Miss Virginia Ethel Martin was born in Manhattan, New York on 6 October 1905.
She was the daughter of John Alfred Deszo Martin 1 (b. 1882) and Esther Weil 2 (b. 1885). Her father, an artist 3, was Jewish and hailed from Budapest, Hungary whilst her mother was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and was of French and German-Jewish heritage. They were married in Manhattan on 20 December 1903.
Virginia's parents were later divorced and her mother began co-habiting with a man named Walter Emanuel (b. 1880) although it is not clear if they ever married. Walter was vaguely described on the 1910 census as living off of his own means and he, Virginia and her mother, now going by the name Estelle Emanuel, were recorded living at 115 Street West, Manhattan. Her father was back living with his parents at West 150th Street and working as a clothing salesman.
Virginia's mother was by all accounts an opera singer and she travelled with her to London in early 1912, arriving aboard Olympic on 31 January and disembarking at Plymouth. Estelle travelled in first class whilst Virginia travelled in second class, chaperoned by her nursemaid Elizabeth Dowdell. With Estelle reportedly being handed a six month contract for shows in London, Virginia was sent back to New York and would again be accompanied by Miss Dowdell.
Virginia and Elizabeth boarded Titanic at Southampton on 10 April 1912, this time travelling as third class passengers (ticket number 364516 which cost £12, 9s, 6d). Whilst aboard they shared a cabin with English woman Amy Stanley.
Miss Dowdell later recounted (Hudson Observer, 20 April 1912):
"I had put Ethel to bed, and was preparing to retire myself when the crash came. I went into the passageway and asked a steward what was wrong. He assured me that everything was all right. I went back, to go to bed, but scarcely had I closed the door, when someone came running along the passage, ordering all hands to dress and put on life belts.
"I took my time in getting ready, not thinking the situation was serious. I firmly believed the Titanic was unsinkable. When we tried to get to the deck the stairways were so crowded that we could not get to the deck above. Men and women were climbing over each other here, and it was impossible for them to move. They appeared to me to be steerage passengers, and their cries and curses were terrible to hear.
"Finally some of the men passengers realized that it would be impossible to get up by the stairways, and they hoisted the women and children to seamen on the gallery above. They clasped their hands together, to enable the women to step upon them and reach out to those who would grasp them.
A GALLANT ENGLISHMAN
"An Englishman stepped to my side and picked up my charge. He held her up as high as possible, but she was too small to grasp the hands overhead. Finally he stood alongside one of the poles and lifted her to his shoulders. Still she could not get up.
"Step on my face, kiddie," he said.
"She did, and was lifted up. Then I placed my foot on his two hands and climbed above. The child had her shoes on, too, and his face was frightfully scratched. Still, he smiled bravely when he assisted me.
"'Good bye, Miss, and good luck,'" he said.
"When we arrived on deck nearly all of the boats were off. They were just filling No. 13, and the men and officers were trying to get the canvass off two others. They failed in this, and at last gave up in despair. My charge and I were carried bodily into Boat No. 13.
"Several men tried to rush in on us before we were lowered. I saw an officer shoot three of them. The others stopped immediately.
"The Titanic began to list alarmingly. When we reached the water the next boat behind us was coming down, and just missed coming on top of ours. As it was we collided, and for a moment I thought we would overturn.
"I stated before that we saw the iceberg plainly. After striking, the Titanic backed away. When we rowed towards the towering ice mountain I looked and saw the gaping hole in the side of the big ship. The sea rushed in in torrents. Our boat was manned with twelve sailors, two at each oar, and it must have been nearly ten minutes before we were free from the suction.
"No sooner were we off that [sic] the Titanic began to go down rapidly. The bow disappeared first. There was no playing by the bands, and only the cries and sobs of those aboard and in the boats was to be heard above the wash of the sea.
"Many aboard the lifeboats, when they saw their dear ones on deck doomed, threw themselves overboard. Some had to be forcibly restrained. The last thing I heard was what I believed to be the captain's voice crying 'Every man for himself.'
SEVENTY ON BOARD
"While we were rowing about, many came alongside and were pulled aboard. We had seventy in our boat by the time the Carpathia picked us up. I do not know how many we took on board at the start.
"All during this time rockets were being sent up from the doomed vessel. Revolver shots added to the din and dying voices. Then there was one great explosion. I guessed it was the boilers. The Titanic did not stay up long after that, but tilted, bow downward, with a great part of the stern in the air. She stayed for a moment, then plunged under. Her lights were burning to the last.
"One woman from a capsized boat came near to us. She was swimming.
"'Man, let go of me,' she pleaded to someone who was hanging on to her.
" 'I will not,' responded the masculine voice. 'If I do I will drown.' He did let go, however, and the woman was hauled aboard. She said she had been swimming for an hour, and supporting this unknown man for half of that time.
"There was one instance of a family of nine, including the mother and father. The men tried to force one of the daughters into the boat, but when she learned that her father and brothers could not be saved, she leaped back on the wave-washed Titanic deck. This was in the boat lowered after ours.
"We were rowing about for hours before being picked up. The men became so tired that we women had to change places with them and row.
"I was even surprised at my own calmness. I guess it was the responsibility I had in caring for Ethel. I worried only about her, for I have been with her a good while and we are attached to each other."
Coming off Carpathia in New York Virginia and Miss Dowdell were met by her grandparents, Mr and Mrs Weil and accompanied them to their home at 605 West 113th Street, Manhattan, eventually being reunited with her father later. Her mother returned to New York in August 1912.
Following this Virginia largely drops off the radar although she was shown arriving in New York in 1916 aboard Saratoga. On 1 May 1924 she travelled first class aboard the President Roosevelt to New York and was described as a student, her previous address being 5 Rex Place, Park Lane, West London. Later that year on 4 October she and her mother travelled aboard Berengaria, again as first class passengers and again stating their address as 5 Rex Place; her mother had down-sized her age considerably, describing herself as a student aged 22 (she was in fact 39).
Her mother's relationship with Walter Emanuel appears to have eventually disintegrated although what became of him is not clear. She went on to have had a succession of relationships and marriages and she ended up living in London and Paris and going by the name Elise. She appears on several Atlantic crossings, one in 1928 aboard Majestic, and eventually returned to the USA and spent her final days living in Los Angeles where she died on 4 November 1959.
The final whereabouts of Virginia Martin/Emanuel is not currently known.
Many identify Virginia Martin/Emanuel as Mrs Vera Hanson. A Vera Hanson claimed that she had been brought up in institutions in England and never knew her background, the identity of her parents or true name and age (she believed she was born sometime between 1908 and 1911). She also claimed to have received an anonymous letter in the 1930s insinuating that she had been handed "from A deck to Lifeboat 13" into the arms of a Dulwich College teacher, namely Lawrence Beesley. Vera had enlisted the help of a solicitor, L. M. Wilkins to help determine her true identity and armed with the information about Beesley, Wilkins visited the retired schoolmaster who confirmed that he had been handed a baby in the lifeboat before handing the child to Hilda Slayter, a lady with whom Beesley shared a common acquaintance in Ireland. Further research led Wilkins to a woman in County Kerry, Ireland, Julia Mahoney, who stated that she knew that her friend Elizabeth Dowdell was chaperoning a child aboard Titanic; gathering the child's name as Virginia Emanuel from that information it was vaguely deduced that she and Mrs Hanson must be one and the same.
Wilkins even went to the lengths of contacting Walter Lord but he never responded. Interviewed in the 1950s, Elizabeth Dowdell (then Mrs Harry Fierer) stated that her former charge was married and living in London; it is not clear if Dowdell and Virginia ever maintained contact and it can be assumed that Dowdell was relating this information after having been contacted by the solicitors of Mrs Hanson.
The link between Mrs Hanson and Virginia is therefore highly tenuous; the real Virginia, aged 6½ years in April 1912, was no babe-in-arms and would have been old enough to know her background and real parents and grandparents. The fact that she was shown on several passenger lists travelling with her mother or to the home address of her grandparents into the 1920s comfortably debunks this version of her life. What is known however is that Virginia did indeed spend a portion of her life living in London but whether she maintained contact with her former chaperone is, as stated above, unknown and probably unlikely.
Vera Hanson, formerly Vera H. Edwards was married in Chelsea, London in 1950 to Sydney A. Hanson (b. 1888) of whom nothing is known and who later died in 1966. She was remarried in 1968 to Ernest G. Smith following which she drops off the radar. It has been stated that she died sometime around 1972 but under which guise is not clear. Whilst the identity of Mrs Hanson isn't entirely certain it can be assumed that she was either trying to piggyback on the hype of Titanic mania in the 1950s or that she truly did not know her own identity and was chasing a red herring.