Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Strange Tale Of The SS Serendipity

 Reading the latest issue of Reader's Digest last night as I awaited drowsiness to overtake me, I landed on one of Your True Stories that captured my attention. It was sent in by Vernon Magnesen, Elmhurst, Illinois. You can read that story online here.

The now mostly forgotten capsizing of the passenger cruise ship SS Eastland in 1915 provides the backdrop. 

It seems Vernon's grandparents were slated to take a cruise on the Eastland, when on the evening of their trip, Henry, his grandfather, got into a ferocious argument with his landlord. This made him ill enough to cancel the trip and save his and his family's lives. Vernon Magnesen refers to this as a "miracle" argument that allowed 22 descendants a shot at life.

Upon further research I found that a young George Halas, had he not missed boarding due to a delay as recounted in this video about the disaster, would not have become Papa Bear of Chicago Bear's fame. Halas, who was twenty years of age at the time of the Eastland tragedy, lived on for another sixty-eight years, establishing himself as a legend in professional football.

Serendipity? I've noticed that disasters are often sources of stories of such "miraculous" tales. And often premonitions are involved.

Novelist Marian Manseau Cheatham parlayed her family lore of her grandparents' premonition about danger for those who boarded the Eastland in the novel Merely Dee.

I discovered that my paternal grandmother had a ticket to that 1915 Western Electric picnic, but the night before the big event, my great-grandmother had a premonition of danger and begged my grandmother not to go. Grandma listened to her mother's pleas and remained safely at home. That weird twist of fate changed our family's destiny, and mine.
In Merely Dee the titular character ignores her mother's premonition and sets off anyway for more of an adventure than she could have imagined.

Finally I want to reference Jay Bonansinga's nonfiction book The Sinking Of The Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy in this connection. Having access to firsthand and eye-witness accounts, as well as archival material, Bonansinga is able to flesh out several premonition stories.

In chapter 2 he relates the story of newlyweds Paul and Louise Jahnke. Louise had a sudden premonition that "Something would happen to the boat." They went anyway, but not before leaving instructions with their landlord about what to do with personal belongings and such in case they didn't return. They didn't.

Also related is the story of a Mrs. J. B. Burroughs, who had a visit from a friend who had a horrible dream of a "ship turned over on its side, and hundreds of corpses lying in a row." The dream was laughed off at first but Mrs. Burroughs later came to recognize it as a divine warning. The details of the dream were uncannily accurate.

Bonansinga's Chapter 2 ends with an account of Western Electric employee Josie Markowski, who endured a week of feelings of dread about her company's picnic trip on the Eastland to the point of having second thoughts about going.

On the morning of departure her mother ironed the dress Josie was to wear, and Josie was struck with the thought that she would never wear it again. Her mother urged her to go anyway and put the bad thought out of her mind lest she "bring it on the boat."

Like many disasters the SS Eastland disaster seems to have left a legacy of warnings heeded and unheeded and quirky twists of fate - all part of the strange world in which we live.


  1. Being a loner, I often get MANY warnings about going about, more times than not I am I went. Add this xMILLIONS of lives...people will tell of the big fish they caught, but the many small ones?

  2. Replies
    1. I recall the big fish, the small fish, and the time the net seemingly came up empty.