Gladys Bilicke was born Gladys Huff in De Witt County, Illinois, in the United States of America, on 10th September 1865. She was the daughter of James and Nancy Jane Huff (née Dine). She grew up in Maroa, Macon County, Illinois, where her father was a carpenter, and when she had completed her education, she became a book keeper.
On the 10th September 1900, she married Albert Clay Bilicke in Niagara Falls, New York State, and the family home was in Los Angeles, California, where her husband was a builder, property developer and wealthy hotelier, being the owner of The Alexandria Hotel, which at the time, was the tallest and largest hotel in the city.
The couple had three children, two sons and a daughter. Albert Constant, born in 1902, Nancy Caroline, born in 1903, and Carl Archibald, born in 1907.
In the spring of 1915, Albert Bilicke made plans to travel to Europe in relation to business matters, and also for a holiday, and having decided to take his wife with him, he booked saloon passage through his Chicago office for them both, on the May sailing of the Lusitania sailing which was scheduled to leave New York at 10.00 a.m. on 1st May. Having left Los Angeles at the end of April, the couple travelled by rail to New York and joined the Cunarder at Pier 54 in New York port in time for her sailing. Once they had boarded, (with ticket number 19841) they were escorted to saloon room B48, which was the personal responsibility of First Class Waiter John Roach who came from Liverpool and was serving as a first class bedroom steward on what was to become the liner’s last ever voyage out of the port, which eventually began at 12.27 p.m.
This delay was caused because she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Lines vessel
Cameronia which the British Admiralty had requisitioned for war service as a troop ship at the end of April. Then, six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May 1915, the liner was torpedoed just off the coast of southern Ireland, by the German submarine
U-20, within sight of The Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland.
According to Adolph and Mary Hoehling in their book The Last Voyage of the Lusitania before the liner went down, Mrs. Bilicke and her husband managed to get into starboard Lifeboat No. 17. However, in their haste to lower the boat into the sea, the crew members let the falls at one end slip through the davit, with the result that that end of the lifeboat fell violently, tipping its occupants into the sea. Both the Bilickes suffered this fate, which was later described by fellow saloon passenger Robert J. Timmis to the Hoehlings who published the account in their book: -
Timmins looked over to see a lifeboat dangling from one of its falls ... it had been lowered too hastily by one end and its occupants were spilled out before it had quite reached the water. Timmins watched with a strange, almost stolid objectivity as though this were something detached from his own existence.
Among those who had been in the boat were A. C. Bilicke, fifty-four-year-old builder and real estate man of Los Angeles, Mrs. Bilicke, and the Reverend David Loynd, British-born Baptist minister from Richmond, Indiana, and his wife, Alice. Timmins continued to stare at the half-smashed boat, the crushed bodies in the water, a few survivors swimming.
Although Albert Bilicke was killed, Gladys survived, and once she had been rescued from the sea, she was landed at Queenstown from where she eventually got to London, where she had to be hospitalised before she was completely fit again! She was aged 49 years at the time of the sinking.
Third class passenger Miss Violet James, who was travelling from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, later described meeting her on the way, in the Manx newspaper The
Mona’s Herald: -
I came along with a party of survivors to London. One of the first-class passengers, an American woman, lost her husband. She hung on to me all the time and she got on my nerves. We went to the Ritz, and she pleaded with me to stay, but feeling as I did, I couldn't, for I wanted sleep. My throat sore - limbs aching. I brought her up, looked after her all along, and considered I had done my duty. However, I hadn't left her long before a special messenger called me back, but my doctor came to my rescue and 'phoned saying I was too ill and must stay in bed for a few days.
He came to see me twice yesterday and again today. I have promised Mrs. Billick
(sic), to return with her to Los Angeles, California, within the next month, so I shall have to pay you a rush visit. We sail under the American flag next, and will make sure of it, too.
Because of confusion over telegrams sent home to Los Angeles by friends of the couple, it was initially thought that Albert Bilicke had also survived the sinking, but this later turned out to be false.
The San Francisco Chronicle for 13th May 1915 reported the tragic misunderstanding: -
The cable message received Saturday reading, “Safe, Bilicke,“ upon which hopes of his safety were based, is said to have been sent by friends at Queenstown on behalf of Mrs. Bilicke, who is now in a state of collapse at a hotel in London.
Waiter Roach, who had looked after the Bilickes in room B48, also survived the sinking and eventually made it back to his Liverpool home.
On the 26th May, she boarded the S.S. Philadelphia at Liverpool and disembarked in New York on the 4th June, however; there is no record of Miss Violet James having accompanied her! A letter she had sent to an unidentified friend in Los Angeles during her stay in England was released to the newspapers and its contents widely syndicated. It was published in the 5th June edition of
The Morning Oregonian: -
… “My husband and I were in our stateroom when the first torpedo struck,” the letter reads. We rushed upon the deck. The boats were being lowered and we took our places in one. There were about 50 persons in the boat, and before it reached the water it shot down suddenly and plunged beneath the water, carrying us all with it.
“Mr. Bilicke never came up. I fought my way to the surface. It seemed hours before I came up near a floating spar or piece of timber. Several men were clinging to it, and one helped me obtain a hold. Hours passed and with them one man after another muttered ‘goodby’ (sic.) and dropped into the water, until not one remained. But I believe I was possessed of superhuman strength, and held on for four hours until I was picked up.”
Albert Bilicke’s will was filed for probate in San Francisco on 18th May 1915. Gladys and a Mr. A. B.C. Dohrmann, a local businessman and family friend, were appointed executors and his three children legatees. His estate was valued at $2,706,000! Apart from $50,000, which was distributed to charities, friends, and his sister, the remainder was divided up between his wife and three children – Gladys receiving one-third, and each of the children receiving two-ninths.
Despite inheriting Albert’s extensive estate, Gladys and her children filed a claim for compensation for his death, which was decided by the Mixed Claims Commission. Gladys was awarded the sum of $50,000.00, while his three children received the sum of $30,000 each.
Gladys’ eldest son, Albert Constant Bilicke enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940, serving during World War II and the Korean Conflict. When he retired in 1962, he had attained the rank of Colonel. He died in Riverside, California, in 1995, aged 92 years.
On 17th July 1923, her only daughter, Nancy, married Henry de Roulet. She died in Los Angeles in 1941, aged 37 years.
The youngest of the Bilicke children, Carl Archibald died in Los Angeles in 1992. He was aged 85 years.
For many years after her return home, Gladys Bilicke ran the Alexandria Hotel, almost single handed, and died in Los Angeles on 3rd March 1943, aged 77 years. She never remarried. She is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, Los Angeles, in a plot beside her daughter.
1870 U.S. Federal Census, 1880 U.S. Federal Census, 1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 226 & 272, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Mona's Herald, Nyle Monday, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, The Morning Oregonian, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly