Agnes Crosbie was born in Kirkcudbright, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, on the 16th February 1891, the daughter of James and Mary Crosbie (née Hunter). Census records suggest that Agnes was reared by her grandmothers, one of whom was a grocer in Kirkcudbright.
On the 28th December 1909, Agnes arrived in New York City on board the Laurentic, having left Liverpool with the Ketcheon family, who were also from Scotland. Agnes Crosbie had been employed by the family as a domestic servant, and when they immigrated to the United States of America, they had decided to bring Agnes with them. The family took up residence in West Deerfield, Lake County, Illinois.
Sometime later, she went to Wilmette, Illinois, to work as a domestic servant in the home of Ainslie J. Bell and family, and in the spring of 1915, she decided to return home, perhaps for a holiday. As a result, in April 1915, she booked as a third class passenger on the Lusitania and joined the liner before she sailed from New York for the last time, at her berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour, on 1st May 1915.
She had made friends with another Scot from the same area, Miss Sarah McLellan, who had also been staying in Illinois, but who was travelling as a second cabin passenger on the
Lusitania. Both of them survived the sinking by the German submarine
U-20, on the afternoon of 7th May and after being rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, both arrived safely back in Dumfries on Sunday 9th May.
When the liner was sunk, Miss Crosbie managed to get into a lifeboat and was eventually landed at Queenstown where she was put up in a hotel for the night. The next day, whilst walking in the town, she came across her friend Sarah McLellan, who had also managed to survive. Both of them had to be supplied with clothing for their journey home, however; as they had both lost all their belongings in the sinking.
They eventually arrived at Dumfries, in southern Scotland at seven o’clock on the morning of Sunday 9th May, but unable to get a train home that day, they both stayed with Sergeant McAdam of the Stewartry Constabulary, at nearby Maxwelltown. The sergeant was a cousin of Sarah McLellan. From there they both made it back to Kirkcudbright, the following day.
On the Sunday night, Agnes Crosbie gave an interview to a reporter from local newspaper
The Dumfries and Galloway Standard, which was published on 12th May 1915. It stated: -
Miss Crosbie said that none of the passengers on the Lusitania were (sic) in the least concerned about the danger of a submarine attack and almost all seemed convinced that even if submarines were met during the voyage, the vessel on account of her great speed would get through all right. The weather was beautifully fine on the afternoon of the disaster, and all on board were looking forward to their landing that evening.
After lunch, a number of the third class passengers were preparing to have a dance, and shortly before the torpedoing of the ship, she had gone down into her cabin and put on her dancing slippers. She was wearing these when she left the doomed vessel in one of the lifeboats.
Two torpedoes struck the ship, one fore and one aft, and they followed so close on one another, that the explosions resulting from them were almost simultaneous.
Like many other passengers, Agnes Crosbie thought that the two explosions which were heard quite close together must have come from two torpedoes, but Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, the commander of the
U-20, was quite adamant that he only fired one!
“When the explosion was heard,” continued Miss. Crosbie, “all the passengers at once realised that the ship had been torpedoed and soon a heavy list to starboard was evident. There was very little panic amongst those on board.
I was standing on the opposite side of the vessel from where the explosion occurred, and on hearing the cry being raised to take to the lifeboats, I ran across the deck, where the crew were busy at work putting passengers into the boats.
A regrettable accident happened to one of the boatloads which was being lowered full of men, women and children. Some of the ropes became entangled, and the result was that the craft was capsized and its occupants thrown into the sea.”
This was probably lifeboat No. 17. The account continued: -
“Two days before the disaster there was a practice amongst the crew with the lifeboats, and when the ship was torpedoed the boats were still hanging partly in readiness for being launched, with the covers off and the oars in their places. This fortunate circumstance resulted in a great saving of time in getting the survivors off.
There was a considerable distance between the liner and the lifeboat into which I jumped, and I had to receive assistance in order to board it. There were 80 men, women and children in the lifeboat, and we were among the last to leave the ship. The water had reached the third deck when we got away.
The lifeboat, however, was successfully launched. For some considerable time after, it was in great danger of being drawn into the vortex caused by the sinking vessel. So near was it to the Lusitania when the liner was taking its final plunge that many of the occupants ducked their heads, thinking that the funnels were coming over the top of them. When the ship went under, there were dense columns of steam and smoke, and it was some time before we got our bearings to enable us to row away.
One woman and two men were picked up from the sea by those on board the lifeboat soon after leaving the ship, thus adding to the heavy load of the boat. Later a sailor was rescued from the sea and he had suffered so much from the cold that he begged to be allowed an opportunity of helping with the oars in order to restore warmth.
Three men, one of whom was an interpreter in the Lusitania were discovered clinging to wreckage. They made a piteous appeal for help, but the lifeboat was already so overladen
(sic) that assistance had to be refused. The seaman in charge of the lifeboat shouted ‘Cheer up,’ and told them that there were some lifeboats coming up behind which would be able to rescue them. In Queenstown, after my arrival, I was delighted to meet the interpreter on the street and to learn that the men had been ultimately picked up by a lifeboat. Some time afterwards, a lifeboat was seen with only one sailor in it, and a number of the survivors in our lifeboat were transferred to the other.”
The ship’s interpreter was 62 year old Norwegian Adolph Pederson who lived in Liverpool.
“When the disaster occurred, the crew of the Lusitania did splendid work in cutting away and putting into the sea a number of the lifeboats which were not going to be made use of by those on deck. Large numbers of the passengers on the alarm being given had jumped into the sea and many of these were rescued in the lifeboats which were thus found floating in the vicinity of the sinking liner. The crew also threw into the sea deck chairs and all sorts of floating material and many owed their lives to having clung to these until picked up.
When the majority of the occupants of our lifeboat were in a state of dejection on account of the sufferings they had undergone, one of the stewards tried to enliven matters by crying cheerily, ‘Let's have a song, we are saved.’ The company then joined in singing It's a long way to Tipperary.
After two hours in the open sea, the lifeboat was taken in tow, along with several other boats, by a fishing smack belonging to Peel, Isle of Man.”
This was the Wanderer, which just happened to be fishing in the area when the liner foundered and was able to rescue many survivors. It is probable also, that the lifeboat which helped to save Miss Crosbie, was No. 15, commanded by First Officer A.R. Jones. The account ended: -
Some time later, we were taken on board the steamer “Flying Fish” of Glasgow. On this vessel, everything was done that could be, towards the comfort of the survivors. On entering Queenstown harbour, the met a torpedo destroyer
(sic) going out to sea. The Captain of the steamer hailed the commander of the other vessel to learn from him that already 400 of the passengers of the Lusitania had been safely landed.
This piece of information was greeted with ringing cheers by the survivors. I did not reach Queenstown until 10 o’clock at night, and I was thus almost eight hours on the water. We were met by officials of the Cunard Company and taken to hotels for the night”.
Miss Crosbie says that some heart rending scenes were witnessed at Queenstown, when the dead bodies of the hundreds were brought in.
Amongst those who were rescued was a baby of two months old and an old grey haired lady, who was brought into Queenstown alive, but she died in one of the hotels after her arrival. Anticipating her death, she had pinned to her dress, before breathing her last, her will and her name and address.
Miss Crosbie states that there was no attempt on the part of the crew of the submarine to render any assistance to the unhappy victims of the torpedoed ship. About an hour before the disaster the captain of the Lusitania had sighted a submarine some distance off and had avoided it by changing the course of his ship. She says that the men on the Lusitania were most considerate and stood aside until the women and children were got into each of the lifeboats before taking their places to help in manning it.
The last commands she heard on leaving the vessel were “Everyone leave the ship.” Miss Crosbie says a considerable number of the young men who were on the Lusitania were coming home to this country to enlist.
Having lost all her effects, Miss Crosbie must have found it difficult to manage and consequently, in June 1915, she asked Cunard to arrange for a draft for £20-0s-0d., to be paid to her which had been sent by friends in Chicago, through Cunard’s office there. The money was handed over to her in Scotland on 8th June 1915.
Having recovered from her ordeal, Agnes Crosbie boarded the St Paul at Liverpool on the 22nd September 1915, and disembarked in New York City on the 30th September, without incident. She then made her way back to Wilmette, Illinois, and resumed her employment with the Bell family.
On the 1st May 1925, at Evanston, Illinois, Agnes married Alexander Smith, who had immigrated from Scotland in 1914, and who was a groom at a stockyard. The couple had a daughter – Constance Jane, born in 1926. Agnes became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1932 and lived the remainder of her life in Illinois.
Agnes Smith died in Chicago, Illinois, on the 1st May 1967, aged 76 years.
Cook County Illinois Death Index 1908 – 1988, 1891 Scotland Census, 1901 Scotland Census, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Illinois Federal Naturalization Records 1856 – 1991, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, Dundee People’s Journal, Dumfries and Galloway Standard, New York Times, UniLiv.D92/1/7, Westmoreland Gazette, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.