The chance to board the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic was too great a thrill to pass up for the adventurous young Bertha Mulvihill, and adventure she got. Like all the passengers on the Titanic, the sinking of the vessel gave her a hard look at her own mortality.
More than that, however, it brought her face to face with panic and dishonor, hostility and cowardice and even murder. The tragedy would dampen her adventurous spirit forever. She would from that night on avoid the water, never to sail or even swim again. And her rescue, and the events leading up to it, was a story she would retell for the rest of her life.
Mulvihill’s life up until April 11, 1912 had already been an adventure by most standards, and a rather pleasant one at that. She had left her native Ireland as a young woman to live with her aunt Kate in Providence, R.I. After trying different jobs, at 24 she landed a job waitressing at the Perry House in Newport.
She was also engaged to an Englishman, Henry Noon, who had a good job as a master welder at Browne and Sharpe Manufacturing in Providence. Henry gave her three gold treasures: a pocket watch, a bracelet and a cross on a chain.
In the summer of 1911 she travelled on the Lusitania to Westmeath, Ireland, to visit her large family. She stayed through the winter, helping her sister Kitty prepare for her wedding in the spring of 1912. By April, Bertha wanted to go home for her own wedding to Henry. She decided to surprise him and return to Providence, where she would stay with her sister.
Boarding the Titanic at Queenstown
When Bertha heard about the maiden voyage of the Titanic, she didn’t hesitate. She bought a third-class ticket for 7 pounds, 15 shillings (about $1,000 today) to sail from the ship’s last port of call in Queenstown (now Cobh, County Cork). Most of the passengers who embarked with her were third-class Irish immigrants, hoping for a better life in America.
Two of Bertha’s Irish friends boarded with her: Maggie Daly, 30, and her cousin Eugene Daly, a 29-year-old mechanic. Eugene played Erin’s Lament on his uilleann pipes for his fellow third-class passengers as the Titanic sailed from Queenstown. He would later claim $50 for their loss. Salvagers found similar pipes, perhaps his, from the wreck.
Bertha and Maggie shared a room, sleeping in bunk beds next to the boilers in the lower deck.
What happened next has been told countless times: Capt. Edward Smith plowed through the icy waters 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, ignoring warnings about icebergs. Just before midnight the Titanic struck an iceberg on the starboard side. The ship’s bell rang three times.
Panic and Confusion
Bertha was nearly thrown from her bed. Eugene came to check on her and Maggie and found them awake and confused. He urged them to get dressed, and they threw coats over their nightdresses. Bertha grabbed the jewelry Henry gave her, her rosary beads and her prayer book. She, Eugene and Maggie climbed to the deck above them, but they couldn’t get to the outer deck.
“Every time we went up a stair they were locked,” recalled Bertha. The doors would be locked until the upper-class passengers boarded lifeboats. Two-thirds of the first-class passengers survived the sinking of the Titanic, but only a third of the third-class passengers did.
Passengers were shrieking and water was coming in. Bertha, Maggie and Eugene reached the top of a passage and couldn’t get out, so they knelt and prayed in the gangway. Bertha saw a sailor she met on the voyage and cried, “We’re lost!” The sailor told them they were in danger and showed them a way to the outer deck.
When they reached the deck, they saw no boats going off. They went to the second cabin deck. Some of the men from steerage were screaming and fighting to get into the lifeboats,
Bertha told the Providence Journal, “Capt. Smith stood at the head of the passageway. He had a gun in his hand.”
“Boys,” he said, “you’ve got to do your duty here. It’s the women and children first, and I’ll shoot the first man who jumps into a boat.”
Bertha may have been mistaken about the identity of the officer with a revolver. Many survivors, however, said they heard gunshots fired as the Titanic sank. Eugene later wrote a detailed description of an actual shooting.
According to Eugene, a terrible crowd stood about. “Two men tried to break through and he shot them both. I saw him shoot them. I saw them lying there after they were shot. One seemed to be dead. The other was trying to pull himself up at the side of the deck, but he could not. I tried to get to the boat also, but was afraid I would be shot and stayed back. Afterwards there was another shot and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him.”
Eugene dived into the water and grabbed onto a collapsible lifeboat. Bertha and Maggie jumped into a lifeboat as it was lowered. Bertha described the leap as a distance of three building stories. She broke her ribs when she landed and other passengers jumped on top of her.
The Longest Night
In the overcrowded lifeboat, Bertha was thirsty, nauseous, frightened, wet, cold and in pain.
She watched the lights of the Titanic as the water crept higher and higher and then went out. As the ship began to go dark, she heard two explosions. Bertha recalled the sinking of the Titanic at 2:30 a.m.
“The vessel quivered and seemed to settle,” she said. “Then she leaned over on the other side a little and slowly sank to her grave. I think I heard the band playing.” The Titanic took with her 1,522 lives.
From the boat she saw Margaret Rice. Margaret, a woman from her hometown in Ireland, stood on the deck of the Titanic, doomed to go down with the ship along with her four boys clinging to her skirts.
The Evil Ice Cake
All through the night Bertha watched as a large ice cake drifted back and forth, irritating her every time it bumped into the lifeboat. According to the Encyclopedia Titanica, she noticed the ice cake that kept ramming the side of the boat. As the night passed, it annoyed her more and more.
The ice cake seemed to follow them, and always hit the lifeboat just below Bertha.
Through the cold hours she came to view the ice cake as some sort of evil living entity taunting her. … Finally just before dawn a smaller “ice cake” floated up and it came between the bigger “evil” ice cake and the lifeboat just as the bigger one was about to make another assault. When the smaller ice cake blocked the bigger one, Miss Mulvihill began to laugh out loud uncontrollably because her enemy had been thwarted.
She later realized she’d spent much of that horrible night playing a mind game with ice cakes. That way, she could ignore the tragedy, the hunger, the cold and a couple of broken ribs.
Dawn had just started to break when she saw the lights of the RMS Carpathia way off in the distance.
“I spoke to the nearest sailor about it and asked if it possibly could be a vessel coming to us,” she later told an interviewer. “He said it must be a ship’s light but someone spoke up and said it probably was a boat’s light.
“Then two big green lights broke through the mist above it, and we knew it was a ship coming to the rescue. We cheered and cheered. Some cried. I just sat still and offered up a little prayer and (said to) the blessed mother that if I survived I would name my firstborn child Mary, which I did.”
Three days later the Carpathia landed in New York with the 705 Titanic survivors. Henry saw his fiancee’s name on the passenger list in the newspaper. He and Ted Norton, Bertha’s brother-in-law, boarded a train to New York and made their way through the crowds at the dock.
Officials told Bertha and the other Titanic survivors they would have to go to the hospital. Despite her broken ribs, Bertha sneaked away and hid among the luggage. Then she slipped off the vessel and got lost in the crowd. Finally she spotted Henry and crept up behind him, covered his eyes with her hands and said, “Guess who?”
A man on the dock gave her a felt hat, now displayed in a museum in Ireland. Another man gave up his berth on the crowded train to Providence so Bertha could sleep.
Home, Sweet Home
At home she found herself a celebrity, giving interviews to newspaper reporters about her ordeal on the Titanic. She and Henry married in August, four months after her return. A crowd gathered outside her house, and she climbed out a back window to escape them, tearing her veil on a rosebush.
From all accounts, Bertha lived a good life. She and Henry had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. They lived on Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, then moved to a home on Wyndham Avenue in 1928. Bertha created beautiful gardens around her home.
Henry worked setting the print on large bronze plaques on statues and monuments. You can see Henry’s work on the plate on the World War I monument in Providence.
Eugene Daly survived and moved to New York City. He sent a postcard to Bertha, inspiring speculation among Titanic junkies that he had a crush on her. “Rem. me to be ever you friend,” he wrote.
Henry died in 1945. Bertha died on Oct. 15, 1959, and lies buried at St Francis Cemetery, Pawtucket, R.I.
We are indebted to Hidden History of Rhode Island by Glen Laxton and Encyclopedia Titanica. This story about the Titanic was updated in 2021. Images: Feature image of Titanic By Teufelbeutel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17655915.