Mary ‘May’ Cummings is believed to have been born in Ireland on the 10th March 1860. The identity of her father is not known, but her mother was also named Mary Cummings. Nothing is known of her childhood, but it would appear she emigrated to the United States of America around 1863, and she was one of ten children.
Very little of her life is known except that she gave birth to one child, a daughter named Beatrice Wilhelmina Theodora, who according to various official records, was born in London, England, on the 30th September 1890. Also, her family legend states that at that time, she was married to a James LaTouche, yet no marriage record can be found, nor can a birth record be found in England, or anywhere else, for the birth of Beatrice!
When, and for what duration, May went to England is not known, but by late 1890 or 1891 she was believed to have travelled back to New York City, and sometime after returning, she married a man only known as F. C. Brown. However, by 1900, May was stated to be a widow, residing with her mother and daughter in New York City.
In 1915, her mother died, and she was living at 222, West 72nd Street, in New York City, N.Y., which was the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Beatrice and Alfred Scott Witherbee, and their young son, also named Alfred Scott, who was almost four years old.
In April 1915, her daughter and son-in-law had travelled to London, where they intended to permanently reside. Having found suitable accommodation, Beatrice returned to New York to escort May and her grandson to England.
On the morning of 1st May 1915, she accompanied her daughter and young Alfred to the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour to join the
Lusitania for her sailing to Liverpool. All three were booked as saloon passengers on ticket number 14311 and once on board, they were escorted to room D56, which was the personal responsibility of First Class Bedroom Steward William Barnes who came from Wallasey, on the opposite bank of the River Mersey from Liverpool.
The liner departed from New York for Europe in the early afternoon of 1st of May 1915 after a delayed start, caused because she had to transfer passengers, some of the crew and the cargo from the Anchor Lines ship
Cameronia, which the British Admiralty had requisitioned as a troop ship at the end of April.
Six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, when she was only hours away from her destination and within sight of the coast of southern Ireland. Although Beatrice Witherbee survived the sinking, both Alfred Witherbee and May Brown perished as a result of the action. She was aged 55 years.
Although one report written not long afterwards states that her body was recovered and was put in the charge of Mr. Wesley Frost, the United States Consul at Queenstown, this was not in fact true, as her body was never found and identified. The body of Alfred Witherbee was recovered, however; and was later buried in The Old Church Cemetery in Queenstown.
In The New York Times for 10th May 1915, it was stated: -
Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor, said yesterday that he had lost a friend on the Lusitania, Mrs. M.C. Brown of New York, who had sailed for Liverpool with her daughter, Mrs. A.S. Witherbee and Mrs. Witherbee’s son 5 years old. Mrs. Witherbee had been reported saved, but no word of the fate of her mother or her son has arrived here.
First Class Bedroom Steward Barnes did survive the sinking, however, and eventually made it back to his Wallasey home.
1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1905 New York State Census, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Cunard Records, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1915, New York Times, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, Tragedy of the Lusitania, Graham Maddocks, Stuart Williamson, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.