Mrs Claus Peter Hansen was born as Jennie Louise Howard in Raymond, Racine County, Wisconsin on 20 December 1866.
She was the youngest child of six born to English parents, William John Howard (b. 1834), a farmer, and Mary Fisher 1 (b. 1838), reportedly natives of Manchester.
Her five elder siblings were: Thomas John (1856-1923), Etta (b. 1858), Ann (b. 1860), Mary (b. 1861, later Mrs Christian Brotherson) and Elizabeth (b. 1864).
Her mother died on 12 May 1868 before Jennie had even reached her second birthday; her father was remarried to a Prussian lady, Frances Mauer 2 (1832-1891) and with her had three more children: Frederick (b. 1870), Francis (1871-1891) and Bertha Amelia (b. 1874, later Mrs Oscar Fred Burman and again Mrs John Ferguson). Following her step-mother's death on 12 December 1891 her father took another wife, Elisabeth Shrack (b. 1860)
She first appears on the 1870 census living with her family on their farm in Raymond, Racine County, also appearing there on the 1880 census, presumably at the same address (which is unspecified on both records). She was listed on the 1900 census as an unmarried servant at 720 Park, Racine whilst her father was listed as living at 2036 North Main Street, Racine.
Jennie was married to Claus Peter Hansen, a native of Denmark, on 25 July 1900 in Racine; they would have no children. A frail woman, Jennie had been poor in health for years. She had lived through several catastrophic events in addition to the Titanic: she was a pastry cook in the Blake Opera House and Hotel which burned to the ground on 27 December 1884. She made the last trip in the elevator before flames gutted the shaft. Prior to the fire by several months, she was found lying unconscious in the kitchen overcome by gas fumes from the stove.
Jennie and Claus appear to have lived for a time in Kenosha, Wisconsin but made their home in Racine, appearing on the 1910 census as residents of 1164 Villa Street, their barber shop, with the couple living in an apartment above. They later moved to a new parlour on High Street.
In 1912 Peter and Jennie were going to Denmark to visit his parents and three brothers, whom he had not seen for twenty-one years. Before leaving Racine, Jennie told her brother, Thomas Howard, that she dreaded making the trip, saying that she had a feeling she would never return alive; she even told Thomas the type of funeral arrangements she wanted in the event that her body was recovered (he took this in a humorous vein). The Hansens left for Europe on board the Cunarder Campania on 14 February 1912.
When the time came for Claus and Jennie to return to America Claus' twenty-six-year-old brother, Henrik Juul Hansen decided to leave Denmark and accompany them to the new world. Peter bought their tickets at the White Star agent (C. Hansen) in Maribo, Lolland and the three boarded the Titanic in Southampton as third class passengers (ticket number 350026 which cost £14, 2s, 2d).
Jennie reported in a 1939 interview that it was not the collision that woke her but rather the cessation of the engines, a motion that she and her husband had lived with for days and its absence proving an ominous oddity. Jennie immediately rushed to her cabin door, shouting to Claus that something was amiss; he dismissed her fear however and when she asked a passerby in the companionway what was happening she was given the same nonchalant brush-off and told to go back to bed. She did so but soon the sound of people coming up the stairs and gathering in the public areas again caused her alarm and she opened her cabin door again, witnessing some stewards with their lifejackets on and a number of people rushing about. Asking another crewmember what was happening she was yelled at and told to get her lifebelt and head up on deck. She, her husband and her brother-in-law hurriedly dressed and left their cabin.
In the mêlée Jennie reported hearing shots fired but could not say if they were gunshots used to deter panicking mobs or whether they were distress rockets. To reach the lifeboats the Hansens had to climb an iron ladder. Once on the deck (either A-deck or the boat deck) the Hansens stood huddled together and Jennie was offered a place in a boat; initially willing to do so she recoiled when her husband was not allowed to accompany her and clung on to him, asking the crewman to allow her to stay. He was prised from her husband and thrown into the boat, striking her head which left her feeling stunned for some time.
Jennie was rescued, probably in boat 11. She estimated her lifeboat to have left the ship at 12.15 and to have been filled with around 40 women and noted how a baby was thrown into the boat as it was lowered. She stated that the lifeboat had difficulty getting deployed although she does not make clear as to why and from her account it appears that her lifeboat became part of a flotilla. She recalled the ship's lights burning brilliantly and how that in the crowded lifeboat a sailor was sitting on her lap rowing the whole time!
Claus and Henrik both perished in the sinking and their bodies, if recovered, were never identified.
In New York, Jennie was hospitalised. Her sister, Mrs Christopher Brotherson of Racine, sent a telegram via The Journal-News on 18 April 1912:
April 18. 1912
Mrs Peter C. Hanson [sic],
Care of White Star Steam- ship Cp.,
New York City:
Are you well?
Can you come from New York alone?
Let me know. If not able, will come to New York and meet you.
Mrs Chris. Brotherson,
924 Forest Street.
As a result of the Titanic disaster, Jennie suffered such a shock to her nervous system that she was unable to shed a tear after. She also suffered from headaches and nightmares and went to stay with her elder brother Thomas Howard and his wife Maggie in Nicholson Road, Franksville, Racine. Apparently Jennie's nightmares were so severe that Thomas and Maggie had to go and hold her down on the bed.
Jennie remained in Racine; on the third anniversary of her husband's loss she had a poem published in The Racine Daily Times:
Just three years ago tonight
We were separated you and I
One last kiss, one last embrace
As we stood on that fatal ship
It came so unexpected
The shock still remaining
Although the tie that held us
Is broken beyond repair
No joy can take the deep heart ache
Our sad departure left
I do not know what pains you bore
I did not see you die
I only know your thoughts were of me
Bidding the last goodbye
Worthy of great respect was he
Say those he left behind
A better friend there could not be
A husband more true and kind
Oh perfect rest, oh calm repose
Where life's clear strength in beauty flows
We know that you are happy now
In the sunshine of the blessed
Where there is no pain or sorrow
But one sweet eternal rest
Let stars forget to shine, days sunless be
But never can I cease to think of thee
Your wife, Jennie L. Hansen
On 25 August that year Jennie remarried to Elmer Magnus Emerson (b. 26 July 1885), a fellow Racine native who was 19-years her junior.
Elmer, of Norwegian parentage, had previously served in the military and had spent a portion of his career in the Philippines. He returned to Wisconsin and became a postman and he and Jennie settled at 711 Eight Street, Racine, shown there at the time of the 1920 census. By the time of the 1930 census they were residents of the home they would spend the rest of their lives, 1214 Center Street, Racine. In later years Jennie gave several newspaper interviews but reportedly declined to be interviewed on radio.
Jennie Louise Emerson (née Howard, late Hansen) died on 15 December 1952 , just shy of her 86th birthday, and she was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Racine. Her widower Elmer died on 27 May 1960 and was buried next to her.