The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about the tragic sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine, an act which almost propelled the neutral U.S. into World War I.

First launched in 1906, the RMS Lusitania was part of the British Cunard line of luxury passenger ships. For a short time, the Lusitania was the fastest ship in the world, with such amenities as electric lights and the wireless telegraph. On 1 May 1915, with World War I raging in Europe, the Lusitania set sail from New York to Liverpool, England, filled with passengers.

Warning Issued before Lusitania Departed

But – most likely unknown to most of those passengers – the Lusitania was also carrying supplies and ammunition for the British war effort. After 101 roundtrip crossings, this journey may not have seemed too different from the previous ones – except for a warning directed to all those on board. However, this crossing will forever remain different in the annals of history – for the Germans sank the Lusitania on 7 May 1915, nearly drawing the neutral U.S. into WWI.

Illustration: sinking of the Lusitania; engraving by Norman Wilkinson for the 15 May 1915 issue of “The Illustrated London News"

Illustration: sinking of the Lusitania; engraving by Norman Wilkinson for the 15 May 1915 issue of “The Illustrated London News.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

New York newspapers had carried a warning from the German embassy alerting potential Lusitania passengers that sailing through a war zone under the flags of Great Britain or its allies could mean possible destruction of the ship. Civilian passengers on board would be traveling at their own risk. Perhaps those who purchased passage on the Lusitania thought the warning was an idle threat, figuring that civilians could simply not be in danger from military actions.

According to this South Dakota newspaper article about the German warning: “Not a single passenger cancelled his sailings.” While the old newspaper article reports that the U.S. State Department took the warning seriously, it goes on to say that: “The Cunarder [sic] officials laughed at the passengers’ fears.” Referring to the speed of the ship, the officials stated that: “the Lusitania could show her heels to any submarine.”

article about the warning Germany gave before the Lusitania departed from New York, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 1 May 1915

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 1 May 1915, page 1

The Sinking of the Lusitania

Six days after departing from New York, on May 7th off the coast of Ireland, a German submarine U-20 under the command of Walther Schweiger fired a torpedo at the Lusitania.

article about Germany sinking the Lusitania, Lexington Herald newspaper article 8 May 1915

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 8 May 1915, page 1

Unlike the Titanic disaster just three years prior, the Lusitania sank very quickly in only 18 minutes – not enough time for her nearly 2,000 passengers to climb safely into lifeboats. Only 767 of the 1,960 people aboard survived. The torpedoed ship tragedy took the lives of approximately 128 out of 139 Americans on board. Only 37.7% of passengers survived the sinking, leaving a large number of women and children among the dead.* A list and biographies of the passengers and crew aboard the Lusitania can be found on The Lusitania Resource website.

article about Germany sinking the Lusitania, Gulfport Daily Herald newspaper article 8 May 1915

Gulfport Daily Herald (Gulfport, Mississippi), 8 May 1915, page 1

One of those who perished was American genealogist Lothrop Withington, who was returning to England on the Lusitania to continue researching a 17th century registry of wills.

article about Germany sinking the Lusitania, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 May 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 May 1915, page 6

Sinking Almost Draws U.S. into WWI

After pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, Germany promised to only sink passenger ships after proper warning and safeguards for passengers. English, Irish and eventually U.S. propaganda posters evoked the needless drowning of women and children to encourage or guilt men into joining the military.

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Here’s an example of such a recruitment poster, showing a heartbreaking scene of a woman Lusitania passenger drowning with her infant child.

photo of a U.S. WWI enlistment poster spurred by Germany's sinking of the Lusitania

Photo: U.S. WWI enlistment poster spurred by sinking of the Lusitania. Source: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While England was hoping this tragedy would bring the United States into the war, it would be another two years before President Wilson decided to send Americans to fight. Wilson had won a second presidential term running with the slogan “He kept us out of war.” This slogan didn’t resonate with everyone, as this political commentary shows. Among its many grievances, this editorial includes anger over the sinking of the Lusitania.

editorial opposed to President Woodrow Wilson running for a second term, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 15 July 1916

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 15 July 1916, page 4

After events like the sinking of the Lusitania and the intercepted Zimmerman Telegram, which revealed that Germany offered U.S. territory to Mexico in return for assisting Germany in the war effort, the United States finally entered the war on 6 April 1917.

article about the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering WWI, Patriot newspaper article 22 March 1917

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 22 March 1917, page 1

Were any of your ancestors on board the Lusitania when it was sunk by a German submarine? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section

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* Passenger and Crew Statistics. The Lusitania Resource. http://www.rmslusitania.info/people/statistics/. Accessed 5 May 2015.

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Where in Ireland Are Your Irish Ancestors From? Search Newspapers

Newspapers recorded every day of our ancestors’ lives – and that is a good thing for genealogists.

Time and time again old documents, from death certificates to the census, simply state that someone like John Clifford was born “in Ireland” – and never tell us where in Ireland. Often it is newspapers that are critical to our finding the name of the community or the county in Ireland where our Irish immigrant ancestors were born.

For example, this old 1800s obituary for John Clifford tells us where in Ireland he was from.

obituary for John Clifford, New York Herald newspaper article 4 November 1880

New York Herald (New York City, New York), 4 November 1880, page 8

Thanks to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, we know that he was born in Killeshandra, County Cavan, Ireland.

Government and other official passenger lists routinely list that the waves of Irish immigrants were born in “Ireland” without any further details – but it is in newspapers that we can find two other key facts (origin and destination) that were not recorded in the passenger lists genealogists are familiar with.

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I am just amazed every time I read these Irish American passenger lists in online newspapers and see that they tell me where these new arrivals had lived in Ireland, and where they were going to live in America.

How in the world did the editors of New York City’s Irish American newspapers find the time to interview and document the incoming Irish immigrants, and keep doing it for over a century?

Irish immigrants passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 27 May 1882

Irish Nation (New York City, New York), 27 May 1882, page 8

Irish American newspapers were diligent about reporting the great migration of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Newspapers like the Irish Nation and Irish World regularly published lists of Irish passengers that came over on the passenger ships each week.
These published ship passenger lists did not include every Irish immigrant – but for the tens of thousands that were interviewed and documented by the newspapers, these lists give us the critical place of origin and where they were heading after their arrival in America, valuable information that is just not found in any other genealogical source.

One of my colleagues, Duncan Kuehn, closely compared some of the passenger lists published in newspapers to the corresponding federal passenger lists. She found that for the passengers interviewed and listed by the newspapers, their names were often more complete – and often, additional names of accompanying family members were given in the newspaper account that did not appear in the federal lists.

It would be even better if the newspapers had interviewed every single passenger, but we’re grateful for the excellent job they did on the ones that were documented.

Genealogists must use these newspaper passenger lists to learn more about their ancestors’ stories.

Start searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives and begin documenting and recording your family history. If you have Irish ancestry, try searching our special Irish American newspaper archives first.

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Free Guide for Irish Genealogy to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

Got Irish roots? Since March is Irish American Heritage Month and we are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, everyone is feeling a wee bit Irish this time of year. For Irish Americans, however, that sentiment is year-round, as feeling connected to Ireland is part of their family history.

photo of a pasture near Ballyieragh, County Cork, Ireland

Photo: pasture near Ballyieragh, County Cork, Ireland. Credit: Pam Brophy; Wikimedia Commons.

Have you been tracing your Irish genealogy, looking for good research sources for Irish genealogy records? If so, here is a free research guide to help you discover and document your Ireland genealogy.

Simply click the link below to download your PDF.

Free Irish Genealogy Research Guide

Irish Genealogy Brick Wall

The brick wall that most Irish American genealogists hit is: trying to figure out where in Ireland your Irish immigrants came from. There are a lot of free Irish genealogy records available online, but first you need to know where in Ireland to concentrate – and that exact location is often hard to discover. Most U.S. census records, for example, only state that someone was from “Ireland” without specifying exactly where.

This free Irish Genealogy research guide will help you.

Irish American Newspapers

For one thing, it offers links to online Irish American newspapers, which published birth notices, marriage announcements, and obituaries that often give exact Irish locations. These newspapers also published Irish vital statistics years before official civil registration began in Ireland in 1864.

Ireland Civil Registration Records

The guide also provides links to these online collections of Irish vital statistics:

  • Irish Birth & Baptismal Records 1620-1881 (Church & Government)
  • Irish Marriage Records 1619-1898 (Church & Government)
  • Irish Death Records 1864-1870 (Church & Government)
  • Records from the General Record Office in the Republic of Ireland
  • Records from the General Record Office in Northern Ireland

Additional Resources for Irish Genealogy

In addition, the guide has links to these genealogy records:

  • U.S. Federal Census 1790-1940
  • U.S. State Census Records
  • 1901 & 1911 Irish Census Records
  • Tithe Applotment Books from Ireland
  • Griffith’s Valuation and the Ordnance Survey Maps

So download your free copy of the Guide to Research Sources for Irish Genealogy Records today and get a big boost for your Irish family history research! Just click the link below to start your PDF download:

Free Guide for Irish Genealogy Research >>

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An Irish Immigrant’s Obituary Tells Her Coming to America Story

Ellen Canning O’Rourke (1910-2011) was born in Anskert, near Mohill in County Leitrim, Ireland. She died in Hamden, Connecticut, on 16 December 2011 at age 101. As a little girl she lived through the “Irish Troubles” in County Leitrim, and had keen memories of those events – and her coming to America and finding work here. Her recollections were recorded in her obituary.

obituary for Ellen O'Rourke, New Haven Register newspaper article 17 December 2011

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 17 December 2011

She and her family emigrated in 1930 and she went to work as a “domestic live-in.”

“Ellen stated that before her job she had only seen money” – not actually had any of her own.
Think of that.

She “viewed coming to America to work as a gift.”

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As a ten-year-old, “she remembered the names of the dead neighbors and the ballads to their memory” from the Battle of Selton Hill, 11 March 1921. According to Wikipedia, British troops had “surrounded and then attacked the IRA camp on 11 March. Six IRA volunteers were killed. The RIC suffered no losses. The IRA dead were Connolly, Seamus Wrynne, Joseph O’Beirne (or Beirne), John Reilly, Joseph Reilly, and Capt. ME Baxter.”

You owe it to yourself and your family to dig through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find the obituaries and news stories about your family. If you have Irish ancestry, try searching our special Irish American newspaper archives first.

Document them.
Don’t let your family’s stories be lost.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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GenealogyBank Is the Only Source of This Irish Passenger List Information

I am just amazed every time I see these Irish American passenger lists in GenealogyBank’s online newspapers and see that they tell me where these new arrivals had lived in Ireland, and where they were going to live in America. That information is NOT in any other passenger list source. How in the world did the editors of New York City’s Irish American newspapers find the time to interview and document the incoming Irish immigrants, and keep doing it for over a century?

passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 20 May 1882

Irish Nation (New York, New York), 20 May 1882, page 7

Irish American newspapers were diligent about reporting the great migration of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Newspapers like the Irish Nation, Irish Voice, and Irish World regularly published lists of Irish passengers that came over on the passenger ships that week.

Genealogy Tip: What’s special about these Irish passenger lists for genealogists is the information provided: the passenger’s name; county of origin in Ireland; and their destination here in the United States.

Enter Last Name

These published lists did not include every Irish immigrant – but for the tens of thousands that were interviewed and documented by the newspapers, these lists give us the critical place of origin and where they were heading, valuable information that is just not found in any other source. One of my colleagues, Duncan Kuehn, closely compared some of the passenger lists published in newspapers to the corresponding federal passenger lists. She found that for the passengers interviewed and listed by the newspapers, their names were often more complete – and often, additional names of accompanying family members were given in the newspaper account that didn’t appear in the federal lists. It would be even better if the newspapers had interviewed every single passenger, but we’re grateful for the excellent job they did on the ones that were documented. Genealogists must use these lists.

For example, in an issue of the Irish Nation from 1882, we see the following passenger lists.

passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 7 January 1882

Irish Nation (New York, New York), 7 January 1882, page 8

The first three passengers arriving on the steamer England on 29 December 1881 are:

  • Patrick Mitchel, from County Sligo – his destination was New York
  • Peter Judge, also from County Sligo, was heading to Baltimore, Maryland
  • Patrick Rourke, from County Clare, was going to Wisconsin

For genealogists having difficulty finding where in Ireland their Irish roots came from, this information tells them the answer. GenealogyBank is an imperative tool for Irish American research. Missing an Irish relative? Sign up for GenealogyBank today and find them. Start your 30-day trial now!

Click here to search GenealogyBank’s Irish American Newspaper Archives.

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