Miss Elizabeth Margaret Burns was born in Newark, New Jersey on 7 December 1870 1 and was baptised in that city’s Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral on 11 December.
She was the daughter of Irish migrant parents Patrick Burns and the former Mary Neary 2 and is believed to have had several siblings, however little else is known about her early life. Her father Patrick died on 27 December 1880 when she was ten years old; her mother eventually died on 31 December 1907.
A graduate of the Cathedral School and St. Mary’s Academy in Newark, Miss Burns graduated with honours from Bellevue Hospital, New York. She would also later graduate from the Roosevelt Hospital Training School and the Sloane Maternity Hospital and took special training at the Willard Parker Hospital for Children’s Diseases.
In 1906 she came into the employ of the Frederic Oakley Spedden family of Morristown, New Jersey to act as a nursemaid to their young son Robert Douglas, who referred to her as “Muddie Boons” because he had difficulty pronouncing her name. She remained in their employ for several years and even nursed the young boy through “a serious attack of illness,” according to the Newark Sunday Call (21 April 1912).
Miss Burns travelled with the Speddens on their family holidays 3 and in 1911 accompanied them to Bermuda. In early 1912, following the recovery of her young charge from an undisclosed illness, to show their appreciation Mr and Mrs Spedden insisted that Miss Burns accompany them on a three-month vacation to Europe.
She and the Speddens were to sail on 8 January 1912 (or 6 January, depending on article), although on which ship is uncertain; it was a tight turn around as Miss Burns only applied for her passport on 6 December 1911. On it she gave her permanent address as 54 East 34th Street, New York and she as described as standing at 5’ 2” and with grey hair, brown eyes, a dark complexion and with a square chin, low forehead, full mouth, oval face and straight nose.
Towards the end of their stay in Europe Miss Burns wrote to her friend Miss Katharine G. Duffy of 162 Plane Street, Newark, explain that she expected to reach home on Wednesday 17 April but had expected to be home sooner, having been unable to sail because of delays brought on by the coal strikes in Britain.
She boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg on 10 April 1912, travelling as a first-class passenger with the Speddens and their maid Helen Alice Wilson (joint ticket number 16966 which cost £134, 10s). Whilst aboard she occupied cabin E40.
On the night of the sinking, she and her party escaped intact aboard lifeboat 3. Reaching the Carpathia, and ever the nurse, Miss Burns used her training to help some of the wounded, shocked and frozen passengers all the way to New York.
Safely in New York, the press managed to catch up with Miss Burns whilst she was a guest at the Hotel Seville in New York City; she recounted:
"That terrible disaster" said Miss Burns last night, "afforded many evidences of splendid heroism. There may have been some act of cowardice, but Nonesuch came under my personal observation. On the other hand, I saw many men and women, two, perform brave deeds, wholly oblivious to their own personal safety. It was a time for courage, and courage was not lacking, so far as I could see"".
"We were among the fortunate who escaped in lifeboats but there were new panels and suffering to face. These were met without complaint, and many are rescued, suffering soul on our boat prayed allowed for those left behind. What we all went through is now known to the world. But praise for the heroes of that dreadful disaster can not get too much publicity. As I have said, I saw no cowards, but the deeds of bravery I witnessed will ever live in my memory." - Newark Sunday Call, 21 April 1912
Miss Burns’ experiences didn’t deter her from travel and on 7 August 1913 she arrived in New York aboard Imperator. Her employment with the Spedden family does not appear to have lasted long after the Titanic disaster; when they travelled abroad in both 1913 and 1914 she was not listed with them and, subsequently, her young charge Robert Douglas Spedden died tragically in a road traffic accident in August 1915.
As a member of the Red Cross, Miss Burns busied herself during WWI as a member of the executive committee of the New York County Chapter and took a leading part in recruiting nurses as part of the war effort. In her last years she was in charge of the industrial nursing department of J. H. Ladew Company on the Lincoln Highway, having previously been in the employment of Joseph Harvey Ladew (1865-1940), one of the largest leather manufacturers in the world and travelling around the world with he and his family on numerous occasions.
Friends of Miss Burns stated that she never fully recovered from her experiences on the Titanic and her health took a downward turn around that time, never fully recovering. A busy schedule in the following years perhaps took their toll and she suffered from endocarditis for the last decade of her life.
Elizabeth Margaret Burns died at the Young Women’s Nurse’s Club at 132 East 45th Street, Manhattan on 29 May 1921 following a sudden attack of œdema of the lungs. Aged just 50 at the time of her death, following a mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York she was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, East Orange, New Jersey close to her mother and father.