On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland. Of the 2,228 passengers and crew members who had set sail across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, we know that only 705 survived.

What many may not know is that several roosters, hens, and chicks were also making the journey on the ship’s maiden voyage. They never reached their new home in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

In April 1912, Mrs. Ella Bertha Holmes White and her good friend, Marie Grice Young, traveled to England and France, where they had purchased some prized French roosters and hens for the farm at Ella’s summer home at Briarcliff Lodge. Together with Ella’s maid, Amelia “Nellie” Bissette, and her manservant, Sante Righini, the two women boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg on April 10. The women’s ticket was No. PC 17760, and they shared first-class cabin C-32.

Briarcliff Lodge

Briarcliff Lodge, a sprawling Tudor-style building in New York’s Westchester County, was built in 1902 as a summer resort hotel by Walter W. Law. The King’s College bought the Briarcliff Lodge in 1955, but the building was abandoned in 1994. A fire on September 20, 2003, destroyed the original 1902 section of the Lodge.

Fifty-five year old Ella White, the wealthy widow of Manhattan businessman John Stuart White, was short and stout with a brash personality. It was reported that she was quite out of shape, which is why she required the assistance of a maid and a manservant.

Tall, soft-spoken and 36 years old, Marie Young was Ella’s opposite. However, the pair was inseparable. The women had been sharing an apartment at Briarcliff Lodge in Westchester County, New York, and often traveled abroad together, collecting art and Russian and Asian antiques.

Oak Room Rob Yasinac

Here is the exterior of the Oak Room, a 1909-addition to Briarcliff Lodge and the one-time apartment of Ella Holmes White and Marie Grice Young.
Photo: Rob Yasinsac /

As the story goes, while boarding the Titanic on April 10, Ella had fallen and twisted her ankle. She was placed under the care of the ship’s doctor, who confined her to her cabin. This left Maria in charge of the roosters and hens, who were being housed near the ship’s galleys on the D deck.

Each day, John Hutchinson, the Titanic’s 26-year-old carpenter, would take Maria below to check on the chickens. (John was also responsible for the welfare of the 9 dogs in the ship’s kennels.) The hens continued to lay eggs in their new surroundings, and Maria would report the day’s count to Ella. As a reward for his kindness, and for having extra crates and labels made for the chickens, Maria tipped John with some gold coins. “It’s such good luck to receive gold on a first voyage,” John reportedly told Maria.

The Fateful Night

Just before the Titanic struck the iceberg, Ella was sitting in her bed and was just about to turn out the light to go to sleep. In her testimony, Ella said that it felt as if the ship were going over about a thousand marbles when it struck the iceberg.

She said they heard no alarms whatsoever. Ella put on several layers of warm clothes, and instructed Marie to do the same. Then they locked their trunks and the two women, along with the maid, Nellie, made it to the top deck via the elevator (although Ella had a walking cane, she still could not climb the stairs.)

Maria Young and Ella Holmes White

Pictured left to right are Marie, Ella, and Ella’s niece, Mrs Harry S. Durand.
Credit: © Michael A. Findlay / Harry Durand Jr., USA

Once on deck, Ella, Marie, and Nellie boarded lifeboat #8 on the ship’s port side. This lifeboat was one of the first to leave the ship, despite the fact that it appeared to be more than half empty.

Although Ella was unable to row with the others, she did contribute by using her cane — which had an electric light in the tip — to try to signal a ship whose lights could be seen nearby. In her testimony at the American Inquiry into the Titanic’s sinking, Ella spared no criticism for the crew in her lifeboat, whom she said were inept and rude. She also said that the Titanic had broken in two before sinking.

“Before we cut loose from the ship two of the seamen with us … took out cigarettes and lighted them on an occasion like that! … All of those men escaped under the pretense of being oarsmen. The man who rowed me took his oar and rowed all over the boat, in every direction. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you put the oar in the oarlock?’ He said, ‘Do you put it in that hole?’ I said ‘Certainly.’ He said, ‘I never had an oar in my hand before.'”

I spoke to the other man and he said, ‘I have never had an oar in my hand before, but I think I can row.’ Those were the men that we were put to sea with at night — with all these magnificent fellows left on board, who would have been such a protection to us. Those were the kind of men with whom we were put out to sea that night. Our head seaman would give an order and those men who knew nothing about the handling of a boat would say, ‘If you don’t stop talking through that hole in your face there will be one less in the boat.'”

Telegraph from Ella Holmes White

This untransmitted telegraph from Ella to her father, E.T. Holmes, reports that she had been saved by the Carpathia. Many of the telegrams written on the Carpathia were unable to be transmitted due to the volume of requests.

Ella Holmes White

Ella Holmes was born in Massachusetts on December 18, 1856. She was the daughter of Edwin T. Holmes and Eliza Ann Richardson Holmes. She was also the great-great granddaughter of Lieutenant Elijah Stearns of Massachusetts, who was in the Massachusetts militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill; Ella was thus a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

She grew up in Brooklyn, and at one point lived with her parents, her sister, Bell, and a servant, Mary Cherry, at 158 Lafayette Ave.

On December 12, 1894, Ella married John Stuart White at her parents’ town house at 32 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. According to his obituary in The New York Times, John died less than three years later, in May 1897.

Edwin Holmes

Ella’s father, Edwin Holmes (1820 – 1901), was an American businessman and the first president of Bell Phone Company. He is credited with commercializing the electromagnetic burglar alarm and with establishing the first burglar alarm networks. (The 1880 census states Edwin’s occupation as “burgler telegraph.”)

Following the Titanic tragedy, Ella and Marie resumed their life together at Briarcliff Lodge and continued traveling and collecting. In 1929, Ella moved from her suite at the Waldorf-Astoria into the Plaza Hotel in New York City, where she died at the age of 85 on January 31, 1942.

Upon her death, the bulk of her estate, including personal effects and a trust to yield $250 per month for life, was left to Marie. According to Ella’s will for probate, Marie had also been living at the Plaza Hotel at the time of Ella’s death.

Marie Grice Young

Marie was born January 5, 1876, in Washington, DC, although according to census records, she spent part of her childhood at 266 Columbia Street in Brooklyn with her parents, Samuel and Maggie Young, and a brother, Wilson.

Marie was a successful musician and was once employed as a music instructor to Miss Ethel Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. She was reportedly fond of wearing hats as high as wedding cakes.

While on board the Carpathia Marie began a narrative of the sinking, which was later published in the National Magazine. Marie Young spent her last days in a rest home in Amsterdam, New York, and died July 27, 1959, at the age of 83.

John Hall Hutchinson and Sante Ringhini

John Hall Hutchinson was born in Woolston, Hampshire, England in 1884. According to reports, he had served on the Olympic before joining the Titanic as a joiner (one who constructs and repairs the woodwork in a ship) in 1912. John Hutchinson may have been the carpenter who reportedly rushed onto the bridge to inform Captain Smith that the forward compartments were flooding fast. John was lost in the Titanic disaster and his body, if recovered, was never identified.

Ella White’s manservant, Sante Righini, was only 22 when he lost his life during the sinking of the Titanic. He had been wearing black pants, a grey overcoat labeled “Sante” and a ring with R.S. on his left finger when he perished. Sante’s body was recovered by the cable ship MacKay Bennett and tagged body #232. The body was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on May 11, 1912, Ella paid to have the body shipped his widow in New York for burial.

C.S. Mackay Bennett

The cable ship Mackay-Bennett was the first of four ships chartered by the White Star Line to recover bodies of Titanic victims. The crew recovered 306 of the 328 bodies that were found, including Sante Righini, Isidor Straus, and John Jacob Astor IV.

If you liked this story, or you’re a dog lover, click here for another true animal tale about the Titanic.

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