181203-news-lookingback1

A newspaper illustration showing the RMS Lusitania being hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat on May 7, 1915.

ON APRIL 22, 1915, the German embassy in Washington, D.C., published a notice in 50 American newspapers warning that ships flying the flag of Great Britain or its allies would be subject to destruction when sailing in the “war zone.” The announcement stressed that the “war zone” included the “waters adjacent to the British Isles.”

This alarming advice did not prevent the ocean liner RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Lusitania from setting off on May 1 from New York City on its return voyage to Liverpool, England. This magnificent four-stack steam vessel, pride of the Cunard Line, carried 1,962 people, including 1,266 passengers and 696 crew members.

At 2:12 p.m. on Friday, May 7 as the Lusitania cruised 11 miles off the south coast of Ireland it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The torpedo exploded on the starboard bow, and then another explosion (the cause of which is still unknown) tore through the ship’s interior. The Lusitania listed sharply to starboard, and within 18 minutes its bow hit the ocean floor 300 feet below. The attack resulted in 1,198 deaths from drowning or exposure, and of the 764 people rescued three would later die from their injuries. Among those killed were 128 Americans, including four with New Hampshire connections.

Frederick Stark Pearson, 53, and his wife Mabel, 52, were among those who perished. Frederick was a prosperous financier and a distinguished electrical engineer. The couple lived in New York City and Great Barrington, Mass., and also had a home in London.

Frederick and Mabel were on their way to England to visit their daughter Natalie Nicholson, who was married to a British citizen. They were both natives of Lowell, Mass., but as a boy Frederick had spent time in Manchester, N.H. He had lived with his uncle Clarence M. Edgerly, and had been a student at the Lincoln School. Clarence was a fire insurance agent and an influential person in the city. Frederick was remembered in Manchester for having donated $2,000 to help fund the YMCA’s gymnasium. Mabel’s father. William H. Ward. was a former Manchester resident who had been a teacher at the Spring Street School.

Elizabeth Ann Seccombe, 38, and her brother Percy, 20, were planning to enlist in the Red Cross once the Lusitania reached its native England. Their late father, William Seccombe, had been a British sea captain and master mariner who had worked for the Cunard Line. He had immigrated to New Hampshire in 1895 and had settled with his wife Harriet and his several children on a farm in Peterborough. In 1898 William served in the American Navy as a lieutenant commander in the Spanish-American War. After William died in 1910, Harriet raised her children alone. She was greatly aided by her second child, Elizabeth, who helped support the family by working as a nurse, housekeeper, and secretary.

Another passenger associated with New Hampshire was Thomas McCormack. The 30-year-old Irishman from County Kildare had decided to return to his homeland after living in Nashua for two years. Thomas was walking on the Lusitania’s deck when he heard the explosions and felt the ship begin to keel over. The ship was sinking rapidly in a nearly perpendicular position when Thomas removed his coat and boots and jumped 40 feet into the water. Fortunately, he was an excellent swimmer, having worked as a boatman for a canal company in Ireland. He swam until he found a steamer trunk, and floated on it until it capsized, then continued swimming until he could grab a floating lifebelt. After four hours in the water, Thomas was rescued by a ship named the Indian Empire.

The Lusitania was a civilian vessel, but it also served as an auxiliary warship. The Germans believed it was carrying munitions, which it was — small-arms ammunition and artillery shells. On Sept. 9, 1915, the German government proclaimed that its U-boats would no longer attack passenger liners. The reversal of this position in January 1917 was a major factor leading to the U.S. declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson, a reluctant warrior, had stated to a joint session of Congress four days earlier that “armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable.”

Next week: One New Hampshire man’s tragic fate on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa in September 1918.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.