At what point does a person stop being considered lucky and is instead considered bad luck for others? Consider the case of Violet Constance Jessop, whose primary claim to fame was her propensity to be around major naval disasters — and living to tell about it.
Jessop (October 2, 1887 – May 5, 1971) was an Irish-Argentine nurse who also had an interest in travel. Her talents were a perfect match for the British shipping company White Star Line. They hired her in 1910 as a stewardess for the Olympic, the largest civilian liner of its day. Jessop was performing her duties aboard Olympic September 20, 1911, when the ship collided with the warship HMS Hawke. Despite damage to both vessels, each ship returned to port without sinking and with no loss of lives.
Perhaps it was the fortuitous outcome of the accident that left Jessop’s faith in the safety of her vocation unmarred. She certainly had not lost confidence in White Star Lines. When an opportunity came up for her to work aboard its newest liner, Violet jumped at the chance. That is what led her on April 10, 1912, to board the Olympic’s sister ship, the RMH Titanic.
(Read here about another Titanic coincidence.)
Not much is known about Violet’s experiences on her new ship for the first three days of her assignment. What happened on the fourth day could never be forgotten. On April 14 Titanic struck an iceberg. Two hours later, the majestic pride of the White Star Line disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Violet was ordered to serve as an intermediary for non-English speaking passengers, who struggled to understand crewmembers’ orders. Given a spot aboard lifeboat #16, Violet found herself suddenly in the custody of a baby. With no word about the identity or fate of the parents, Violet was ordered to care for the child until they could be rescued. Throughout that long night, Violet held the tiny baby close, offering warmth, while the panicked voices of passengers in the icy water slowly and ominously fell silent. The next morning, Jessop and the rest of the survivors were rescued by the Carpathia. It was onboard the rescue vessel that the baby’s mother reclaimed her child from Violet’s arms and ran off without saying a word.
In her memoirs, Violet recalled her last conversation with one of her colleagues, a man named Stanley who ordered her into the lifeboat and chose to remain onboard the sinking ship to allow for the safety of women and children. “I said as he brought forth my new spring outfit, all trimmings and things,” remembered Violet, “‘That’s no rig for a shipwreck, all fussed up and gay.’ Suddenly, I was trying to be jocular, afraid I might cry … ‘So long, Stan. Come up yourself soon, won’t you?’ He was standing with his arm clasped behind him in the corner … He suddenly looked very tired. Good old, ugly-faced, big-hearted Stanley!”
As Great Britain entered into World War I, Violet served her country as a stewardess for the British Red Cross. One can only imagine her thoughts and feelings when she received her assignment to board the HMHS Britannic, a White Star liner that had been converted into a hospital ship. Britannic was the third and final ship of the Olympic class and bore a haunting similarity to its sister ships, Olympic and Titanic.
Violet cast aside any feelings of superstition and busied herself in her responsibilities. November 21, 1916, found Violet immersed in her duties when a massive explosion tore through the vessel. Fifty-five minutes later, the doomed ship sunk below the waves of the Aegean Sea. The cause of the explosion remains a mystery to this day. Whether it was a torpedo, a mine, or some other nefarious force, 30 of the 1,066 souls aboard perished with the ill-fated vessel.
Violet must have been functioning somewhat out of habit when she took to a lifeboat and prepared to watch her ship disappear beneath the waves. This time she had to contend with a different danger than hypothermia. Britannic’s massive propellers relentlessly pulled nearby lifeboats toward the ship, capsizing them and pulling them under its stern.
Remaining in the lifeboat would have doomed Violet to share in the Britannic’s fate. Left with no other choice, she abandoned ship, striking her head in the process and receiving a traumatic head injury.
Holding back the blood as it streamed from her wound, Violet watched in stunned horror as Britannic met its end. She recorded her impression of the scene, saying, “The white pride of the ocean’s medical world … dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths.”
After surviving tragic accidents on board all three of White Star Line’s Olympic class vessels, one would think Violet Jessop would consider a different line of work. It wasn’t just Violet’s body that was unsinkable — so was her resolve. No one could persuade her to abandon her chosen career. She returned to work for the White Star Line.
After finishing her tour with White Star Line, Violet was still unwilling to change careers, but she was open to changing employers. She accepted employment with the Red Star Line, going on two trips around the world aboard the company’s largest ship, Belgenland.
Violet retired in 1950 and devoted herself to writing her memoirs. She said that years later she received a call from a woman who asked if Violet was the woman who saved a baby on the night that Titanic sank. “Yes,” Jessop replied. The voice then said “I was that baby,” laughed, and hung up. Her friend and biographer, John Maxtone-Graham, said it was most likely some children in the village playing a joke on her. She replied, “No, John, I had never told that story to anyone before I told you now.” Records indicate that the only baby on lifeboat #16 was Assad Thomas, who was handed to Edwina Troutt, and later reunited with his mother on the Carpathia.
Jessop, often winkingly called “Miss Unsinkable”, died of in 1971 at the age of 83, after not only surviving, but thriving, through a series of horrifying coincidences