Miss Elizabeth Weed Shutes was born in Newburgh, Orange, New York on 30 April 1871.1
She was the youngest daughter of Samuel E. Shutes (1829-1904), a commercial traveller of French ancestry, and Sarah B. Berrian (1838-1917), both natives of New York who had married around 1855.
Her siblings were: Carrie L. (1856-1926), Sarah (b. 1859), Frank A. (b. 1861)(2), Charles Berrian (b. 1866), Marianna (b. 1869) and Edwin (1873-1938).
The year prior to Elizabeth's birth her family had appeared on the 1870 census as residents of an unspecified address in Newburgh, New York. She first appears on the 1880 census living at West 134th Street in Manhattan.
Still at home with her family on the 1900 census and an ongoing resident of Manhattan (of an unspecified address), Elizabeth was by then described as a teacher. She would lose her father on 20 July 1904 and Elizabeth, her mother and sisters Carrie and Marianna appeared on the 1910 census still living in Manhattan, now at West 120th Street; Elizabeth was still described as a teacher, by then in a private school.
Miss Shutes had been employed by president of the American Can Co. Mr William Thompson Graham of Greenwich, Connecticut to act as a governess to his teenage daughter Margaret. She had been with Mrs Graham and Margaret in Europe and were returning to the US when they boarded the Titanic at Southampton as first class passengers (ticket number 17582 which cost £153, 9s, 3d). Whilst aboard she and Margaret berthed in cabin C125 and Mrs Graham took C91.
At the time of the collision Miss Shutes and Margaret were in their cabin:
"Suddenly a strange quivering ran under me, apparently the whole length of the ship. Startled by the very strangeness of the shivering motion, I sprang to the floor. With too perfect a trust in that mighty vessel I again lay down. Someone knocked at my door, and the voice of a friend said: ‘Come quickly to my cabin; an iceberg has just passed our window; I know we have just struck one.’
The friend she was referring to was possibly Mrs Graham whose cabin had a porthole. As the minutes went on the mystery of what was happening began to upset young Margaret who was eating a chicken sandwich; her hands were trembling to much that the sandwich began to fall apart:
No confusion, no noise of any kind, one could believe no danger imminent. Our stewardess came and said she could learn nothing. Looking out into the companionway I saw heads appearing asking questions from half-closed doors. All sepulchrally still, no excitement. I sat down again. My friend was by this time dressed; still her daughter and I talked on, Margaret pretending to eat a sandwich. Her hand shook so that the bread kept parting company from the chicken. Then I saw she was frightened, and for the first time I was too, but why get dressed, as no one had given the slightest hint of any possible danger?
An officer’s cap passed the door. I asked: ‘Is there an accident or danger of any kind? ‘None, so far as I know’, was his courteous answer, spoken quietly and most kindly. This same officer then entered a cabin a little distance down the companionway and, by this time distrustful of everything, I listened intently, and distinctly heard, ‘We can keep the water out for a while.’ Then, and not until then, did I realize the horror of an accident at sea. Now it was too late to dress; no time for a waist, but a coat and skirt were soon on; slippers were quicker than shoes; the stewardess put on our life-preservers, and we were just ready when Mr. Roebling came to tell us he would take us to our friend’s mother, who was waiting above …
Miss Shutes went on to describe the scene on the boat deck:
No laughing throng, but on either side [of the staircases] stand quietly, bravely, the stewards, all equipped with the white, ghostly life-preservers. Always the thing one tries not to see even crossing on a ferry. Now only pale faces, each form strapped about with those white bars. So gruesome a scene. We passed on. The awful good-byes. The quiet look of hope in the brave men’s eyes as the wives were put into the lifeboats. Nothing escaped one at this fearful moment. We left from the sun deck, seventy-five feet above the water. Mr Case and Mr, Roebling, brave American men, saw us to the lifeboat, made no effort to save themselves, but stepped back on deck. Later they went to an honoured grave".
"Our lifeboat, with thirty-six in it, began lowering to the sea. This was done amid the greatest confusion. Rough seamen all giving different orders. No officer aboard. As only one side of the ropes worked, the lifeboat at one time was in such a position that it seemed we must capsize in mid-air”.
“At last the ropes worked together, and we drew nearer and nearer the black, oily water. The first touch of our lifeboat on that black sea came to me as a last good-bye to life, and so we put off – a tiny boat on a great sea – rowed away from what had been a safe home for five days".
"The first wish on the part of all was to stay near the Titanic. We all felt so much safer near the ship. Surely such a vessel could not sink. I thought the danger must be exaggerated, and we could all be taken aboard again. But surely the outline of that great, good ship was growing less. The bow of the boat was getting black. Light after light was disappearing, and now those rough seamen put to their oars and we were told to hunt under seats, any place, anywhere, for a lantern, a light of any kind. Every place was empty. There was no water – no stimulant of any kind. Not a biscuit – nothing to keep us alive had we drifted long…
Rescued in lifeboat 3 with Mrs Graham and Margaret, Miss Shutes sat next to Mrs Clara Hays and her daughter Mrs Orian Davidson. From the boat Elizabeth watched a shooting star. It reminded of the time she left Japan at night. She begged two women in the boat to stop smoking but they would not.
Sitting by me in the lifeboat were a mother and daughter. The mother had left a husband on the Titanic, and the daughter a father and husband, and while we were near the other boats those two stricken women would call out a name and ask, ‘Are you there?’ ‘No,’ would come back the awful answer, but these brave women never lost courage, forgot their own sorrow, telling me to sit close to them to keep warm… The life-preservers helped to keep us warm, but the night was bitter cold, and it grew colder and colder, and just before dawn, the coldest, darkest hour of all, no help seemed possible…
The stars slowly disappeared, and in their place came the faint pink glow of another day. Then I heard, ‘A light, a ship.’ I could not, would not, look while there was a bit of doubt, but kept my eyes away. All night long I had heard, ‘A light!’ Each time it proved to be one of our other lifeboats, someone lighting a piece of paper, anything they could find to burn, and now I could not believe. Someone found a newspaper; it was lighted and held up. Then I looked and saw a ship. A ship bright with lights; strong and steady she waited, and we were to be saved. A straw hat was offered it would burn longer. That same ship that had come to save us might run us down. But no; she is still. The two, the ship and the dawn, came together, a living painting".
When the Carpathia arrived she would not try the ladder so she sat in a rope sling and was swept aloft with a mighty jerk. From somewhere above, a man let out "Careful, boys, she's a light-weight!"
It is not known how long Elizabeth remained in the service of the Graham family.2
She was never married and appears on the 1915 census still living in New York. A seasoned traveller by 1919 (when she applied for a passport) she had visited Britain, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Japan. In April that year she was given a one-year appointment as secretary of the National War Work Council of the US YMCA for service with the troops of the American Expeditionary Force in France.
Her 1923 passport describes her as standing at 5' 7" and with brown hair and eyes, a dark complexion and with an oval face, pointed chin and high forehead; she had a large mole on her right leg. Her intention for travelling this time was to study in Paris and gave her US address as 81 Morningside Avenue, New York.3
Elizabeth Shutes in 1919
Upon her return to the USA Miss Shutes lived with her sister Marianna, also a spinster, in Manhattan where she continued to teach, appearing there on both the 1930 and 1940 census records, the latter record showing them as residents of 169 Morningside Drive, Manhattan. The sisters had lost their mother on 23 December 1917.
Elizabeth Weed Shutes died in Oneida, New York on 27 October 1949 aged 78 and was buried in Waterville Cemetery, Oneida.