FOCUS: A survivor’s story

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Huntington woman escaped death in 1912 sinking of Titanic, but lost husband

Monday marked 130 years since the union of two of West Virginia’s most prominent political families brought about the birth of a girl whose life would lead her to a fateful night, 18 years later, where she would be a part of one of most infamous disasters in world history.

Mary Eloise Hughes was born in Huntington on Aug. 7, 1893, the daughter of James A. Hughes, who had served a term a few years earlier as a Kentucky representative, and Belle Vinson Hughes, part of the Vinson political family, whose members have served in both Virginia and West Virginia offices.

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When Eloise was seven, her father was elected as a Republican as a congressman from West Virginia and the family spent the bulk of their time in Washington, D.C. 

Growing up in the nation’s capital, Eloise and her family were acquainted with many a political leader. She, along with her sister, were even introduced to resident Theodore Roosevelt and his family in her adolescence.

Upon her debut to society in 1912 at the age of 18, Eloise won the heart of Lucian P. Smith, of Morgantown, West Virginia, a member of a prominent Pennsylvania family, who had recently graduated from West Virginia University.

Lucian P. Smith

According to the family’s accounts, Lucian was shown, by a mutual friend, a photo of Eloise. He was taken with her beauty and traveled to Huntington to meet her.  

Their courtship was short and a wedding took place on Feb. 8, 1912 at Central Christian Church in Huntington. Afterward, the couple went on a honeymoon abroad, visiting Egypt and the Middle East, before winding up their trip in Europe.

It is said that the couple decided to cut their travels short when Eloise discovered she was pregnant.

“‘Lucian is getting so anxious to get home and drive the car and fool around on the farm. We leave here Sunday,” Eloise wrote her family, going on to regale them about the sights she had seen. “I will love so much to tell my Sunday School class when I get home.”

The Smiths started to book a ticket on the RMS Lusitania, a liner known for its speed (and which would become infamous three years later, when it was sunk by a German torpedo during World War I), but ultimately decided they wanted to cross the Atlantic in the new luxury liner of the White Star Line, the RMS Titanic, set to make its maiden voyage.

Booking a first class ticket, the newlyweds were assigned to a cabin on its high C Deck, near the front of the ship and boarded it on April 10, 1912, the day Titanic departed Southhampton, England.

The voyage was to have taken one week, with the couple to arrive in New York City on April 17. 

Aboard the state-of-the-art liner, things went smoothly the first three days, with the Smiths socializing with other passengers and enjoying the ship’s amenities.

On the night that would go down in history, they had ended their day with dinner in the Titanic’s Café Parisian and Eloise went to bed for the evening. Lucian had decided to stay up, enjoying a game of bridge with three French passengers, when the ship struck the iceberg that would doom it.

The RMS Titanic is seen departing for its maiden and only voyage, leaving Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, three days before the ship’s collision with an iceberg and sinking. (Public domain)

After crew deduced that the vessel would go down, Lucian went to the cabin to wake his wife, calmly telling her, “We are in the north and have struck an iceberg. It does not amount to anything, but will probably delay us a day getting into New York. However, as a matter of form, the captain has ordered all ladies on deck.”

On the boat deck, the couple were waiting in the ship’s gymnasium when the earliest of the lifeboats began to be launched, under the order of “Women and children first.”

Lucian was not allowed to enter the boat and Eloise approached the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, stating that she was otherwise alone and hoped for an exception, but she was denied.

Lucian told the captain that he would make sure that his wife got into the boat.

Like many of the ship’s passengers, Eloise was hesitant to board the tiny craft, preferring to stay on the ship, not realizing the severity of the damage it had sustained.

Lucian told his wife, “I never expected to ask you to obey, but this is one time you must. It is only a matter of form to have women and children first.” 

He assured his wife that the Titanic was fully equipped and that he would be saved as well. Eloise asked if this was absolutely honest, to which he replied, “Yes.”

It was the last she would see of him.

She entered lifeboat No. 6, which, due to the hesitancy of passengers, only contained 28 people, far short of its capacity of 65. Alongside her in the boat was Margaret Brown, the Colorado millionaire who would be immortalized in the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” while working the oars was Frederick Fleet, the Titanic’s watchman who had earlier spotted the iceberg.

Commanding the ship was quartermaster Robert Hitchens, who became a source of controversy following the disaster for refusing to go back to pick up others and fill the boat. Brown, in the course of her arguments with Hitchens, had threatened to throw him overboard. Eloise would later recount these arguments in her telling of the disaster.

The Titanic’s lifeboat number six is seen from the deck of the RMS Carpathia, the morning after the sinking. Mary Eloise Hughes Smith was one of the survivors on board. (Public domain)

At 2:20 a.m. the Titanic sank beneath the waves, a little over an hour after Eloise had departed the ship. With a scarcity of lifeboats, the disaster claimed the lives of more than 1,500 of its 2,224 passengers.

Among those lost was Lucian, whose body was never found.

Thanks to the telegraph, word of the sinking traveled to the United States before the rescue ship, the RMS Carpathia arrived with the survivors from the lifeboats. A media circus awaited at the docks and Eloise was quickly ushered away from the mob of reporters by her waiting father, the congressman, who took her first to the city’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, before putting her on a train home to Huntington.

A memorial for Lucian took place in May at Central Christian Church, where, just two months earlier, the Smiths had been married. Their son, Lucian Jr., was born in November. 

Two years after the disaster, Eloise remarried to Robert Daniel, another first class passenger she had met on the Carpathian. They were together nine years before divorcing.

Eloise was active in politics, particularly on the issue of women’s suffrage and was a popular speaker in her community.

In 1923, she married Lewis Cort Jr., but was widowed again, four years later, when he died at 36 from health conditions related to injuries he sustained in World War I a decade earlier.

Her final marriage, to C.S. Wright, of Charleston, West Virginia, was a short one and ended in divorce.

In the later years, Eloise began using the name of her first husband and often appeared at churches and public gatherings to share her story. She was in the early stages of writing a book on the Titanic in her last years.

Her tumultuous life came to an end, when she died of a heart attack at 46 in 1940. She is buried in Huntington’s Spring Hill Cemetery, under a modest marker near her family.

In Huntington’s west end, Eloise and her family are remembered, with Eloise, Lucian and Vinson streets intersecting with Hughes Street in the Westmoreland neighborhood.

Recommended reading:

“Gilded Tragedy: West Virginia’s Titanic Widow” by Brandon Whited, 2019. Published through 
  “Mary Eloise Smith – Titanic survivor,”