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The Voyage

The luxury liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage, struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, and sank with the loss of 1517 lives off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Two Racine residents, Jennie, nee Howard, and her husband Peter C. Hanson were aboard. Mr. Hanson had been a barber at their home at 1104 Villa St. but had sold the business when the couple decided to visit his parents and brothers back in Denmark whom Peter had not seen in 21 years. They sailed in February of 1911. Mrs. Hanson had had premonitions of disaster before they left, telling her brother Thomas Howard of her dread of the ship sinking either going or coming back and gave instructions for her funeral.

Jennie Hanson’s Survival

On the fateful night of April 14, the couple were asleep in their cabin when they were awakened not by the sound of a crash, but by the ceasing of the engines. They hurried on deck with life preservers when the order was given. Already crowds of passengers from all classes and steerage were there. Shots were fired into the air to halt a panic-stricken rush by some passengers into the lifeboats. Mrs. Hanson was ordered into a lifeboat. But she held back when her husband and one of his brothers named Henrick, who had decided to emigrate to America, were not allowed to go with her. An officer grabbed her and threw her into the boat. A man attempted to hide in the lifeboat and the Titanic captain, E. J. Smith, shot him. A sailor threw the body overboard. “The bullet seemed to whiz right past my face,” Jennie said.

(Submitted photo courtesy of the Racine Heritage Museum)

Lifeboat 11 was filled to near capacity, and Mrs. Hanson remembered the expressions on the faces of people swimming nearby in the cold, dark water that they had to refuse to rescue. (Another woman on this lifeboat claimed that one woman was taken from the water into their lifeboat.) It was so crowded that one of the rowers, a steward, sat on Jennie’s lap for the several hours until the Carpathia rescued them. “The night was the most beautiful of the whole trip. The sea was calm and only the cold bothered us. The lifeboat had no food or water nor blue light, three things with which every lifeboat is supposed to be equipped. We burned handkerchiefs and clothing all night so any rescue ship might sight us,” Mrs. Hanson later recalled. The band members stood ankle-deep in water playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship was going down.

After the Sinking of the Titanic

(Submitted photo courtesy of the Racine Heritage Museum)

Jennie Hanson was taken to a New York hospital after her ordeal. A few days later she traveled by train (First Class, and accompanied by a White Star Line nurse, all paid for by the company) to Chicago, where members of her family met her. They then took a train to Racine. At Kenosha, two reporters and a lady attendant (to care for her in case she was alone) boarded the train to get her story of the disaster. In Racine a waiting car took her to the home of her brother, Thomas Howard, 1236 Center St. In December of that year, Jennie received a check for $608.74 from a New York newspaper, which raised funds for widows and orphans of the Titanic passengers.

Peter C. Hanson had planned to resume his barbering business upon his return to Racine. The 1914 Racine City Directory lists him with the notation, “Died April 15, 1912.” He was 41 years old when he died. The directory for that year lists Jennie L. Hanson (widow, Peter C.) as living at 1101 Sixth St. She was 45 years old at the time of the sinking of the Titanic.

Not Her First Brush With Death

This had not been Jennie Hanson’s first brush with death. On December 27, 1884, then Miss Jennie Howard, a pastry cook, ran from her room in her night-clothes and leaped into the elevator as it made its last trip before it was engulfed in flames as Racine’s Blake Opera House was destroyed. Prior to the fire, Miss Howard once was overcome by gas fumes from a stove. After experiencing all these disasters, she claimed that in times of excitement her head pounded but she did not cry.

In addition to her brother, Jennie Hanson had other relatives who lived in Racine. She was the daughter of William J. Howard of 2036 N. Main St., and the sister of Mrs. Christ Brotherson who lived at 942 Forest St. On August 25, 1915, Jennie married Elmer Emerson, a woodworker who by 1920 was a mail carrier. They first lived at 717 Eighth St. and later at 1214 Center St.

Through the years Mrs. Emerson was interviewed several times about her terrible ordeal concerning the Titanic, but she refused an opportunity to appear on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” radio program in 1939. Jennie Emerson died on December 15, 1952, a few days before her 86th birthday. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Racine, beside her second husband who died eight years later. The headstone includes a memorial to Jennie’s first husband Peter Hanson who died on the Titanic.

Researched and written by: Evelyn Lajiness
© Racine Heritage Museum – The Outlook Newsletter