Miss May Birkhead
“I was told that Captain Smith shot himself, but, on the other hand, I have heard this contradicted.”
Miss May Birkhead was a 30 year old passenger travelling on the Carpathia to Europe, the ship that rescued Titanic's 712 surviving passengers. According to an article by Dominic Genetti in the Courier-Post, Apr 17, 2012 Birkhead "was born and raised in Louisiana, Mo. The only child of a local dentist, Birkhead gained local prominence as a seamstress."
Louisiana historian Betty Allen notes that "she never married and had no children. She did, however, befriend a reporter, Eric Hawkins, from the New York Herald who was in Louisiana to photograph Champ Clark, a good friend of Birkhead’s father."
According to Allen on the morning of the Titanic disaster Birkhead "had decided that morning that she would just go up and see the sun rise. Although she felt a little bump, she didn’t think anything about it, she got up (to the deck), people were rushing around and so forth, so she never really got to see the sun rise. Pretty soon, when everybody realized that the icebergs were everywhere, and the Titanic had been hit by one, they were the nearest ship.”
The earlier connection with Eric Hawkins from the New York Herald suddenly became very useful. After talking to Hawkins over a radio she became what Genetti describes as "the on-ship reporter." Allen says: "He said to her, write an eyewitness account, if anyone is taking photographs talk with them, and see if you can get the negatives, and we will have them developed. She saw people die ... and in the meantime, she was also trying to help some of the passengers because a lot of them had very little on. They needed clothes.”
Some information on her role during the Carpathia rescue is described in The Washington Post, 30 April 1912:
Sewed for Titanic
Rescued Miss May Birkhead of Pike county Mo, says an exchange, is considered a heroine by the folks back home and all her country peopled including Champ Clark are proud of her. Miss Birkhead was a passenger on the Carpathia when the Titanic victims were picked up and she made herself useful in a thousand ways. An expert seamstress she made undergarments for women and children and fashioned comfortable temporary wraps out of Turkish towels and ship goods of every sort. Miss Birkhead earned the money for a trip to Europe with a dainty new style of white linen lawn shirtwaist which she put on the market The waists are hand - tucked and then embroidered in a vine - stitch sometimes in delicate pink sometimes in blue yellow or faint green. Miss Birkhead is a close friend of Mrs Champ Clark and her daughter Genevieve and passed two months as their guest before departing on the journey for Europe which was interrupted by the Titanic wreck.(The Washington Post, 30 April 1912 › Page 5)
According to Allen, "Hawkins arranged to meet Birkhead at the harbor in New York when the Carpathia arrived, and the newspaper developed the negatives she managed to get. She scooped all the other journalists in the country.”
Her reference to Captain Smith was covered in the New York Herald, April 19, 1912: “I also am told that Captain Smith, of the Titanic shot himself with a pistol as the ship was going down." The The New York Times also covered her account in the April 18, 1912 edition:
Survivors Tell Thrilling Tales
NEW YORK — Miss May R. Birkhead, a passenger on the Carpathia, tells an affecting story of the saving of survivors from rafts and boats, some of them so chilled that they had to be hauled up in bags. One man told her that he was in the smoking-room when the Titanic struck. He went on deck and found the boats being lowered. She continued her story thus: “Before the extent of the damage was even guessed one boat was being lowered, only half-filled. As there were no more ladies near, men got in to fill it. As it was swung off orders were given to row away. When about a mile away we saw one row of the Titanic’s lights disappear, then another, until the final plunge was taken at 2.20 a.m. There was absolutely no panic, though some jumped from the ship and tried to swim to the lifeboats. I was told that Captain Smith shot himself, but, on the other hand, I have heard this contradicted.”(The New York Times, April 18, 1912)
According to Genetti "The editor of the New York Herald was so impressed that he hired Birkhead, and she had a very accomplished career in society reporting. She lived abroad in Europe, eventually moved on to work for the Chicago Tribune and made trips back to Louisiana to visit as well...In 1941, Birkhead, who graduated from Louisiana High School in 1899, passed away. She was brought back to her hometown and is buried next to her mother and father."
Is there any reason to doubt Birkhead's account? Of course it is not a primary account, but there is no reason to believe that she did not accurately report what she heard among the Titanic survivors aboard the Carpathia.