A Ship Rolls Over, A Fun Candy Factory Worker, and Ghosts: Madame Bubby's Secret Family History

 

I always wondered what the phrase “skeletons in the closet” really meant. I found out it was coined in England in the 19th century. Since then the word “closet” has become used primarily in England to mean “water closet” that is, lavatory - a possible hiding place for a skeleton I guess, but not one with much potential! 

Now, lest you think my secret is about some shameful sexual peccadillo (which, given I work for a porn site, really wouldn't be much of secret anyway), it isn't. There is a secret, in a sense here, because how most people don't know about the drowning of 800 people on the Eastland, one of the deadliest maritime disasters in United States history. 
 

Eastland Disaster postcard

Why? The story itself can't compete with all the hype about the Titanic, as the lives of the rich and famous supposedly make better copy. The people who drowned on the Eastland could be your neighbors or employees, the people who pick up your garbage, make your light bulbs, or mop the floors at night in office buildings. And one of these people was my grandfather's sister. 

On Saturday, July 24, 1915, the employees of Hawthorne Works, Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois, and their families and friends, boarded the S.S. Eastland in downtown Chicago, for the annual company picnic.

 

Every year Western Electric, at that time one of the largest manufacturers of electrical engineering equipment, including telephones, hosted a massive celebration involving a boat ride to Michigan City, Indiana, and, once there, a picnic, a parade, and related festivities.

 

These hardworking people didn't possess the means to take vacations. For many of them, Bohemian, Polish, German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, this was the only time they ever left the neighborhoods where they lived and worked. 

According to the Jay Bonansinga in The Sinking of the Eastland, the Eastland had already experienced some problems with balance or “listing,” and the replacement of the original deck flooring with concrete added problematic extra weight. The excited picnicgoers boarded, all 2,572 of them, to the point where the boat was at full capacity.

 

At 7:28 a.m., the Eastland, still moored to her Chicago River dock, began to list to one side. Attempts to stabilize the boat failed. With one sickening, swift inexorable movement, the boat rolled onto one side: 

Eastland Rolled Over


“The noise shook the riverfront: the chorus of screams ringing out along the dock, the pitiful splashing of those who had been tossed from the deck into the water, and the frantic rush of the quicker-thinking onlookers. It was though a vast bucketful of people—helpless babies included—had been emptied into the water...Even skilled swimmers had a hard time of it.” 

In 1915, the heavy layers of clothes these women wore (they were all dolled up in their Sunday finery) especially did not help matters. Many people at that time did not know how to swim. Even though this was the case in some instances, many of the victims did not actually drown, but actually suffocated, not because of the clothing, but from the weight of the bodies falling on top of each other and from debris. 

Even more disturbing, according to Bonansinga's account, chivalry died that day. Men pushed drowning women out of the way. The women, however, often sacrificed their lives so their children might live.  

 

Bonansinga's account tells of one woman who managed to place her baby on a crate, blew it a kiss, and succumbed to the filthy, poisonous waters of the Chicago River. 


There so many bodies that they had to lay them out in Marshall Field's. 

As I mentioned above, my grandfather's sister, one Katarzyna Grochowska, drowned that day. With the assistance of the Internet, I found her record on the passenger list. What was really interesting is that she did not even work for Western Electric. She worked for a candy factory. I would guess she was attending the big event with one of her friends.

 

And based on what I garnered from the limited oral history of our family and from a couple of websites, she was seventeen and extremely outgoing and popular, and had not one but two nicknames, Kat and Kitty—her death remains truly heartbreaking. 

As I noted above, despite the tremendous loss of life (neighborhoods in Cicero were devastated as whole families literally disappeared), the event still remains strangely tied to its local, working class origins. Some national publicity occurred when the employees of Harpo Studios of Oprah fame, formerly the site of the Second Regiment Armory which served as a temporary morgue for the victims, reported hearing moans, seeing women dressed in their 1915 Edwardian finery, and smelling their flowers and perfume. 
 

Oprah Show Is Haunted Enquirer Article

The Eastland was finally scrapped in 1947 after being used for some time as a training vessel for the U.S. Navy. The Hawthorne Works Western Electric plant closed in 1983.

 

A new wave of immigrants from Latin America now live and pursue the American dream in the bungalows of Cicero, doing much of the same types of work their predecessors did. 
 

Western Electric Factory

 

For more information on this event, check out the Eastland Disaster Historical Society website.

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