From Titanic to St. Charles: Stories of survival
The sinking of Titanic 100 years ago captured the world's interest, and Fox Valley residents felt the impact through a mother and her two children who secured tickets for the ship's maiden voyage as they returned to St. Charles to reunite with their husband and father, Oscar Johnson, after visiting relatives in Europe. The story Alice Johnson told on her return to St. Charles was compiled from a variety of archival sources with help from Debra Shuman, daughter-in-law of Eleanor Johnson Shuman, who offered accounts from Eleanor and from their family history.
Alice Johnson and her children, Eleanor and Harold, were greeted as they arrived at the St. Charles Chicago Great Western station at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, 1912 -- three days after Alice's 27th birthday. Friends and neighbors clamored around, cheering their survival and inquiring about how they managed to cheat death.
Oscar, who had escorted his family on the train from New York, guided them through the crowd to a waiting automobile for the short ride south down Ninth Avenue and then west on Main Street to the home of family friend John J. Daly for a celebratory meal.
As they visited the Dalys, the Johnsons received many callers. The home was soon filled with an eager audience, and Alice began to tell her story.
During travels visiting family in Sweden and Finland, Alice struck up a friendship with two young women and appreciated how they were "crazy to come to America." She traded her family's three second-class tickets for five third-class tickets on the maiden voyage of Titanic to enable the two women-- Elin Braf, 18, and Helmina Nilsson, 26 -- to travel together to America. The five shared quarters on the ship.
About 11:40 p.m. Sunday, April 14, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg. Harold was jolted off an upper bunk, waking everyone in the berth. The impact woke many others and, eventually, the many languages of confused steerage passengers could be heard outside their cabin door. Amid the confusion, Elin and Helmina found their way up to the deck where they playfully kicked around chunks of ice that had fallen from the iceberg. Officers told them to return to their cabins, as the ship would soon be under way.
But word of the severity of the situation began to spread among the ship's crew. A dining steward knocked on the cabin door to alert Alice they needed to tie on life belts and get to the deck immediately. The ship was sinking, and there was no time to gather belongings, he said.
By this point, Elin and Helmina had returned from their jaunt. The group grabbed blankets and, escorted by the steward, hastily ascended to the deck. The three women were in nightclothes and the children had no shoes.
Surfacing on the boat deck, Alice encountered scores of life belt-clad, incredulous passengers speaking about the ship being in peril. Startled as she was, Alice noticed an eerie calm about those gathered on the deck as they whispered among each other. Passengers, for the time being it seemed, were hesitant to board lifeboats and leave the perceived safety of the immense ship.
Before long, the ship began to list noticeably. By 12:45 a.m., the first partially-filled lifeboats were lowered to the sea. Alice, holding Eleanor, and Elin, with Harold, navigated the tilting decks of the ship in search of seats on lifeboats. Waves of passengers moved from one lifeboat station to the next. Rings of officers walled off lifeboats in an effort to load women and children first.
Recognizing another steward aboard one of the lifeboats, Alice reached for his arm as the boat began descending. She pleaded for his attention in assisting her group onto the boat. He ordered a gentleman to get out of the boat to make room and motioned for Alice to hand him Eleanor. Alice then also boarded the lifeboat.
Elin remained on the deck of the Titanic, clutching Harold and frozen in fear. Looking back and up, Alice began yelling, "Save my boy!" Others recognized Harold's answering cry, and officers pulled the child from Elin's arms and dropped him several feet to the lowering lifeboat.
Elin remained aboard the Titanic and perished.
Helmina Nilsson boarded a separate lifeboat and survived.
Alice said they had boarded the last lifeboat to leave -- collapsible lifeboat D. Years later, Eleanor said she had learned that their group had been guided to their boat by third-class steward John Hart. Hart, however, testified during a May 1912 British disaster inquiry that he had assisted third class passengers into two boats -- Nos. 8 and 15, and that he was under the impression at the time that boat 15 may have been the final lifeboat. Whether they were saved on collapsible D or No. 15, the Johnsons were aboard one of the last five lifeboats to leave the ship that night.
"I saw men leaping off the great ship in every direction. A young girl, wrapped in a kimono, stood at the rail and watched our boat leaving. She had tried to get a place with us but the boat officer said the boat could not stand another passenger. I saw her, with her head on the rail of the ship, crying as the boat sank," Alice said in an April 25, 1912, Aurora Daily Beacon News article.
"We had been rowed less than 500 yards from the Titanic when the big boat suddenly went down," Alice continued. "The sight was awful. The sounds were worse."
In the April 25, 1912, Elgin Daily Courier, Alice was quoted: " ... Then there were the pitiful moans for two hours all about us. They were begging for somebody to come and rescue them."
Alice told and retold the details of the sinking as word traveled quickly of her presence at the Daly home, and more and more people and reporters arrived. She was overwhelmed.
Oscar took her and the children to the new home he had furnished and decorated as a surprise for when they returned from Europe.
• • •
As time passed, Alice, Harold and Eleanor participated in Titanic-related events; public interest in the disaster only seemed to increase with the passage of time. In 1959, they attended a special showing in Chicago of "A Night to Remember," a dramatic film depicting the Titanic's sinking.
After Alice and Harold both died in 1968, Eleanor continued attending various survivor reunions and conventions through the years. In August 1996, Eleanor boarded the Royal Majesty cruise ship and visited the site of the 1912 sinking, where she sprinkled flowers in memory of Elin Braf. In 1997, she was a personal guest in the company of filmmaker James Cameron during a Chicago premiere of his blockbuster film, "Titanic."
Memories aboard the lifeboat stuck with Eleanor, even though she was just a toddler.
"I have a memory of looking down and seeing all of these heads in the water and hearing all of this noise," she said in a 1996 Daily Herald interview.
"My cold feet and the screams, I can remember," Eleanor recalled in a 1962 Elgin Courier-News interview.
She lived in the Fox Valley her entire life, working in Elgin as a switchboard operator and at Auto Meter products. She died March 7, 1998, at Sherman Hospital in Elgin.
• • •
Debra Shuman, Eleanor's daughter-in-law, has taken on the unofficial role of Johnson family historian. Poring over newspaper clippings yellowed with age, cross-referencing her notes with books on the disaster, she pieces together the story of the Johnson family's determination aboard the Titanic.
She says before she married Eleanor's only son, Earl, in 1982, the Titanic was "just another big ship." That changed as she learned more and, in the process, grew closer to Eleanor. Shuman uses her Titanic knowledge in her role as a reading lab assistant at Walter Douglas Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz.
"I use the kids' interest in Titanic to inspire them to read," Shuman said of the elementary school students she mentors. "I give them background, and then I tell them Eleanor's story. It sparks their interest."As she details Oscar's ordeal in the days when he didn't know if his family had survived, the joy of the telegram announcing they were safe, and how they got a lifeboat seat at the last moment, Debra also shares what she knows from personal experience -- Eleanor's perspective on life.
"Eleanor was really amazed how many people cared ... she found it quite amazing how wonderful people can be," Shuman said.
• Resources used in assembling this story included Daily Herald archives, the St. Charles Heritage Center, Aurora and Elgin library newspaper archives, the book "Titanic -- An Illustrated History," and transcripts of a British disaster inquiry.