that the two boys belonged to his uncle, also named Rudolph Navratil, whom he had not seen in quite some time. “My uncle was about 45 years old, and he left Hungary when only 20. Since that time he has resided in several different countries, but most of the time in France.” 

He continued, “I’ve seen the pictures of the two Titanic waifs and can trace a strong family resemblance. There is not a shadow of doubt that the children are my uncle’s. The only doubt is as to whether it was my uncle who had them on board the Titanic or whether it was his friend Hoffman.” This lead seemed promising but was quickly proven wrong. Shortly after reading the claim in the newspaper, the elder Rudolph Navratil contacted his nephew and explained that he had moved to New York City eight years prior and never had any children.

Many of the initial headlines of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg were incorrect. (Click on image to enlarge.)

On May 6th, Mme. Navratil boarded the RMS Oceanic at Cherbourg and began her trip to New York. While the White Star Line provided her with first-class accommodations, she mingled very little with the other passengers. 

While awaiting her arrival, the Children’s Aid Society placed the boys in the care of one of Mme. Navratil’s relatives, whose name was withheld from the press.  She was later identified as Rose Bruno, a cousin who worked as a governess in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Finally, on May 15th – one full month after the Titanic sank to its icy grave, the Oceanic docked and Mme. Navratil was one of the first off of the ship. She was rushed through customs and then met at the pier by Margaret and her father Frank, cousin Rose, and a couple of others. After some brief introductions, they all took a cab to the offices of the Children’s Aid Society. There, she was hurried through a throng of reporters and photographers and led up to the nurses’ parlor on the fifth floor. The rest of the party fell back as Mme. Navratil turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.
Passenger arrival list for the Oceanic. Marcelle Navratil is on line #11, which is stamped “Non Immigrant Alien.” Click on image to enlarge.

As she entered the room, she first spotted her eldest son, Michel, dressed in a tan sailor suit, seated in the corner of a window with a picture alphabet book in his lap. Edmond was crawling on the floor attempting to put a child’s puzzle together.

She knelt to her knees and called to her children, “Mes enfants – Mes petits.” (My children, my little ones.)

Edmond let out a wail and ran towards his mother. “Oh, maman! Oh, Maman!” Michel quickly followed and they all embraced for quite some time.  

The three were alone in the room for nearly an hour, but she never asked them about the tragedy or their father.  “I do not want them to think about that. They must only be happy from now on – only happy; no more distress.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Michel and Edmond. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

While Mme. Navratil was fluent in French and Italian, she spoke no English. Her statements were all translated into English for the benefit of the reporters and their readers.  

“I’m afraid they will both be frightened when they see the big ship on which I am to take them back home Saturday. As for me, of course, I am not frightened, not at all.”

When asked if she would agree to any of the offers of adoption, she replied “No, indeed! I couldn’t give them up.”

She then went on to describe how this whole mess began.  She had been born in Buenos Aires to Italian parents, but her family soon moved back to Genoa. It was there that she met her future husband, Hungarian Michel Navratil. He was a tailor by trade and the two married in 1907, when she was seventeen.  The couple ultimately settled down in Nice where his business prospered. 

The two were very happy until shortly after the birth of their second son, Edmond. That’s when, according to Mme. Navratil, everything started to turn sour. Her husband had become insanely jealous and their marriage quickly fell apart. She filed for a separation and was granted custody of the children. Dad was only permitted to see his children once a month. 

It was on April 7, 1912 – Easter Day – that Mme. Navratil sent her children to see her husband. 

“On Easter Sunday last, my children were taken to their father, and from that time to this, I have not seen them. I then heard that he had sailed from Cherbourg on the Titanic, and when I heard of the sinking of the steamship I almost lost my reason, for my babies, I thought, must have perished. Later came word that there were two children in New York, and when they told me how they looked like, I knew they must be mine.”

She did express that she believed that her husband had died in the wreck, but she had no proof, other than the positive identification by the ticket agent in Monte Carlo, that both he and Louis Hoffman were, in fact, the same person.

Michel Navratil. Image from Find-A-Grave.

On Saturday, May 18, Mme. Navratil and her two children would board the Oceanic and begin their return trip to Europe. Just before they set sail, she commented, “The people here have been very kind. I have not had many offers of help, but I have felt more than I can tell the sympathy for my babies and myself and the trouble strangers have taken to bring us together. I have had hundreds of letters of sympathy and even offers of marriage.” She continued, “We are simple folk, my children and I, and we need not much. God has been good enough to bring us together after so many terrible things.”

Colorized photo of Marcelle Navratil and her sons Edmond and Michel. Original black and white image from the Library of Congress.

But things were not well when they got back home. Her deceased husband had sold his business for about $8,000 ($215,000 today) and the money was never found. It was believed that he was carrying the cash with him to America and it went down with the ship. 

One year later, Mme. Navratil was working as a servant and struggling to make ends meet. Word that they were living in poverty somehow got back to New York and the Hays family once again stepped in to help.  Margaret told reporters, “Monday is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the legal limit for filing claims expires then. To enable Mrs. Navratil to begin suit, I sent her the money necessary.” Her dad filed a claim for $30,000, but it is unclear if Mrs. Navratil ever received any compensation for her loss.

Margaret would marry Dr. Charles D. Easton of Newport, Rhode Island on April 24, 1913. In November 1914, she would once again meet up with Mme. Navratil and the two boys. The reunion was reported as being joyous. Sadly, Dr. Easton was 58 when he died after undergoing surgery on October 4, 1934. While vacationing with one of her two daughters and a granddaughter in Buenos Aires, Margaret suffered a heart attack and passed away on August 21, 1956. She was sixty-eight years old.

Grave of Margaret Bechstein Hays Easton. Image from Find-A-Grave.

Not much is known about Marcelle Caretto Navratil other than she worked hard, successfully raised her two sons and died in 1963.

Edmond would work as an interior decorator before becoming an architect and builder. When World War II broke out, he joined the French Army, was captured, and was placed in a German POW camp.  He was able to escape, but his health had greatly suffered during his internment and he died on July 7, 1953, at the age of 43.

Lastly, his brother Michel Navratil, Jr. became a psychology professor. It was while in college that he would meet his future Juliet. The couple married in 1932 and together they raised three children.

In 1987, Michel made his first trip back to the United States to mark the 75th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. He returned once again in 1996 and, along with two other female survivors, they cruised to the location of the wreck while attempts were being made to bring a portion of the ship to the surface. 

Before his return to France, he traveled to Halifax for the first time to visit his father’s grave in the Baron de Hirsh Cemetery.  When the bodies were recovered, the intent was to bury the Jewish victims there.  In an ironic twist, eight of the ten Titanic victims buried there were unidentified and the other two weren’t Jewish. Steward Frederick William Wormald was a member of the Church of England and Michel Navratil was Catholic.  The reason Navratil was buried in a Jewish cemetery was that he was originally identified Louis Hoffman, Hoffman being a Jewish surname. Today, his grave bears the name Michel Navratil.

His son Michel did reveal one family secret during his 1996 trip. The failure of his parents’ marriage was not due to jealousy over the birth of Edmond. “My mother never forgave herself for losing her children as a result of her love affair. In New York, there were many people who wanted to adopt us. The battle my mother had endured to win us back was to her like a divine punishment for what she had done.” 

Michel Marcelle Navratil, Jr. was 92 years old when he passed away on January 30, 2001. He was the last surviving male Titanic passenger. Four women outlived him.

Prior to his death, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure really, of going plop into the lifeboat.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Podcast #132 – In the Blink of an Eye

 

Did you ever stop to think about how your life could change in the blink of eye? Every morning each of us gets up and assumes that each day will turn out just fine, but then something happens that changes the course of our lives forever. It could be the birth of a child, being diagnosed with a dreadful disease, or simply losing your job.

Take, for example, the story of Sigel Castle. He was born in Albia, Iowa on November 27, 1862. At 24 years of age, he married Ida Chedester, after which the newlyweds moved to South Dakota. Between 1888 and 1900, the couple would have six children. In order, they were Roy, William, Rena, Earl, Eva, and Laura, who was born on April 7, 1900. Just two months later, Mrs. Castle would pass away. While neither her exact dates of birth or death are known, she was approximately 32 years of age. This left Sigel to care for their six children, all under the age of twelve.

Five years later, on January 24, 1905, Sigel would marry his late wife’s younger sister Edith Mary Chedester. He was 42 and she was 27 years old at the time of their union. Together the couple would have three additional children: Bertha Irene, Sylvia Mae, and the youngest, Evelyn Helen, who was born on May 21, 1916. At the time of Evelyn’s birth, all but one of Sigel’s six children from his first marriage were adults.

Nebraska marriage certificate between Mary Edith Chedester and Sigel Wylie Castle.

Many years later, Evelyn would write, “Papa was a kind and loving father to me. I remember him most as a quiet man, who sat by the table at night and read by lamplight. He worked hard.”

She had equally kind words to say regarding her mother: “It is hard to write of my Mama, my whole world revolved around her and no one has ever taken her place. She was a small woman, with dark red hair piled high on her head. She wore long skirts down to her ankles. She walked with a limp as she had been hurt when she was young. She had fallen from a horse and hurt her hip it had not healed right. I remember picking sweet wild strawberries with her, of being caught in a hailstorm and running with her as they came down ‘big as hen eggs.’ The memories are endless.”

On June 2, 1925, Sigel Castle would once again face the loss of a loved one. His second youngest daughter from his first marriage, 28-year-old Eva Amanda Castle Harvey, died of cancer. She was survived by her husband Clarence and their four young children.

Gravestone of Eva Amanda Castle Harvey at New Underwood Cemetery in New Underwood, South Dakota. Image is from Find-A-Grave.

I spoke with Perry Reeder, Jr., Evelyn’s son and Sigel’s grandson, and he told me the following:

Perry Reeder: Well, one of his favorite daughters from that older family died of cancer. And it made him so he didn’t want to be around there anymore and he wanted to kind of get a new life. So he sold everything and they moved.

Evelyn, who is no longer with us, wrote about what happened next: “After her death Papa decided to move out to Oregon. He bought a car and since he didn’t know how to drive and (wasn’t about to learn). He asked Otis Angle (my sister Bertha’s boyfriend) to drive us out. We left South Dakota in late July 1925. We stopped first at my brother Earl Castle in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for a short visit with him and his family. We then went through Wyoming to Yellowstone Park to see Old Faithful. How that model T Ford made it over those high passes is a miracle.”

She continues, “Later, coming down the Columbia River in Oregon we stopped at Multnomah Falls. There was a small store there and Sylvia Mae and I were allowed to buy some cup cakes. This was my first experience with store-bought cup cakes. So I started to take a bite out of mine and Mama said, “Don’t eat the paper Evelyn!

“We went to Portland, Oregon to visit my uncle Emmett Jay Castle and his son Merwyn. Otis Angle stayed in Portland to get work. On August 13, 1925 we started to our new home in Eugene, Oregon.”

It was at this point that 16-year-old Merwyn Castle was recruited to drive the car to their final destination. He was an inexperienced driver who had obtained his license just three weeks earlier.

Perry Reeder: I don’t know in them days if they had to even apply for a license. All they had to do is to be able to drive.

Merwyn was at the wheel as he drove the jalopy southward from Portland. Mrs. Castle sat beside him in the front seat while Sigel and the couple’s three children were in the back. As the sun was setting on Thursday, August 13, 1925, Merwyn came upon a portion of the road just north of Harrisburg that was being paved. This forced him to make a detour across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the road.

Without looking, Merwyn turned the car up a short grade to cross the tracks. What he didn’t see was that the southbound No. 33 Southern Pacific train was coming up from behind at an estimated 50 mph (80.5 km/h).

Perry Reeder: The detour run parallel to the tracks for a couple of hundred feet or maybe more. Merwyn probably was, was not looking behind him, you know, the train would be coming from behind. And he would be turning to his left and going across the tracks. I’ve been to that crossing and that crossing is a raised, you know, like six or seven feet off of the level ground and it raises up for gravel for the train tracks and they were probably on that and, the way I would see it, and he and he probably never even noticed the train coming from behind him.

The occupants of a car waiting to cross from the opposite side of the track yelled out a warning to Merwyn, but he could not hear them over the deafening sound of the approaching train and its whistle. Engineer Harvey Carpenter was at the throttle when he spotted the car just as it was crossing over the tracks. He didn’t see it until the last second because the car did not have its headlights on. There was little that Harvey could do. He immediately jammed on the locomotive’s emergency brakes while blasting its whistle in a last-second attempt to get the car cleared from the tracks.

The Number 33 Southern Pacific locomotive and tender. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

It was too late. The train rammed into the car nearly dead-center. Harvey Carpenter watched in horror as his locomotive pushed the automobile along the tracks for several rail lengths before it was finally pushed off to the left of the train.

As awful as you can imagine that this accident was, it was far worse because the car was open-topped. The scene can only be described as gruesome with body parts scattered along the tracks.

62-year-old Sigel Castle, his 47-year-old wife Edith, and their two daughters, 18-year-old Bertha and 15-year-old Sylvia all lost their lives in the accident. Their bodies were taken to a local undertaker and Uncle Emmett Castle arrived the next morning to arrange for their burial.

Perry Reeder: Yeah, they were all so badly beat up, you know, that they just buried them in one grave that I know.

A quick check on the Find-A-Grave website confirms that the four are buried under one gravestone. It simply reads

CASTLE
BERTHA SYLVIA EDITH SIGEL
AUGUST 14, 1925

Perry Reeder: Well, we’ve been down to the grave. And this is like, you know, 40 years later or even longer, maybe 50 years later, and the track is still in the same place and the graveyard is relatively close. But about five miles from where the accident happened. The graveyard is north of where the accident happened. And the train still goes down through there and when that train comes thundering down through there and you’re standing at the graves… You know how trains are: they make a lot of noise and bump and bang the cars together as they go and you can kind of feel the vibration and if you’re standing there in the evening it kind of was a little bit spooky if it’s a still day. It’s spooky if you know the people who are buried there and the accident happened just a little ways away from there.

Castle gravestone in the Alford Cemetery in Harrisburg, Oregon. The image appears on Find-A-Grave.

At the time of the accident, newspapers were quick to report that the Castles were on their way to the Harrisburg hop yards to help in the harvest before heading off to Eugene where Sigel had accepted a position on a dairy farm, but Perry said that this was not true.

Perry Reeder: We’ve always known that the articles about them being hop-pickers was untrue. That was made up by some reporter. Well, he was a teacher first. Then he did some farming and then he did some logging. You know, part times.

The truth is that Sigel was headed to Eugene to purchase a farm of his own. His descendants believe that Sigel must have had enough money with him to at least make a downpayment. Any money that Sigel may have had on him, which is thought to have been a fairly large sum, disappeared at the time of the wreckage.

So, what happened to the driver of the car, Sigel’s nephew Merwyn Castle? Surprisingly, very little. He was found lying in a daze next to the wrecked car. His only injuries were a few bruises and a cut on his eyebrow.

Perry Reeder: You know he was most likely just flipped right out of the car and he had a bad cut on the eyebrow and that’s about the only injury he had. He walked away from it.

Right after Harvey Carpenter stopped the train, he immediately jumped out to offer any assistance that he could. It’s unclear who made the discovery first, either Harvey Carpenter or the train’s conductor, identified only as Mr. Caffin, but they found an incredible surprise on the cowcatcher; the metal grate on older trains that would push cattle and other objects off of the tracks. There, against all odds, 9-year-old Evelyn Castle was found hanging from the cowcatcher. Badly injured, she had somehow survived the impact with the train.

No one can say with any certainty how she ended up there. Maybe it was due to pure luck, but Evelyn remembered it differently. She had been sitting on her dad’s lap at the moment of impact and as the train was being dragged along, she said that he placed her on the cowcatcher.

Perry Reeder: If you could imagine they were both traveling along side-by-side there for just a second or two and he probably just saw a chance to lay her on it and keep her from the car from; the car was being smashed while he was doing that and then it rolled and flipped.

They say that time slows down during an accident and this may have been no exception. You also need to keep frame of reference in mind: both the car and the train were moving at the same exact speed as basically one unit for several seconds.

Perry Reeder: You can see what he was thinking. He could probably see what was going to happen. And so he just pushed her over there and hoped that she would; all the cars flipping around and things would miss her. But it was his only chance. Because he was probably, I don’t know, but he was probably sitting behind Merwyn. And so he probably just thought, well, here’s her only chance and that was an open-top car so he just lifted her up and pushed her over there.

After Evelyn was removed from the cowcatcher, it was clear that she was in urgent need of medical attention but no physician was available locally. The decision was made to transport both Evelyn and Merwyn to a hospital in Eugene, which lies about twenty miles (32 km) to the south. Both were placed aboard the train – the same train involved in the accident – and Harvey Carpenter opened up the throttle. Upon arrival in Eugene, a waiting ambulance rushed Evelyn to the hospital.

This image of Evelyn Castle was printed in newspapers across the country in 1925. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Years later, Evelyn described her injuries: “I had a broken arm, which they put in a cast from my shoulder to my wrist, some cuts and bruises. I suffered mostly from shock. I was not released from the Hospital until two weeks later. I was unable to walk and had to be in a wheel chair.”

As she recovered, Harvey Carpenter was held blameless for the accident. Unbeknownst to Evelyn at the time, at the end of nearly every run, Harvey Carpenter would go to the hospital and bring her flowers and gifts. But none of those material items could erase his guilt. The thought of Evelyn clinging on to that cowcatcher continued to be a burden on his mind.

Perry Reeder: It bothered Harvey Carpenter because he said when he was driving the train that he would see her constantly. The first time he’d seen her on the front of the train bruised. But, Harvey felt guilty. Even though he was innocent, he felt guilty about it and he was haunted by it.

Upon her release from the hospital, a woman obtained permission from Evelyn’s Uncle Emmett to take her to a local hotel that she owned. The mayor of Harrisburg had presented Evelyn with $10.00 (about $150 today), but when she awoke the next morning, the money was gone. When questioned about it, the proprietor told Evelyn “Someone has to pay for your keep!”

Two days later, Emmett Castle came to get Evelyn and took her back to his Portland home. Since his wife had been previously committed to the Oregon State Mental Hospital, he was unable to care for her. He opted to place Evelyn with another family.

“They took me to church every night. They would put me on a platform and get down on their knees and howl and pray aloud. This frightened me so much, I would cry and beg them not to take me.

“I finally got so bad that they thought I was losing my mind. I had crawled under a stationary table with stationary benches on either side. I wouldn’t come out so they put a blanket in there for me and closed the curtains. They talked in whispers around me. My arm hurt me, the cast was still on it,” Evelyn writes.

Her next memory was that of someone whispering to her, “It is the man who killed your folks!” She described what happened next: “I saw a big, tall man with a look of shocked disbelief on his face. This was the first time to my knowledge that I had ever seen Harvey Carpenter, of course I didn’t know his name at the time.”

It was clear that Evelyn was not adapting well to her new home, so the court stepped in and ordered that she be placed in the care of the Portland Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society. While there, Harvey Carpenter continued to visit with her.

“Harvey Carpenter, who was the engineer on the fateful train and his wife Alta came to visit me at the Orphanage. They got permission to take me out for a visit to their beautiful home. After having me there for a week or two, they decided to legally adopt me.”

Initially, the court ordered that Evelyn be placed in the care of the Carpenters, but her uncle Emmett Castle contested that decision. A jury decided on November 3, 1925 that full custody of Evelyn should be granted to the Carpenters.

Legal challenges continued until January 11, 1926. That’s when Judge Jacob Kanzler ruled in the Carpenters’ favor. He stated, “The court is glad to decree this adoption because the future welfare of the little girl is now provided for.”

Evelyn writes, “Harvey and Alta Carpenter were in their late 40’s. Both of them had been married and divorced before. They had only been married two years before they adopted me. They took me into their home and gave me everything a little girl could want. Harvey Carpenter became the most wonderful Dad a girl ever had. But even with all this it took me months to get well and I didn’t go to school until the next fall, I had missed a year of school.”

Evelyn Castle Carpenter – Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She continued, “After I got well, I took piano lessons, dancing lessons, and learned to roller skate with the kids in the neighborhood.

“In the fall of 1927, we moved from Portland to Dallas, Oregon. In this little town I finished growing up.”

I asked Evelyn’s son Perry what Harvey Carpenter was like:

Perry Reeder: He was real popular person. He was a real nice guy. He became a hero after he adopted my mother and my mother loved him because he just would do anything for her and he was well-liked all his life. My younger brother, Harvey was named after Harvey Carpenter. His name is Harvey Carpenter Reeder. So my mother thought a lot about Harvey Carpenter. She idolized him.

It was on June 30, 1943, after forty-five years of continuous service, that 66-year-old Harvey Carpenter would one last time climb into the cab of the Northbound train headed out of Eugene. In retirement, he took on a number of different jobs. At one point he served as the chief of police in West Salem, Oregon. At the age of seventy, he became the keeper of the Oregon Senate’s north door. He was 83-years-old when he passed away in San Francisco on April 5, 1960. He was survived by his wife Alta, his daughter Annette from his first marriage and, of course, Evelyn.

Colorized image of jockey Willie Shoemaker and Harvey Carpenter. Original image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She writes, “On August 8, 1936, I married Perry Charles Reeder. We have four children. I didn’t know there was a depression until then, but I soon found out. We had quite a struggle raising our family.”

During the Second World War, the couple decided to leave Portland for a more rural way of life. In 1944, they settled in the failed resort town of Bayocean, Oregon. Perry explains:

Perry Reeder: It was like, it was going to be a boardwalk of the West. That’s what they wanted it to be. So they had rich people lived out there, but they all abandoned it and us poor people could, like mom and dad, could rent a nice place for near nothing. And that’s how we lived.

Evelyn would work different jobs to help support her family, which included being Postmaster of the Bayocean post office from 1950 through 1954.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder standing in the doorway of the Bayocean post office. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Perry Reeder: We were lived under poor conditions by today’s standards. We were a poor family but everybody else in the whole countryside was poor, lived the same standard we did. So, we didn’t know any different. We just existed from payday to payday. And we would all go to the movie on Friday nights. We had quite an upbringing.

Today Bayocean no longer exists, having long been washed into the sea by coastal erosion.

As we spoke, it was clear that Perry looked back on both Bayocean and his childhood with great fondness. In fact, he penned the book Bayocean: Memories Beneath the Sand with his daughter Sarah MacDonald, which you can find on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble website

I asked Perry if his mom had suffered any long-term effects from the accident:

Perry Reeder: No. It would just be mental if she had any. But she didn’t manifest anything. She seemed to have left it behind somehow.

Sadly, Evelyn Helen Castle Carpenter Reeder, the proud mother of four children, passed away on June 11, 1985 at the age of sixty-nine.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder gravestone. Image appears on Find-A-Grave.

Perry Reeder: When she died, she died of cancer, of pancreatic cancer. And when I was at her bedside and she was calling out to daddy. And I think that she only called her real father daddy. I think she called the Carpenters, I think they he she called them in a more formal mama and papa. But she was seeing daddy when she was dying. Right at the very last hours. In fact, an hour before she died she was yelling daddy. So she was always thinking about that accident. I mean it never left her. So you might say that it did have an effect on her. Well, it obviously did.

It clearly did. And to think that one single event, which had lasted but a few seconds, completely changed the course of her entire life.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Podcast 124: Flying Blind

 

On March 22, 1952, 25-year-old Lt. (jg) Howard Thayer was flying as part of a bombing mission to destroy enemy rail and truck lines near the strategically important harbor of Wonsan, North Korea. Then, suddenly, he heard a scream come over his radio, “I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me; I’m blind!”

Thayer immediately looked all around for a plane that was trailing smoke, but saw none. Above him he spotted a Douglas AD Skyraider that appeared to be headed nearly straight upward toward the clouds. It was a dark, overcast day and Thayer knew that if this plane was being piloted by the man who made that plea, he would surely lose sight of the aircraft once it entered the clouds. Thayer needed to act quickly.

“Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”

Initially there was no response, but then he observed a repeated back-and-forth rocking motion. Yet, the plane continued its upward climb and was just seconds from disappearing into the cloud canopy.

“Put your nose down – put your nose down.” Thayer continued, “Push over. I’m coming up.”

The Skyraider was still climbing as Thayer pushed full throttle to catch up with the plane. As he approached the aircraft, he realized that this out-of-control bomber was not being flown by just any anonymous pilot. Instead, he was 22-year-old Ensign Kenneth A. Schechter, who just happened to be Howie Thayer’s roommate on the USS Valley Forge, the aircraft carrier from which both had launched. The two had trained together at the Alameda Naval Air Force base and had since become the closest of friends.

“This is Thayer – this is Thayer! Put your nose down quick! Get it over!”

As Thayer pulled in close to the plane, he could see that Schechter was gravely wounded. An enemy anti-aircraft shell had exploded near his head and shattered the cockpit canopy. Ken was barely conscious and was struggling to talk over his radio as the air whipped past him and the loud engine roar drowned out all other sound. Kind of like driving a car at 200 mph (322 km/h) with the top down, but in far, far worse condition.

Yet, somehow Ken was finally starting to make sense of what his friend Thayer was telling him to do.

“You’re doing all right now. Pull back a little; we can level off now.”

Schechter pushed his stick forward and relying solely on his sense of how gravity pulling on his body, he was able to level his plane out.

As Howie Thayer pulled within 100-feet (approximately 30-meters) of Schechter, he could now see how badly injured his face was. Fragments from the blast had caught under Ken’s eye and ripped the skin all the way across to his right cheek. He was bleeding profusely and had lost total vision. Ken Schechter was flying blind.

Thayer thought to himself, “My God, My God! How is he alive?”

Schechter was struggling to figure out what had happened and decided that if he could get some fresh air, maybe he could think more clearly. He reached for the canopy release lever and pulled on it. Nothing happened. He tried again and still nothing. That was when he finally realized that the canopy had been totally blown away. His next move was to reach for his canteen. After removing the top, Ken poured water over his face. This cleared the blood away from his eyes just long enough so that he could see the instrument panel in front of him. And, then, in an instant his vision was gone.

Schechter blurted over the radio, “Get me down Howie. Get me down, Howie.”

Thayer replied, “Roger.” He then spotted a partial bombload under Schechter’s wings. “Drop your ordnance.” Howie understood the request and he released the bombs.

Their next move was to circle back and head over the bomb-line into safe territory. Their initial destination was an island known as Yo-Do, located in Wonsan harbor, which was often used as a station during helicopter rescue missions. Thayer quickly realized that Schechter was so severely injured that there was no way they would make the distance to Yo-Do.

Thayer constantly scanned the shoreline for American ships, knowing that once he sighted them, he could be certain that they were back in friendly territory. He radioed, “We’re approaching Wonsan now. Get ready to bail out.”

Schechter refused to do so. He knew that, even under the best of conditions, jumping into the choppy waters was a risky move. In fact, during his second mission in Korea, he had flown near pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pugh, whose plane had been hit. Pugh landed on the water and signaled to Schechter that he was safe before flying off, but two hours later Pugh was dead. Pugh’s life jacket had failed, his immersion suit had leaked, he never made it to his liferaft, and the helicopter sent to pick him up had failed. Ken Schechter was in far worse shape and knew that he had no chance of surviving in the icy water below. He radioed back to Thayer, “Negative. Negative. Not gonna bail out. Get me down.”

The decision was made to head for an American airbase nicknamed Geronimo that was about 30 miles (48 km) south of the enemy line.

“We’re at the battle line now, Ken. Will head you for Geronimo. Hold on, boy!” Thayer then questioned, “Can you make it, Ken?” To which he replied, “Get me down, you miserable ape, or you’ll have to inventory my gear,” referring to the fact that each had designated the other to handle their affairs should one of them be killed in action.

As Thayer directed Ken to turn his plane right, he could see Schechter’s head fall forward and then as he attempted to straighten it upward, his head flopped over to the left. It was clear that there was no way that he was going to make it Geronimo. Thayer began to search for a place for Schechter to put his plane down, whether that be a rice paddy, a beach, or a flat field.

He spotted a clear spot ahead and as Thayer got closer, he realized that it was an abandoned airstrip that had been nicknamed the Jersey Bounce. While there were no aircraft there, Thayer observed that a few small buildings still remained. Hopefully that also meant that a few men remained behind to care for the facility and that they would be able to get Schechter immediately to a military hospital, should he survive the landing. With a short runway less than 2,000 feet (610 meters) in length and with Schechter severely injured, the odds were clearly stacked against him.

“We’re approaching Jersey Bounce, Ken. Will make a two-seven-zero turn and set you down.”

Schechter replied, “Roger. Let’s go.”

As they approached the runway, Thayer began to calmly provide his friend with exacting instructions. “Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. Little more.” He continued, “Gear down.”

Schechter abruptly replied, “To hell with that!” He had remembered that in an emergency landing such as this, it was far safer to land on the plane’s belly. To use the landing gear could risk ripping off one of the wings or possibly flipping the plane over.

Thayer understood. “Roger. Gear up.” He continued, “We’re headed straight. Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re OK. You’re 30 feet off the ground. You’re OK. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK. OK. OK. Cut.”

As Schechter tensed up while awaiting contact with the ground, the plane landed on its belly and slid along the gravel runway. About forty-five minutes after being hit, his plane came to a stop about halfway down the runway. Thayer radioed, “You’re on the ground,” and then began to circle round and round to make sure that his friend was okay. As Schechter clumsily pulled himself out of his cockpit, Thayer could see a car race down the runway toward the plane. Two men helped Ken into the vehicle and sped off toward one of the buildings near the end of the runway.

Howie Thayer’s job was done and he headed back to the Valley Forge and landed about twenty minutes later. As soon as he climbed out of his cockpit, Thayer was puzzled to have a number of senior pilots and officers come right out to meet him. He quickly learned that nearly everyone aboard the carrier had been listening nervously to the voice transmissions between the two pilots as the whole rescue unfolded. In addition, a transcription machine had recorded everything, providing for a permanent record of exactly what the two had said.

As for Ken Schechter, he was immediately transported by helicopter from Jersey Bounce to Geronimo. Doctors removed some of the larger pieces of shrapnel, but determined that he was in need of a skilled eye surgeon and had him flown to naval hospital ship Consolation, which was anchored in the Pusan harbor in South Korea at the time. From there, it was on to hospitals in Japan, Oakland, and San Diego. In all, he would spend six months in various military hospitals. While he recovered vision in his left eye, he never regained sight in his right, which meant a permanent end to his military career as a pilot.

Two years later, their story became the basis for the Hollywood movie “Men of the Fighting Lady.” Thayer was portrayed by Van Johnson and Dewey Martin played the part of Schechter. As one would expect, the film to great license with the story, which included Schechter’s plane landing back on the carrier in a giant flaming wreck.

Interestingly, the plane that Shechter had crash landed had its propeller replaced, flown back to the Valley Forge for repairs, and was then placed back in service.

Howie Thayer would once again perform a similar rescue on June 27, 1953. This time a plane piloted by Lieutenant John J. Chambers was hit, not only wounding him in the arms and legs, but damaging his radio and flight instruments. Thayer had to use hand signals to guide Chambers to a safe landing on an airstrip some 40-miles (65 km) away.

Sadly, in January of 1961, while on a night mission, Thayer was guiding a fellow pilot whose plane had experienced an electrical system failure. While on landing approach, both pilots crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Their remains were never to be recovered. For all of his heroic actions, Howard Thayer was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2009.

On June 28, 1995, Ken Schechter was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Howie Thayer’s three adult children were present as he received the award aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego. During his acceptance speech, Ken stated to them, “I hope you will see this ceremony as your ceremony, because that’s certainly the way I feel about it.”

Kenneth Allen Schechter was born in Harlem, NY on January 31, 1930, the son of European immigrants. After graduating from Stanford and the Harvard Business School, he spent most of his career as an insurance agent. He died of complications due to prostate cancer on December 11, 2013 at the age of 83.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Saved by a Giant Turtle

 

27-year-old South Korean Chung Nam Kim may have been one of the luckiest guys ever. He had been working aboard the Liberian Federal Nagara as a deckhand and painter. At some point between 2 and 3 AM on Friday August 22, 1969, Kim found himself suffering from a bad headache and decided that it would be best to go up on deck and grab some fresh air.

Suddenly, his foot slipped and Kim fell into the Pacific Ocean. No one witnessed his plunge, so he was as good as dead. Kim started swimming for land, but it was obvious that there was no way that he could ever make it.

“I was very afraid. I thought that I was dying… I couldn’t think of anything else. I was too exhausted.”

Just at the point when he was about to give up, he spotted something in the water.

“I thought I was dead. And then I touched this thing, and I first thought that it might be a shark and then I saw it was a turtle so I held on.”

He threw his arm around the turtle and paddled slowly with the other arm. After about two hours of swimming with the turtle, he spotted what looked like a ship. It was the Swedish freighter Citadel, which was 113 miles (182 km) from the Nicaraguan coast at the time. He started waving his arms frantically to get their attention. At 4:45 PM that Friday, the crew of the Citadel spotted a man with his arm around a large turtle and pulled him out of the water. Kim was taken aboard and almost immediately passed out from exhaustion.

Could this be a whale of a fish story? Most likely not. Both the captain and the crew of the Citadel said that they had seen Kim clinging to the turtle. One crew member even managed to snap a few photographs of the rescue.

Chung Nam Kim
Turtle rider Chung Nam Kim and Captain Horst Wedder (center) tell their story to a news reporter. Image appeared on page 23 of the August 31, 1969 issue of the Statesman Journal.

The Last Man on Earth

 
Useless Information Podcast

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you ended up being the last person alive on Earth? Back in 1960, the San Francisco Chronicle decided to send their hunting and fishing columnist Bud Boyd up into the Marble Mountains of California for six weeks to find out if one could really survive. Let’s just say that everything did not go as planned…

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That’s the Ticket

 
Useless Information Podcast

Back in 1955, Evert Stenmark was out hunting alone for ptarmigan when he became buried by an avalanche.  Day after day he remained trapped under the snow.  Learn how he survived and the one thing that he had in his wallet that probably saved his life.

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