The (Not Very) Mysterious Case of the Titanic Widow Who Was Not a Titanic Widow

I’m a history nerd. History was always one of my best subjects and I still wonder why I never followed an early impulse in my sometimes misbegotten collegiate career to minor in it. Whatever bent of mind one needs to think like a historian, I’ve got it.

I’ve often avoided blogging about historical subjects out of concern that others will assume anything tagged “history” is boring and avoid it. I don’t care anymore; it’s interesting to me.

I’m most interested in the last 150 years, in general. That’s may be the easy way out for anyone making a serious study of history and hey, that’s fine. As for me, I’m not in school and don’t give a damn about making a good grade.

The preceding explains this post and any future posts in this vein. Years ago I learned there were many online resources to view old newspapers and I’ve been a little addicted to whatever I could get my hands on ever since.

Up front: of course old newspapers are not reliable sources for historical data. They present fascinating snapshots of the world as it was at a given moment in time, where peoples’ heads were at. Lately I’ve been into papers published exactly 100 years ago, in 1914. I have a half-assed theory that the 14th year of a given century is often the flashpoint year. It’s the year when the engines of history kick it up another gear and it gets real, everywhere. Studying the way history sometimes rhymes or parallels current events is always, at the least, instructive.

I’ve been looking for signal events prior to the beginning of World War I in old papers, and there are some… however, it’s also easy to find other fascinating stories. The following is a good example.

Published in the Washington Herald and nationwide on 2/25/1914

Published in the Washington Herald and nationwide on 2/25/1914

The story detailed above seems like tragedy piled on tragedy. Herman Klaber’s widow lost her husband when the Titanic sank in April, 1912. Less than two years later, she found happiness again, only to end up dead at the hands of an ex-lover.

Look deeper and this story is a good example of why I noted that old newspapers aren’t always reliable sources for historical data. This is from Encyclopeda Titanica’s entry about Herman Klaber:

Herman Klaber was married in 19072 to Gertrude Ginsberg, a native of Sacramento, California. The Klabers had one child, a daughter, Bernice, who was born on 8 February 1910 in Portland, Oregon. […] After Klaber’s death on the Titanic, Gertrude took Bernice and went back to Sacramento to live with her parents. Gertrude never remarried after her husband’s death on the Titanic. She died on 17 March 1961.

What?

Garbled reporting, that’s what. Here’s the real tale of the unfortunate Mrs. S. L. Johnson, also from Encyclopeda Titanica:

[After Klaber’s death] Cash awards of $1,000 went to Congregations Beth Israel in Tacoma and San Francisco, clerks and secretaries and hops yard workers. Sums of $25,000 went to nieces Dorothy Danhauser and Elsa Kaufman of Tacoma. Danhauser was a singer in Tacoma. She married a Sherman Clay piano salesman named Sidney Johnson, son of a Tacoma Times editor. In 1914, Dorothy and Sidney Johnson got married. The Johnsons honeymooned in San Francisco, where she was murdered by a spurned lover named Abraham Pepper.

So, the “Titanic Widow” was Herman Klaber’s niece. Her death was tragic (and worth a deeper dive for a true crime historian, maybe), but this proves something still true today: sometimes the first report is the worst report.

I could’ve blogged about this as a standing mystery, not a puzzle easily solved with a few more Google searches. A lot of people might have made those searches and untangled things in the comments, but most wouldn’t bother. It’s likely there were people reading papers in 1914 who remarked on the story, took it at face value and thought it tragic and never knew the finer details. With all the information we have at our fingertips now, we haven’t really changed much that way.

It’s an extra tangent to add to an already tangent-filled blog post, but the history of Herman Klaber the man is far more interesting than this snapshot suggests. If you read the full article at Encyclopedia Titanica, you find out Klaber was Tacoma’s “King of Hops.” He was one of the wealthier men aboard the Titanic, worth several million in today’s dollars. His body was never recovered. Klaber, Wa., the company town that depended on Herman Klaber’s hops harvesting business for its survival, faded. Klaber has its own zip code, but it’s farms and fields, now.

This is why I’m a history nerd, though. This tangle of things. One question about a dramatic headline published 100 years ago today led me to the Titanic and a glance at a northwestern company town that rose and faded in the aftermath of that disaster.

[Encyclopedia-Titanica]

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