My story of the Titanic McCoys begins in the aftermath of James Cameron's blockbuster movie, Titanic, in February of 1998.
The media was covered with Titanic mania. Anyone and everyone with Titanic connections was being sought out in the quest for more knowledge of the ship and her people. It was in this frame that Mike Findlay and myself were contacted by a reporter from our local newspaper, The Bergen Record, who requested an interview concerning the Titanic. He arrived at my home in Midland Park, New Jersey at the appointed time complete with photographer. Pictures were taken and then the interview was held. A half hour scheduled interview ended about three hours later. He seemed fascinated with the subject and asked many questions on all aspects of the ship and the sinking. He asked Mike and I what some of our frustrations were in terms of Titanic research. I mentioned that I had been doing extensive research on the Irish aboard Titanic, including a trip to Ireland, and had come to a dead end concerning one Irish family consisting of three siblings—Agnes, Alice and Bernard McCoy. I knew they had ties to both Brooklyn and New Jersey, but could find no family left in either place. We were amazed the next day when the story made the front page of the paper complete with pictures. The result of the story was a phone call that unlocked the hitherto unknown story of the Titanic McCoys.
The call was from Alice Rodack, the great niece of the McCoys, descended from their sister, Mary McCoy Hekel, of North Bergen, New Jersey. She did not have much knowledge herself of Agnes, Alice and Bernard (Barney), but put me in contact with her mother, ninety year old Alice Both of Florida, who was a niece of the McCoy siblings. Alice then enlightened me by bringing her family alive in terms of facts, anecdotes, and stories about life within the McCoy clan between 1912 and the 1950's. The news media had brought a dead end to ripe fruition. The Titanic McCoys were now real identities. The faces to the identities came next. Shortly after the article was printed I received another call- this time from John Martin, a great nephew of the McCoys. John graciously offered pictures from a photo album that he had inherited from his Aunt Eileen, another daughter of Mary McCoy Hekel. The Titanic McCoys now had identities and faces. They had become real entities to this researcher. Their story follows in detail.
John McCoy and Bridget Cole were married in 1867 and settled on the McCoy family farm in the townland of Carrickathane near the small village of Ballinamuck in County Longford, Ireland. They proceeded to produce a fine family of thirteen - eleven of whom grew to adulthood. The first child Bridget was born in 1869, followed by Margaret in 1870, William in 1872, and Mary in 1874.
After a few years, Patrick was born in 1878, followed by Elizabeth in 1881, and Catherine (later Agnes) in 1882. Alice and Bernard followed in 1885 and 1887 respectively. John arrived in 1890 when mother Bridget was already 45 years old. The family seemed complete- The small house was literally bursting at the seams- However, in 1897 yet another child joined the McCoy brood. This was Luke. By the time Luke arrived, four of the McCoy siblings had already sailed off to America.
The morning of April 10, 1912 started like any other day for the McCoy family. John and Bridget McCoy arose at dawn and started their daily chores. This day, however, was filled with mixed emotions for the elderly couple. Happiness that three of their eleven offspring were off to new opportunities in America, but sadness that they probably would not see then again, filled their thoughts. They had watched over the years as Bridget, Margaret, William, Mary, Patrick, Elizabeth (Bessie), Catherine (who had taken her middle name Agnes when she emigrated in 1900) and Alice had all gone off to the New York City area to seek a better life for themselves. Now it was son Bernard's turn. Alice and Agnes had returned to Ireland early in 1912, with the passage money for 24 year old Barney who was to accompany them back to America. That left only the two youngest sons still at home - 21 year old John and 14 year old Luke. This was the typical story within most Irish families of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries heightened by the aftermath of the famine years. The small farms could only support one family and with family sizes of eight to ten children, emigration was the only solution. The emigrant ships from Queenstown, later Cobh, transported the finest of Irish manhood and womanhood westward to the United States, Canada, and South America and later eastward to Australia and England. Thousands left yearly.
The McCoy siblings had an emotional farewell with their parents and were then transported to the railway station in Longford by horse drawn cart driven by their brother, John. Thus started their journey back to America. They were to board the Titanic early the next day. Within a few days the excitement they felt to be travelling on the Titanic, billed as the largest and most luxurious conveyance on the oceans in 1912, on her maiden voyage, would change to horror and despair.
The McCoy siblings had a grand time on the train ride to Queenstown. They soon discovered several friends and acquaintances from neighboring villages and townlands also travelling to board the magnificent Titanic. There were the Murphy sisters, Margaret and Kate, and their neighbors, the Kiernan brothers, John and Philip, all from Fostra. Tom McCormack from Glenmore, Ellen Corr from Corglass, Jim Farrell from Clonee, and Kate Gilnagh and Kate Mullen from Rhine, Killoe rounded out the group from County Longford. They sang, joked, and reminisced all the way to Queenstown. The train arrived at Queenstown's pier and the Longford contingent made their way to the Deepwater Quay where they boarded the tender, America, to be transported to the Titanic which was anchored off Roche's Point outside the harbor. 113 third class, 7 second class, and 3 first class passengers boarded the tender.
They watched as nearly 1400 sacks of mail were loaded onto the tender, Ireland, to be carried to the Titanic also. Eugene Daly, an Irishman from Athlone, played native tunes on this pipes, culminating in the sorrowful sounds of Erin's Lament, during the half hour trip from the dock to the Titanic. This caused the McCoy sisters to reminisce and wonder if they would ever return to the beautiful green homeland that they cherished so much.
They watched as dozens of bumboats propelled themselves to Titanic's side. Many of the occupants of these boats made their way onto the upper decks where they sold native wares such as linen and lace to the wealthy first class passengers. As the last of the mail was transferred onto the liner, the ship's siren signalled shore visitors to depart the vessel. Shortly after, the tenders and bumboats cast off, the gangways were raised, the anchor creaked upward, and the ship came to life. About two thirty P. M. on April 11, 1912 the Titanic set out to open sea.
Agnes and Alice McCoy stood on the steerage promenade deck at the stem of the vessel, and watched the spires of St. Colman's Cathedral in Queenstown gradually diminish and then disappear from sight. The fateful voyage had begun.
With embarkation behind them, the McCoys along with their Irish companions, worked their way through the maze of corridors to find their cabins. Bernard, and the other single men, were berthed in the bow, whereas Agnes and Alice were housed with the other single women in the stem area of the liner. After an inspection of the steerage section of the ship, they unpacked their belongings and prepared for dinner. The meals mere served in the third class dining salon amidships on F deck. Barney McCoy, like so many other young Irishmen on board, was awestruck as he entered the dining salon for the first time. Electric lights illuminated tables covered with linen tablecloths and set with silverware and linen napkins. The meals consisted of meat, potatoes, and vegetables, as well as fruits he had never seen or tasted before like oranges) in ample supply. The meals at home in Carrickathane had often been quite meagre, and largely without meat of any kind. He remembered many nights going to bed hungry.
The evenings were spent in the third class general room or the third class smoke room at the stem of the ship on C deck.
Attractive chestnut haired Alice danced and sang late into the evening within the festive air of the general room nightly. She developed an attraction for the dashing young Tom McCormack from the neighboring townland of Glenmore in County Longford, and spent most evenings in his company. The ship sailed on at between 22 and 23 knots per hour and the McCoys enjoyed the relaxed and carefree life provided for them on the voyage. This was all to change suddenly just before midnight on Sunday, April 14th.
The McCoys were awakened abruptly at the collision of the Titanic with the giant iceberg. Being on the lower decks they felt the impact much more strongly than the first and second class passengers on the upper decks. The following account by the McCoy sisters appeared in the Cork Examiner "They (Agnes and Alice) said when the first shock came to the Titanic they were asleep. They dressed and hurriedly went on deck. There was an officer there who quickly reassured them. They returned to the steerage quarters and found men and women rushing about. They noticed stewards going through the berths, telling passengers to dress and put on lifebelts. They donned lifebelts and went on deck. They saw a boat half-filled with members of the crew and about to be lowered away. An officer came up pointing his revolver at the men and told them to get out or he would shoot. The men climbed out slowly. Then the officer turned to the two young women and their brother and told them to get back downstairs as there was no immediate danger. Miss Agnes said they started down but drew back when they saw the water rushing into the steerage quarters. By the time they got back to the officer, he was directing the placing of women in the lifeboat vacated by members of the crew and the women got in. Their brother, who is younger than either of them, watched as the boat was lowered.
That was the last they saw of him until they had been in the boat half an hour. -Then they saw him struggling in the water. One of them grabbed for him and missed, and a sailor told her he would throw her out if she did it again. Their brother swam towards the boat and was shoved away with an oar. The third time he came, they grabbed him. A sailor with an oar hauled their brother into the boat."
Agnes McCoy later gave an account to the New York Herald. She said- "Both my sister and I wanted to remain on shipboard when they would not allow poor Bernard to come into the lifeboat with us. He told us to go ahead, but we thought that if one was going to drown we might as well all go down. We were literally thrown into the lifeboat and while we fought and cried, it was lowered over the side. The boat bobbed around in the water for some time before the men got at the oars, and the first thing I knew I saw a form whirl through the air and splash into the water near our boat. When the form came up, I recognized it as Bernard. I cited to my sister, who was nearer to him than I, to help him. The poor boy took hold of the side of the boat and I staggered to his rescue. Several persons pushed me back and I saw a seaman strike Bernard's hands with an oar. Then he tried to beat him off by striking him on the head and shoulders. It was more than I could stand, and calling for Alice, I made for the seaman. With more strength than I thought I ever possessed, I threw the man to the bottom of the boat and held him there fast. Yes, maybe I did hit him once or twice, but I think I was justified under the circumstances. In the meantime, Alice helped the poor boy over the side and lifted him to safety. I think everyone on board the lifeboat was highly elated and perfectly satisfied that our brother was safe with us. We need him here with us as any two sisters do."
The sisters were probably placed in boat 16 on the port side of the ship where men were removed from the boat prior to its being loaded with women and children only. Also, Agnes pays tribute to Father Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest, and describes his actions on the boat deck. He is known to have been active near lifeboats 14 and 16 at the aft end of the boat deck of the Titanic. She does not mention being tied up with other lifeboats, which was true of the other port side boats at the aft end of the boat deck- numbers 10, 12, and 14. Though Bernard claims to have jumped into the frigid Atlantic beside his sisters' boat, that is questionable. His claim against the White Star Line lists no serious injuries, other than a cold, which would be expected had he been beaten with an oar. The family noted that Agnes never revealed exactly how Bernard was saved other than to say that "he was her responsibility and she did what she had to do to get him aboard a lifeboat." After bobbing around in the ice strewn Atlantic for several hours, the Carpathia came in to sight at dawn. Agnes and Alice, clad only in night clothing, suffered greatly from exposure and had to be hauled aboard the Carpathia in a sling. Alice was in a daze as she reached the deck of the Carpathia, but became elated immediately. One of the first faces she focused on was young Torn McCormack who she had thought drowned. The last she saw of him, he was standing on the tilting deck of the Titanic waving good-bye to the girls as they descended in the lifeboat. He had saved himself by diving overboard and swimming to a lifeboat.
Upon arrival in New York, all three McCoys were transported to St. Vincent's Hospital where they stayed for several days before being discharged and going to the home of their brother, William, and his family, at 267 St. Mark's Avenue in Brooklyn. They requested aid from the Red Cross and it appears in the Report of the American Red Cross (Titanic Disaster) 1913 as follows:
"No. 278 (Irish) Two girls, 28 and 22, and their brother, 21 years old, suffered severely from shock and exposure, and lost $500 in cash besides all their effects. ($300)"
They also put in claims for loss of property and personal injury. As can be readily seen, the items claimed by a domestic and a poor farm lad may be a bit inflated. It seems many of the Irish were advised to inflate their claims in the realization that they would only receive a small portion of the amount of the original claim. The Titanic experience ended, the McCoys began their quest for riches and happiness, and the fulfillment of the American dream.
The two oldest McCoy sisters had married in New York City and soon after returned to Ireland. In 1912, William McCoy and his wife Delia and their children, Agnes, Alice and Bernard, lived at 267 St. Mark's Avenue in Brooklyn. It was to here that the Titanic McCoys were travelling. Mary McCoy had met John Hekel, and following their marriage, settled across the Hudson River in North Bergen, New Jersey. Elizabeth (Bessie) worked as a domestic for many years in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and married Thomas Flanagan late in life. Agnes became a sought after domestic and served in the homes of several wealthy New York families, notably the Douglas Fairbanks home where she became the favorite maid of young Douglas Jr. One of her family's prized mementos is a picture postcard of young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and inscribed by him to her on the reverse side. She became a United States citizen on August 18, 1925, twenty-five years after her arrival in New York aboard the S. S. Cymric as 18 year old Kate McCoy.
Agnes became the mainstay of the McCoy clan in New York City and Mary provided the nurturing of the extended family at her home in New Jersey. Agnes regularly organized family gatherings which were held at Mary's home. Agnes brought Patrick to the United States as she had Alice and Barney later. In 1914 she brought the last of her siblings, John, to America. Patrick and John lived in Brooklyn with Agnes, whereas Barney, remaining unmarried, gravitated to New Jersey and lived near his sister, Mary.
Alice became a cook and worked in several wealthy New York City homes until she began work in Leonard Gardner's Tea Room in Manhattan. Attractive, vivacious Alice soon fell in love with the suave Englishman and married Leonard in 1920. One daughter, Colaine, was born to the couple in 1922. The McCoys were doing well in America.
Misfortune and tragedy, however, hit the family many times in the years after Titanic. Shortly after the arrival of handsome dark haired John McCoy in 1914, he became restless and disappeared. His sense of adventure and recklessness lured him from the family, and despite much effort and money spent by Agnes to locate him, he was never heard from again. Agnes was distraught over his disappearance. In 1929, Agnes again faced tragedy when brother, Patrick, was killed in a freak accident in the chemical plant where he worked. Agnes was devastated over this second loss and never really recovered from it.
Alice began to sense problems in her marriage almost immediately. Leonard was a gambler and soon lost his business. He deserted she and Colaine and left Alice with a great amount of debt to deal with. She divorced Leonard, unheard of in Irish Catholic families of the time, and married Rasmus Jacobsen in 1933. They moved to a home at 693 Prospect Street in Sharon, Connecticut. Happiness again eluded her and she divorced Rasmus about 1940. Having lost her ties to the Catholic Church, she gradually became more removed from her family. She shared her home with a man named John Malloy for several years, but again failed to find happiness. Her most cherished possession through it all was her beautiful daughter, Colaine, who she doted on. Colaine had a daughter, who she named Colaine, out of wedlock. Colaine, like her mother, never found true happiness within marriage. She became involved with a married man and when he would not leave his wife for her, secured a hotel room and committed suicide by ingesting poison of some kind. The loss of her beloved daughter, Colaine, on August 6, 1959 at the age of 37, was the beginning of the end for Alice. She became despondent and unstable mentally and had to be committed to the Fairfield, Connecticut State Hospital where she died on December 28, 1959, just four months after her daughter's tragic death. Both mother and daughter are buried together in an unmarked grave at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.
Barney McCoy, who always stuttered as a result of his traumatic Titanic experience, worked as a motorman on the trolley line in West New York, New Jersey for several years until World War 1. His niece, Alice Both, remarked that he always remained apart at family gatherings embarrassed that he stuttered so badly. As a young girl, she used to sit next to him and spend time getting him to speak slowly and plainly to her. He never married. He served in the Army as a private with Company F, 309th. New York Infantry in Europe during the war. He experienced mustard gas poisoning during the war, and always had health problems in later life, resulting from the gassing experience. He was discharged from military service on June 12, 1919 and became a United States citizen on March 10, 1920. After the war, he worked for several years on the crews building the Lincoln Tunnel and finally as a laundry worker until his poor health required him to enter the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx. He died there on July 19, 1945, and is buried in the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale. He never really recovered completely from his Titanic experience (Photo: Barney McCoy c.1928 - Courtesy of John Martin, Bob Bracken Collection).
The final tragedy to befall the Titanic McCoys happened to Agnes. Family was of the utmost importance to Agnes. She watched as her beloved family left her one by one and became more isolated in her retirement years. She died alone in her Brooklyn apartment under mysterious circumstances on January 14, 1957. Though the death certificate states heart attack, the family confided that Agnes had in truth lost her life during a burglary of her apartment. Numerous bruises were found on her neck and face. Foul play seems to be suggested also by the fact that a coroners investigation was conducted. She is buried in St. John's Cemetery in Queens next to her beloved brother, Patrick.
America may have provided economic betterment for Agnes, Alice and Barney McCoy, but one cannot help but wonder if they might have found more fulfillment and happiness within the secure environment in which they grew up in rural Ireland.
Text © Bob Bracken, USA (Photos Courtesy of John Martin, Bob Bracken Collection)