Women and Children First, I

Women and Children First, I

By Melissa Tawn
On the evening of April 14, 1912, the luxury liner RMS Titanic -- the largest, fastest, and purportedly safest passenger ship ever built -- collided with an iceberg in the north Atlantic on its maiden voyage, and sank with a loss of over 1500 lives. Many stories of heroism by passengers and crew have been related, as well as a many stories of cowardice and despicable behavior. Among the latter are the several accounts of men who disguised themselves in women’s cloaks or dresses in order to get a seat in the all-too-scarce lifeboats, where the beleaguered crew members were trying to enforce a “women and children first” policy. These men were execrated and vilified in the press as being cowards and, what is worse, cads. However, in at least one case there may have been another explanation.


Henry Appleman Wilkerson IV was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1898. He never knew his father, a prosperous merchant, who was thrown from his horse and killed three months before the baby’s birth. Henry’s mother never remarried, since the estate her late husband left her -- which included prudent investments in railroad and oil shares -- made her not only financially secure but, in fact, quite rich. She devoted the rest of her life to raising her four children, three daughters and young Henry, as best she could, with the help of two maids and a succession of live-in nurses and, later, governesses. Henry’s three sisters were Elizabeth, aged 4, and the twins Anne and Margaret, aged 1 and a half. All three of them were very active girls, and devoted to the new baby.

For the first two years of his life, young Henry wore skirts, a common practice in the days when cheap or disposable diapers were not available. When he was finally toilet-trained, and it came time to dress him in pants, his mother found that she just couldn’t do it. He was way too pretty. Moreover, Henry himself also refused to wear pants when his nurse tried to dress him in them, and threw a tantrum until she relented. The girls, who played with him as though he was one of their dolls, also insisted. They loved dressing him up in pretty clothes (some of them in fact belonging to their dolls), and he enjoyed it no less. So, by consensus, “the day” was put off again and again, and Henry continued to wear and enjoy dresses just like those of his sisters. During their games, they would call him “Henrietta”, and, pretty soon, he would answer to no other name. His mother, the maids, and the nurses began using that name, and treating him like one of the girls. His mother kept on worrying that this was wrong, but it WAS so much more convenient to have an all-female household and she was sure that he would outgrow this phase in time. Besides, Henrietta was just too pretty for words.

And so, to make a long story short, Henrietta grew up as a girl, and indeed a beautiful one at that. Her sisters were not particularly attractive, since they took after their father more than their mother. Henrietta, on the other hand, was slight and delicate, with her mother’s big eyes, silky blonde hair, rosy cheeks, and long eyelashes. Whenever people came to visit, they would always ooh and aah over such a beautiful young lady and hug her tightly. Everybody predicted that she would have no trouble finding a rich and handsome man to marry.

Since the girls had few outside friends, they played mostly with each other and became very close. They shared all of their feelings and experiences, including the most personal, with no shame or worry. When Elizabeth began having her period, Henrietta, no less than the others, paid careful attention to her story so that she would be ready when it happened to her too.

Still, Mrs. Wilkerson knew in her heart that this couldn’t remain forever. At some point, Henry’s voice would break and his facial and body hair would start to grow, and that would have to be the end of things. After a long period of indecision, she resolved that at the age of 14, Henrietta would become Henry for good and would be sent off to The Haverhall Academy, a boys’ school which his father had attended, which had as its motto “We Make Men”. The time for make-believe would have to be over.

To sweeten the coming of this event (which she secretly dreaded, though not nearly as much as Henrietta did), she resolved that she and “the girls” would have one last major experience together, one which they would always remember. In the summer of 1911, she booked passage for the entire family (plus one of the maids and the girls’ governess) to England, which they would spend the next six months touring. Miss Markham, the governess, filled the girls with the poetry of Keats and Shelly and the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson, as well as endless romantic tales of the Knights of the Round Table and the Wars of the Roses.

For six months, the family toured all of the most romantic British castles and cathedrals, stayed in thatched-roof inns, attended concerts and plays in London and Stratford, and even met with the children of a few minor aristocrats at parties to which Mrs. Wilkerson managed to get them invited. The most important event, however, was that the oldest of the girls, Elizabeth, fell in love. The object of her infatuation was Leonard Stout, from Chicago, who was also touring England with his parents. Leonard’s father owned some hotels on the Chicago Lakeshore area, which were — so he let on — quite successful. Leonard was being given the grand tour of England before being sent to Yale, his father’s alma mater. After that, he was expected to take an executive position in his father’s business. Leonard had beautiful jet-black hair and limpid eyes, as well as a ready wit. He had been trying to grow a stylish moustache, but so far had not been very successful. The Stout and Wilkerson families met in a rather damp and dreary hotel in the Lake Country in December (only American tourists would go to the Lake Country at that time of year, of course), and since Margaret and Leonard got along so well together, they decided to travel together for the rest of their time in England.

Mr. Stout also persuaded Mrs. Wilkerson that both families should book return passage on the new and luxurious ship Titanic, which was scheduled to make its maiden voyage in April. Nothing but the best would do, and everybody knew that the Titanic was not only safe, it was guaranteed unsinkable. It was clear that Elizabeth and Leonard were getting along very well together (Henrietta, Margaret, and Anne knew, of course that things between Leonard and their older sister had gone way beyond the “getting along” stage, but they would die rather than tell) and they agreed to announce the formal engagement of the two young people during the voyage. The representative of the White Star Line promised that if they would do so, the shipping line would be glad to foot the bill for a lavish engagement party -- it would be great publicity after all.

As the day of departure approached, Margaret and her sisters became more and more excited. Mrs. Wilkerson took them all shopping for the most beautiful gowns and accessories. Only Henrietta was depressed, because she knew that this would be the last time she would be wearing such clothes. Her mother wanted to take her to a tailor on Bond Street to have several male suits made for her, but she absolutely refused and sulked in her room until her mother relented. Inside, however, she did know the final day of her “girlhood” was rapidly approaching, and that she had better learn to come to terms with it. In her heart, Henrietta prayed for some medical miracle procedure that could turn her into a girl, but in her head she knew that such things are impossible. She might as well pray that men would be able to fly over the Atlantic or walk on the moon — in a thousand years, it would never happen.

So, when the Wilkerson and Stout families boarded the great liner, Henrietta did so with great foreboding and trepidation. This was going to be the end of her life as she knew it, and the beginning of a new chapter, unknown and terrifying, in her life. Still, she was determined that if she only had a week left as a girl, she would make the most of it, and have as much fun as she could, while she could. Maybe she could even find a boy who would kiss her.

The fateful and tragic story of what happened on the Titanic’s first (and last) voyage need not be repeated here. When the ship struck an iceberg at 11:40 pm, most of the passengers panicked, but Mrs. Wilkerson, remained surprisingly calm and collected. She quickly dressed all of her daughters in warm dresses and cloaks, and, together with the maid and Miss Markham, led them to the first-class lifeboat area, where the crew members were doing their best to direct the women and children to the few available boats.

The girls all held hands, to avoid getting separated. However, on the way, Henrietta noticed a familiar figure hunched up in a corner sobbing pitifully. It was Leonard. She let go of Anne’s hand and ran over to him. He had totally lost control of himself: “I am going to die, I am going to die” he kept on repeating between the sobs he could not control. He was obviously not capable of taking any course of action to save himself. Immediately, Henrietta realized what she had to do. She hugged Leonard tightly, took him by the hand, and dragged him into a nearby empty cabin. “Take off your clothes,” she ordered him. He meekly obeyed her. She then removed her dress, cloak, and bonnet, and handed them to him. “Put these on, she said, and run to Lifeboat #4. Elizabeth should be there. She needs you.” Still sobbing, Leonard obeyed and was gone. He did not even think to thank her.

Then, slowly, for the first time in his life, Henry Appleman Wilkerson IV dressed himself in a man’s shirt and trousers. He went out onto the strongly-listing deck amid the panicking passengers, found a place to sit and there, calmly, prepared himself for the fate that awaited him in the icy waters. In all of her protected girlhood, Henrietta had never learned how to swim.

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