Mr. George A. Kessler

George Kessler
Saloon Passenger
Saved
Michael Poirier Collection/National Archives
Born 23 January 1863
Died 13 September 1920 (age 57)
Paris, France
Age on Lusitania 52
Ticket number 46162
Cabin number A 23
Lifeboat collapsible
Rescued by Bluebell
Citizenship United States
Residence New York City, New York, United States
Spouse(s) Cora Parsons (? – 1920), his death

George Kessler (1863 – 1920), 52, was a United States national from New York City, New York, United States.  He owned a wine import company and was also known as the Champagne King.  Kessler survived the Lusitania disaster, after which he teamed up with Helen Keller to establish a relief fund for soldiers and sailors blinded by the war.  The organization he helped found still exists today as Helen Keller International.

Contents

  1. A life of extravagance
  2. Safety concerns aboard Lusitania
  3. Disaster
  4. Aiding those blinded by war
  5. Death and legacy
  6. Related pages
  7. Links of interest

 

A life of extravagance


George Kessler was born on 23 January 1863.  He owned a wine import company called George A. Kessler and Co. at 20 Beaver Street in New York City.  He was married to Cora Parsons Kessler, and he also had a brother-in-law named Samuel Roberts in the same city.  In England, Kessler had a house on the Thames River at Bourne End.  He often gave extravagant parties which would convert the Savoy into Venice or the North Pole.

Safety concerns aboard Lusitania 


Aboard Lusitania, his cabin was A 23, which had cost $380.  Kessler often kept company with Fred and Mabel Pearson.  Kessler was carrying with him two million dollars in stocks and bonds, as he was a firm believer in keeping possessions within plain sight.  He told Purser James McCubbin that it was “[m]uch safer this way.”

On Sunday, 2 May, Kessler had seen the crew’s lifeboat drill and asked Purser James McCubbin, “It’s all well drilling your crew, but why don’t you drill your passengers?”

McCubbin referred Kessler to Captain Turner, and on Monday Kessler came to visit Turner in his day room to ask about preparations made due to the “torpedo scare.”

“Then I have a suggestion,” Kessler said, “I think it would be an excellent idea if each passenger was given a ticket listing the number of the boat he should make for, in case, you know, anything untoward happens.”

Turner only gave the impression of being annoyed and replied firmly, “The company has already considered such a suggestion, Mr. Kessler.  It was made to them after the Titanic disaster, but they considered it would not be practicable.”

Kessler was not satisfied with Turner’s answer and did not hesitate to say so.  Turner only responded with, “But Mr. Kessler, you must understand that I could not possibly act on your advice unless I had received authority.”

A Marconigram arrived for Kessler on Wednesday, 5 May, stating thus: “HAVE URGENT INSTRUCTIONS FROM NEW YORK TO SEE YOU IMMEDIATELY KINDLY WIRE BY MARCONI NAME YOUR HOTEL LONDON SO THAT I CAN CALL ON YOU ON ARRIVAL.” Of course, as a wartime precaution, the Lusitania only allowed passengers to receive messages, not to send them.

On Thursday 6 May, Kessler threw his own party in his cabin.  In attendance were Goldiana Morell, Fred Gauntlett, Samuel Knox, Albert Hopkins, Charles Lauriat, Theodate Pope, Edwin Friend, Isaac Lehmann, and Fred and Mabel Pearson. Staff Captain Anderson stopped by and George Kessler asked Anderson the reason why Turner still had not introduced a lifeboat drill for the passengers.

“Can you explain it?”  Kessler asked Anderson.

“That is the Captain’s decision.” was all Anderson could say.

Disaster


On the afternoon of 7 May, Kessler went to the smoking room for a game of bridge.  He had also bought the number 480 in the pool for £20.  Fred Pearson and Charles Klein were also in the room, talking about church organs.  Klein asked Kessler, “Didn’t you know that Fred and I are the Aeolian Company’s best customers?”

After the torpedo hit, Kessler went outside to find the deck “crowded with passengers and wondering what was the matter.”

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Monday, 10 May 1915, page 2:

Looked at His Watch as Torpedo Flashed By

“I was standing on the [starboard] A deck smoking [a cigar] when all at once I distinctly saw the wake of a torpedo as it came rushing at us.  It struck us exactly at 2:03 o’clock [sic, compare the times he repeats later].  I know this because my watch was in my hand at the time.

“I was calm even after we were struck and felt no alarm, nor did any of the saloon passengers.  We lived in a fool’s paradise of disbelief that anything in the line of torpedoes possibly could badly injure the Lusitania. We [with Robert Timmis and Ralph Moodie] calmly put the women in the boats, but did it simply in a spirit of convention [he said these words to Timmis]. None of us believed it was necessary.

“All the men in the saloon were smiling.  I went forward to the captain’s bridge and started to help some of the women into a boat, when there was a sudden list. I found myself thrown into a boat which up to then had been unlowered.  It was about fifty feet above the watermark. This boat was immediately lowered and before we reached the water the Lusitania had settled about twenty feet.

“Scarcely had we got the boat clear of the falls when the Lusitania disappeared before our very eyes.  It was too sudden to describe; It just happened.  Immediately there was a tremendous suction and the boat overturned. I, with the other occupants, probably fifty or sixty in all — as thrown into the water and dragged down.  How far down I went or how long I remained under water I cannot tell. It seemed a lifetime.

“When I finally came to the surface the boat had disappeared and hot one of my companions was to be seen.  I swam almost involuntarily, how long I do not know, but finally I came to a collapsible boat with eight men in it, six of whom were stokers.  I slambered into the boat, which was half filled with water.  We tried bailing and balancing, but the boat would tilt and turn and finally capsized again.  We clambered aboard again, and again we bailed and balanced and again it turned turtle.  It seemed impossible to keep it righted, but we did this eight times.  [The crowd clamoring to get inside the boat climbed to fifty men and women.]

Big, Husky Stokers Die, Elderly Men Survive

“These six stokers that I mentioned were big, husky young fellows, apparently as strong as lions, but would you believe it, when we were picked up by a trawler they were lying dead, through exhaustion or drowning, in our boat which was half filled with water?

“There they were, dead — six strong young men — only three out of the nine, and one of them a pretty old man, like myself, were alive.  How I stood the three hours’ struggle is more than I can understand.”

“How long was it between the striking of the torpedo and the sinking of the Lusitania?” Mr. Kessler was asked.

“Exactly twenty-five minutes.  She was struck at 2:15 and sank exactly at 2:30 [sic, 30 minus 15 is not 25].  Look!  Here is my watch — see, it is stopped just at 2:30, when I was thrown into the water when the vessel sank.”

Dramatically he drew forth a gold watch with its care tarnished by the salt water.

Then followed a more dramatic incident.  About him, listening to his tale, were a dozen fellow survivors.  They exclaimed:

“You are right — look at my watch,” and a dozen watches were flashed, all but one showed the hour to be 2:30; the other showed 2:33.

Asked what became of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mr. Kessler said, “I am certain he perished.”

It was Kessler who indentified the body of Charles Frohman.

Readers may interpret Kessler’s escape from the ship as his entering a lifeboat when it became obvious that the ship was sinking.  He later clarified that after he was thrown out of his lifeboat, even with his lifejacket, he sank twenty feet before rising to the surface. When Kessler saw the Lusitania slip beneath the waves from his collapsible, he at once blurted, “My God — the Lusitania‘s gone!”

While Kessler was in the water and bailing out his collapsible, he vowed that if he survived, he would dedicate himself to helping victims of war.

Kessler was taken aboard the Bluebell.  After his collapsible had capsized and bailed out at least seven times only three managed to swim back at the very end.  Nine others in the boat were long since dead.

Aiding those blinded by war


While hospitalized in England, Kessler met Sir Arthur Pearson, a blind English newspaper publisher.  Pearson told Kessler about St. Dunstan’s, a center Pearson started for men who were blinded by the war.  After Kessler was reunited with his wife Cora in France, he decided that he would help those soldiers who had been blinded by the war.

On 11 November 1915, George and Cora Kessler organized the British, French, Belgian Permanent Blind Relief War Fund in Paris, France.  Leaving the European operations to French veteran Georges Raverat, the Kesslers returned to the United States where they met Helen Adams Keller, who gave them her full support.  The Permanent War Relief Fund’s main office opened in Paris in 1918, and the American office opened the following year as the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund for Soldiers and Sailors of the Allies.  Cora Kessler and Helen Keller were founding trustees.  The Kesslers and Keller continued their fundraising efforts, and they established training programs for Allied soldiers and sailors blinded in combat.

Death and legacy


On 13 September 1920, Kessler died of an enlarged liver in Paris.  His estate received, posthumously, $35 000 to compensate for four hours in the water, shock, and contusions.  William Cromwell succeeded Kessler in the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund for Soldiers and Sailors of the Allies.  The Fund expanded to start serving civilians in 1925 and became the American Braille Press for War and Civilian Blind.  The organization became the world’s leading Braille press.  European efforts were temporarily brought to a standstill in World War II when the Nazi requisitioned the Paris headquarters.  When the Nazis were melting down all metal for munitions, Raverat and his associates hid the zinc plates needed to print Braille books until the liberation of Paris in 1944.

Helen Keller continued to be actively involved in the cause, writing books, lecturing, and appearing before state, national, and international forums until her death in 1968.

Studies in the 1970s linking blindness with nutrition led the organization to expand focus to blindness prevention and treatment programs.  The organization Kessler founded is known today as Helen Keller International (also known as Helen Keller Worldwide), working with scientists and doctors to save the sight and lives of the disadvantaged and combat the causes of blindness.

On 11 September 2001, Helen Keller International’s headquarters at 90 West Street, New York, New York were destroyed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed in the terror attacks on the United States.  Archives of Helen Keller’s letters, books, and photographs were lost, as well as telephone, email, fax capabilities and their electronic history and database.  Fortunately, none of their employees were hurt, but the organization was suddenly homeless.

Helen Keller International moved into 352 Park Avenue South in New York on 22 October 2001.  Amazingly, no international programs were interrupted because of the terror attacks.

Related pages


George Kessler at the Mixed Claims Commission

Links of interest


Helen Keller International


Contributors:
Michael Poirier

References:
Helen Keller International – History.  Online.  <http://www.hki.org/about_hkw/history.html>

Hickey, Des and Gus Smith.  Seven Days to Disaster.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981.

Hoehling, A. A. and Mary Hoehling.  The Last Voyage of the Lusitania.  Madison Books, 1956.

“Looked at His Watch as Torpedo Flashed By,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Monday, 10 May 1915, page 2.

“When the Aid Group is the Victim:  Helen Keller Worldwide, A Comeback Story.”  InterAction.org Library.   Online.  <http://www.interaction.org/library/detail.php?id=897>

Preston, Diana.  Lusitania:  An Epic Tragedy.  Berkley Books, 2002.

Vision 2020 – Helen Keller Worldwide.  Online.  <http://www.v2020.org/members/helenkeller.asp>

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