By Kim Hone-McMahan
Beacon Journal staff writer
Joan Conaway cradled the doll in her arms, gingerly brushed a stray hair away from the baby’s porcelain face. If only the toy could talk, what a tale she would tell.
“She might tell us how scary the whole nightmare on the Titanic was,” said the Kent resident, staring at the doll. “Wow, how far she has come.”
The doll was owned by Conaway’s aunt, Joan Wells, who was 4 years old when she, her mother, Addie Dart Wells, a younger brother, Ralph, and the doll survived the sinking of the Titanic.
“I’m sure that Joan held onto this for dear life,” said Conaway, whose aunt died young — long before Conaway was born.
Next weekend is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy. The ship, on its maiden voyage, struck an iceberg on the night of April 14 and sank in the early morning of April 15. More than 1,500 souls were lost to the icy waters of the Atlantic, including three who were headed to Akron. Of the slightly more than 700 survivors, nine — all from Cornwall, England — wound up in Akron, a city that was flush with jobs in the rubber industry.
Throughout the years, some of the survivors’ stories were told to the Beacon Journal. Descendants have also been able to fill in some blanks, or surprise us with remarkable memorabilia, like a century-old doll.
In the case of Addie Wells, we are thrust back in time by a story published in this newspaper less than a week after the tragedy.
Addie’s husband, Arthur, and her brother, Abednegi Trevaskis, had arrived in Akron a couple of years earlier and were working for B.F. Goodrich. The heyday of the tin mining industry in their hometown was fading and America was the place for new hope.
Eager to join her husband, Addie boarded the ocean liner with her youngsters. And it probably didn’t take long for her to figure out that traveling second class did not afford her the same privileges as first-class folks — meaning news didn’t always arrive with as much urgency.
Medina’s Iris Stacey, who is Conaway’s cousin, remembers hearing their grandmother, Addie, and other adults talk about the night the ship sank.
“She had put the children to bed and took a stroll with a friend,” Stacey recalled. “But when it got too cold, Grandma headed back to the cabin. And that’s when she felt the jolt.”
There was a scurry of activity outside the door as people spread word of possible trouble.
After dressing her children, Addie maneuvered her way through the labyrinth of corridors, eventually finding her way up on deck. Below, she could hear the people locked in steerage screaming for help.
An officer was shouting instructions.
“This way,” the man said, hustling Addie and the children into a lifeboat. “Come on here, lively now, this way, women and children.”
In her interview with the Beacon Journal, Addie said the men on deck were somber as they watched the lifeboats being lowered into the water.
“As we got away, we saw a lot of wild-eyed men come rushing up from steerage, but they were met by a man with a gun who pushed them back into a crowd of men and said, ‘Stand back there now. The first word out of you and I’ll…’ I didn’t catch the rest.”
As Stacey and Conaway remember being told, the women scooted their children beneath their skirts so they would remain warm.
“There were 40 or 50 in our boat and I couldn’t get a chance to sit down, but stood up keeping the babies warm and dry in my skirts,” Addie told a reporter.
Addie and the others watched in horror from their lifeboat as the Titanic rapidly slid into the sea, the wailing cries of the dying drifting from the mighty vessel.
Among the dead were Richard George Hocking, age 22, a baker; Andrew Percy Bailey, 18, a butcher’s assistant; and Henry Cotterill, 21, a carpenter — all headed for Akron.
After several hours in the biting cold, the survivors were rescued by the ocean liner Carpathia and taken to New York. But once on board, Addie, a feisty 29-year-old mother, refused to go into the belly of the ship. Instead, she remained with her youngsters on deck. After watching what had happened to the Titanic, Addie was worried that the Carpathia might sink as well.
Back in Akron, Addie’s husband and brother kept vigil with other men at the telegraph office waiting for word of their loved ones. In desperation, the pair visited the Beacon Journal in search of information.
“It was with shaking fingers and tear-filled eyes that Mr. Wells fumbled about in his card case for a picture of his wife and children that they might be published in the Beacon Journal… ” a reporter wrote. “And it was with difficulty that he controlled his voice enough to tell of the little family that had started out joyously and confidently last Wednesday to meet their husband and father, from the little England home.”
The men received word that their loved ones were spared; they left at 6:20 p.m. on April 16 on a train bound for New York to meet the surviving passengers when they arrived.
Safe and living in Akron, Addie eventually gave birth to two more children: Charles, Stacey’s dad, and Arthur, Conaway’s father, both of whom are deceased.
In a 1951 Beacon Journal story, Ellen Neads Wilkes, then 87, who was on the Titanic with her sister, Elizabeth Neads Hocking, talked to a reporter about the night she escaped death’s icy fingers.
“It was awful. The [lifeboat] rowers had to hurry to get away from the suction from the sinking ship,” she said. “It rocked lifeboats a quarter mile away. Many people with life preservers on were drawn down with the Titanic.”
She questioned why the ship’s officers weren’t watching out for icebergs.
“It was known they were all about. But, no, they wouldn’t [acknowledge the danger because] ‘the Titanic is unsinkable,’ they said. Well, there’s nothing too big for the Lord to destroy, I’ve always said.
“There weren’t enough lifeboats or life preservers for all the passengers. They had said they weren’t needed.”
Relic of the disaster
Joan Wells’ doll, which was never named, was a source of entertainment for little girls in the family over the years. But more often than not, the attic of a family member was its home.
“It was used, abused, accused and refused,” said Joan Conaway, laughing.
On an Easter Day in the early ’90s, Conaway’s father declared he wanted her to have it. After all, he noted, she was his sister’s namesake and the first granddaughter.
Along with her parents, Conaway took the doll to Toland Dolls in Fairlawn for restoration. Turns out, it’s a common Floradora doll from that era. Its body is filled with sand and covered in kid leather.
But it’s far more than the little white teeth, bendable joints and curly hair that makes this baby doll priceless.
“I’m not the owner of the doll — I’m only the caretaker,” Conaway said. “It belongs to the family.”
A family who wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for a spunky young mother who found her way into a lifeboat and kept her children alive by enveloping them in love and the layers of her skirt.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.