Chief Purser Hugh McElroy -
1906 Majestic: Necklaces, suicides, marriages and record mail
By 1906 McElroy was back aboard the Majestic, with Captain Hayes once again as master. McElroy appears in a 7th of February 1906 "Particulars of Engagement" document, listed as 32 years old and on an increased monthly wage of £15. His previous ship is listed as "same" indicating that he had started working aboard the Majestic at least the month before.
His job did have some exciting and newsworthy moments, as referenced in a 16th of February 1906 newspaper article of The Washington Post. The day before, on Thursday 15th February 1906 in New York "Cuba's wedding present to Miss Alice Roosevelt, a splendid pearl necklace costing about $25,000 and manufactured by a firm of Parisian jewelers, arrived today aboard the White Star liner Majestic, in charge of the purser, H McElroy, who had received it from a representative of the American Express Company at Liverpool for transportation to this city." (The Washington Post 16 Feb 1906). This necklace was considered the most lavish of the wedding gifts from foreign governments, and due to possibly unconstitutional aspects President Roosevelt asks the gifts to stop.
In May 1906, he is still listed aboard the Majestic in a "Particulars of Engagement" document dated 30th May 1906, with a note that he is to be onboard at "0.5am 30/5/06"
It was not all dealing with expensive jewellery - McElroy also had some rather unpleasant aspects to his role as Purser, such as one day on Monday the 24th of September 1906. 36 year old "F.N. Woodruff of Chicago committed suicide on the White Star steamer Majestic, from Liverpool and Queenstown, by cutting his throat with a razor. The act was discovered last Monday morning at 11:30 o'clock… Woodruff is said to have been a Western salesman for a large dry goods house. In his cabin was found a note that read: 'The strain of the past two months is too much for me.' " (Fairbanks Daily Times, Fairbanks, Alask, 25 Sep 1906).
This called on McElroy's discretion. According to the Fairbanks article the ship's surgeon, Dr Dykes and Purser McElroy were summoned, and then "the room was quietly locked up... And great care was taken to prevent the other passengers from learning of the suicide…and at midnight the same day, when all the passengers were asleep, he was buried at sea." (Fairbanks Daily Times, Alaska, 25 Sep 1906).
The following month McElroy was involved in arranging a wedding ceremony for a "youthful runaway couple... Walfred Larson and Elizabeth Wickshan who had fled from their parents' home in Broton, Sweden" missed an opportunity to get married before joining the Majestic in Liverpool. Once again McElroy flew into action, arranging a ceremony, witnesses, a cake and a collection on the 22nd of October 1906:
"Once on the ship, the blushing couple made known their plight to Captain Hayes, and he and Purser McElroy immediately arranged the details of the ceremony.
The runaways were summoned to the purser's room, and Rev. R.C. Williams, who was a passenger, was sent for. Then Mr McElroy said that he would ask the next two passengers who came up to act as witnesses. Just at this time Senator Clark entered the room , and following him came an English judge. Both readily agreed to assist, and in a few moments the know was tied.
The bride and bridge groom were then escorted to the saloon, where a big wedding cake was cut. Passengers took up a collection and made the par a handsome present." (The Baltimore Sun, 25 Oct 1906)
The wedding of the "Swedish immigrants" hit the news in October 1906 with headlines such as "RUNAWAYS WED IN MIDOCEAN" While the Fort Wayne Sentinel, along with a photograph, noted that "not in twenty years, according to the officers of the Majestic, of the White Star Line, had a romance culminated in marriage on board a trans-Atlantic liner… H. McElroy, the purser, offered the use of his office for the ceremony. ..McElroy ordered the ship's bakers to provide a big wedding cake and dinner in the steerage that evening; was a gala occasion." (The Fort Wayne Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana 27 Oct 1906)
The story was later covered by the Captain Hayes himself who indicated that they were actually Norwegian - that the photograph taken was stolen from his camera by the ship's doctor (identified as Dr Arthur b Francis in the Fort Wayne Sentinel article) and that possibly the marriage was not legal:
On the passage out to New York one voyage in the Majestic after we had been a few days at sea, it was reported to me that there was a couple of Norwegians in the 3rd Class who, judging from the appearance of the ladv, ought to have been married some months previously and that they were still single.
We knew that she wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States in that condition unless she was married, so they were sent for, the position explained to them, and they were asked if they would go through the ceremony on board, providing it could be arranged.
They were delighted with the suggestion, as their intention had been to get married as soon as they landed. The problem then was to find a parson willing to perform the ceremony, as the privilege of marrying people at sea had been taken away from the Master of a ship some time or other, though there still remained in the Official Log Book a page for the recording of any marriages that might take place, with a column headed: “Officiating Clergyman,” for him to sign. There were no clergymen amongst the passengers that we knew of, but we eventually found a passenger in the 2nd Class who said he was one, though he was wearing civilian clothes. He offered to officiate.
A photograph of the wedding party was taken afterwards on the saloon deck by the doctor of the ship with my camera, and when I came to look for the film later I found he had abstracted it and sold it to some newspaper. The First Class passengers made a collection, amounting to about twenty dollars—one of which was given by Senator Clarke—for a wedding present.
On arrival at New York the happy pair were accepted by the Immigration authorities on our explaining what had happened and being shown the entry in our Official Log concerning the matter. They were told to call at the British Consulate for their marriage certificate after they had been passed through Ellis Island, which I afterwards heard they did.
The photograph appeared in the Press the morning after we arrived, together with a long account of the ceremony, in which it was stated that Senator Clarke had given the happy pair a wedding breakfast in the saloon and had also given them a very handsome wedding present. Where they got their information from I don’t know, but I have often found that the New York Press can make a good story out of very little information. Some time after, when Sir Courtenay Bennett, our Consul-General at New York at that time, was a passenger with me, I told the story at table one night at dinner, and he said that the marriage was not a legal one. I said :
“I don’t know whether it was legal or not, but your office gave them a certificate.” “No,” he replied, “all we gave them was a certified copy of the entry in your log.”
“Well, it satisfied them, and the Immigration people, and that was all we cared about,” I answered.
("Hull Down; Reminiscences of Windjammers, Troops and Travellers" by Sir Bertram Fox Hayes (1925)
Not to be forgotten - the Majestic was a Royal Mail Steamer and according to a New York Times article published on the 21st December 1906, Purser McElroy said they had set a record for the most mail carried on a single vessel:
Record Ocean Mail Shipment The White Star Line steamship Majestic, which arrived yesterday from England, brought 4,570 sacks of mail and 85 bags of parcels post. This, according to Purser McElroy, is the record for mail carried on a single vessel. The Majestic also brought $2000,000 in specie. (The New York Times, 21 Dec 1906)
During 1907 McElroy was still aboard the Majestic - he appears in the Particulars of Engagement dated the 9th of January 1907, signing until January 31st 1907.
However, McElroy was back aboard the Cedric by August 1907, on the Liverpool - New York service. A deck officer named James Kearney introduced Hugh to his wife Lucinda and sister-in-law Mary when they visited the ship:
Purser McElroy on learning that Mary was from Liverpool and also a music teacher, asked her what she would like the orchestra to play and she chose The Merry Widows waltz which he then asked the orchestra to play. (Una, Mary’s daughter remembers that when she was a child, whenever that piece of music would come on the radio her mother could not listen to it and would leave the room in tears). James and Hugh first met in the White Star Lines offices in Liverpool and also aboard the R.M.S. Cedric. (The Life and Times of Hugh Walter McElroy, Chief Purser of R.M.S. Titanic, by Frank McElroy)
McElroy was still aboard the Cedric by December 1907 - as seen by a Christmas card he sent "From H.W. McElroy SS.Cedric To All at Springwood". Springwood was the Ennis family home - Hugh would marry Baraba Ennis three years later.
The SS Laurentic was launched in 1908, one of a pair of sister ships that were ordered in 1907 by the Dominion Line (to be named "Alberta" but completed for White Star Line as the Laurentic). 550ft long, with a beam of 67.3ft and depth of 41.2ft the Laurentic was capable of 16 knots, with a new triple screw system combining reciprocating and turbine engines. She carried 387 crew and had berths for 1,660 passengers: 230 first class, 430 second class and 1,000 third class. On her maiden voyage the Laurentic left Liverpool on 29 April 1909 and reached Quebec and Montreal on the 7th of May 1909.
McElroy was once again Purser of a new ship and appeared in the press. The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) of 10 May 1909 noted that "Mr L.C.Shepley, the victualling superintendent of the line, who had crossed on the boat, and Purser H.W. McElroy, were two very busy men yesterday superintending the arrangements to allow the public to see the ship, and courteously explaining the many wonders to be seen in the different apartments on her five decks." According to the article they were busy because "thousands of interested sight-seers, each provided with a pass of admittance" wanted to tour the ship in "continuous streams which continued until late in the afternoon." It describes the Laurentic as "the largest steamer in the Canadian trade…will be engaged on the Montreal-Liverpool route all the season, and afterwards will take up the New York to Mediterranean run during the winter. " (The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, Canada · 10 May 1909)
McElroy is perhaps joined by Chief Officer Wilde who also sailed aboard the Laurentic on the following crossings in June and July 1909 (29/5/1909 - 27/6/1909, 8/7/1909 - 31/7/1909).