BLOOMINGTON — One of the pivotal events of World War I was the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, when a single torpedo from a German U-boat claimed the lives of nearly 1,200 passengers and crew.
Among the dead were Hudson native, iconoclast and celebrated author Elbert Hubbard and his wife, Alice. This Thursday will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
Born in Bloomington in 1856, Hubbard grew up in Hudson, where his country doctor father had a practice. Elbert would go on to establish Roycroft Press in East Aurora, N.Y., where fellow artisans produced “Roycrofter” books known for their exquisite hand-set type and handmade paper. It wasn’t long before Roycroft Press developed into an Arts and Crafts-inspired artist colony and Hubbard, as a self-styled free-spirit philosopher, became known as “The Sage of East Aurora.”
Hubbard was heading to Europe as the “general inspector of the universe, with power to investigate everything and report on anything in any way I choose.” Accompanying him was his second wife, Alice Moore, a former East Aurora schoolteacher. The two had a child while Hubbard was still married to his first wife, Bertha Crawford.
The Lusitania docked for the last time at New York City’s Pier 54 on April 24, 1915, having come from her home port of Liverpool, England. Two months earlier, Germany had declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone, a diplomatic and military escalation of the German U-boat campaign to choke the Allies of needed men and materiel. The German Imperial Embassy in Washington, D.C. even placed notices in dozens of U.S. newspapers warning civilians not to sail on the Lusitania.
In a Lusitania stateroom the day of departure, May 1, “Fra Elbertus,” as Hubbard was affectionately called, chatted with reporters. “Speaking from a strictly personal point of view, I would not mind if they did sink the ship,” he said with typical joie de vivre. “It might be a good thing for me. I would drown with her, and that’s about the only way I could succeed in my ambition to get into the ‘Hall of Fame.’ I’d be a regular hero and go right to the bottom.”
After a mostly uneventful voyage, the U-boat attack came on the morning of May 7, well within sight of the Irish coast, the Lusitania but hours away from the shelter of the Liverpool harbor and docks.
Unlike the Titanic tragedy, the Lusitania’s high death toll was not a matter of too few lifeboats. Rather, the fact that the liner began listing heavily immediately after being struck made deployment of most lifeboats next to impossible. Furthermore, it took less than 20 minutes for the liner to slip under the icy waters, cutting short any and all extended rescue attempts.
The Hubbards, according to several eyewitnesses, exhibited an unaffected calm, both seemingly resigned to their fate.
Much of what we know about the Hubbards’ end comes from Ernest C. Cowper, a Canadian journalist who befriended Elbert during the voyage and went by the nickmane, "Jack." A year after the sinking, Cowper wrote a letter to Elbert II, a son from the first marriage, detailing his father and stepmother’s final minutes.
“Neither appeared perturbed in the least,” he wrote. “Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck.” Cowper passed them while carrying a baby to one of the lifeboats. “Well, ‘Jack,’ they have got us,” Hubbard said of the Germans. “They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.” Cowper asked the Hubbards what they were going to do. “There does not seem to be anything to do,” Alice replied.
The Hubbards entered an open room on the top deck, closing the door behind them. “It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water,” Cowper added.
All told, 1,191 passengers and crew lost their lives. The dead, mostly English and Canadian citizens, included 128 Americans, and the subsequent outrage played no small role in Uncle Sam’s entry into the “Great War” less than two years later.
Remarkably, there is another Hudson connection to the sinking of the Lusitania. Hudson native Melville Stone’s son Herbert also killed.
At the time, Melville Stone was one of the most respected and successful newspapermen in the nation, credited with making The Associated Press the global powerhouse it remains today. Stone père actually bumped into Hubbard at Pier 54, for he himself had just returned stateside on the Lusitania after getting a firsthand look at war-torn Europe. He was sticking around to see off his son and daughter-in-law, who were headed in the opposite direction across “The Pond.”
“We chatted a moment,” Stone recalled of Hubbard. “We spoke of the threatening advertisement in the morning paper, cautioning people against taking passage on the ship.”
Fra Elbertus was undeterred. “Well, if they sink her,” Hubbard said. “I will meet the Kaiser in hell.”