Nellie Becker: A Titanic Story

By Curator Jessica Gray

One might say a life is filled with individual decisions, some simple, some crucial, that lead you down one path or another. Had you chosen otherwise, had you gone another way, had you paused a moment longer, things may have ended differently. This is the story of just such a life. Nellie Estella Baumgardner was 22-years-old, a pretty and accomplished young woman, an 1896 graduate of Wittenberg College in Ohio, when she accepted an offer of marriage from her classmate, Allen O. Becker of Berrien Center, Michigan.

Service in India
Just two months after their wedding, Becker, who had gone on to become a pastor, was instructed by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Lutheran Church to leave immediately to serve in India. They left November 7, 1898, and arrived six weeks later on December 21. They traveled to their final destination at the mission in Narasarowpet, 28 miles southwest of Guntur in Southern India. Unfortunately, the Beckers arrived in the middle of a devastating famine and cholera epidemic. Sick individuals would arrive at the mission seeking medical attention only to die on their doorstep. Having been raised gently in an upperclass family in Springfield, Ohio, Nellie had no training to handle what she witnessed. Every morning she would find more bodies outside her home, until finally cremation on the mission property was the only recourse to deal with the increasing number of human remains. Nellie suffered a nervous breakdown, setting off what would become a lifetime’s worth of mental health struggles.

Despite her fragile state, Nellie quickly became pregnant, giving birth to her daughter, Ruth, on October 28, 1899. After five years of service in India, Nellie’s state of mind became so urgent, Rev. Becker brought her and Ruth back to the United States. They sailed through harrowing storms, and everyone but 4-year-old Ruth endured terrible seasickness. Unbelievably, Ruth was allowed to wander the ship and even snuck out onto the deck while the seas were still quite rough, standing at the rail as the ship rose and fell with the waves.

The family would remain in the United States for 15 months while Rev. Becker served a church in Ohio, Nellie gradually recovered, and Ruth met her grandparents. Once again, Nellie quickly became pregnant, delivered a son, Luther, in March 1905. In December, the family returned to India for Rev. Becker to resume his work, arriving January 31, 1906, two years from the day they had left. The family’s health struggles would continue when that fall Ruth returned from boarding school with an infection that would nearly result in the amputation of her foot. While her older child was still recovering, Nellie sat at the bedside of Luther, not yet two years old, diagnosed with tetanus as the result of a wound or contact with a contaminated surface.

Today the advancement of modern medicine means that most cases of tetanus are prevented by vaccine or are treatable with medical intervention, but in 1906, it meant a gruesome, often lengthy death. Victims could experience jaw cramping, sudden, involuntary muscle spasms, often severe enough to cause bone fractures, seizures, fever, contraction of the vocal cords, and finally blood clots in the lungs and pneumonia. Death was often caused by a spasm seizing the victim’s airway.

Nellie sat helpless as her little boy succumbed to his illness on February 7, 1907. Once again, she was not given the space and time to grieve, and immediately became pregnant again, delivering a daughter, Marion, on December 28, 1907. Nellie would give birth to her last child, Richard, on June 26, 1910. It was immediately apparent this child was not as robust as Ruth and Marion. Doctors told Nellie plainly that Richard was suffering from the climate in India and he would surely die if she did not take him back to the United States.

The Trek Home
Having lost a child already, Nellie was unwilling to risk the life of another. Although initially intending to travel with them, Rev. Becker became too ill to leave. Nellie was forced to make the journey from India to England, and then onward to America, alone with her three children and everything they owned in tow. After another harrowing  twenty-nine day journey by boat, Nellie and her children arrived in London. During their five day stay, Nellie felt well enough to play the role of tourist, dragging her two younger children to sights around the city for the benefit of 12-year-old Ruth. Those days would serve as the last fleeting moments of normalcy for the family.

The morning of April 10, 1912 found Nellie and her children standing at the White Star Line terminal, in awe of the 883-foot-long Titanic rising above them. In the years that followed, Ruth would recall her mother being anxious about the voyage, even going so far as to question a clerk at the purser’s office after they boarded about the purported unsinkable nature of the ship. Despite Nellie’s worries, the family was amazed at the grandeur of the ship.

“We were charmed with this lovely, large boat,” Nellie wrote. “We never climbed stairs, for an elevator took us up and down. The library was a picture, and the dining room, with its carved oak frieze and tables of snowy linen and glittering silver, was a dream. In fact, we were going so smoothly that we forgot we were on a boat, but felt as if we were in some large, magnificent hotel.”

For the rest of her life, Ruth would be able to recall the exact layout of their room. “Our cabin was on the portside and very close to the waterline. I could look through the porthole and see the ocean. The water would be almost up to my eyes,” she said.

Ruth would spend the next few days looking after her brother, Richard, pushing him around the deck in a stroller, while her mother cared for Marion.

“We were all thoroughly enjoying the speed – we were making 560 miles a day,” Nellie said. “The sea was like glass and the sun was warm, and we sat on the lovely decks every day until Sunday.”

A Tragedy Unfolds
Shortly after 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, Nellie awoke with a start. Something was wrong.

“It seemed that I had only just gotten to sleep when I was awakened by an unusual noise above my cabin. It sounded like someone pounding with a heavy hammer. The engines too, had stopped. That frightened me,” Nellie wrote.

Nellie would initially encounter a steward in the hallway who told her nothing was wrong and instructed her to go back to bed.

“But other noises began, and people shouted to each other in the corridors, and I could stand it no longer. I met my cabin steward just outside my door with a life belt in his hand, and before I could say anything he said, ‘Tie on your life belt and come quickly.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I have three children; have I time to dress them?’ He was tying the lifebelt on me then, and said, ‘Madam, you have time for nothing; come at once.’”

Nellie ran back into the room and shook Ruth awake, instructing her to put shoes and stockings on Marion while she did the same for Richard. They quickly pulled on their coats over their own nightclothes and ran from the room. Nellie would later assert in her account written not long after the tragedy that in this moment they remembered to grab blankets before they left the room when, in fact, they had not. A minor detail, perhaps, but one that nearly cost Ruth her life. That her mother misremembered this moment hints at the level of trauma she would go on to experience in the next 10 hours. When the family reached the foyer on B deck, they found a group of female passengers, also in their nightclothes.

While they waited for instructions, as Ruth recalls, Nellie suddenly realized how cold it was that evening. “Ruth,” she asked, “It is so cold outside, will you please go down into the cabin and get some blankets?” Ruth agreed and ran back down four flights of stairs to their cabin. Decades later the family would point to this moment as one that most affected Nellie’s mental health. Without thinking, or without realizing the seriousness of the situation they were in, Nellie sent her daughter back into the belly of a sinking ship for blankets. If they were instructed to go to the lifeboats before Ruth returned, what would she do? Would Nellie send her young children on without her, or would they all wait for Ruth to come back, possibly risking their spot in a lifeboat? All the possible what-ifs would come to haunt her.

Ruth would later recall the men arrived immediately after she returned to the foyer with the blankets in hand and their group was led outside onto the deck. Stewards carried Richard and Marion up a ladder, while Ruth and Nellie, and the other passengers followed behind.

Lifeboat 11 was nearly full when the Becker family reached it, but they stopped its lowering to take in Marion and Richard. Nellie was likely unaware she would not be allowed to join them.

As soon as the children were seated, a voice rang out, “That’s all for this boat,” and it began dropping slowly toward the sea. “Oh, please let me go with my children!” Nellie screamed. According to Ruth’s account, a crewman quickly helped lift her mother over the rail and into the lowering boat. As her mother turned around, she realized what she had done. She had forsaken her 12-year-old daughter, leaving her aboard a sinking ship, to be with her younger children.

Although Nellie would later claim she did not fear for her daughter’s life, even before she knew she made it to a lifeboat, Ruth recalled her mother screaming to her as the lifeboat was lowered.

“Ruth, get in another boat!”

May I Get in this Boat?

With the fearlessnes of a child, Ruth walked just aft where lifeboat 13 was being loaded. She recalled asking the crewman in charge, “May I get in this boat?” Without a word, she said, the officer “picked me up and dumped me in.”

It had not yet occurred to Ruth how dire their situation was, but as her lifeboat was being lowered she could see rows upon rows of anxious faces crowding the rail.

“There were five or six decks and they were just lined with people, standing there at the edge looking over. I suppose they were wishing and hoping someone would come and rescue them,” she said.

From Ruth’s vantage point, it appeared lifeboat 15 was the only one remaining to be lowered – and its capacity of 60 persons was not nearly adequate to save all those who remained.

Very quickly her concern for others became secondary to her own safety. As her lifeboat was lowered, Ruth looked down and saw exhaust water exiting the ship. When the lifeboat hit the waves, it was pushed further astern by this flow of water, until the ropes holding it to the ship tightened. When they looked up, they realized lifeboat 15 was being lowered right on top of them.

The lifeboat passengers screamed up to the boat deck for them to stop lowering the next boat, but their pleas went unheard. Lifeboat 15 was now close enough that the passengers in lifeboat 13 were able to place their hands flat on the underside of the boat.

Finally, as the men in the boat scrambled for something to cut the ropes, Stoker Fred Barrett got out his knife, and climbing near to Ruth, cut the ropes which held the lifeboat, leading the boat to float out from underneath lifeboat 15, which was then immediately dropped into the water. This very incident with the two lifeboats is vividly portrayed in James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic.

As they drew away from the ship, Ruth saw rockets shoot upward, bursting in the dark sky overhead, and below, the great ocean liner was slowly sinking.

“It was going down slowly, not fast at all and the night was dark, no moon, a very dark black night and that boat was just beautiful, all the lights in the boat were on. Just a beautiful sight. The lights were just going under the water as it went down and I remember that very plainly – and I thought it was a beautiful sight and a terrible sight because you could see that the boat was going under the water,” she said.

Even from the distance of their lifeboat, Ruth could see passengers jumping from the ship into the water. Suddenly, a deafening noise cracked across the water in the darkness as the ship split in half, breaking between the funnels, the bow sinking, while the stern rose up for one final moment, before it too sank beneath the Atlantic. Ruth had entered her lifeboat with 60 strangers at around 1:40 a.m., and just forty minutes later, the ship and all her remaining passengers were gone.

Though the ship had disappeared, the screams of the survivors in the freezing water would continue on for another thirty minutes, before all gradually became eerily, hauntingly silent.

Ruth’s lifeboat, like most of the others, did not return to pick up survivors for fear of being overturned. The Titanic only carried 20 lifeboats – at best enough to rescue 53 percent of the passengers. In the end, 705 of her 2,209 passengers would be saved.

Only two lifeboats would return to the wreck to pull survivors from the water. Ruth recalled that the victims “jumped and they screamed and they yelled for help, and of course nobody came to help…that was a terrible, terrible time. I can still hear them.”

Somewhere else in the inky blackness, Nellie too could hear the screams from her lifeboat.

“The heart-rending screams which arose nearer (the Titanic) were awful beyond words. I think I shall hear it and see that dreadful sight until my dying day.”

In the eventual, awful silence, Ruth realized she was still clutching the blankets her mother had her fetch from their room. Near her, men were pulling at the oars in sleeveless shirts. Just hours before they had been sweating in the boiler room, now they were freezing out on the open water. Ruth offered her blankets to the men, and they were torn in two to keep as many of the men as warm as possible. The lifeboats were meant to have biscuits, fresh water, lights, and a compass, but had no provisions whatsoever.

“While the night was clear, it was dark, and we could not see one of the other boats,” Nellie recalled. “There was nothing to do but drift until morning, then all come together. We did not know whether our calls and signals for help had been received by another ship, so we did not know when we would be picked up.”

A Dramatic Rescue
Just before dawn, a light appeared on the horizon. It was the Cunard liner Carpathia steaming for them.

“No one but those in those lifeboats out in the middle of the Atlantic that bitter, cold night, will ever know our joy when we first caught sight of the Carpathia,” wrote Nellie, in her account. “We saw first her green light, then, as she came nearer, her port lights, then the rockets, telling us she had come to save us. We wept for joy! All about us rose the huge icebergs, and scattered over the sea, as far as our eyes could reach, were the lifeboats.”

Ruth and lifeboat 13 rocked from side-to-side as they pulled up beside the ship, and the passengers were hoisted into the air, one-by-one, to the boatdeck. Ruth was pulled onto the Carpathia at 4:45 a.m. She had been in the lifeboat for three hours.

Four hours later, the occupants of Nellie’s lifeboat were finally rescued. In the end, she had been in the lifeboat with freezing two year-old Richard and four-year-old Marion, and 60 others, for nearly 7 hours before they were pulled aboard.

Nellie recalled four sailors carried her into the dining saloon where she saw her two youngest children being tended to by the doctor. In her account, she claimed Ruth was there as well, but in actuality Ruth was found nearly two hours later by another passenger searching the boatdeck for her at her mother’s request.

Both Ruth and her mother would state one of their most vivid memories was the sight of scores of women standing at the rail looking out to sea, searching in vain for their husbands, after the last survivors were brought onto the Carpathia.

“When the men put their wives into the lifeboats on the Titanic, they said, ‘Well, we will meet you when we’re saved by another boat, we’ll meet you there.’ But they never came,” said Ruth.

While Ruth did all she could to avoid the scenes of grief, often wandering thedecks alone, Nellie immersed herself in it.

“Oh, those four sad, miserable days, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to talk about, but this great sorrow. The question was not, ‘Have you lost anyone?’ but ‘How many have you lost?’” Nellie wrote.

She and the survivors, mostly women, sat around tables in the saloon, going over the tragedy again and again, recounting each person’s experience, only serving to compound their trauma.

“We heard how there were not enough lifeboats, and nearly all the men and many women and children had gone down with the Titanic; how two lifeboats had capsized; how two collapsible boats were so stuck with new paint that they could not be pulled apart and couldn’t be used; how struggling people in the water prayed to be saved and there was no room in the lifeboats to take them in; how people were seen floating on rafts and imploring to be rescued. Oh, the horror of it all! Women were fainting, moaning, crying, wringing their hands and tearing their hair! We, who had lost no one—and how pitifully few there were—sat helpless, dumb and with breaking hearts, before such awful sorrow,” she wrote.

The Carpathia would pause momentarily in the course of that day to hold funerals and sea burials for those victims who did not survive.

During those next few nights, though Nellie would later write that she and her children were forced to sleep on the floor of the dining saloon due to the overcrowding, in actuality, because they were a family, they were offered a room within the ship in the crew’s quarters that they would then have to vacate during the day. Perhaps it was the miserable nights they endured that affected her memory of that time.

Ruth was anxious to be so deep inside the ship so soon after the sinking and Nellie suffered from incessant nightmares; she could still hear the screams of the drowning. Nellie bemoaned the state of their dress and wished they had taken the time to grab more clothing. Though she had been given a too-small dress to wear, the children were still wearing their night clothes. Ruth wore her coat over her nightgown with a blanket tied about her waist.

At one point on their journey to New York, Nellie came across the same bedroom steward who had rushed them to the deck. In another indication of her state of mind, she asked him why, in his haste, did he not let them dress before going to the deck?

The steward patiently explained the ship was breaking up directly beneath their room and he knew there was not much time. This would only confirm for Nellie she had nearly sent her daughter to her death when she asked her to get the blankets from their room. On Thursday, April 18 at 8:00 p.m., the Carpathia arrived in New York. Although it was raining heavily when they docked, thousands of onlookers waited by the piers. Nellie was not equipped to handle the onslaught and placed her daughter in the path of those clamoring for the story of what had happened to the great ship.

“Reporters came out of the walls, I mean they must have taken some boats out there and gotten on the Carpathia,” said Ruth. “And mother was so nervous that she cried all the time. When anybody asked her questions, she cried, and she’d say, ‘Don’t ask me any questions, ask Ruth, she’ll tell you.”

A Changed Woman
Though Nellie would write her account of her experiences for the Lutheran Women’s Work newsletter, and attributed the strength of her faith for having gotten her through the experience, at home it was a very different story. The family were never again allowed to speak of the event in her presence without Nellie breaking down.

Though Ruth would be forced to recount her experience that fall in front of her new classroom of peers, at home she would receive little support from her mother, who was always critical and disappointed in her.

Nellie was healthy enough to seek restitution from the White Star Line for the loss of all their household items. She was one of the few survivors who filed a claim, which totaled over $2,000, for which she received only a couple hundred dollars in return.

Rev. Becker would finally rejoin the family in Michigan nine months later in January 1913. It must have been a shock to find his wife so altered. Ruth would later recount that for years afterward her father would say, “Your mother wasn’t like this before the Titanic.”

While Nellie refused to speak about what they had been through, Rev. Becker had no such reservations, and would travel to various churches to give sermons on his family’s experience.

Over the next several years, the family would move with each new church appointment Rev. Becker received. Ruth married her college classmate in 1924, and had her first child, a daughter, Jeanne, in 1925. She would go on to have two sons, Dick and Rodger, before her marriage eventually ended in divorce.

Ruth’s children grew up in a tense household just as she had, with a mother refusing to speak of the tragedy she had experienced. The relationship between Ruth and her daughter was strained and distant. When Dick learned his mother had been on the Titanic he wanted to know everything, and in his youthful enthusiasm told his teacher, who then asked Ruth if she’d be willing to come speak to the class. Ruth angrily reprimanded her son for telling anyone she had been on the ship.

Meanwhile, in 1927 Rev. Becker and Nellie would move to Princeton for his pastorship of St. Matthew’s English Lutheran Church, where again he recounted the family’s experience on the Titanic.

The Beckers arrived in Princeton just 15 years after the disaster, and Nellie was not doing well. When Ruth’s children were young, they would travel to Princeton every summer to visit their grandparents, though the visits were always difficult. It was never clear what would upset their grandmother, but something would trigger her, sending her into an emotional fit. The children would be rushed from the room and ushered upstairs, where they would huddle together at the top of the stairs and listen in on the conversation below.

Ruth would later recount during this time period her mother rarely had visitors, and although her father was actively serving as pastor, Nellie never attended church services.

Nellie was nearing 60 years old when Rev. Becker briefly had her institutionalized. Although it is unknown which institution Nellie was placed in or for how long she was a patient, common treatments at asylums in the 1930s included electric shock treatment, hydrotherapy – which involved locking the patient in a tub of ice water – medically inducing seizures or insulin shock, and lobotomies. Rev. Becker quickly brought her home to Princeton for fear of the medical treatments she may have been receiving.

Nellie’s mental state had already been affected by her time in India, the loss of her son, and her terrifying experience on the Titanic was compounded by her fear for her childrens’ lives. Her emotions swung like a pendulum, mystifying her family, and she was unable to properly convey what she was experiencing. It would not be until 1980, after the return of Vietnam soldiers, that post-traumatic stress disorder would become a diagnosable condition.

For Nellie and her family, that would come too late, and her condition would place an increasing distance between her and her family. Nellie’s daughter, Marion, died of tuberculosis in 1944 in California, and although her remains were brought to Princeton and buried at Oakland Cemetery, Nellie refused to go to her funeral, having purposely cut off communication with her years prior.

In 1956, Rev. Becker passed away in Eau Claire, MI, at the age of eighty-four, always regretful he was unable to return to India and resume his missionary work. Although the couple had moved to Michigan in 1945, Rev. Becker’s remains were placed in the family plot at Oakland.

For the next five years, Ruth would check in on her mother daily, enduring Nellie’s demands, her anger, and her manipulative tactic of constantly changing the terms of her will. Nellie died in 1961 of a heart attack at age 84. A funeral was held at St. Matthew’s Church and she was buried at Oakland.

In the end, Nellie did slight her daughter in her will, leaving everything to Ruth’s brother, Richard, while forcing Ruth to be her executor to ensure her wishes were fulfilled. For the rest of her life, Ruth battled significant anxiety and feared she would go “crazy” like her mother.

Peace after Tragedy
She only really began to unpack her experience in 1982, when she was 83-years-old, and attended her first convention put on by the Titanic Historical Society. She would go on to attend conventions on the east coast in 1987 and 1988 and would receive letters from all over the world from Titanic enthusiasts seeking her autograph. She even received visitors and reporters in her home and gave multiple interviews.

Ruth’s children were surprised at the change in their mother and how willing she was to discuss what happened to her. 75 years had passed and she was finally ready to talk about what she experienced that fateful night. She still became emotional at the memory of the widows standing at the rail of the Carpathia, and she marveled over how lucky her own family had been to survive. Nearly every family lost someone, but the Beckers did not. In fact, three children were the most saved in any one family on the Titanic.

The attention on Ruth and her story only increased when the wreckage of the Titanic was finally discovered 560 miles southeast of Newfoundland on September 1, 1985, by a U.S.-French led team using an underwater robot.

Although she agreed it was acceptable for artifacts to be brought to the service, Ruth insisted they should be placed in museums, and not sold. As for the site, she was adamant it be treated with respect – it was the resting place for 1,495 lost souls.

After so much heartache and sorrow, in the end, Ruth chose to go back to where her story really first began. When she died July 6, 1990, at the age of 90 years old, her remains were cremated, and her ashes scattered over the wreckage site.


Sources: “Ruth Becker Blanchard” by Don Lynch, The Titanic Commutator, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter 1990; Encyclopedia Titanica (2016) Marion Louise Becker; Encyclopedia Titanica (2016) Ruth Elizabeth Becker; Encyclopedia Titanica (2016) Nellie E. Becker; “Evocative Account of the Titanic Disaster by Mrs. Becker,” Lutheran Woman’s Work, pub. July 1912, reprinted in Voyage, journal of the Titanic International Society #105 (2018).