William Harbeck was one of the very first moving picture film makers. In 1911 his film of southern Alaska became the center of a major story. American railroad tycoon J P Morgan and Meyer Guggenheim bought up claims for large tracts of land in Alaska. Harbeck's film of Alaskan wilderness raised awareness of and opposition to the “Land Grab.”
February, 1912 found Harbeck traveling to Europe to take moving pictures of various European cities for future presentation in American theaters. By the end of March he had completed his work and booked return passage on the Titanic.
The Titanic was registered as a British mail ship. But it was owned by the same J.P. Morgan who Harbeck’s Alaskan film had exposed as a “land grabber“. Morgan had acquired White Star Line in 1902. Morgan too had booked passage on the Titanic, reserving one of only two millionaires suites complete with a private promenade deck. He canceled his reservation shortly before the beginning of the maiden voyage.
Passengers on the Titanic reported seeing a man taking moving pictures of the voyage. Alhough never confirmed it was rumored to be William Harbeck. One second class passenger, Lawrence Beesley, believed the woman who appeared to be traveling with Harbeck to be his “young wife”. Both Harbeck and his “wife” were lost in the sinking. Her body was never found. Harbeck’s body was recovered along with a number of small personal effects including a small “lady’s bag”.
The lady traveling with Harbeck was not his wife Catherine. She was an acquaintance by the name of Henriette Yrois.
On September 6, 1912 the White Star offices received a handwritten letter, on Harbeck’s stationary, from a woman identifying herself as “Brownie Harbeck“. “Brownie” was inquiring about Harbeck’s recovered possessions including the amount of gold coins found with his body. She also identified the owner of the purse as someone she knew “well”: Henriette Yrois. “Brownie’s” letter listed a Seattle address.
On September 30, 1912 White Star officials received a letter from John Harbeck who was the son of the victim. He adamantly denied “Browie” was a relative. To this day the true identity of “Brownie” Harbeck remains a mystery.
The stationary used by John Harbeck was from his father’s studio. The heading proclaimed: “W.H. Harbeck’s Moving Pictures: Of the Round Up, Pendleton, Ore. Best film ever made depicting wild western life. Dare devil steer bulldogging and spectacular bronco busting.”
Harbeck had filmed the 1911 Pendleton Round Up. His business partner, Mrs. Katherine George, filed a claim for over $40,000 for movie picture films that were lost in the sinking including the "Pendleton Roundup Pictures", which she valued at $25,000.
Some people have speculated that Mrs. George may have been “Brownie Harbeck”.
Adding to the strange tale was that Meyer Guggenheim’s brother Benjamin was also a passenger and victim of the Titanic disaster.
The bottom of the stationary, used by Brownie Harbeck, was embossed with the words: “Watch for Harbeck’s Latest Motion Pictures EXPOSING THE GUGGENHEIM INTERESTS IN ALASKA and THE CONTROLLER BAY LAND GRAB. Films that will worry Congress and startle the whole United States and probably change the preseat political map.”
The Titanic and Silent Cinema, By Stephen Bottomore
Hastings, E Sussex: The Projection Box, 2000. ISBN: 1-903000-00-9. 191 pp.
William Harbeck, Encyclopedia Titanica, contributors George Behe, USA, Alan Hustak, Canada, Hermann Söldner, Germany
Public Archives of Nova Scotia [email protected] Site