Miss Louise Laroche
A Haitian French Family Which Traveled in Second Class Aboard Titanic
Miss Louise Laroche was an Honour Member of the Titanic Historical Society from the beginning until her death in 1998. Since she could not speak English, correspondence over the years was thin. When a young man from France joined the Titanic Historical Society who spoke fluent English, Edward Kamuda asked Olivier Mendez if he would pay her a visit and her story was published originally in the Titanic Commutator in 1995.
The Titanic Historical Society receives inquiries from time to time asking if there were any black passengers onboard. The answer is yes and contrary to popular assumptions, the family traveled in second class.
“…Oh, yes, I can eat cake. I’ll even offer you some when you come!” Mademoiselle Louise was laughing on the telephone. My question was simply that of someone conscious of an elderly lady’s health, I wanted to meet her in person and telephoned for an appointment.
Looking at the photographs taken in 1910 by Louise Laroche’s grandfather, Monsieur Lafargue, one cannot imagine the small house where the last French lady survivor of Titanic was living was still there wedged in between a modern glass government building and a row of older homes. When I rang the door bell a lady wearing a shawl came down the stairs in the small garden and walked toward me. Her step was not sure on the cobblestones covering the yard. Mademoiselle Louise smiled as I remarked about the weather. “Never mind,” she answered, “it’s not too cold.”
After opening the gate, she waved me in and added, “Please, walk upstairs before me, I am slow in walking.” On the stairs, I asked, “How are you doing?” and she replied “Oh, not too well, I broke my arm a year and a half ago and it tired me a lot. I became old within a few weeks.” Her sister-in-law, Madame Claudine Laroche joined us. She is the family genealogist and was able to answer almost any question about the families covering over a century.
Haiti is not the usual place to begin a story about a Titanic survivor and yet it all began there.
Cap Haitien is in the northern part of the country and on May 26, 1886, Joseph Laroche was born. The boy grew up in the city and being a good pupil, in 1901 at the age of 15, Joseph decided that he wanted to study engineering. There was no school for such in Haiti so he went to France traveling with a teacher, Monseigneur Kersuzan, the Lord Bishop of Haiti. The young man settled in Beauvais, where the engineering school was located and shared quarters with the Monseigneur. He had lessons in Beauvais and Lille, and being a serious pupil, his marks were good and Joseph was a promising student.
Monseigneur Kersuzan planned to visit a friend who lived near Paris; the young student promptly accepted his invitation to accompany him. Monsieur Lafargue, a wine seller lived in Villejuif. His daughter, Juliette was born October 20, 1889. Madame Lafargue died early at age 40 a few years before. Joseph and Juliette soon became friends, fell in love and decided to marry. Joseph graduated from school and got his certificate. In March 1908 they were married at the Lafargue home. It was a special event; the Lafargues were upper middle class and marrying an only daughter was a very serious matter for the family.
When Joseph graduated he expected to find employment as an engineer, there were opportunities in Paris for someone with his education, however, there was a problem he had not thought of. Although France is a pretty country with beautiful scenery, marvelous cities and nice people, racial prejudice at that time could prevent someone from employing a young dark-skinned man. Joseph did find work, but his employers made excuses that he was young and inexperienced and paid him poorly.
A year later the young couple celebrated the birth of their first daughter, Simonne, on February 19, 1909. On July 2nd, 1910, Louise was born, she was premature and frail, suffering from many medical problems in her first years. Joseph had to find a better paying job to support his children who were very important to him. In 1911 he decided to return to Haiti where there surely was a need for qualified young engineers. The country was far from modern, there would be great opportunities and his family could have a better standard of living. He wasn’t sure if Juliette would accept leaving behind her family, friends and a familiar country to move where she had never been before. Literally at the other end of the world, where things would be so different. They talked the matter over and she finally accepted. Travel to Haiti was planned for the next year.
When she discovered she was pregnant in March 1912, Joseph decided an earlier departure was better, his wife would be less tired and they preferred the child to be born in Haiti. If they didn’t leave immediately, departure would be delayed for some time, they wanted to avoid traveling with a newborn on what would already be a tiresome trip. Joseph’s mother bought the tickets — as a welcome present for the new family.
The crossing was booked on CGT’s (French Line) newest steamship, a four-funneled liner, France. Her maiden voyage was April 20, bound for New York from Le Havre. The company’s policy at that time required children to stay in the nursery; children were not allowed in the ship’s restaurant even with their parents. This policy annoyed Juliette and Joseph. He insisted he would not be separated from his two girls so their tickets were changed, transferring their passage to White Star’s newest steamship, Titanic, also on her maiden voyage from Southampton with a stop in Cherbourg to New York leaving ten days earlier on April 10. Afterwards, passage to Haiti was just a matter of miles and this was the beginning of their new life!
On sailing day the sky was clear. In the early hours Joseph, Juliette, Simonne and Louise left the family home for the train to Paris. The boat train was already loading passengers at Gare Saint-Lazare. It was there, in the Cour de Rome, that the Laroches were waiting the boarding hour with a friend, Monsieur Renard, who had bought a balloon for each girl. Louise, sitting in her pram in the sunshine was laughing when the string suddenly left her hand and flew away. Louise cried and kind Monsieur Renard ran to the next balloon seller to buy another. When it was time to board the train they all waved their last good-bye. Monsieur Renard remained on the platform wondering if would he ever see the Laroches again.
The trip from Paris to Cherbourg was long, the girls were too excited and could not sleep. The train was a new world to explore. In the same carriage they met a young boy named Andre. The boy’s parents smiled at the two girls, who, in turn, smiled back Monsieur and Madame Laroche who gestured an acknowledgment to the couple and a few words were exchanged. Monsieur and Madame Mallet, Andre’s parents were boarding Titanic in Cherbourg, too; they were emigrating to Montreal. Their son was only two years old so it would not be difficult to begin a new life in Canada. The Laroches said they were emigrating to Haiti where their grandmother was looking forward to meeting them. The Mallets were also traveling in second class like the Laroches. They wondered if there would there be other French emigrants on the ship. When the train stopped at the maritime terminal at 4:00 PM, the two families and their common experience made them feel close to each other.
Luggage was taken from the train and brought to the quay. Because of her size large liners like Titanic anchored in the harbor off Grande Rade near Fort de l’Ouest. Nomadic and Traffic, White Star’s tenders carried passengers from the terminal to the liner. Traffic transported luggage and third class passengers while Nomadic carried first and second class. The travelers boarded the tenders at 5:30 PM ready to join Titanic but the liner was late. There was talk of an incident in Southampton during her departure [the near collision of the liner New York]. The liner appeared on the horizon and neared Passe de l’Ouest where she anchored about 6:30 PM. Photographers who had arrived in the afternoon had given up since it was already too dark. They didn’t consider it a problem since she’d be back on the next voyage and they would then be able to get their photographs in daylight.
Traffic moored alongside the Titanic. Twenty-two cross-channel passengers disembarked while mail and additional goods were taken aboard. Then Nomadic brought 274 passengers, including the Mallets and Laroches, the unloading did not take more than twenty minutes. The travelers were looking forward to their voyage. A crowd of onlookers assembled on the jetty to admire her beautiful silhouette, a band played La Marseillaise. It was dark when Titanic, her rows of portholes glowing with light left. She had not spent more than two hours in Cherbourg, her next stop was Queenstown.
She wrote to her father. The letter was posted Queenstown, Ireland, April 11, 1912.
On board R.M.S. TITANIC
My dear Dad
I have just been told that we am going to stop in a moment, so I take this opportunity to drop you a few lines and tell you about us.
We boarded the Titanic last evening at 7:00. If you could see this monster, our tender looked like a fly compared to her. The arrangements could not be more comfortable. We have two bunks in our cabin, and the two babies sleep on a sofa that converts into a bed. One is at the head, the other at the bottom. A board put before them prevents them from falling. They’re as well, if not better, than in their beds.
The boat set out when we were eating and we could not believe she was moving: we are less shaken than in a train. We just feel a slight trepidation. The girls ate well last night. They only took a nap in the whole night and the chime of the bell announcing breakfast woke them up. Louise laughed a lot at it. At the moment they are strolling on the enclosed deck with Joseph, Louise is in her pram, and Simonne is pushing her. They already have become acquainted with people we made the trip from Paris with a gentleman and his lady and their little boy too, who is the same age as Louise.
I think they are the only French people on the boat, so we sat at the same table so that we could chat together. Simonne was so funny a moment ago, she was playing with a young English girl who had lent her her doll. My Simonne was having a great conversation with her, but the girl did not understand a single word. People on board are very nice. Yesterday, they both were running after a gentleman who had given them chocolates.
This morning I tried to count all the children on the boat. In second class only, I am sure that there are more than twenty. There is a small family with four children, they remind me of my Uncle’s. The youngest looks very much like fat Marcelle. I am writing from the reading room: there is a concert in here, near me, one violin, two cellos, one piano.
Up to now, I have not felt seasick. I hope it will go on this way. The sea is very smooth, the weather is wonderful. If you could see how big this ship is! One can hardly find the way back to one’s cabin in the number of corridors.
I will stop here now for I believe we are going to put in and I wouldn’t like to miss the next mail. Once again, thank you my dear dad for all your marks of bounty towards us, and receive all the warmest kisses from your loving daughter, Juliette.
Warmly kiss for us all our dear Grand Mother, Maurice, Marguerite, and Madeleine. Little Simonne and Louise kiss their good Grand Father. They had just their dresses on this morning when they wanted to go and see you.
The first recollections of April 15th, 1912 were of the Cunard Carpathia, when they were hauled up in bags. Simonne remembered how frightening it had been and the image stayed with her. Onboard their mother already surmised that Joseph had drowned. No other ship picked up any lifeboats where he might have been found.
Earlier, a steward had come to their cabin and told them to wear their lifejackets, Titanic had suffered an accident. Joseph put everything valuable money and jewels in his pockets. Unable to understand, Juliette let Joseph, who spoke English fluently, lead her to the lifeboats.
With two fatherless daughters and pregnant, she felt alone. A few words spoken among the survivors located Madame Antoinette Mallet who had been saved with her son Andre but she lost her husband, too. The two women now shared the common ordeal as widows.
A common problem survivors faced was a lack of linen — Carpathia was unable to provide enough for everyone. Juliette needed them to make diapers for the babies, the stewardesses would not give her any since there were none to spare. However, necessity being the mother of invention, Juliette found a way. At the end of each meal she sat on napkins and with what she was able to conceal, she used for her girls.
Neither Madame Mallet nor Laroche could remember what number lifeboat they had escaped. The only detail Juliette remembered was that in her boat a countess or someone with a title was among those who rowed all night long. The boat had icy water in the bottom and her feet were frozen.
On April 18 after a crossing in foggy weather, Carpathia reached New York. In pouring rain, the survivors disembarked; no one was waiting and Juliette lost sight of Madame Mallet. It was years later when she saw her again back in Villejuif.
Juliette and the girls were directed to a hospital where her frozen feet were treated. The loss of her husband, personal belongings, combined with pain and fright made her cancel continuing to Haiti, instead deciding to return to the familiarity of France. Passage was on the liner, Chicago, because she was a French ship. The Laroches were back in Le Havre in May and then home to her father.
Monsieur Lafargue had been a widower for years. The house at 131 Grande Rue was rented by the year until the death of the owners who lived in Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, a tiny village a few kilometers east of Villejuif. At age 50, his wine business would not be enough to earn a living for the whole family, he urged his daughter to sue the White Star Line for the losses suffered. After several years and much difficulty she received a settlement of 150,000 francs in 1918 that provided the opportunity for a new start especially since the war was over. She set up a small business in a spare room in the house dyeing cloth and craftsmaking which proved fruitful.
In 1920, Joseph’s mother traveled from Haiti to meet her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. She treated them as if they were foreigners rather than family, it was apparent the visit did not go well, she returned to Haiti and they never saw her again.
When their father passed away, Juliette inherited the house. In 1932 a young journalist asked if she could be interviewed but she refused, as far as she was concerned the Titanic episode was over. She did decide to meet with another survivor, Miss Edith Russell, who invited her and the children to the Claridge Hotel in Paris. Every April 15, for a number of years, Juliette received a nice gift from Miss Russell such as perfume or chocolate; then the presents stopped as well as the regular visits from Madame Mallet.
On August 8, 1973, Simonne, who never married, died at the age of 64. At age 91 on January 10, 1980 Juliette died. On her grave a plaque is engraved: Juliette Laroche 1889-1980, wife of Joseph Laroche, lost at sea on RMS Titanic, April 15th 1912. Louise Laroche died in January 1998.