12 Facts About the R.M.S. Lusitania

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A newspaper once said that "there never was a more audacious experiment in marine architecture" than the R.M.S. Lusitania. But on May 7, 1915, a German torpedo sunk the massive ship, killing more than 1100 civilian passengers. The sinking was one of the events that nudged the U.S. into World War I. Read on for more facts about this legendary ocean liner.

1. THE LUSITANIA WAS MEANT TO HELP BRITAIN REGAIN POWER.

The Liverpool-based shipping company Cunard ordered the R.M.S. Lusitania and her sister, the R.M.S. Mauretania, in 1902, and the Lusitania was built by the shipyard of John Brown & Co. in Scotland. For Cunard, the two ocean liners had a shared purpose: to restore Britain’s dominance in the transatlantic passenger travel industry by beating its German (and, to a lesser degree, American) competition. At the start of the 20th century, German ocean liners had the finest amenities and latest onboard technology, and had held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossings since 1897. Cunard bet that its two new “superliners” could reach unheard-of speeds and breathe new life into British travel.

2. CUNARD WAS GIVEN A HUGE LOAN—WITH A CATCH.

To build the Lusitania and Mauretania, Cunard secured a £2.6 million, low-interest subsidy from the British government (in today’s currency, that’s almost £268 million). Cunard also received an annual operating subsidy of £75,000, or about £7.7 million today, for each ship, and a contract worth £68,000 each, or £7 million today, to transport mail. (The “R.M.S.” in their names stands for “royal mail ship.”)

What would the British government get out of the deal, besides national pride and a very low return on investment? The Admiralty required that both ships would be built to naval specifications so they could be requisitioned for use in war. While the Lusitania never ferried troops, the Mauretania was put into service as a hospital ship and as a troopship, and even got a coat of dazzle paint to camouflage it at sea.

3. THE LUSITANIA INCLUDED CUTTING-EDGE EDWARDIAN TECHNOLOGY.

As another part of the loan deal, Cunard guaranteed that both ships would be able to cruise at a speed of at least 24.5 knots (about 28 mph): That would make the Lusitania and Mauretania faster than the speediest German liners, which could run just over 23 knots.

To meet the challenge, Cunard installed four steam turbine engines, each with its own screw propeller, a first for ocean liners. The new technology in the Lusitania required “68 additional furnaces, six more boilers, 52,000 square feet of heating surface, and an increase of 30,000 horsepower,” The New York Times reported. Without the turbines, the ship would have needed at least three 20,000-horsepower standard engines to reach 25 knots.

The Lusitania needed all of the power it could get, because it was massive: 787 feet long, with a gross tonnage of around 32,000 tons, four funnels to match the Germans’ look (previous British liners had three), and seven passenger decks [PDF]. The ship was designed to accommodate 552 first-class, 460 second-class, and 1186 third-class passengers, plus 827 crew.

4. THOUSANDS WATCHED THE LUSITANIA DEPART ON HER MAIDEN VOYAGE.

On September 7, 1907, the Lusitania departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage en route to New York with a stop in Queenstown, Ireland. “She presented an impressive picture as she left with her mighty funnels and brilliant illuminations,” the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported. “Throughout the day there was a continuous stream of sightseers on board, and the departure was witnessed by about 200,000 people.”

When the ship reached Queenstown, the paper continued, “768 bags of mail were put on board the Lusitania, which, amid enthusiastic cheers from the crowds of spectators attracted from all parts of the Emerald Isle, set off her great trial of speed across the broad Atlantic.”

5. EVEN THIRD-CLASS PASSENGERS TRAVELED IN STYLE.

Each class of passenger accommodation featured dining rooms, smoking rooms, ladies’ lounges, nurseries, and other public spaces. They ranged in opulence from plush Georgian and Queen Anne styles in the first-class compartments to plain but comfortable in third class. The Lusitania was also the first ocean liner to have elevators, as well as a wireless telegraph, telephones, and electric lights.

Onboard dining included dozens of dishes at each seating for the most discerning Edwardian gastronomes. A luncheon menu from January 1908 suggested appetizers like potted shrimps, omelette aux tomates, lamb pot pie, and grilled sirloin steak or mutton chops. A variety of cold meats—Cumberland ham, roast beef, boiled ox tongue, boar’s head, and more—was served next. For dessert, guests could nibble on fancy pastry, compote of prunes and rice, cheeses, fruits, and nuts.

6. THE LUSITANIA REGAINED THE BLUE RIBAND.

Germany’s dominance in transatlantic service pained Britain, the country that basically invented the race for ever-faster crossings. Cunard desperately wanted to win back the Blue Riband, an unofficial title for the fastest average time on a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, from the German superliners. Bad weather prevented the Lusitania from reaching its top speed on the first try. But on the voyage from October 6-10, 1907, the ship reached an average speed of 23.99 knots, smashing the German’s record.

The Lusitania broke its own record, but lost it to the Mauretania in 1909, which held on to the Blue Riband for the next 20 years.

7. PASSENGERS WERE WARNED ABOUT ENEMY ATTACKS.

The First World War broke out in Europe in July 1914. On May 1, 1915—the day of the Lusitania’s fateful departure—the German embassy in Washington, D.C. published a note in New York’s morning newspapers reminding passengers of the danger of transatlantic travel during the war. In some newspapers, the announcement appeared directly under an advertisement for Cunard’s future sailings, including the Lusitania’s scheduled trip on May 29, 1915. “Notice! Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies,” it shouted. “Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in [British] waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Few believed the Lusitania was in danger, because it had sailed without incident since the beginning of the war. And, as a passenger ship carrying civilians, it was not thought to be a legitimate military target.

8. IT WAS TORPEDOED BY A GERMAN U-BOAT.

The first six days of the crossing were typically uneventful. In the early afternoon of May 7, able seaman Leslie Morton began his scheduled watch at 2 p.m. He told the BBC:

“It was a beautiful day; the sea was like glass. And as we were going to be in Liverpool the next day, everybody felt very happy. We hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the threats to sink her because we didn’t think it was possible … Ten past two, I saw a disturbance in the water, obviously the air coming up from a torpedo tube. And I saw two torpedoes running toward the ship, fired diagonally across the course. The 'Lucy' was making about 16 knots at the time. I reported them to the bridge with a megaphone, we had torpedoes coming on the starboard side. And by the time I had time to turn round and have another look, they hit her amidships between No. 2 and 3 funnels.”

In first class, the suffragette and businesswoman Margaret Haig Thomas (later Second Viscountess Rhondda) felt the impact. “There was a dull thud, not very loud, but unmistakably an explosion,” she told the BBC. “I didn’t wait; as I ran up the stairs the boat was already heeling over.”

9. THE LUSITANIA SANK IN JUST 18 MINUTES.

The torpedo hit just behind the bridge (near the bow of the ship) and a huge cloud of smoke rose. Immediately, the ship began listing to the starboard side and the bow began to sink. Chaos ensued on the seven passenger decks. Morton told the BBC that all of the port-side lifeboats were now unable to be lowered to the water, while the starboard-side boats were filled with panicked passengers and let go haphazardly; some even capsized or fell on top of other boats already in the sea. Watching from his periscope, the U-boat’s captain Walther Schwieger wrote in his war diary, “Many people must have lost their heads; several boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern first and filled at once.”

Moments after the torpedo hit, another blast exploded from inside the ship. At that point, the sea filled with people, lifeboats, splintered pieces of the ship, luggage, deck chairs, and other debris, all at risk of being sucked into the wake of the rapidly sinking ocean liner. “The whole thing was over in 15 minutes. It takes longer to tell,” recalled Morton, who had managed to find a collapsible boat and save dozens of other passengers. An hour later, he said, “the ship was already down at the bottom.”

Survivors and dead bodies were plucked from the water by fishermen in small boats, then taken to Queenstown. Of the 1960 verified people on board the Lusitania, 1193 were killed, and just 767 survived. Four of those survivors would soon die from trauma.

10. THE SINKING MAY HAVE TURNED THE TIDE OF WORLD WAR I.

Almost all of the American passengers—more than 120 of 159 on board—did not survive the sinking. The U.S., a neutral country, immediately criticized the attack on civilians, and public opinion turned against Germany and its actions. While Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan argued that Germany and Britain (which enforced a blockade of food shipments to Germany) were both worthy of blame in the disaster, the American people were choosing a side. The U.S. did not enter World War I, however, until April 1917.

11. THE SOURCE OF THE SECOND EXPLOSION REMAINS A MYSTERY.

Morton survived the disaster and, in his testimony for the official investigation into the attack, insisted that he witnessed two torpedoes launched at the Lusitania. Schwieger’s log and the U-boat crew’s accounts indicate the submarine fired only one.

The cause of the second explosion, 15 seconds after the first strike, is still unknown—but numerous theories abound. One suggests that undeclared explosives meant for the British military, stored in the ship’s magazine, detonated from the torpedo’s impact. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, suggested in his book Lost Liners that the torpedo breached the ship’s coal bunkers and kicked up enough coal dust to trigger the blast. There is also a possibility that another, unidentified submarine fired a second torpedo, but no other sub ever took credit for the fatal blow, perhaps due to the global backlash against Schwieger’s action.

Maritime archaeologists may never know the truth. Three hundred feet down on the seafloor, the Lusitania wreck lies on the side that the torpedo breached, and many of the decks have collapsed onto the seabed, obscuring further clues.

12. THE LAST SURVIVOR PASSED AWAY IN 2011.

Audrey Warren Pearl was only 3 months old when she sailed on the Lusitania with her parents, three older siblings, and two nannies in first class. After the explosions and while attempting to board lifeboats, Audrey, her 5-year-old brother Stuart, and her nanny Alice Lines were separated from her sisters Amy and Susan, their nanny Greta Lorenson, and her parents, Warren and Amy Pearl. Alice and the two children were able to safely board Lifeboat 13, while Audrey’s parents were picked up from the sea and survived. Greta and the other two children were never found.

Audrey went on to be active in Britain’s war effort in the 1940s and in numerous charities. She and Alice Lines remained friends until Alice’s death in 1997 at the age of 100. Audrey, the last survivor of the 1915 disaster, lived to the age of 95 and died January 11, 2011.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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