How a mom, 3 kids escaped doomed Titanic

Experience haunted the family for decades afterward

Nellie Estella Baumgardner

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.

Only two months after their wedding in 1898, 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 arrived in southern India in late December.

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 upper class family in Springfield, Ohio, Nellie had no training to handle what she witnessed. Every morning she would find more bodies outside her home. Nellie suffered a nervous breakdown, setting off what would become a lifetime’s worth of mental health struggles.

Despite her state, Nellie became pregnant, giving birth to her daughter, Ruth, on Oct. 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. Nellie gradually recovered, and Ruth met her grandparents. Once again, Nellie became pregnant, delivered a son, Luther, in March 1905. In December, the family returned to India for Rev. Becker to resume his work.

The family’s health struggles continued. Luther, not yet 2 years old, was diagnosed with tetanus and died on Feb. 7, 1907. Once again, Nellie was not given the space and time to grieve, and immediately became pregnant again, delivering a daughter, Marion, on Dec. 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.

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 29-day journey by boat, Nellie and her children arrived in London. 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. Despite Nellie’s worries, the family was amazed at the grandeur of the ship.

“We were charmed with this lovely, large boat,” Nellie wrote. “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.”

For the rest of her life, Ruth would be able to recall the exact layout of their room.

“Our cabin was on the port side 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.

Shortly after 11:40 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Nellie awoke with a start. Something was wrong. Nellie initially encountered 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.

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.

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!

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!”

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.

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.

“The lights were just going under the water as it went down and I remember that very plainly,” 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 40 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 30 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. Ruth recalled 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.”

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.”

Just before dawn, a light appeared on the horizon. It was the Cunard liner Carpathia steaming toward 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.

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 boat deck. Four hours later, the occupants of Nellie’s lifeboat were finally rescued.

Nellie recalled four sailors carried her into the dining saloon where she saw her two youngest children being tended to by the doctor. 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.

“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.

“We heard how there were not enough lifeboats, and nearly all the men and many women and children had gone down with the Titanic. … Oh, the horror of it all,” 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.

On April 18, 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.

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 was never again allowed to speak of the event in her presence without Nellie breaking down.

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.

Meanwhile, in 1927 Rev. Becker and Nellie moved to Princeton so he could pastor 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.

Nellie’s mental state had been affected by her time in India, the loss of her son, and her terrifying experience on the Titanic. It was compounded by her fear for her children’s 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, with the influx of returning 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. Although her remains were brought to Princeton and buried at Oakland Cemetery, Nellie refused to go to her funeral, having cut off communication years prior.

In 1956, Rev. Becker passed away in Eau Claire, Michigan, at the age of 84, always regretful he was unable to return to India and resume his missionary work. Although the couple 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 became the third Titanic survivor buried at Oakland.

Ruth only really began to unpack her experiences in 1982, when she was 83, 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.

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 surface, 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, her remains were cremated, and her ashes scattered over the wreck of the Titanic.

For an extended version of the article, visit The 1912 Exhibit opens on March 2 and will run through Dec. 13. For more information, call 815-875-2184.

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).

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