James Ham 'Jay' Brooks was born in Lewiston, Maine, in the United States of America in 4th January 1875, the son of James Ham, always known as “Ham”, and Maria Brooks (née Bickford). His father was an auctioneer and real estate dealer who had previously been married to a woman, named Margaret Ames, and had fathered eleven children during this marriage. Following the death of his wife in 1872, Ham Brooks entered a relationship with Maria Bickford, who was 37 years his junior and the couple married in 1873. Jay was the only child from this marriage. His father died in 1898, aged 89 years, leaving his mother to rear him alone. While still at school, Jay supplemented the family income by working at the local newspaper, the Lewiston Sun, and finished his education at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
Following the completion of his education, Jay returned to Lewiston and was employed as a druggist in the Oxnard Drug Store. Then, on the 23rd February 1902, he married Ella Mae Bonney, a teacher, in Lewiston. On the 31st July 1903, Ella gave birth to their only child, a girl named Methyl Bonney Brooks, and then, on the 25th September 1903, Ella Mae died. Her cause of death given as “valvular disease of the heart”. The family home at this time was 172. Turner Street, Auburn, which is a town separated from Lewiston by the Androscoggin River.
Being one of the first owners of an automobile in Lewiston, Jay began selling automobiles around 1906. He then moved to the neighbouring town of South Paris, again working in a drug store, but also dealing in automobiles, when he met a teacher named Ruth Isabella Stearns. The couple married on the 1st February 1908, and shortly afterwards, they moved to 22. Marion Street, Norwalk, Connecticut. Residing with them were Jay’s widowed mother, and his daughter Methyl.
Very quickly, their family began to grow with their four sons – Stearns, Gordon, Brian, and Porter, being born between 1909 and 1914
Jay Brooks was operating an automobile garage, with some success in Norwalk, when in 1912, he sold an automobile to Walter B. Lasher, the owner of the Weed Chain Tire Grip Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Mr. Lasher, obviously impressed by Jay’s skills as a salesman, persuaded him to come and work for him.
By 1915, Jay and his wife were living at 502, Colorado Avenue, Bridgeport, Connecticut with their family. He worked as a salesman for the Weed Chain Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in the spring of 1915, decided to travel to Europe on business.
In the Spring of 1915, the Weed Chain Tire Grip Co. decided to send Jay to Europe to conduct business on their behalf in England, France, and Russia, and consequently, a saloon class ticket, (number 3080), was purchased for him through the firm of S. Loewith & Company of Bridgeport, on the May sailing of the Lusitania, from New York to Liverpool. He boarded the vessel at New York, on the morning of 1st May 1915, in time for her scheduled 10am departure and was escorted to his accommodation in room E48, which was under the personal supervision of First Class Bedroom Steward John Charlton who came from Waterloo, near Liverpool.
The liner’s sailing was delayed until the afternoon as she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia, which had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty as a troop ship at the end of April and she finally left the port just after mid-day. Just six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, twelve miles off the coast of southern Ireland and only 250 miles away from her destination.
Jay Brooks survived the sinking and later gave his own account of it to a representative of the Press Association. This account was later syndicated around the world's newspapers and stated: -
I think no one in America ever dreamt that the Germans would dare to carry out their terrible threat to destroy such a magnificent vessel and with her hundreds of lives of innocent women and children. My wife, who was alarmed for my safety, attempted to dissuade me from making the journey, but I was able to reassure her a little before I started.
A good many passengers were at lunch on Friday afternoon when the attack was made. I had just finished a run on deck when I glanced over the water which was perfectly smooth. My eyes alighted on a white streak which was making its way with lightning-like rapidity towards the ship. I was so high that I could make out the outline of the torpedo. It appeared to be about twelve foot long and came along possibly three feet below the surface, its side white with bubbles or foam. I watched its progress fascinated until it passed out of sight behind the bridge, and in another moment came the explosion.
The ship recoiling under the force of the blow was jarred and lifted as if it had struck an immovable object. A column of water shot up to the bridge deck, carrying with it a lot of debris and despite the fact that I must have been twenty yards from the spot at which the torpedo struck, I was knocked off my feet. Before I could recover myself the entire fore part of the ship was enveloped in a blinding cloud of steam, due not, I think to the explosion of a second torpedo, as some thought, but to the fact that two forehold boilers had been jammed close together and jack knifed upwards. This I was told by a stoker afterwards.
We had been in sight of land some time, and the head of the ship, which had already begun to settle, was turned towards the Old Head of Kinsale. We must have been from twelve to fifteen miles from land at the time the ship was struck. All the boats on the ship had been swung out the day previous, and the work of launching them was at once commenced. The attempt in the case of the first boat was a tragic failure. The women and children were taken first and the boat was practically filled with them, there being only a few men. The boat was lowered until within its own length of the water, when the forward tackle jammed, and the whole of its occupants - with the exception of three - the Lusitania was then on an even keel, were thrown into the water.
This was almost certainly Lifeboat No. 17
On the decks of the doomed vessel, absolute calmness prevailed. There was no rushing about, and nothing remotely resembling panic. In just a few isolated cases, there were signs of hysteria on the part of the women, but that was all.
Captain Anderson, who was lost, and whose body has been recovered, appeared on the boat deck and informed the saloon passengers that there was no immediate danger. Everybody had, of course, rushed on deck, and this statement reassured the ladies. I did not notice any concerted effort to distribute the lifebelts, and I was myself unable to obtain one. Meanwhile, the ship had taken a decided list and was sinking rapidly by the head. The efforts made to lower the boats had apparently not met with much success; those on the port side had swung inboard and could not be used, while the collapsible boats which were lashed between them could not be got at.
The ladies were standing quite calmly awaiting the opportunity to enter the boats when they could be released by the men from the davits. The davits by this time were themselves touching the water, the ship having sunk so low that the bridge deck was only four feet or so from the surface of the sea. Losing no time, the men passed the women rapidly into the boats and places had been found by now for all the people about the midships section.
I stepped into one of the lifeboats and attempted to assist in getting it clear. I saw the list was so great that the davits pinched the gear, rendering it improbable that they could be got away when the ship went down, so I stepped onto the gunwhale and dived into the water. I had no lifebelt and am not a good swimmer, but I decided to take the risk. I had been wetted through when the explosion occurred, and I believe that had I gone in dry, I should have swallowed so much water that I should not have lasted so long. I swam as hard as I could away from the vessel and noticed with feelings of apprehension the menacing bulk of the large funnels as they loomed out over my head. I expected them momentarily to fall on me and crush me as I swam, but at last I judged myself to be clear and turned round and trod water in order to be watch the great hull heel over.
The monster took a sudden plunge and noting the crowd still on her decks and the heavily-laden boats filled with helpless women and children yet glued to her side, I sickened with horror at the sight. The liner's stern rose high out of the water. There was a thunderous roar as of the collapse of a great building during a fire, and then she disappeared, dragging hundreds of fellow creatures into the vortex. Many never rose again to the surface, but the sea rapidly grew black with the figures of men, women and children.
The wireless installation came over with a crash into the sea. It struck my uplifted arm as it fell, and I felt it pass over my body as it sank, almost dragging me under. The rush of water over the steamer's decks swept away a collapsible boat, and I swam towards it. Another man reached it shortly after, and after we were rescued, I found him to be Mr. James Lauriat Junior, of Boston.
Lauriat’s forename was, in fact, Charles, the account continued: -
Two seamen also managed to swim to the boat and to climb on it. One had a knife and the other asked me for mine, and together they set about cutting away the canvas cover of the boat. When they had finished, I climbed inside and the three of them followed me. We started to rescue unfortunate people in the water, or at least those of them who were still living. We quickly had about thirty of them in the little craft.
One of those they fished out of the sea was second cabin passenger Mrs. Margaret Gwyer, blackened from head to foot, as she had been sucked down one of the ship's funnels and then blown out again as the boilers imploded! The account continued: -
The horrors of the scene that met the gaze of the half-drowned survivors in the flimsy boat will live forever in their recollections. Around us in the water were scores of bodies. There were women and little children dead. My God! What a crime! There were no oars in the boat, but we collected five oars from the mass of floating timber in the water. Then we started to row towards the lighthouse which we could see in the distance.
At the time the liner was torpedoed there was absolutely no ship of any kind in sight with the exception of the Peel 12 of Glasgow. She was close in shore under the lighthouse and owing to the lightness of the wind she was of no use as far as the rescue of persons actually in the water was concerned. She came along as fast as she could, however, and was able to pick up about 110 from the lifeboats and the life rafts. Her limited capacity was pushed to the utmost. I even had to sit with my leg hanging over the side, because there was no room to put it in the inside. We took in tow a lifeboat and a raft which were also filled to the gunwhale, and when the occupants were able to be taken out, they were cast off.
The auxiliary boat Indian Prince had arrived at that time from Queenstown. The Peel 12 was the first boat on the scene, and she was followed by a tramp Greek steamer, which came up from the west and was able to pick up several lifeboats which had got away.
Although Jay Brooks mentions The auxiliary boat Indian Prince, there was no such vessel at Queenstown at that time and he was probably referring to the Royal Naval trawler H.M.S.
Indian Empire. It is also more likely, however, that he was taken from the overcrowded
Peel 12 by the Queenstown harbour tender The Flying Fish, or the Royal Naval tug H.M.S.
Stormcock, both of which are known to have taken survivors from the
Peel 12. Moreover, Margaret Gwyer is known to have been landed at Queenstown by
The Flying Fish having been taken off The Peel 12 and she too, was initially rescued by Jay Brooks’ collapsible boat. The tramp Greek steamer
mentioned was the Katerina, outward bound from Havana, Cuba, with a cargo of sugar.
Mr. Brooks was asked by the Press Association representative, if he had seen anything of American millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt after the liner was struck, and the newspaper account continued with his reply to the question: -
Mr Brooks said that he did not see Mr. Vanderbilt from first to last. He had sat at a table quite close to Mr. Vanderbilt in the saloon. He had made enquiries at Queenstown and feared there was no alternative but to include Mr. Vanderbilt amongst the dead. Mr. Brooks added that to him and Mr. Jeffrey (sic) had fallen the melancholy task of identifying the body of Mr. Charles Frohman. It was recovered from the sea and viewed by them at a morgue at Queenstown. From the appearance of the remains, Mr. Brooks had formed the opinion that the famous impresario had been struck by débris, either in the water or on board the ship, and that he had been either killed instantaneously or stunned and drowned.
The Mr. Jeffrey who helped Jay Brooks with the gruesome task of identifying Charles Frohman was fellow saloon passenger Charles T. Jeffery from Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.A.. He shared a room with Mr. Brooks at the Queen's Hotel, in Queenstown, after they had both been rescued from the sea, where, despite being a teetotaller, together with Jeffery he downed a whole bottle of Irish whisky!
The Press Association account continued: -
Among friends he has lost in the disaster, Mr. Brooks mentioned Mr. Montague T. Grant, (a representative of the American Can Company), who was on a trip with his wife to visit friends or relatives at Eastbourne. He last saw them on the Marconi decks when the torpedo struck, and as they had not arrived at Queenstown at the time he left, he fears both drowned. A young Bostonian honeymoon couple with whom Mr. Brooks was acquainted are also feared amongst the drowned.
Montague Tassel Grant and his wife, Chastina, from Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., like Jay Brooks were both travelling saloon class, and as Brooks feared, both were drowned, although their bodies were later recovered and identified. The
young Bostonian honeymoon couple were saloon passengers Stewart Southam Mason and his new bride Leslie, both of whom also perished. The account continued: -
Mr Brooks was able to offer to the Press Association representative an account of an incident upon which light required to be shed. A coastguard on shore had reported that he had heard gunfire and someone had jumped to the conclusion and the rumour had been circulated, that the German submarine had fired on the lifeboat. Mr. Brooks said: -
Such a thing never occurred. The only gun fired was that directed by the British auxiliary craft at a lifeboat, the occupants of which had been taken out. The shot blew the craft to pieces, and I saw the splinters shoot up into the air.
Mr, Brooks expressed scepticism as to the statements said to have been made by passengers that the submarine herself was seen from the liner. The distance at which the torpedo was said to have been launched had also been exaggerated in his opinion. He believes the submarine could not have been much more than 300 yards away. He considered the torpedo travelled at thirty five miles an hour, and was of the opinion that there was only one fired.
Bedroom Steward John Charlton, who had looked after Jay Brooks in room E48, also survived the sinking and eventually made it back to his Waterloo home.
Having made his way to London from Queenstown, he was admitted to hospital suffering from blood poisoning to an arm and hand injured during his ordeal. He wrote a letter to the Cunard Steamship Company on the 20th August 1915 claiming $982.50 for the loss of his possessions as a result of the sinking. He was staying at the Hotel Cecil in London at this time.
Jay Brooks remained in Europe until he returned to New York City on the 20th September 1915 on board the
S.S. Rotterdam, and from there he returned to his home in Bridgeport, where, no doubt, he was greeted by his relieved family.
On his return to the United States, Jay Brooks filed a claim for compensation with the Mixed Claims Commission for the injuries he had suffered, and also for exposure and shock, from which he stated he had never fully recovered from. He was awarded the sum of $5,000.00 by the Commission.
He continued to work for the Weed Chain Tire Grip Co. until 1921, when he became the division manager for the Bridgeport Brass Co. until 1925. This was followed by employment as the district sales manager for Pierce-Arrow for four years, then three years with the Lock Steel Chain Co. of Bridgeport, then the Yankee Network, and he then worked for the War Production Board from 1942 until the end of World War II.
He retired with his wife to South Paris, Maine, in 1946, and after a full and eventful life, died aged 81 years, on 30th April 1956. He was buried in Garcelon Cemetery, Lewiston, with his parents.
Maine Birth Records 1715 – 1922, 1880 U.S. Federal Census, 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Maine Marriage Records 1713 – 1937, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 416, 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, IWM GB62, Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Lewiston Daily Sun, New York Times, Yorkshire Observer, UniLiv D92/2/133, Graham Maddocks, Gary Bonney, Stone Finders Find A Grave, Geoff Whitfield, Stuart Williamson, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.