Archive for June, 2013


On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland. Of the 2,228 passengers and crew members who had set sail across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, we know that only 705 survived.

What many may not know is that several roosters, hens, and chicks were also making the journey on the ship’s maiden voyage. They never reached their new home in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

In April 1912, Mrs. Ella Bertha Holmes White and her good friend, Marie Grice Young, traveled to England and France, where they had purchased some prized French roosters and hens for the farm at Ella’s summer home at Briarcliff Lodge. Together with Ella’s maid, Amelia “Nellie” Bissette, and her manservant, Sante Righini, the two women boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg on April 10. The women’s ticket was No. PC 17760, and they shared first-class cabin C-32.

Briarcliff Lodge

Briarcliff Lodge, a sprawling Tudor-style building in New York’s Westchester County, was built in 1902 as a summer resort hotel by Walter W. Law. The King’s College bought the Briarcliff Lodge in 1955, but the building was abandoned in 1994. A fire on September 20, 2003, destroyed the original 1902 section of the Lodge.

Fifty-five year old Ella White, the wealthy widow of Manhattan businessman John Stuart White, was short and stout with a brash personality. It was reported that she was quite out of shape, which is why she required the assistance of a maid and a manservant.

Tall, soft-spoken and 36 years old, Marie Young was Ella’s opposite. However, the pair was inseparable. The women had been sharing an apartment at Briarcliff Lodge in Westchester County, New York, and often traveled abroad together, collecting art and Russian and Asian antiques.

Oak Room Rob Yasinac

Here is the exterior of the Oak Room, a 1909-addition to Briarcliff Lodge and the one-time apartment of Ella Holmes White and Marie Grice Young.
Photo: Rob Yasinsac /

As the story goes, while boarding the Titanic on April 10, Ella had fallen and twisted her ankle. She was placed under the care of the ship’s doctor, who confined her to her cabin. This left Maria in charge of the roosters and hens, who were being housed near the ship’s galleys on the D deck.

Each day, John Hutchinson, the Titanic’s 26-year-old carpenter, would take Maria below to check on the chickens. (John was also responsible for the welfare of the 9 dogs in the ship’s kennels.) The hens continued to lay eggs in their new surroundings, and Maria would report the day’s count to Ella. As a reward for his kindness, and for having extra crates and labels made for the chickens, Maria tipped John with some gold coins. “It’s such good luck to receive gold on a first voyage,” John reportedly told Maria.

The Fateful Night

Just before the Titanic struck the iceberg, Ella was sitting in her bed and was just about to turn out the light to go to sleep. In her testimony, Ella said that it felt as if the ship were going over about a thousand marbles when it struck the iceberg.

She said they heard no alarms whatsoever. Ella put on several layers of warm clothes, and instructed Marie to do the same. Then they locked their trunks and the two women, along with the maid, Nellie, made it to the top deck via the elevator (although Ella had a walking cane, she still could not climb the stairs.)

Maria Young and Ella Holmes White

Pictured left to right are Marie, Ella, and Ella’s niece, Mrs Harry S. Durand.
Credit: © Michael A. Findlay / Harry Durand Jr., USA

Once on deck, Ella, Marie, and Nellie boarded lifeboat #8 on the ship’s port side. This lifeboat was one of the first to leave the ship, despite the fact that it appeared to be more than half empty.

Although Ella was unable to row with the others, she did contribute by using her cane — which had an electric light in the tip — to try to signal a ship whose lights could be seen nearby. In her testimony at the American Inquiry into the Titanic’s sinking, Ella spared no criticism for the crew in her lifeboat, whom she said were inept and rude. She also said that the Titanic had broken in two before sinking.

“Before we cut loose from the ship two of the seamen with us … took out cigarettes and lighted them on an occasion like that! … All of those men escaped under the pretense of being oarsmen. The man who rowed me took his oar and rowed all over the boat, in every direction. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you put the oar in the oarlock?’ He said, ‘Do you put it in that hole?’ I said ‘Certainly.’ He said, ‘I never had an oar in my hand before.'”

I spoke to the other man and he said, ‘I have never had an oar in my hand before, but I think I can row.’ Those were the men that we were put to sea with at night — with all these magnificent fellows left on board, who would have been such a protection to us. Those were the kind of men with whom we were put out to sea that night. Our head seaman would give an order and those men who knew nothing about the handling of a boat would say, ‘If you don’t stop talking through that hole in your face there will be one less in the boat.'”

Telegraph from Ella Holmes White

This untransmitted telegraph from Ella to her father, E.T. Holmes, reports that she had been saved by the Carpathia. Many of the telegrams written on the Carpathia were unable to be transmitted due to the volume of requests.

Ella Holmes White

Ella Holmes was born in Massachusetts on December 18, 1856. She was the daughter of Edwin T. Holmes and Eliza Ann Richardson Holmes. She was also the great-great granddaughter of Lieutenant Elijah Stearns of Massachusetts, who was in the Massachusetts militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill; Ella was thus a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

She grew up in Brooklyn, and at one point lived with her parents, her sister, Bell, and a servant, Mary Cherry, at 158 Lafayette Ave.

On December 12, 1894, Ella married John Stuart White at her parents’ town house at 32 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. According to his obituary in The New York Times, John died less than three years later, in May 1897.

Edwin Holmes

Ella’s father, Edwin Holmes (1820 – 1901), was an American businessman and the first president of Bell Phone Company. He is credited with commercializing the electromagnetic burglar alarm and with establishing the first burglar alarm networks. (The 1880 census states Edwin’s occupation as “burgler telegraph.”)

Following the Titanic tragedy, Ella and Marie resumed their life together at Briarcliff Lodge and continued traveling and collecting. In 1929, Ella moved from her suite at the Waldorf-Astoria into the Plaza Hotel in New York City, where she died at the age of 85 on January 31, 1942.

Upon her death, the bulk of her estate, including personal effects and a trust to yield $250 per month for life, was left to Marie. According to Ella’s will for probate, Marie had also been living at the Plaza Hotel at the time of Ella’s death.

Marie Grice Young

Marie was born January 5, 1876, in Washington, DC, although according to census records, she spent part of her childhood at 266 Columbia Street in Brooklyn with her parents, Samuel and Maggie Young, and a brother, Wilson.

Marie was a successful musician and was once employed as a music instructor to Miss Ethel Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. She was reportedly fond of wearing hats as high as wedding cakes.

While on board the Carpathia Marie began a narrative of the sinking, which was later published in the National Magazine. Marie Young spent her last days in a rest home in Amsterdam, New York, and died July 27, 1959, at the age of 83.

John Hall Hutchinson and Sante Ringhini

John Hall Hutchinson was born in Woolston, Hampshire, England in 1884. According to reports, he had served on the Olympic before joining the Titanic as a joiner (one who constructs and repairs the woodwork in a ship) in 1912. John Hutchinson may have been the carpenter who reportedly rushed onto the bridge to inform Captain Smith that the forward compartments were flooding fast. John was lost in the Titanic disaster and his body, if recovered, was never identified.

Ella White’s manservant, Sante Righini, was only 22 when he lost his life during the sinking of the Titanic. He had been wearing black pants, a grey overcoat labeled “Sante” and a ring with R.S. on his left finger when he perished. Sante’s body was recovered by the cable ship MacKay Bennett and tagged body #232. The body was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on May 11, 1912, Ella paid to have the body shipped his widow in New York for burial.

C.S. Mackay Bennett

The cable ship Mackay-Bennett was the first of four ships chartered by the White Star Line to recover bodies of Titanic victims. The crew recovered 306 of the 328 bodies that were found, including Sante Righini, Isidor Straus, and John Jacob Astor IV.

If you liked this story, or you’re a dog lover, click here for another true animal tale about the Titanic.



(This is not Ginger) 


In a recent post, I wrote about Ginger, a well-loved fire dog for Hook and Ladder Co. No. 5 of New York’s Metropolitan Fire Department. So many people enjoyed this story — especially my fellow volunteer firefighters and EMS workers – so I started digging more into the history of fire dogs in New York City. While reading through some old news articles in The New York Times, I came across a story with a feline twist.

In 1894, an orange tabby cat strolled into the firehouse at 437 E. Houston Street on the Lower East Side, in an area that is now known as Alphabet City. The firehouse was the headquarters for the Metropolitan Steam-Engine Company No. 11, which served the Fifth and Sixth Districts. In the late 19th century, these districts were some of the worst slum areas in the city and home to many Eastern European Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants.


This really is Ginger (New York Times, October 17, 1897)

Three years later, the cat named Ginger had mastered several tricks, including sliding down the brass pole and “boxing” with her trainers — firemen William Lennon and Gus Shaw — while standing on her haunches. Although Ginger was smart enough to stay behind when the men went on fire calls, she did earn the title of firehouse mascot and capture the attention of The New York Times.

Live Oak Engine Company No. 44 – “Turk”
Metropolitan Steam-Engine Company No. 11 was organized on November 2, 1865. It was one of 34 engine companies organized that year under a state act titled “An Act to Create a Metropolitan Fire District.” This bill, passed into law on March 30, 1865, abolished New York’s volunteer fire department and created the Metropolitan Fire District, a Board of Commissioners, and the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD).

Prior to the transition from volunteer to paid service in 1865, Engine Company No. 11 was known as Live Oak Engine Company 44. The volunteer fire company was organized August 2, 1824, by the master shipbuilders of the Dry Dock, which was the shipyard district that extended along the East River from Grand Street to 12th Street. The motto of Live Oak was “We Extinguish One Flame, and Cherish Another.”

1816 hand drawn goose-neck pumper.

This 1816 hand pump goose-neck pumper was the type of apparatus Live Oak used in its early years. (The company was always opposed to steam engines in the Fire Department, and fought hard against their introduction.) This was probably one of the first hand pumpers built by James Smith of New York City. Photo by P. Gavan

The Great Shipyard Fire

In the early 1800s, Adam and Noah Brown operated a shipyard at the foot of Stanton Street on the East River. By 1824, Brown & Bell, who were renown for constructing clipper ships and steam vessels, were also operating in this vicinity, as was Issac Webb & Company.

On March 14, 1824, at about five in the morning, a fire was discovered in Noah Brown’s steam sawmill. The fire quickly spread, destroying the mill and large ship house of Brown & Bell. In the ship house were two steamboats, including the Hudson, which was being built for K.M. Livingston and almost ready to launch. Also destroyed were two brigs and a large quantity of live oak ship timber. The flames then extended to the adjoining shipyard of Isaac Webb & Co., where a frame building and ship timber were consumed.

Engine Company No. 33, “Black Joke,” which was led by foreman James P. Allaire and located at the north end of Cherry Street between Jackson Street and Corlears Street (near present-day Corlears Hook Park), was cut off from the shore end of the shipyard by the sudden spread of the fire. Before the firemen could remove their engine from the scene, it caught fire and was completely destroyed. Several of the firemen were caught between the fire engine and the end of the dock – four of them jumped into the river but were rescued by boats from the shore.

Clipper shipwright Jacob Bell

Clipper shipwright Jacob Bell was one of the first organizers of the Live Oak volunteer fire company. Bell and his partner, David Brown, were proprietors of Brown & Bell, a shipyard located at the base of Stanton Street and destroyed by fire in 1824.

This grand fire led to the formation of Live Oak No. 44, which was organized by Jacob Bell, Isaac Webb (foreman), John Demon, Edward Merritt, and Foster Rhodes. The company ran independent of the New York Fire Department for about four years and operated out of a small frame house that the members built themselves on Columbia Street near Houston Street.

At that time the river was almost up to what was then Goerck Street – just three blocks east of Columbia – so the firemen were very close to the shipyards.

In about 1828, Live Oak received the number 44 from the Fire Department, and had a one-story brick firehouse with peaked roof built on Houston Street, about 100 feet west of then Lewis Street (near present-day Baruch Drive and the Island School, PS/MS 188.) On November 12, 1850, the city purchased a 25 x 180 foot lot on East Houston Street between Columbia and Cannon streets from Jonathan Rider. Live Oak moved its firehouse to this location in 1853, where the company — volunteer and paid — remained for about 100 years.

William Henry Webb

New York shipbuilder William Henry Webb, son of Live Oak foreman Isaac Webb, often ran with the volunteer engine company. In 1840, Webb inherited his father’s shipyard on the East River — Webb & Allen — renamed it William H. Webb, and turned it into America’s most prolific shipyard, building 133 vessels between 1840 and 1865.

The Turks

As the story goes, in 1830 renowned shipbuilder Henry Eckford took some ship carpenters, including a group from Live Oak, to Constantinople to work on a contract he had there. Eckford died shortly after arriving in Turkey, but the men continued the project and were called “Turks” when they returned to New York. The name stuck with the fire company — the men even carved two Turks standing upright and wearing sabers on their goose-neck hand pump engine.

The Transition to Engine Company 11

At the time of the transition in 1865, Live Oak owned one hand engine, one jumper, 13 lengths of hose, three ropes, one hose washer, three lanterns, two lengths of suction, three cans, three pails, three mops, and a few other odd items – all of which was turned over to New York City.

According to the 1865 Annual Report of Chief Engineer of Fire Department, Live Oak Engine Co. 44 had 50 members in 1865, 10 of whom claimed to reside at the firehouse, including Foreman William F. Squires and Assistant Foreman Peter Maloney. By this time the volunteers were of various nationalities and professions, including clerks, gunsmiths, ship carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, and printers.

Engine Company 11 1939 Mack

 1939 Mack Hose Wagon of Engine Company No. 11

In 1897, when Ginger the cat was making her home at the East Houston Street firehouse, Engine Company 11 consisted of the following 12 members: foreman Thomas R. Kane; assistant foreman Fred. J. Rothenhausler; engineers James H. Frederick and Charles S. McArthur; firemen (1st grade) Edward F. Haulton, Gustav Shaw, Henry Decker, William J. Lennon, James P. Judge, and Edward F. Birmingham; and firemen (2nd grade) Eugene Silverman and Henry Planson.

1904: The Fatal Tenement Fire on Attorney Street
Although Engine Company 11 fought its share of major fires – none of which Ginger the cat ever attended –one of the worst fires I came across was a fatal tenement fire at 164 Attorney Street on September 4, 1904. Several firemen from Engine Company 11 were injured in this horrific fire that killed at least 14 people – mostly women and children.

The 2:45 a.m. fire in the five-story tenement building also left about a dozen people severely injured with burns and internal injuries from jumping from fire escapes, including firemen John Adamosky, William Benisch, John White, and Bernard Ligenmuyer, all of Company 11, and Philip Hublitz of Truck 18, which was located on Attorney Street.

According to the news report, a contractor making alterations to the building had taken down the iron ladders connecting the fire escape balconies from the third floor down, both on the front and back of the building. The injured firemen had all gone to the back of the building to help rescue the “fear-crazed people” packing the fire escapes. One of the fire escapes began to sag with all the weight and crashed to the ground, crushing fireman Adamosky under the debris. Hublitz and Benisch also fell, but were fortunate enough to fall on a feather mattress.

Gouverneur Hospital Ambulance

All of the firemen were treated at Gouverneur Hospital; several victims were also sent to Bellevue Hospital. Adamosky, who had just been appointed to the company on July 1, 1904, was not expected to live and was given Last Rites at the hospital. This ca. 1902 photo shows the Gourverneur Hospital ambulance.

The dead and injured included members of the Eichler, Feurberg, Kirschner, Kurz, Miller, Zwirn, and Kromeiner families, with victims ranging in age from 3 months to 48 years old. Fifth-floor residents Mrs. Sadie Feurberg and all 3 of her children were killed in the blaze, as were Mrs. Yetta Miller and all 4 of her children. Their husbands, like many other men who lived in the building, had been sleeping on the roof that hot night, and were able to escape by jumping to the roofs of adjoining buildings.

Following the fire, three men were arrested and charged with criminal negligence, including the contractor and building owner Leon Sober. Today, 164 Attorney Street is a one-story building constructed in 1951 and occupied by an auto repair shop.

Lower East Side, 1908

Lower East Side, 1908

1950: Baruch Houses Put an End to Engine Co. 11
In August 1949, Mayor William O’Dwyer – the 100th mayor of New York City — announced a new public housing development for the Lower East Side. The $31.4 million, 28-acre development, which would be called Bernard M. Baruch Houses (today known as Baruch Houses), was a Federal–aided slum clearance development under the national Housing Act signed by President Harry S. Truman.

Baruch Houses

Baruch Houses

During construction from 1953 to 1959, six blocks of slum buildings between East Houston Street and Delancey Street were razed, including Cannon, Goerick, and Mangin streets. Most of the structures that were demolished were old-law (pre-1901), walk-up tenements with communal bathrooms and either no running water or only cold water. Baruch Houses was completed June 30, 1959, with 16 thirteen-story structures and one seven-story building – all featuring hot running water and elevators. The development provided homes for 2,194 families in 3- to 6-room apartments, with rents averaging $9 a room.

Baruch Houses Ground-Op

The groundbreaking ceremony for Bernard Baruch Houses took place on April 8, 1952. Pictured are Dr. Herman Baruch (left), brother of the financier and presidential confidant Bernard Baruch, Robert Moses (center), City Construction Coordinator and Park Commissioner, and Philip Cruise, the New York City Housing Authority chair.

Between the construction of Baruch Houses and Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia Houses (completed in 1957), over 1,650 people of the Lower East Side were displaced, including the firefighters of Engine Company 11. On October 15, 1957, Engine Company 11 was officially disbanded.

This 1852 map (click link below) shows Engine Company 11 at 437 East Houston Street. Many of these streets were razed for the construction of the Baruch and Mayor Fiorello housing developments in the 1950s.
1862 Map of the Lower East Side

If you enjoyed this story, click here for a true tale about another Ginger — the fire dog of Greenwich Village.