Mrs John Stuart White was born as Ella Bertha Holmes at 169 Myrtle Street1 in Boston, Massachusetts on 18 December 1856.
She was the daughter of Edwin Holmes (b. 25 April 1820), a telegraphist and inventor, and Eliza Ann Richardson (b. 1822), natives of Massachusetts and Vermont, respectively and who had married in Fitchburg, Worcester, Massachusetts on 4 May 1844.
She had two elder brothers, Edwin Thomas (b. 27 October 1849, d. 1920) and Frank (b. 1 March 1853, d. 1870) and a younger sister, Belle (b. 3 December 1861, d. 1945), later Mrs Andrew Summer March Jr. Her brother Frank died on 26 August 1870 aged 17 when he fell from the high rafters of a barn in Holden, Massachusetts where he had been visiting friends.
Her father Edwin was involved with early electronics and telephony and later purchased the patent of the electromagnetic burglar alarm, first setting up his home burglar alarm business in Boston in 1849, the Holmes Electric Protective Company. With his business not performing well in that city he moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1859 where his enterprise had more success.
By 1880 Holmes Electric Protective Company won a contract to lay line plant for burglar alarm services in Philadelphia and in Boston and the business flourished further as it later emerged that existing telephone lines could be utilised for their burglar alarms in lieu of single-purpose cables. In 1878 he became president of the newly established Bell Telephone Company and also had numerous interests in various electrical companies. By the time of his death he had established a fortune.
Having moved to Brooklyn in 1859, Ella and her family appear on the 1870 census living at an unspecified address. By the time of the 1880 census they were living at 156 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn. After twenty-three years in Brooklyn the family moved to Manhattan.
Ella was just days shy of her 38th birthday when she was married in Manhattan on 12 December 1894 to John Stuart White (b. 29 August 1844 in New York), son of William White and Margaret McCartney, a match that contemporary media labelled as “surprising.”
The wedding of Miss Ella B. Holmes, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Holmes, to John Stuart White was celebrated at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon at the home of the bride's parents, No. 32. West Fifty-second-St, in the presence of the relatives and intimate friends of the young people. The Rev. John Hall, pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, performed the ceremony. Miss Natalie March, a niece of the bride, was the maid of honor. There were no bridesmaids. Samuel Cromwell was best man, and James Lake, Robert McCague, Malcolm Stuart and Andrew S. March, brother-in-law of the bride, were ushers. The ceremony was followed by a reception. - New York Daily Tribune, 13 December 1894
The couple made their home in Manhattan but the marriage, apparently a happy match, was childless and short-lived, with White dying aged 52 less than three years later on 19 May 1897. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
WHITE—Wednesday, May 19, JOHN STUART WHITE, beloved husband of Ella Holmes White, and only son of the late William White. Funeral services at the residence of his mother, Mrs William White, 55 West 48th St., Friday morning, at ten o'clock, Rev. Dr John Hall, officiating. - New York Herald, 21 May 1897
Ella never remarried and returned to live with her parents; her father died at their home in Manhattan on 17 January 1901 and his son Edwin—previously secretary and treasurer of Holmes Electric Protective Company, also a close friend of Alexander Graham Bell—took over the presidency. Her mother later died at the home of her sister Belle March in Orange, New Jersey on 11 December 1904.
A wealthy and slightly eccentric widow without ties, Ella maintained a luxurious summer apartment at Briarcliff Manor in Westchester, New York as well as living out of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the latter of which she became a permanent resident in 1914. She also took to globetrotting and travelling the length and breadth of the USA.
Whilst vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey in early 1910 she crossed paths with a younger woman, Marie Grice Young. Miss Young, a resident of Washington DC, was a well-connected music teacher and was in Atlantic City recuperating from the recent loss of her mother.
The two women must have had an instant connection and soon Mrs White was inviting the young spinster to her frequent parties at Briarcliff Manor. Soon they were living together, as well as becoming frequent travelling partners. It is widely held that the two women became lovers in a committed same-sex relationship, although there is also the suggestion that they were just very close friends or that Mrs White had become a surrogate mother to Miss Young. Whatever the nature of their relationship, it is clear that the two women became devoted to one another and the pair were rarely mentioned as being apart from each other in the contemporary media.
Following an extended winter vacation in Rome, Mrs White and Miss Young decided to travel back to New York in April 1912:
MRS. J. STUART WHITE IS RETURNING HOME
She and Miss Marie Young Will Be Passengers on Board the Titanic.
SPECIAL DESPATCH TO THE HERALD VIA COMMERCIAL CABLE COMPANY'S SYSTEM.
No. 49 AVENUE DE L'OPERA,
Mrs. J. Stuart White and Miss Marie Young, who have been spending the winter in Rome, are returning to America on board the Titanic on April 10 and will go directly to Briarcliff Lodge.
New York Herald, 5 April 1912
The pair boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg as first-class passengers (joint ticket number 17760 which cost £135, 12s, 8d), joined by Mrs White’s maid Nellie Bessette and manservant Sante Righini. Whilst in Europe the pair had purchased some expensive live poultry and brought the chickens aboard the ship which were stowed in with the cargo. Miss Young would make daily checks on the livestock during the voyage.
Whilst aboard Titanic Mrs White was nursing an injured foot—apparently sustained during a mishap upon boarding the ship, as stated in her testimony:
Miss Young or your maid would know the number of your room?
Yes. I never went out of my room from the time I went into it. I was never outside of the door until I came off the night of the collision.
That was due, I believe, to a little accident that you had on entering the ship?
You went directly to your apartment and remained there?
I remained in my room until I came out that night. I never took a step from my bed until that night.
Apparently never leaving her cabin, Mrs White relied on a seemingly nondescript cane for her motility. On the morning of 14 April Mrs White had stated to Miss Young that she was sure that icebergs must be nearby as it was so cold. That night she was sitting on her bed and just ready to retire when she felt a slight jar and a motion as if “we had went over about a thousand marbles. There was nothing terrifying about it at all.”
Mrs White, along with Miss Young and her maid and manservant, immediately left their cabins and headed up to A-deck where they stood around, awaiting any information or orders forthcoming. Captain Smith came sweeping down the staircase, ordering the passengers gathered to fetch their lifebelts, which they did, before waiting around about another twenty minutes at A-deck before ascending to the boat deck.
Mrs White recalled that she entered lifeboat 8, being gently handled into the boat on account of her injured foot, noting how her lifeboat was the second one lowered (on the port side) and containing 22 women and four men from the crew. She remained standing all night in the bottom of the boat as she found the seats too high to reach. She recalled an officer (whom she could not identify) ordering the boat’s crew to head for the light of the ship in the distance, which she said was distinctly visible, and land the passengers there and to return as soon as possible. He also noted some of the men jesting that: "When you come back you will need a pass," or "You cannot get on tomorrow morning without a pass." Leaving with her friend Miss Young and her maid Nellie Bessette, her manservant Sante Righini was left behind and became one of the lost.
Before boat 8 cast-off she noted how two of the crewmen (who she believed to be saloon stewards) lit cigarettes; appalled at that, she felt that their actions were inappropriate at such a time. She also found the professional conduct of these two stewards to be wanting, later testifying:
….All of those men escaped under the pretence of being oarsmen. The man who rowed me took his oar and rowed all over the boat, in every direction. I said to him, "Why don't you put the oar in the oarlock?" He said, "Do you put it in that hole?" I said "Certainly." He said, "I never had an oar in my hand before." I spoke to the other man and he said; "I have never had an oar in my hand before, but I think I can row." Those were the men that we were put to sea with at night— with all those magnificent fellows left on board, who would have been such a protection to us. Those were the kind of men with whom we were put out to sea that night.
Having to settle several squabbles between the crewmen, Mrs White said that the only crewman who seemed to have any idea of conducting affairs was a seaman (Thomas Jones) stood at the tiller, whilst her friend Miss Young and fellow passenger Mrs Margaret Swift rowed all night, alongside the Countess of Rothes who was at the tiller. Sat nearby her were Dr Alice Leader and Mrs Marion Kenyon.
Mrs White stated that her lifeboat did as instructed and spent close to forty-five minutes rowing towards the light, which she said was undeniably a boat of some sorts, but despite their efforts they could not make headway and decided it was impossible to reach. After that her lifeboat began to row back before lingering and attempting to locate other lifeboats, an attempt that was fruitless despite their ability to hear them off in different directions in the distance. Noting how the equipment in the lifeboat was absent or lacking, Mrs White put her electric walking cane to good use, as she later said:
The lamp on the boat was absolutely worth nothing. They tinkered with it all along, but they could not get it in shape. I had an electric cane - a cane with an electric light in it - and that was the only light we had. We sat there for a long time, and we saw the ship go down, distinctly.
Mrs White stated that as the ship sank she heard four explosions and noted that the ship broke in two in her final throes. Reaching Carpathia later that morning Mrs White said she was astounded to see over a dozen icebergs and miles of floating ice from her new vantage point.
Arriving in New York aboard Carpathia, Mrs White and her companions lingered in New York for a while, she later providing evidence to the American Inquiry into the sinking on 2 May 1912. After that she returned to Briarcliff Manor for recuperation.
Ella White and Marie Young remained extremely close, living together for many years at their sumptuous apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel until 1929 when that building was raised to make way for the Empire State Building:
Mrs. J. Stuart White, who occupied the royal suite for fifteen years, departed several days ago. She took her rare rugs and priceless tapestries and the carved iron gate with the two lanterns that burn night and day. The lanterns still are gleaming in her new home for they were lighted in memory of her husband who died when the Titanic went down. - Buffalo Courier Express, 1 May 1929
Mrs White and Mrs Young then moved into an equally luxurious apartment at the Plaza Hotel and where they appeared on the 1940 census. They continued to entertain guests and travel together, both in the USA and further afield, their international destinations including Switzerland, Netherlands, Britain, Italy and France and Ella’s 1922 passport describes her as standing at 5’ 6” and she had brown hair, grey eyes, a round face and high forehead with a small mouth, round chin and a straight nose.
Ella Holmes died at her apartment in the Plaza Hotel on 31 January 1942 at the age of 85 and was cremated two days later at Ferncliff Crematorium. Her personal items were willed to Marie Young who also received a monthly payment of $250 for life.
Ella’s electric cane that had accompanied her on the Titanic was passed down through the family. In 2019 it appeared for auction and was valued at over $100,000.
Left to right Marie Young, Ella White and Ella's niece Mrs Harry S. Durand
© Michael A. Findlay / Harry Durand Jr., USA