Lusitania survivor Theodate Pope was given up for dead when rescuers pulled her inert body from the Irish Sea with boat hooks. They placed her on the deck of the rescue ship in a row of corpses.
Another Lusitania survivor, Belle Naish, had befriended Pope on the doomed voyage. Naish bent down and touched her friend, sensing a glimmer of life. Naish called for help, and two men cut off her wet clothes with a carving knife and spent two hours trying to revive her. Pope woke in front of a small stove in the captain’s cabin and heard a man say, “She’s conscious.”
Theodate Pope had no memory of the sinking. She recovered over many weeks in Ireland and London. Artist Mary Cassatt wrote her a letter saying, “If you were saved it is because you have still something to do in this world.”
Theodate Pope had plenty to do. Already the first licensed female architect in Connecticut, she married a diplomat, founded the Avon Old Farm School, designed the buildings for the Westover School, held séances in Farmington, Conn., reconstructed Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City and bequeathed her home Hill-Stead as a public museum.
The sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat killed 1,198 people. Theodate Pope was lucky to be among the 761 survivors.
She was born Effie Brooks Pope on Feb. 2, 1867, to a wealthy and well-connected Cleveland family. She hated her name and changed it to Theodate when she was 19. Her parents sent her to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, where she conceived her lifelong dream of founding a boys’ prep school.
After graduating, she and her parents took a two-year Grand Tour of Europe. Upon return she hired Miss Porter’s faculty to tutor her privately in architecture. She restored a cottage and then began work on her parents’ retirement home with the help of architectural firm McKim, Mead & White.
When the Lusitania set sail on May 1, 1915, 48-year-old Theodate Pope was accompanied by her maid Emily Robinson and her companion Edwin Friend. Friend, 20 years her junior, shared her interest in spiritualism. He and Pope had resigned from the American Society for Psychical Research over an argument with the president, and were traveling to England in the hope of winning support for a new association from the English Society for Psychical Research.
During the voyage, Friend and Pope sat on the deck and read Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, a dense philosophical treaty.
The German U-boat U-20 was prowling the waters off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915, when its commander spotted the Lusitania. He ordered a torpedo fired into her hull.
The torpedo scored a direct hit, and the vessel sank in 15 minutes. It listed so heavily that many lifeboats couldn’t be lowered. Even if they could, the crew trained to handle lifeboats had been killed in the initial explosion.
Friend exclaimed, “By Jove, they’ve got us.” In the mayhem that followed he ran inside the ship to find lifejackets. He found three, one for himself, one for Pope, one for her maid.
They saw a lifeboat tip over and spill its passengers into the water as it was being lowered. Then they saw that the Lusitania threatened to roll over other lifeboats as she sank. They decided to jump. Friend went first, and from the water beckoned to them, smiling.
“Come, Robinson,” Theodate Pope said to her maid.
Pope jumped and was sucked down into the water and caught between decks, sure she would die. Then she opened her eyes and saw green water and the bottom of a lifeboat.
Pope floated upward, hitting her head on the lifeboat keel. Then she surfaced for air and found herself in the midst of a “hundred of frantic, screaming, shouting humans in this grey and watery inferno.” A man climbed onto her back, thinking she could support him.
She saw an old man upright in the water and asked him if he saw any rescue ships. He didn’t.
She heard people singing Tipperary.
Theodate Pope found an oar, decided it was all too horrible to be true and lost consciousness. Sailors aboard the trawler Julia discovered her in the evening.
The bodies of Edwin Friend and Emily Robinson were never found. Theodate Pope held séances to communicate with Friend. She reported he was flushed and furious about the dastardly deed that ended his life.
In gratitude for saving her life, Pope gave a lifetime pension to Belle Naish. Naish donated her land to the Boy Scouts to establish a camp as a memorial to her husband Theodore, who was not a Lusitania survivor.
One day short of the one-year anniversary of the Lusitania sinking, Theodate Pope married diplomat John Wallace Riddle. He became ambassador to Argentina. She devoted much of her time to founding and running the Avon Old Farms School.
The sinking of the Lusitania changed American public opinion about entering World War I. Two years later, the United States declared war against Germany.
During World War II, Theodate Pope Riddle had a falling out with the school administrators. She was friendly with President Franklin Roosevelt, so she closed it and turned it into Old Farms Convalescent Hospital for blinded Army veterans. The school reopened in 1947. Theodate Pope Riddle died on Aug. 30, 1946, leaving Hill-Stead as a museum devoted to her art collection and her architecture.
Photo of Hill-Stead: By Daderot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151554 This story was updated in 2022.