The scene is the Chicago office of Clarence Darrow, a lawyer who was well-known for taking the side of the underdog, the under-privileged, the labor union against the bosses. He would shortly become nationally famous for his work on defense in the Leopold and Loeb case, and later for his defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial. But at this point, the summer of 1915, he was at a low ebb in his career, having just escaped charges of bribery and jury tampering in Los Angeles. Darrow had many clients from the humble worker up to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He never knew who would come to his door.
“One day, the figure in Darrow’s doorway was slight, gaunt. The short man looked frightening. He wasn’t world-weary, like Darrow’s other supplicants; he was traumatized. His cheeks were sunken. His eyes, dark sockets. He was sickly, skeletal. He introduced himself as Joseph Erickson. He was the chief engineer of the “Eastland”, and he was in trouble.”
The above excerpt is taken from the recently published book “Ashes Under Water: the S.S. Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America” by Michael McCarthy, historian and a former Feature Editor of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. McCarthy’s book is about the fate of the S.S. Eastland when she capsized literally feet from her dock on the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, resulting in the death of 855 passengers. I would like to fully recommend this book to my readers, not only as a good read. But it is history written the way I love to read it: not just a dry collection of names and dates, but a living, breathing story of people with aspirations and motivations, some of them good and some of them bad, but all of them fascinating. And McCarthy has given us the full range of such characters. In his pages we find heroes, villains, and everything in between: lawyers, bystanders, and first responders. Most poignantly of all we find victims, including 22 whole families, who boarded the Eastland that morning expecting a day of pleasure at a company picnic, but who instead met their deaths.
The Eastland, the Lawyer, and the Engineer
The S.S. Eastland (above) began her life in 1903 as a steamer built to take advantage of the rapidly expanding economic base of the Great Lakes region. In the first part of his book, McCarthy details the need for a ship to carry the tons of fruit being produced to the many summer resorts in the area along with passengers to these places. But as she was being constructed, her owners wanted her designed for speed and large passenger capacity. Hence she was designed with a length of 275 feet and a beam of 38 feet. “Fast ship, or no ship,” versus the fact that the rivers she would be traveling were just too small for such a leviathan sized craft. “In other words, too much ship, too little water.” We then see the accidents that followed the Eastland from one set of owners to the next each one overlooking the difficulties in handling a ship that was clearly top heavy and which acquired a reputation as a “cranky” sailor. Along side of this we see the rise of young Joseph Erickson from a young Norwegian immigrant into an excellent engineer, the downturns in the career of Clarence Darrow, and the blossoming of the families who would all be brought together by a terrible tragedy.
July 24, 1915: 855 People Drown
In Part Two, McCarthy takes us through the story of the disaster itself. We see how the Captain Harry Pederson a man with little experience and his chief engineer, Joseph Erickson, an honest, hard working man, each go through their paces on the morning of July 24, 1915 taking on over 2500 passengers of the Western Electric Company bound for a company holiday picnic. These were hard working people who were dressed in their best holiday attire: “Most of the women, in their twenties and their thirties, crowded near the dock with long-
sleeve embroidered linen dresses. Their hats brimmed with apples, sprays of lilac. shirrings of striped taffeta silk, poppies wound in wreathes, and black velvet bows.” And we see how the ship slowly lists to port, taking all of these and hundreds of others to their doom. Most of the passengers had gone below decks to avoid the cold drizzle and thus were smashed beneath tons of furniture as it came crashing down on them while the ship rolled on its side in a mere 20 feet of water, just a few feet from the dock and as water rushed in though doors and hatches. In vivid detail McCarthy tells the story of families wiped out, and first responders driven to despair by the horrors they encountered (above).
“At the bottom of page 14, the police chief asked Erickson precisely who within the company knew what would stop any stability issues on the Eastland. He replied, ‘Why the general manager and the secretary, they all knew.’ Next to that passage, in the pitiful penmanship that was signature-Darrow, were two words: Owners knew.”
With those two words McCarthy, with the skill of a master story-teller, takes us into Part Three: the twisted world of the courtroom. With richly detailed portraits of the men involved, McCarthy shows us a veritable rogues gallery of characters: Darrow, the sloppy and unkempt man who was a brilliant lawyer, who agreed to take on the case of the gaunt man who appeared in his doorway. We are shown the owners of the ship who lied and dissembled repeatedly all throughout the trial. We see how the judge, Clarence Sessions slowly began to favor the defense against the prosecutors who called a dizzying array of marine experts. Darrow realized that he would have to save all of these men from the charge of conspiracy in order to keep his client, Joseph Erickson from being made into a scapegoat. So he attempts all kinds of fancy legal footwork to discredit the experts until he can bring the focus around to the simple honesty of his client. The six pages wherein McCarthy takes the reader through Joseph Erickson’s account of his experience in the Eastland disaster are frankly riveting.
All of this is drawn against the background of a nation dealing with the unsettling changes brought about by the industrial revolution to American society. This was a new and strange world brought about by telephones, automobiles, and the changing roles of women and men and who would be the source of income within these new family structures. And this is all brought tragically to life in McCarthy’s pages with the Red Cross Tolls, wherein we see the bulletins of the Red Cross giving details of the unidentified among the dead pulled from the hull of the Eastland. And this went on while a shocked nation hung on every detail of the trial in the newspapers from all over the country (above). Drawing on court documents, and previously unpublished letters, Mike McCarthy has written for the first time the complete story of a tragedy which would shortly be forgotten as our country was swallowed up into the even greater tragedy of the Great War. More than that, it is a fascinating character study of a slice of our country and our people just at our entrance onto the world stage.