Miss Mary Jane Sloan was born at 59 Little Patrick Street in Belfast, Ireland on 5 August 1866 and was therefore much older than she professed to be when aboard Titanic, being closer to the age of 46 than the age of 28 that she stated1.
Coming from a Presbyterian family, she was the daughter of John Sloan (b. circa 1837), a van and cab driver, and Mary Todd (b. circa 1832) who had married in Ballyeaston near Ballyclare, Co Antrim on 2 December 1854. Her mother was a native of Co Antrim but her father's exact background remains uncertain although it appears he was from the same area.
The number of siblings Mary actually had is uncertain; the 1911 census states that her mother had four children, two of whom were still alive at that point. However, birth and baptismal records tell a different story. Amongst her identifiable siblings were: Elizabeth (b. circa 1859), James (b. 27 August 1864), Margaret (b. 27 August 1868) and James (b. 19 November 1872). Another two unnamed children, both born in the early 1870s, were stillborn; what became of the two boys named James remains uncertain.
Mary's father died aged 52 on 4 April 1889 and the home address was then 12 Earl Place, Belfast. She appears on the 1901 census living with her widowed mother at 18 London Road, Ormeau, Belfast and she was described as an unmarried stewardess aged 25. She worked aboard the SS Magic, a ferry operating between Belfast and Liverpool.
Her sister Margaret was married around 1898 to William James Brown (b. circa 1873), a warehouse keeper. They had no children and by the time of the 1911 census were residing at 1 Kerrsland Crescent in Ballyhackamore, east Belfast. Mary and her mother also appear on the 1911 census as residents of 5 Lomond Avenue, Victoria, Belfast and Mary was described as a 40-year-old unmarried stewardess on the Liverpool boats.
When Mary signed on to the Titanic in Southampton on 9 April 1912 she gave her age as 28 and her address as her sister Margaret's home in Belfast, 1 Kerrsland Crescent; she was the only female from Belfast aboard the ship. Her previous stated ship was given as Olympic and she had been aboard that vessel at the time of her collision with HMS Hawke.
Miss Sloan survived the sinking and messaged her relative Thomas Sloan2 in Marlow, Buckinghamshire to advise him of her safety, the cablegram arriving on Friday 19 April. She also relayed her safety to family and friends in Belfast:
Miss M. Sloan, a stewardess, also belonged either to Belfast or the adjoining counties... She resides at 1 Kerrsland Crescent, Belfast, and yesterday her brother-in-law received a cablegram from New York containing one word "safe."
...Miss Sloan is well known to cross channel passengers on the Liverpool route, as for some years she was engaged as stewardess on the s.s. Magic
- Belfast Weekly News, 25 April 1912
She also took time to write to her sister Margaret whilst aboard SS Lapland, the letter dated 27 April 1912:
My Dear Maggie,
I expect you will be glad to hear from me once more and to know I am still in the land of the living. Did you manage to keep the news from Mother? I hope you got the cablegram all right.
I never lost my head that dreadful night. When she struck at a quarter to twelve and the engines stopped I knew very well something was wrong. Dr. Simpson came and told me the mails were afloat. Things were pretty bad. He brought Miss Marsden and me into his room and gave us a little whiskey and water. I laughed and asked him if he thought we needed it, and he said we should. Miss Marsden was crying, he was cross with her. He asked me if I was afraid, I replied I was not. He said, "Well spoken like a true Ulster girl". He had to hurry away to see if there was anyone hurt. I never saw him again. We helped him on with his great coat, I never saw him again. I felt better after, then I saw our dear old Doctor Laughlin [sic], I asked him to tell me the worst. He said, "Child, things are very bad." I indeed got a life belt and got on deck. I went round my rooms to see if my passengers were all up and if they had lifebelts on. Poor Mr. Andrews came along, I read in his face all I wanted to know.
He saw me knocking at some of the passengers doors, he said that was right, told me to see they had lifebelts on and to get one for myself and go on deck.
He was a brave man. Last time I saw and heard him was about an hour later helping to get the women and children into the boats, imploring them not to hesitate, but to go when asked as there was no time to be lost. Mr. Andrews met his fate like a true hero realising the great danger, and gave up his life to save the women and children of the Titanic. They will find it hard to replace him and I myself am terribly cut up about him. I was talking to him on the Friday night previous as he was going into dinner. The dear old doctor was waiting for him on the stair landing, and calling him by his Christian name Tommy. Mr. Andrews seemed loth to go, he wanted to talk about home, he was telling me his father was ill, and Mrs. A. was not so well. I was congratulating him on the beauty and perfection of the ship. He said the part he did not like the Titanic was taking us further away from home every hour. I looked at him and his face struck me at the time as having a very sad expression. He is one of the many who can be ill spared.
Well, I got away from all the others and intended to go back to my room for some of my jewellery, but I had no time at the last. I went on deck the second time, one of the little bill [sic - bell] boys recognised me, and pointed me to a crowded boat said, Miss Sloan, thats your boat No.12. I said, child, how do you know, I will wait for another, so it pushed off without me. I was still standing when I saw Captain Smith getting excited, passengers would not have noticed [but] I did. I knew then we were soon going. The distress signals were going every second, so I thought if anyone asked me again to go I should do so, then there was a big crush from behind me, at last they realized the danger, so I was pushed into a boat. I believe it was one of the last ones to leave. We had scarcely got clear when she began sinking rapidly.
We were in the boats all night. I took a turn to row. The women said I encouraged them, I was pleased. We picked up 30 men. Standing on an upturned boat, among them was one of our officers, Mr. Lightoller, we then took charge until the Carpathia picked us up, about seven in the morning. I only hope I shall never have a like experience again. Mr. Lightoller paid me the compliment of saying I was a sailor. We are arriving about midnight on Sunday night. I don't know what the White Star people are going to do with us, I shall wait and see. I have lost everything. I will stay in Marland Terrace, so you can write to me there.
Should love to see you all and talk to you.
We are arriving on the Lapland, I think I told you this before. Trusting this will find you all safe and well.
Your Loving Sister,
Upon arrival in Britain aboard Lapland the Ulsterwoman spent time with friends there before returning home to Belfast, arriving back in late May as reported in the Belfast Newsletter (25 May 1912). Interviewed at the time by that newspaper, she did not wish to dwell on the disaster but felt able to speak of people connected with it. She was high in praise for Thomas Andrews and related that he:
"...realised from the first the gravity of the accident, and I saw by his face soon after the collision how serious he knew it to be. But he worked nobly and like a true hero, going round the vessel to see that all women had lifebelts before they went on deck to take their places in the boats. He thought of everyone except himself, and the last I saw of him was when he was rendering assistance in getting the women and children into the boats, telling them not to hesitate, as there was not a moment to lose..." - Belfast Newsletter, 25 May 1912
She also recalled encountering fellow Belfast native Dr John Edward Simpson about ten minutes after the collision and engaged in a conversation with him, asking him if he thought the situation was serious; his response was that he believed there was danger but left her to go and give medical assistance to anyone that needed it as a result of the collision and she never saw him again.
After the disaster Mary drops off the radar for a while but it appears she resumed her career at sea following her recovery and may have also returned to working aboard Olympic, although this is not certain.
Her sister Margaret spent a period living in Oromocto, New Brunswick and Miss Sloan visited her in 1916; in August that year she crossed from Canada into the USA, intent on meeting a friend Mr William A. Gleason of Cleveland, Ohio. She arrived in Michigan from St John aboard the Pretorian and was described as a stewardess standing at 5' 4", with brown hair, blue eyes and with a ruddy complexion.
Mary appears to have remained in Ohio for an extended period, having family there (see note 2), whilst back in Belfast her mother later lived at Floretta on Sandown Road and died aged 84 on 18 February 1919; the informant was her son-in-law William James Brown.
Mary Sloan was married in Cincinnati, Ohio on 30 May 1919 to divorcee William Angus Gleason3 (b. 21 October 1870), a native of St James, New Brunswick. He was described as a contractor and builder and was the son of Michael Gleason and the former Margaret McLeod. Mary was described as a nurse and her address was stated as 4917 Prospect Avenue.
Having married so late in life, Mary and her new husband had no children. A 1922 immigration record shows Mary crossing from the USA into Canada; she then gave her age as 44 and her last permanent residence as Fort Madison, Iowa and that she had last arrived by sea to the USA in May 1916 aboard Olympic.
Mary and her husband eventually settled in Vancouver, British Columbia but in 1929 made a return visit to Belfast; William Gleason was shown travelling alone aboard the Montclare, having departed from Belfast and arriving at St John, New Brunswick on 3 March 1929; his destination was listed as his home at 3486 16th Avenue West, Vancouver whilst his wife Mary was left with relatives, a W. Graham at Sandown Road, Belfast. Mary made the trip a few months later, arriving in Québec aboard Andania on 5 May 1929 and stated her point of contact as her sister Margaret at Floretta in Belfast.
Whilst living in Vancouver Mary became a widow when William Gleason died, coincidentally, on 14 April 1944. Mary did not remain in Canada and soon returned home to her mother city Belfast where she lived with her unmarried niece, daughter of her sister Elizabeth, Wilhelmina Muir4 (1896-1958), a civil servant, at 104 Sandown Road in Knock, Belfast, by then Northern Ireland. Already in advanced years, Mary did not remarry.
Over her long life it appears that Mary remained silent on the topic of Titanic; no latter day interviews or mentions of her being a Titanic survivor have ever come to light. Despite her oft-quoted status as a Titanic survivor, her eventual passing saw no such attention.
Her sister Margaret died on 21 May 1949 and was buried with her other sister Elizabeth, who died 1 April 1947. Both were laid to rest in Dundonald Cemetery, Dundonald, Co Down, situated on the outskirts of east Belfast.
After an eventful life, Mary Sloan Gleason died from cardiac failure on 28 February 1953 aged 86; at the time she was an inmate at Purdysburn Hospital on the outskirts of Belfast in Ballylesson, Co Down but her residence was stated as 104 Sandown Road and her death certificate describes her as the widow of a building contractor and at age 81 at the time of her death.
She was buried with her brother-in-law William James Brown (who died aged 90 in 1963) and niece Wilhelmina Muir in Dundonald Cemetery, Dundonald, Co Down (plot F3, 1037, an unmarked grave), the resting place to fellow Belfast Titanic survivor John Haggan.