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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic's Lake County Passengers

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. On April 15, 1912, 1,514 lives were lost after the steamer hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Photo postcard of the Titanic at Southampton, England before setting sail on April 10, 1912. Brian Bossier Collection/Curt Teich Postcard Archives BB317.

The Titanic remains the most memorialized and talked about maritime disaster. Perhaps this is due to the ship being promoted as "unsinkable" and that it sank on its maiden voyage.

Two men with connections to Lake County perished in the historic sinking—William James Elsbury of Gurnee and Alfred Ossian Gustaffson emigrant to Waukegan.

Unfortunately for both, they were ticketed Third Class passengers. If you were a man in third class you had the least chance of survival.

William James Elsbury (1863 - 1912) was born in the County of Somerset, England. He immigrated to Lake County, Illinois in 1884, and settled in Gurnee where he purchased 105 acres to farm. In 1886, he married an American, Eliza Jane Hucker (1862 - 1946) in Waukegan, and had four children. Image courtesy of Geoff Whitfield.

On 20 November 1911, Elsbury returned to England to assist his younger brother, John, in the settling of their recently deceased father's financial affairs. He was due to return to Gurnee in March of 1912, but on hearing of the Titanic's maiden voyage, decided to buy passage on the new ship.

He boarded the Titanic at Southampton, travelling third class under ticket number 3902, which cost £7 5s (approximately $12). His fate remained in doubt for weeks.

At one point, Elsbury's wife received word that a man had been "picked up in an unconscious condition by the rescue ship, [Carpathia,] and had been placed in a New York hospital." The man's only words were "Lake County, Illinois." It was later determined by the White Star Line (owner's of the Titanic) that the man was not Elsbury. One wonders, however, if this unidentified man had been trying to convey a message about Elsbury.

In early May, the family received final confirmation that Elsbury had not survived. A telegram arrived from New York stating that he was not among the survivors. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

Alfred Ossian Gustafsson, was a 20-year old, native of Finland (Kökar, Åland). His destination was Waukegan, Illinois, which had a thriving Finnish community. Several people with the surname Gustafsson were already living in Waukegan at the time, and it appears that Alfred was immigrating there.

Since relatively little is known about Gustafsson, his story can only be told in terms of other Finnish third class travelers. An article published in Siirtolaisuus - Migration, from January 1998, states that 63 of the Titanic's 2,227 passengers were from Finland. Only twenty of them survived the sinking.

The Titanic's third class rooms were far superior than other ships, mainly because it was a new ship. The third class passengers passed the long hours at sea by eating, sleeping, reading, playing cards, and getting fresh air on the deck. There was a third class general room in the stern with a bar and a piano for passengers' use.

Courtesy of

After the ship hit the iceberg about 11:40 p.m. April 14, Finnish third class passenger, John Niskanen, went on deck to see what had happened. When he came back to the third class compartments, he warned his friend, Erik Jussila: "nouse ylös kuolematas katsomaan" (Get up and see your death).

While there was much confusion all around, generally first and second class passengers were urged to the lifeboats on the top deck. The third class passengers were told to wait in their own part of the ship. A combination of locked gates, language problems, lifeboats not filling to capacity and open discrimination resulted in more first class men surviving than third class children.

The rescue ship, the RMS Carpathia, arrived about 4:30 a.m., two hours after the Titanic had disappeared into the sea. By 8 a.m., the 712 survivors were on board and the ship went on to New York.

Individual cases were brought against the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the parent company of the White Star Line for personal losses of loved ones and property; the verdicts of these are wide and varied. The White Star Line settled out of court and agreed to pay $663,000 total.

The Antioch News reported on January 1, 1913, that Elsbury's widow was attempting to sue for damages, but it is unclear if she received any compensation. Eliza Elsbury is not included on official lists among those who filed claims involving death. However, there is no central archive for the settlements.

There is a grave marker for James Elsbury at the Warren Cemetery in Gurnee (above), and a memorial near his hometown of Taunton, in County Somerset, England.


Stuart said...

Great post! The ability to come up with new stories from the Titanic is impressive. It is said to be the most written about subject after Jesus and the Civil War. Well done.

D_Dretske said...

Thanks, Stuart!

>> most written about subject after Jesus and the Civil War. <<

Don't forget Napoleon! :D

Jeanne said...

Hello, I added Mr Elsbury's headstone in Warren cemetery on find a grave. May I please use the photo you have of him? Would there be a way to get a larger scan? I am an avid Titanic researcher & I was very surprised when I received the information today. Thank you very much. Sincerely-Jeanne

Diana Dretske said...

I do have the image as a slightly larger file. Please email me at

Thank you!

shawn ford said...

The News Sun had a great write up and interview with the Elsbury family Sept. 10, 1985

Jeanne said...

shawn ford, do you know what page? I go to a library to get newspapers on microfilm. I found 2 things on Mr. Elsbury from 1912. Thanks.