Everyone knows the story of the sinking of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. It was a tragic loss of life where about 1,500 passengers and crew died. Eighty percent of those who perished were men and 25% were women. About 2/3rd of the passengers died and 3/4th of the crew.
What is less known is the ocean liner tragedy that occurred 14 years prior to the Titanic: the sinking of the S.S. La Bourgogne. Even though fewer people perished – 546 in total – in many ways the sinking of the La Bourgogne was more tragic.
Launched in 1885 the La Bourgogne was a French ocean liner that traveled between Le Havre, France, and New York City. It was known for its speed — it could cross the Atlantic in just over seven days and averaged 17 knots — quite fast for its time. It was a large ship: 490 feet in length, 7,395 tons and was capable of carrying 1,000 passengers.
On July 3rd, 1898 the La Bourgogne left NYC with 725 souls on board. The next day, July 4th, at 5 a.m. she was rammed by the British sailing ship Cromartyshire in heavy fog off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Of the 506 passengers on the La Bourgogne, only 70 survived (14%) while 103 out of the 220 crew survived (47%). More shockingly, only one woman (out of about 200) and none of the children survived the wreck. The lopsided nature of survival was due to the horrible way the crew acted – they fought off passengers and took the lifeboats for themselves. There were reports of crewmembers stabbing passengers in the water and beating them with oars. As reported in the Kansas City Journal on July 7, 1898:
The last few minutes on board the Bourgogne witnessed some of the most terrible scenes of horror and cruelty that have blotted the history of a civilized race. Instead of heroic discipline which so often has been the one bright feature of such awful moments, the crew of the steamer fought like demons for the few lifeboats and rafts, battering the helpless passengers away from their only means of salvation, with the result that the strong overcame the weak and the list of 162 saved contains the name of but one woman.
There were reports of a lifeboat with about 40 women on board, but it was not cut free, and they all were sucked down with the ship.
The only woman to survive was Mrs. Victoire LaCasse. When asked how she came to be the only woman to survive the wreck, this was her fantastic response: “Don’t ask why I am the only woman who was saved, better to ask why my husband was the only man aboard who was man enough to save a woman.”
Here’s the headline of Kansas City Journal story on the wreck and sinking:
The La Bourgogne lies 69 miles south of Sable Island, Nova Scotia in over 9,000 feet of water, too deep to access.