The mystery of Lizzy Isham's movements during Titanic's maiden voyage has intrigued almost everyone interested in the disaster. Although she died that famous night, almost no one recalled seeing Lizzy. What happened to her? Randy Bryan Bigham explores the possibilities.
A member of a prominent family, 50-year-old Anne Eliza Isham, nicknamed "Lizzy" (sometimes spelled “Lizzie”) probably knew others in first class aboard Titanic, but it seems hardly anyone remembered meeting her. Even observant, meticulous Col. Archibald Gracie, whose cabin was next to hers, never noticed her coming and going from her room.
According to Gracie, Isham “is the only one of whom no survivor, so far as I can learn, is able to give any information whatsoever as to where she was or what she did on that fateful Sunday night."
Historian Don Lynch, in contact with the Isham family some years ago, has found that no correspondence connected with Lizzy's death was preserved by her loved ones, although they apparently were in touch with survivors like Gracie, hoping to learn of her final days.
So where was she on April 14-15 while the lifeboats were going away? Was she in the crowd on deck, a face among many, or did she remain in her room asleep until it was too late?
With such a dearth of information, imaginations have run riot. Did she really board Titanic? Her ticket was used but was it Lizzy who used it? Did she come to some harm early in the voyage, perhaps dying in her cabin, but was never discovered by her steward? Did she choose to remain with a dog when it was refused a space in a lifeboat? Did she actually survive, but chose to pull a disappearing act a la James Cameron’s Rose? It seems no speculation has been too far-fetched.
Who was Lizzy Isham?
Lizzy’s photographs reveal an attractive woman, her countenance and body language suggesting cheerfulness and gentility. She was a dark blonde although, being middle-aged, her hair might have been graying. While seemingly an average woman, Lizzy was one with greater than average means; she was worth almost half a million dollars.
Born in Chicago in 1862 to attorney and politician Edward Swift Isham and his wife, the former Frances (“Fannie”) Burch, Lizzy’s family was originally from Connecticut where they were well-known, being descended from Thomas Hooker, founder of Hartford. As she grew up in New York, Illinois and Vermont, living at 1 Tower Court (often called Tower Place) when in Chicago, Lizzy was surrounded by friends and family who were engaged in public life, including her grandfather Pierpont Isham, a Vermont Supreme Court justice, and her uncle Richard Skinner, governor of Vermont. Lizzy’s father was a graduate of Williams College and Harvard, was admitted to the bar in the 1850s, practiced law in partnership with President Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, and became an Illinois state legislator.
Lizzy’s father was described as “clear cut, logical,” but with a “nervous artistic temperament” and a habit of “speaking as becomes the scholar.”
Unlike her younger brothers and sister, Edward Jr., Pierrepont and Frances (“Gretchen”), Lizzy never married. Edward Jr. was a Yale graduate and employed in the “electrical manufacturing business” while Pierrepont, who had attended West Point, was a lawyer like his father. Edward Jr. lived in the family home in Chicago with his wife for a time but they divorced in 1898.
Lizzy was popular locally, involved in charitable and social groups. With her sister Gretchen, she gave luncheons and dinner parties in the house at Tower Court and attended balls and banquets. Said to be the center of a “scene of many brilliant gatherings” at Tower Court, Lizzy traveled with Gretchen to Europe in 1895, spending six months there. Lizzy was treasurer of The Friday Club by the mid-1890s and was founding vice-president of the Woman’s Aid Society for Passavant Memorial Hospital in 1897, serving as president from 1899 to 1901. The “nine civic-minded women” on the board led by Isham, all described as “active and dedicated,” made “lasting and valuable contributions” to the hospital that would endure for over a hundred years in Chicago.
“From these modest beginnings were to evolve women’s achievements of such prestige and monetary value that the hospital’s reputation for excellent facilities was exceeded only by the prominence of its medical staff,” wrote Vernon Brown in The Story of Passavant Memorial Hospital.
“The Isham family has been associated with our hospital and its predecessor institutions since its founding in 1865,” said Susan Sacharski, archivist for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as the Passavant hospital is now known.
Lizzy blended her social side with an intellectual bent, being interested in history, science and literature, and as director of the International Folklore Association from 1898 to 1901, she welcomed many dignitaries to Chicago. She was on the membership committee for the Archaeological Institute of America during the same time.
In these pursuits, Lizzy followed in her mother’s footsteps. As Fannie Isham was once described:
She was a person of uncommon judgment and good taste, of great strength of character, of marked administrative ability, and of a singular poise and evenness of disposition. She was profoundly religious and actively benevolent in nature.
The family was close-knit, and when Fannie died in 1894 after a fall in which she suffered a head injury, Lizzy and her father and siblings were devastated.
To conquer her sadness, Lizzy threw herself into social activity which brought her into regular touch with many other leaders of Chicago society, including the wife of Potter Palmer, the redoubtable Bertha Palmer, whom Lizzy joined on committees for various charities. Lizzy had already assisted Bertha with a large fundraiser held in the Palmers’ Lake Shore Drive home in 1892. The association would continue socially as well as commercially as Lizzy’s brother Edward eventually briefly joined the management of Marshall Field & Co. which Potter Palmer had cofounded.
Among her other undertakings at this time, Lizzy was a patroness for the opening reception of the new Y.M.C.A. building in 1894, being one of only two unmarried women on the committee.
These positions indicate she was of an independent spirit, a good communicator and organizer, as ladylike and gracious as necessary but undoubtedly ambitious.
If Lizzy was outspoken, she was traditionally feminine in other ways. For instance, she was an active member of the Second Presbyterian Church, events for which she sometimes managed the decorations. She also enjoyed dressing beautifully, her gown for Easter Sunday 1896 being mentioned in the press as one of the most stylish frocks seen in the congregation that day – it was described as “black embroidered with violets” with a matching toque trimmed in violets and lace. In the Victorian tradition of afternoon visits, she and her sister Gretchen were listed in the 1898 edition of the Chicago Blue Book as receiving callers on Mondays at their Tower Court home.
Lizzy’s role as president of the Passavant Memorial Hospital’s Woman’s Aid Society continued to be successful into the new century. According to Sacharski:
During her tenure as president, the society took an increasingly active part in meeting the hospital’s needs; the main success of her term was arranging for Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer to give the use of their mansion for a theatrical benefit on February 23, 1900 that raised nearly $2500 despite a blizzard. Chicago citizens turned out in such numbers for the social event that special police officers were stationed to keep order among the carriages. In 1902, after her tenure as president, the Woman’s Aid Society changed her status to that of honorary member.
Along with Gretchen, Lizzy inherited a farm in Connecticut after her father died in 1902, by which time she was living in New York, although she regularly spent summers in Manchester, Vermont where she kept a cottage. The family home at Manchester, Ormsby Hill, may have passed into the possession of Lizzy’s brother Edward. In 1903, when Lizzy was 41, she moved to Paris, later joined there by her sister after Gretchen married Henry (“Harry”) Shelton, in 1907.
She maintained her involvement with the Archaeological Institute and donated funds and books to the American School of Classical Studies in Rome as late as 1909-10.
Little is known of Lizzy’s life in France, although one thing stands out and suggests an adventuresome personality — she loved to go out sightseeing by car. It’s not known if she actually drove a car; younger women were taking to the sport, but women of Lizzie’s age and status generally didn’t. But even if she hired a driver, she almost certainly owned her own car. In 1906, she, her sister and her sister’s fiancé “spent several months touring Europe in an automobile.” Three years later, Lizzy ran into friends from Vermont, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Orvis, and with them “enjoyed an automobile ride to Chantilly.”
Lizzy aboard Titanic
By April 1912, Lizzy was homesick for New York and planned a vacation there to spend the spring and summer with her brother Edward. She was expecting to travel alone, but when friends, another married couple who was visiting Paris, heard of her pending trip, they offered to accompany her. Mr. and Mrs. John Canfield of Arlington, Vermont, had been spending the winter in Europe and were looking forward to the voyage home during which they hoped to catch up with Isham on family news.
“They were intending to return to America on the Titanic,” a Vermont paper claimed, “but when they wrote for accommodations they were informed the bookings for the trip had already been filled.” Whether the Canfields were really told the ship was full isn’t known. Of course, in reality there was room in all classes aboard Titanic.
At any rate, the couple didn’t join Lizzy who was unescorted when she boarded Titanic at Cherbourg on the evening of April 10 – and she was without a dog, despite the many unsourced stories that now proliferate.
Her stateroom was C-49, a small inboard room located on the forward starboard side. The heiress’ cabin attendant was most likely Steward Charles James Cullen, but he may have been Steward William Stephen Faulkner.
Apart from Gracie, who was in C-51, passengers in nearby cabins included Pierre Maréchal, Gilbert Tucker, Caroline Endres, Lucian and Eloise Smith and the Mark Fortune family.
Yet none of these passengers reported meeting Lizzy. Her family knew the Ryersons (Lizzy’s father and Arthur Ryerson’s father had been connected in business), but neither Emily Ryerson nor her children recalled her.
But a few others did recall Lizzy. Kornelia Andrews, 63, her sister Anna Hogeboom, 51, and their niece Gretchen Longley, 21, were acquainted with her and later searched in vain for her aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.
Another survivor, Antoinette (“Tony”) Flegenheim, remembered a lady whose description fits Lizzy Isham. Although Flegenheim didn’t catch the woman’s name, she was almost certainly describing Lizzy:
The lady who sat at the next table to mine in the [dining] saloon complained she could never obtain room service because the electric button that had been placed to that effect on the panel near her bed didn’t function properly. I’m sorry to say the lady never made it to a lifeboat and drowned in the sinking, for we all looked for her in vain on the Carpathia. She was a charming lady in her forties and apparently she traveled alone.
When Titanic struck the iceberg a few nights later, Lizzy was probably asleep in C-49. Even so, there is no account that bears out where she was or what she was doing.
Next door, Gracie described the impact with the berg. “I was enjoying a good night’s rest when I was aroused by a sudden shock and noise forward on the starboard side,” he said. “Correct ship’s time would make it about 11:45. I opened the door of my cabin, looked out into the corridor, but could not see or hear anyone – there was no commotion.”
The same sounds and sensation of the impact with the ice almost surely awakened Lizzy.
According to Gracie in his book, The Truth About the Titanic, Lizzy’s relatives contacted him after discovering through the White Star Line that they were berthed near one another. The family was hoping for closure by learning something about Lizzy's last days and thought Gracie may have met her since his stateroom was beside hers. Gracie said he was sorry to have to reply to them that he had never met his neighbor. He assured them, however, that he felt positive she had not been locked in her cabin as they feared. The Ishams sent a picture of Lizzy to Gracie but he insisted he never saw the lady at any time.
The Ishams’ anxiety is understandable, though the likelihood is remote that Lizzy was trapped below. Still, there were actually instances of jammed cabin doors (due to the collision) that barred a quick exit by at least one man. There was also an account of a passenger’s door being locked by a steward from the outside.
As historian Mike Poirier has discovered, John B. Crafton, a passenger berthed on D Deck, and another man on the same deck (believed either to have been Frederick Sutton or William Walker) experienced jammed doors in their rooms.
In addition, as stewards were locking vacated cabins to prevent looting in occupants’ absence, not all of them checked the rooms to make sure someone wasn’t still present. That’s what happened in the case of Victorine Chaudanson, maid to Emily Ryerson. Chaudanson returned to her employer’s cabin to retrieve some valuables and while there she heard a key turn. The young woman screamed to alert the steward that she was in the room then rushed out into the corridor without bothering about the items for which she’d been looking.
While it’s doubtful Lizzy was trapped in her stateroom either by a jammed door or a locked one, might she have elected to stay behind?
There is a possibility that she didn’t immediately go up on the boat deck and therefore arrived too late to board a lifeboat.
On the rescue ship Carpathia, an aspiring young journalist named May Birkhead conducted a series of interviews with Titanic survivors, from well-known people like the Duff Gordons to an unidentified first class steward.
In her story, featured in the New York Herald of April 19, 1912, Birkhead wrote:
A steward told me when he went to one of the first cabin passengers – a woman – and told her to dress and put on a life preserver, she merely laughed. ‘If that little bump is all that has happened, I’ll stay right here,’ she said. ‘Madam,’ replied the steward, ‘my orders are from the captain to tell you to dress and put on a life preserver.’ ‘My orders to myself are to get back into bed and go to sleep again,’ said the woman. And she did. She paid for that with her life.
Birkhead didn’t quote the steward as claiming the woman died, but the writer’s words indicate she was informed by him that the passenger did not survive. While there’s no proof of the identity of the steward or the passenger, it would appear the lady in question was traveling alone. That would eliminate Ida Straus and Bess Allison, the only two married ladies in first class who lost their lives in the sinking. It would also appear to exclude the other single female fatality in first class, Edith Evans, who is thought to have joined her traveling companions early in the emergency. That leaves Lizzy Isham. Could the steward have been either Cullen or Faulkner who were known to have attended staterooms in Lizzy’s section of C Deck?
“The account, second hand from Miss Birkhead, is so inexplicit that it may not have even been a steward assigned to the woman's room,” said Don Lynch.
Indeed, the man who spoke with Birkhead may have been any of the surviving first class stewards. Whoever he was, his claim is a slim clue, but it’s one of the few there are.
The story of a woman who declined to go on deck is at least supported by another survivor’s claim. First class passenger Helen Bishop told a reporter shortly after her rescue the story of a woman in a cabin near hers who refused to get out of bed. The stewards finally convinced her to get up but “she got back in and sank with the ship."
How did Lizzy die?
One story that has gained currency is almost certainly false. There is no evidence that Lizzy remained behind with a dog, allegedly a Great Dane, because the pet was denied entry into a lifeboat. Isham had no dog with her although there was possibly a Great Dane among the pets known to have been aboard. Dr. Alice Leader, who escaped in lifeboat 8, the first to reach the sea on the port side, recalled seeing a “young woman” refuse to leave a large canine breed that might have been a Great Dane. This story was printed internationally, but the lady with the dog was never identified. Moreover, the description of the woman as young would exclude Lizzy.
The only other trace of Isham’s possible actions that night came in a news story in which information was shared by her sister, Gretchen Shelton. The account she related to a reporter was based on an unidentified eyewitness’ recollections, someone with whom she was in touch shortly after the sinking. Connecticut’s The Bridgeport Times of June 13, 1912 wrote:
At the time of the Titanic disaster, Mr. and Mrs. Shelton were in Paris where they spend most of their time. Effort was made to learn if Miss Isham was saved. Finally, it was ascertained that Miss Isham was last seen getting into one of the lifeboats. When that boat struck the water, it was overturned and all in it were lost. Mrs. Shelton received the news with great sorrow and was so overcome that she fainted and has not been well since.
Despite unclear details, the story indicates the chaotic launching of either Collapsible A or B in Titanic’s last minutes afloat, most likely Boat A. Was Lizzy seen on deck waiting to board one of these boats by a survivor? If she was at Boat B, she would never have gotten into it, but would have been washed overboard with the crowd and the capsized raft as the deck submerged. If she climbed into A, she would have later fallen out when it tipped and was swamped.
Researcher Richard Edwards points out that, in addition to two first class stewards, Edward Brown and Thomas Whiteley, there were five first class passengers near Boat A, one of whom could have spotted Lizzy at this time. Algernon Barkworth, Peter Daly, George Rheims, Jack Thayer and Richard Norris Williams were among those in the general vicinity when the sea reached the boat deck and engulfed Boat A. Lizzy’s shipboard neighbor Gracie, who didn’t know her, was also present.
“It is known that Collapsible A was flooded by the wave that surged up the forward starboard boat deck, and the people who had been inside it, waiting for it to be launched, were all washed out onto the deck and into the water,” said Edwards. “As steward Brown and third class passenger Eugene Daly cut the falls at the aft end of the boat, Mess Steward Cecil Fitzpatrick, second class passenger William Mellors and third class passenger August Wennerstrom cut the falls at the bow. Brown saw that four or five women who had been waiting to get into the boat were all struggling for their lives in the water.”
The sea was claiming Titanic at accelerated speed. Was Lizzy on deck near A in these terrifying moments or possibly one of those already in the boat, as a survivor told her family?
“As the men attempted to cut the lifeboat falls, an ‘explosion’ thundered through the ship and Collapsible A was inundated once again and washed off Titanic,” Edwards continued. “Eugene Daly found himself among a mass of people in the water; everything he touched seemed to be women’s hair or hands and faces, and the appalling sound of women screaming and children crying filled the air. In the confusion, Whiteley had become ensnared in a rope and, as he tried to free himself, he saw Collapsible A ‘turn end up’ and ‘overturn,’ dumping its occupants into the water. This was likely the moment the unnamed eyewitness claimed he saw Lizzy Isham.”
Who was the survivor who spoke to the Isham family? It’s tantalizing, but there’s no way to know from whom Gretchen learned of her sister Lizzy’s final moments.
It does seem that the family accepted this sad and, perhaps, true story of the loss of the only female first class passenger of whom almost nothing distinct has ever been established about her time aboard Titanic.
Related BiographiesAnn Elizabeth Isham
My thanks to Bruno Piola, Brandon Whited, Richard Edwards, Gregg Jasper, Mike Poirier, Don Lynch, Daniel Klistorner, Phil Hind, Matt DeWinkeleer, Carole Lindsay, Ben Holme, Gerhard Schmidt-Grillmeier, Craig Stringer and David Hudson. A very special thanks to Megan McKinney and Laurie Toth of Classic Chicago Magazine, to Susan Sacharski, archivist for Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Titanic Honor & Glory for the digital image of Titanic in its final moments. And finally, much gratitude is due to Charlie Haas and Titanic International Society in whose journal, Voyage (Winter 2021, Vol. 114), this article was first published.