Mr. Henry Becker Sonneborn

Henry Sonneborn
Saloon Passenger
Lost
Henry Sonneborn
The New York Times, Sunday, 16 May 1915
Born Henry Becker Sonneborn
14 October 1872
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Died 7 May 1915 (age 43)
At sea
Age on Lusitania 43
Ticket number 14346
Cabin number B 60
Traveling with Leo Schwabacher (partner)
Body number Not identified
Citizenship United States
Occupation Coal businessman (retired)
Residence Paris, France
Other name(s) none
Spouse(s) none

Henry Sonneborn (1872 – 1915), 43, was a United States national from Baltimore, Maryland, United States, living in Paris, France with Leo Schwabacher. Sonneborn had been in the family coal business before selling his shares in the company and was allegedly pursuing a singing career. Sonneborn and Schwabacher made frequent trips across the United States and Europe and were on one such trip when they met their deaths on the Lusitania. Sonneborn and Schwabacher had wished to be buried in the same mausoleum, but neither’s body was ever recovered or identified.

Contents

  1. Family
  2. Relationship with Leo Schwabacher
  3. Travels
  4. Lusitania
  5. Further tragedy
  6. The Mixed Claims
  7. Sonneborn’s Baltimore today
  8. Related pages
  9. Links of interest


Family


Henry Sonneborn was born on 14 October 1872 in Baltimore, Maryland, United States to Philip and Wilhelmina Sonneborn (born Becker). Wilhelmina was from Wiesbaden, Hesse, Germany. The Sonneborns had lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Baltimore. In Baltimore, the Sonneborns ran a tavern on Light Street in downtown Baltimore and lived above it. Henry graduated from Baltimore City College, and he and his brother Louis half-owned a successful coal distributing company. A younger brother, Philip, was an aspiring actor and moved to New York City.

Relationship with Leo Schwabacher


Sonneborn met Leo “Lee” Schwabacher before 1900, when the latter relocated to Baltimore from Peoria, Illinois, and started working as the family tavern bookkeeper as well as boarding there. Family patriarch Philip Sonneborn died in 1903 and Wilhelmina moved the family to a larger house at 896 Battery Avenue. Schwabacher moved to the larger house with them, as he was considered family. Also at this time, Schwabacher’s father, Henry, died, leaving each of his children $10,000.00 in income per year.

Starting in 1906, Henry Sonneborn and Lee Schwabacher started traveling regularly. Throughout their travels, Henry Sonneborn and Lee Schwabacher mailed a number of postcards from different places across Europe and from New York City, to Henry Sonneborn’s nephew Herman Praetorius. The postcards were always signed, “Love Uncle Henry and Lee”. This 29-postcard collection is now in the possession of Praetorius’ grandson, Mark, and has been digitized for virtual viewing at Gare Maritime.

While no concrete evidence survives to indicate that Henry Sonneborn and Lee Schwabacher were more than friends, Sonneborn family historian Mark Praetorius believes that the two men were in a gay relationship with the full acceptance and support of the Sonneborn family. The two men had a great appreciation of culture, travel, and the finer things in life, and the mausoleum that they planned to share was evidence of their long-term commitment to each other.

Travels


In the first half of 1906 Henry and Lee went to Europe and returned to the United States aboard the Hamburg America Line’s Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. They boarded the ship at Dover, England, and went through Ellis Island on 14 July. The two men disembarked together, as they are listed one after the other on the manifest. Schwabacher described himself as “single” and Sonneborn as “married”.

Sonneborn and Schwabacher traveled to Europe again in 1908, booking passage on the North German Lloyd liner Kronprinz Wilhelm. They returned to the United States on 15 September 1908 aboard the North German Lloyd liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, boarding the ship at Cherbourg.

Sonneborn then sold off his part of the coal business in 1910 and moved to Paris, France with Schwabacher in 1911. Sonneborn family historian Mark Praetorius speculates that the two men chose to live in Paris because the city was rather bohemian, and being gay there would not have been the issue that it was the United States. Also at this time, Sonneborn was allegedly pursuing a singing career, but no direct evidence of such ambition has survived.

The two men returned to the United States in 1911 to visit Sonneborn’s mother Wilhelmina in her new Queen Anne-style row house in Baltimore at 2209 Brookfield Avenue. Sonneborn and Schwabacher had booked Lusitania and were processed through Ellis Island on 13 October. Both men stated that they were married. To the Sonneborn family’s knowledge, Henry had never married, and the two men’s claims of being married and then not when entering and exiting the country were probably meant to prevent people from asking questions about their relationship.

When Sonneborn and Schwabacher visited Baltimore again in November 1913, they booked passage on the French Line’s France (1912). At Ellis Island, they declared themselves as single.

With the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, Sonneborn and Schwabacher returned to Baltimore in October of that year, staying with Sonneborn’s mother Wilhelmina. The two men arrived at Ellis Island on 9 October 1914 via Lusitania. Once more they stated that they were single. It was also during this extended stay in the United States that both men named each other as the sole beneficiaries of each other’s wills, and Schwabacher purchased a mausoleum in which both men would one day be entombed.

Lusitania


Sonneborn and Schwabacher booked their return trip to Paris on the Lusitania for 1 May 1915. Before their trip, the two men stayed with Henry’s younger brother Philip. With the threat of German submarines and the fact that the family was ethnically German, Wilhelmina made the long journey to New York to persuade Henry and Lee to cancel passage on the doomed ship. Henry dismissed his mother’s warning, stating plainly, “A submarine? Don’t worry – we’ll send a telegram when we arrive safely”.

No account by anyone who knew the pair is known to document the final days of Henry and Lee aboard Lusitania. Researcher Jim Kalafus suggests that the two men observed by George Kessler, who kept to themselves and were rumored to be “German spies,” may have been Sonneborn and Schwabacher. Whatever the case may be, the two men died together when the Lusitania was torpedoed on 7 May 1915. Their bodies were not recovered or identified.

The Sonneborn family had been proud of their German roots, and for them to lose loved ones through an act of Germany may have been tough for the family to say the least. A 1915 news clipping in Mark Praetorius’ collection states that Wilhelmina Sonneborn believed that Germany gave sufficient warning to all prospective travelers of the risk of being torpedoed while sailing on a British ship. The article also stated that Wilhelmina did not bear any ill will towards the country of her origin or the submarine and its crew that sank the Lusitania and killed her son. This opinion was supposedly also shared by Henry’s sister, Mary Sonneborn Praetorius.

This article brings into question whether the Sonneborns would have blamed Henry and Lee for their own deaths, and so soon after the sinking, no matter how proud of their German heritage the family was. Evidently Wilhelmina had thought it necessary to make the trip from Baltimore to New York to persuade her son and his partner not to take Lusitania in person. Furthermore, Henry’s brother-in-law, Philip Praetorius (Mary’s husband), designed dazzle paint schemes for US ships, which he would not have been able to do had his family been as pro-German as the article made them out to be.

Perhaps the article was the product of a pro-German editor or reporter that had slightly altered the facts to cater to Baltimore’s large German population at the time.

Further tragedy


Two years after the Lusitania sinking, Philip and Mary Praetorius was involved in what was considered, at the time, New England’s worst trolley accident. They had been summering in Connecticut, and was returning to her home in Madison aboard a local trolley when it was rammed by a speeding express trolley. The conductor of the express trolley had fallen asleep after a 16-hour work day and crashed into the local trolley in Branford. Nineteen people died at the scene. Several others died of injuries in the days to follow. Philip escaped with “lesser injuries”, but Mary Praetorius was paralyzed from the chest down. She was taken to the hospital at Guilford, Connecticut, where she was for four months before she died of sepsis in December 1917. She was in her 40s.

Mary’s body was brought back to Baltimore and buried at the Sonneborn plot in Loudon Park Cemetery. Also buried in that plot are Wilhelmina (who died in the 1920s) and Philip Sonneborn, their son Karl and his infant son, Philip, Mary Sonneborn Praetorius and Philip E. Praetorius.

The Mixed Claims


Both Sonneborn and Schwabacher families brought claims against Germany after the end of the war. Umpire Edwin Parker’s summary gave the impression that Henry Sonneborn was of a “slender estate” and living off the fortune of the wealthier Lee Schwabacher, and that Lee was sponsoring Henry’s pursuit in a singing career.

While it is true that Lee was wealthier, Henry himself was not poor, making only $1,600.00 less annually from his coal business than Lee was making from his annual inheritance. Monetarily, they were roughly on equal terms and was not an instance of a poor man taking advantage of a wealthy benefactor. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Sonneborn family records to suggest that Henry and Lee’s relationship was anything other than egalitarian.

As for whether Lee Schwabacher was sponsoring Henry Sonneborn’s singing career, the Schwabachers brought up that point in their claim against Germany, but any actual paper trail of such sponsorship has not surfaced. Historian Jim Kalafus postulates that perhaps people had gotten Henry confused with his younger brother, Philip, who was an actor in New York City and may have needed sponsorship, or if reporters confused Sonneborn with the other Baltimore bachelor in his 40s, Charles Harwood Knight, who was a trained musician.

Sonneborn’s Baltimore today


The Sonneborn Tavern in the years hence has been torn down and is now the site of the Maryland Science Center. Their second residence at 896 Battery Avenue is still a residential area across the street from Federal Hill Park.

Wilhelmina’s Queen Anne-style house at 2209 Brookfield Avenue is still stands in the Resevoir Hill neighborhood south of Druid Hill Park and Druid Lake. Today the neighborhood is in decline but had been rather wealthy in 1915.

Related pages


Henry Sonneborn at the Mixed Claims Commission

Leo Schwabacher at the Mixed Claims Commission

Links of interest


Gare Maritime – Lest We Forget: Henry B. Sonneborn: Correcting the Record

Gare Maritime – Sonneborn and Schwabacher Postcard Collection


Contributors:
Jim Kalafus, USA
Mark Praetorius, USA (great-great nephew of Henry Sonneborn)
Judith Tavares

References:
Kalafus, Jim. “Lest We Forget: Henry B. Sonneborn: Correcting the Record.” Gare Maritime. Web. 19 June 2011. < http://www.garemaritime.com/features/sonneborn/ >

Mixed Claims Commission.  Docket No. 2040, page 502.

Mixed Claims Commission.  Docket No. 2200, page 506.

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