Mrs Walter Donald Douglas (Mahala Dutton) was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on 26 January 1864.1
Concerning her given name:
Mahala was an old family name, one which had been handed down through the 12 generations, starting originally with the family of Massachusetts’ Governor Bradford, of whom Mahala was a direct descendent. - Star Tribune, 23 November 1947
She was the daughter of Rollin Henry Dutton (1827-1876), a deputy postmaster and boarding housekeeper originally from Farmington, Connecticut, and Sophia Mahala Bradford (1827-1901), a native of St Albans, Vermont, who were married in Massachusetts on 5 January 1857 before going on to have four children and first arriving in Cedar Rapids around 1863.
Mahala’s siblings were: Anna Sophia (1859-1936, later Mrs George Arthur Goodell), George Bradford (1870-1939) and William Henry (1872-1941).
Mahala and her family appear on the 1870 census living in Cedar Rapids. By the time of the 1880 census they are still in the same locale but her mother was by then a widow, her father having died on 26 July 1876 after taking his own life.
Rollin Henry Dutton, deputy postmaster in Cedar Rapids, was a well-respected man in his community but was known to be fond of the whisky, his habit becoming such a concern that he began to speak of leaving town or putting himself “out of the way.” On 3 January 1876 he failed to return home after work and the following day efforts by his friends and family began to determine his whereabouts.
Dutton had travelled to a hotel in DeWitt, Iowa and signed-in under the assumed name Hart where for the next few weeks he continued his hard drinking, witnesses saying that he was by then displaying signs of insanity. An acquaintance, a Mr Gillette, recognised him and tried to converse with him, but Mr Dutton claimed not to recognise him back and would not respond to his name, before secreting himself in his hotel room. Mr Gillette immediately telegrammed Mrs Dutton and her brother Edwin R. Bradford to inform them of the situation. Mr Bradford hastened to DeWitt and to the hotel but found his entry to Dutton’s room blocked; he forced the door open and entered. Upon his entry Rollin Dutton drew a revolver and aimed it him, upon which Bradford retreated; seconds later he heard the report of a pistol, and upon re-entering the room found Rollin laying on the bed with a bullet wound in his left temple; he was still alive but barely just and died shortly after. Following Dutton’s death it transpired that in his workplace, where he was in charge of the books, that there were financial deficits in his accounts at between $1200 to $2000.
In the wake of this loss Mahala’s mother never remarried; a woman held in high regard, she passed away following a brief illness on 6 April 1901.
Educated at LaSalle Seminary for Girls and later a graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Mahala was no shrinking violet and gained a reputation as a non-conformist during her formative years. Having inherited a more than ample-sized nose, Mahala was well-aware of her physical attributes and was bemused by some of the mirth it caused. In her memoirs, she wrote of her first love affair:
Beauty was never my portion… I had heard a man say once, “Too bad about Pet Dutton’s nose, I do hope she’ll grow into it.”
Despite this imperfection, Mahala was a confident individual and became known for her exceptionally glamourous attire and had a bewitching quality that allured men; she could also boast of possessing a fine set of legs, which she herself described as exquisite. As a teenager in the 1880s, the display of such fine legs was a definite taboo but during one summer at a lake resort her bathing costume was “demure enough—heavy serge to the knees—but on her legs she wore gorgeous red stockings, even more intriguing when wet” to showcase her qualities.
One admirer on said excursion was so taken with Mahala that he arranged to go swimming with her as often as possible, wrote odes to her red stockings and, when the three week vacation was at an end, Mahala found that the same stockings were missing, which she attributed to the young man being light-fingered.
Letters proved her right—he had spirited away with them, filled them with sand, and kept them as trophies in his collegiate room. “I hoped they weren’t lumpy,” she would comment ruefully.
Her liaisons with admirers saw her in trouble at school and her late-night skating antics saw her nearly expelled, as a teacher exclaimed to an assembly of gathered students:
“Mahala is on the brink of an abyss!” the teacher announced in a loud voice to the assembled students who were to vote on her fate. “Shall we push her over? Or shall we help her become a better girl.”
The girls voted unanimously not to expel her. During her later schooling career Mahala became involved with the arts, as described in an article in the Cedar Rapids Times in June 1880:
Next was an essay by Miss Mahala Dutton on “Nursery Rhymes.” Miss Dutton’s production was as unique as it was pleasing. Taking “Mother Goose” stories, she very deftly and pleasantly applied their teachings to practical life, and drew important lessons from these simple ditties. The essay developed a practiced turn of mind in Miss D., which can be of great benefit to her in the battle of life if rightly applied.
After leaving school Mahala found herself further drawn towards the arts and was frequently listed in local media for her appearances in plays or solo performances; gifted with a capable singing voice, in November 1889 she was mentioned in The Cedar Rapids Gazette for her rendering of The Garden of Sleep by Isidore de Lara; whilst in 1890 she got a rave review in the press in Sterling, Illinois for her interpretation of an Indian in the opera Powhatan. However, this was probably the height of her “fame” and an inevitable marriage was to put an end to such stage appearances.
On 10 December 1891 Mahala was married Lewis Benedict (b. 13 August 1860), a purchasing agent originally from of Illinois2.
For weeks past, Cedar Rapids society has looked forward to the marriage of Miss Mahala Dutton to Lewis Benedict as one of the principal social events of the winter. All yesterday the air was odorous with the mild perfume of orange blossoms and evening came and brought at last, the hour of the wedding. Landaus, cabs and carriages formed an unbroken procession from six o’clock to the hour of the ceremony. The large auditorium was filled and the gallery was packed with friends eager to witness this happy union. - Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 11 December 1891
Following nuptials, the couple took a late train to Chicago to visit friends at the lake, and upon their return would settle into a newly completed residence situated on the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street in Cedar Rapids. Mrs Benedict, although not on the stage, continued to give numerous piano recitals and lectures at her home.
Lewis Benedict in his later years
(Cedar Rapids Gazette, 17 February 1938)
Little is known of the marriage between Mahala and Lewis; they had no children and although frequently cited in local media for their dinner parties or charitable work, they were rarely mentioned together sometime past their five year wedding anniversary. The gossip pages show that Mahala was frequently out of town over the next few years but when, or indeed why, she and Lewis divorced remains unclear.
Mahala was remarried, not in Cedar Rapids but in far-off New York on 6 November 1906 to Walter Donald Douglas (b. 1861), a fellow-native of Cedar Rapids who was of Quaker Oats fame. This was also Douglas' second marriage and he had two sons from his first relationship: George Camp (1885-1925) and Edward Bruce (1887-1946). Mahala had been friends with Douglas’ first wife, the former Lulu Camp, and the two served in many charitable organisations together. She would later become close to her two step-sons and their families.
Walter, along with his elder brother George had formed the Douglas and Company Starch Works (later Penick & Ford) in 1903. Described as a ''Captain of Industry,'' Douglas had amassed a fortune of at least $4 million in various Cedar Rapids industries and branched out into the linseed oil business in Minneapolis. He was associated with several prominent businesses, including the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company, Canadian Elevator Company and the Monarch Lumber Company; and was an executive in the Quaker Oat Company which his father co-founded.
The Douglases took up residence at an apartment on Harmon Place, Cedar Rapids where they began to devise a new home, which Mrs Douglas coined as their “Minnesota Renaissance.” This new mansion was to be built on bluffs overlooking Lake Minnetonka near Minneapolis, the former site of the St Louis Hotel, a hotspot from the 1880s which both Mahala and Walter frequented in their younger years. Designed by the noted architect Howard Shaw, their new home, named Waldon, that was said to be a copy of a French palace, was completed on 3 July 1910 and extensively furnished with 17th and 18th-century antiques that the couple had acquired during their already extensive travels. They hired a gardener, Tony Johnson, who would work at the estate for 36 years, and Mrs Douglas, despite knowing little about horticulture, learned and worked with him over the years to create magnificent gardens which were stocked with plants from many locations.
The Douglas’ mansion, Waldon
(The Gazette Sun, 30 November 1947)
Walter retired on 1 January 1912 and he and his wife made a brief visit to Cedar Rapids before both took off on a three-month tour of Europe to find more furnishings for their new palatial retreat.
For their return to the USA, the Douglas couple boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg (ticket number 17761 which cost £106, 8s, 6d), together with their French maid Berthe Leroy and they occupied cabin C86. Whilst aboard they became acquainted with other Minnesotan passengers; Mrs John Pillsbury Snyder, Mr and Mrs William Baird Silvey, and Miss Constance Willard. From the outset she was pleased with the ship and her company:
We left Cherbourg late on account of trouble at Southampton, but once off, everything seemed to go perfectly. The boat was so luxurious, so steady, so immense, and such a marvel of mechanism that one could not believe he was on a boat - and there the danger lay. We had smooth seas, clear, starlit nights, fresh favoring winds; nothing to mar our pleasure.
On Saturday 13 April Mr and Mrs Douglas enjoyed a stroll on the boat deck and witnessed a crewman dangle a bucket on a rope over the side of the ship to take a water sample to test its temperature. Mrs Douglas stated that although he let the bucket over the side it never touched the water and he hauled it up empty before bringing it to a hosepipe on the deck and filling it, checking the temperature with a thermometer. Astonished, Mrs Douglas turned to her husband and said “Did you see that? Oughtn’t we to tell?” but her husband dismissed it as a trifle. Mrs Douglas remained concerned though as she and others were aware that icebergs were close by.
On Sunday 14 April Mr and Mrs Douglas dined in the à la carte restaurant and stayed until most of the tables had cleared, noting Bruce Ismay, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, the Carters and the Wideners among the guests that evening. On their way back to their stateroom Mr and Mrs Douglas remarked to each other how the ship seemed to be going much faster than they had experienced over the course of the journey, with the vibration, especially near the stairwells, appearing more pronounced than usual.
In their cabin at the time of the collision, Mrs Douglas’ affidavit to the American Inquiry remarked that the shock of the impact was minor. The engines soon stopped, revved again for a short time before ceasing again completely. Mr Douglas assured her that there was no danger before he left the cabin to investigate and in the meantime Mrs Douglas began to dress herself warmly, putting on heavy boots and a fur coat. She stood out in the companionway waiting for her husband to return but stated no one approached her, not a single steward, stewardess or officer. She crossed to see her maid Berthe Leroy in her own stateroom and it was around that time that Mrs Douglas noticed people were appearing with life preservers; enquiring after this, she was told that orders had come down to put said garments on. Mrs Douglas went to her own cabin and fetched three life preservers, giving one to her maid and telling her to go off and find a lifeboat3.
With Mr Douglas still not returned, Mahala began to head towards the stairwell to find him but they bumped into each other there, he joking with her about her hoard of life preservers. Both put their lifejackets on, Mrs Douglas feeling assured by her husband who stated that the situation was not serious. In any case, both ascended to the boat deck, with Mr Douglas telling his wife that if they waited for a later boat then they might get to go together. As they stood by they watched the distress rockets being fired and heard from others that Titanic was in communication by wireless with three other ships.
Standing in the vicinity of collapsible D, which lay unprepared on the boat deck, Mr and Mrs Douglas watched lifeboat 2 being filled; close by stood Major Archibald Butt, Clarence Moore, Edgar Meyer and Arthur Ryerson. She also recalled seeing Luigi Gatti on deck, his high hat on his head, grip in his hand and a steamer rug over his arm, just as if he were waiting on a train, she thought to herself.
It was decided that they had waited long enough and that Mrs Douglas should leave now; before entering the lifeboat 2 Mrs Douglas stated that the captain came along and commanded a large number of male interlopers out; Mrs Douglas then took her place and turned to her husband, asking him to follow her. His curt reply was “No, I must be a gentleman,” before he turned away. She shouted after him to “try and get off with Mr Moore and Maj. Butt. They will surely make it.”
Mrs Douglas sat in the bottom of the boat, just under the tiller, and recalled officer Boxhall having difficulty releasing boat 2 to the water, he calling out for a knife to cut the falls. Facing her in the boat were Charlotte Appleton and Anton Kink, whilst Mrs Appleton’s sister Malvina Cornell and Boxhall sat behind her.
Mrs Douglas stated that she believed that there were 18 or 20 people in the boat but that counting the occupants proved difficult. She helped man the tiller for a time and also held an antiquated and somewhat useless lantern on a pole for another stretch. She also felt that the time between she left the Titanic and the sinking was fairly short and recalled hearing an explosion as the ship foundered.
Lifeboat 2 was the first lifeboat to pull alongside the Carpathia, with officer Boxhall hollering up to the crew of their rescue ship. An overexcited Mahala shouted out “The Titanic has gone down with everyone on board…” but Boxhall promptly told her to “shut up!” Despite this abrupt exchange, Mrs Douglas maintained that Boxhall was correct to have put her in her place and she remained respectful of him and found his further actions to be very courteous.
Mrs Douglas, like many others lauded over their kind and generous treatment aboard the Carpathia. However, she did state that she attempted to send a telegram regarding her husband’s loss to family and that it was not sent, despite numerous trips to the purser’s office to enquire after it.
Her brother-in-law George Douglas and his wife had hastened to New York from Iowa to meet her, alongside her stepson Edward, and she recuperated at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where she later granted an interview to William H. Randolph, a New York representative of Douglas & Co. The interview was published in the Rahway Daily Record on 19 April 1912. She also provided an affidavit to the American Inquiry into the sinking. She returned to Walden with her family and was greeted by many well-wishers and from where she was again interviewed by the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette (22 April 1912). Upon arrival she broke down as she was greeted by her late husband's grandson, Walter Jr, of whom she and her husband were very fond4.
Mahala never remarried and reportedly never resettled permanently to Waldon until three years after her husband’s loss, their home being rented during the interim by the Fred Clifford family. Instead she spent much of her time in places in Europe, including Switzerland from where she often wrote to her family.
Spending much time abroad, back in the USA Mrs Douglas divided her time living in Minnesota at different locations, including Minneapolis, St Paul and Deep Haven in Hennepin County. She would make frequent trips to a holiday home in Pasadena, California and was also a frequent traveller across the Atlantic and Pacific. Ships she would later sail aboard included: Empress of Asia, Berengaria, Imperator, Aquitania and Ile De France. Places she would visit included Japan, China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Java, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, India, Italy, France, Spain and Britain. She remained close with her maid Berthe Leroy who was still listed with her on the 1930 US census. Her 1921 passport describes her as standing at 5' 4", with a round face, hazel eyes and grey hair.
Back at home Mahala was an active member of Hennepin County Red Cross chapter and a contributor to numerous organisations, in particular with the arts, and was a frequent donor to Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota. Despite her outward non-conforming and gregarious character, she was noted as Republican in her political leanings.
(Minneapolis Star, 3 August 1928)
She entertained frequently in Waldon, usually for male guests (as she found women boring) who remained hypnotised by her charm, and she was known to lavish her visitors with tales of her frequent travels, including her recollections of visiting Mount Everest, Mount Fuji and her beloved Paris. Her culinary spread for her guests included many international cuisines, including riztavel (a Javan recipe), foie gras and Lake Superior fish chowder, and many others. Among her noted guests were Frank Kellogg, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and William Franklin Knox, the latter the 47th US Naval Secretary who apparently tried to coax her into a ministership in Liberia, an idea she sneered at as she didn’t care to “grill on the equator.”
WWI saw a boom in visitors to Waldon but as the years progressed the footfall lessened. It is said that in her later years Mahala became more open to female visitors into her social circle as the number of her male admirers began to dwindle and the halls of Waldon began to fall more silent and lonely.
During winter months Mahala continued to holiday at her home in Pasadena, California whilst her gardener Tony Johnson maintained Waldon and its garden, reportedly with an “iron fist”:
He paid the bills, hired the help, planned the garden, clipped and nursed the giant arbor vitae hedge, and every fall undertook to move the trim, round potted bay trees from the huge outdoor terrace to the root cellar—a job that in later years required four men and a horse-drawn dray. - The Gazette Sun, 30 November 1947
Mahala, despite her colourful life, reportedly felt underserved and despondent with her lot, as she later wrote:
I could sing, act, write, lecture, influence people, be a great philanthropist… but unfortunately… my stars were in such conjunction at my birth that, in spite of all the gifts the gods had given me, I would never amount to anything. - The Gazette Sun, 30 November 1947
Mahala as depicted in her obituary
(Star Tribune, 22 April 1945)
Mahala Douglas died following a stroke at her holiday home, 95 El Circulo Drive, Pasadena, California on 21 April 1945, her husband Walter's birthday, and her body was repatriated to her birthplace and interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, Cedar Rapids, Iowa with her late husband. Predeceased by her three siblings, she was survived by her stepson Edward as well as nieces and nephews.
Just over two years later the contents of her home, Waldon, were auctioned and the shell sold off. It was later said that:
People who knew Mahala Douglas fell into two camps—the men and the servants who adored her—and the women, who bit their lips and “reserved judgement” right up to her death. - The Gazette Sun, 30 November 1947