Premonitions of Doom

John F. Dillon stood, inspecting the monument in front of him. Fall had already taken a firm hold on the region, the kaleidoscope of orange and red leaves providing a beautiful backdrop for the granite obelisk.

Forty feet from base to tip, it was exactly what Dillon had paid for. Now, looking at it again, he knew that it served its purpose to perfection. For him, it wasn’t the money that he had spent on it, but the meaning behind it. His friend, W.C. Putnam, stood patiently with him. He knew how much this meant to Dillon, and wasn’t about to hurry him along.

There would be plenty of time during the rest of the day to see the old places that they had known, and share plenty of happy memories. There would be laughter, and they would tell all the old stories about the world that they had once known.

Dillon had to take care of this first. Out of all the many things that would be seen and done on that day, these few moments would perhaps mean the most to him.

Dillon had been one of the most successful men to ever walk out of Davenport, Iowa; possibly even the entire Midwest. But for him, this monument served as a reminder of the greatest loss that he had ever known.

   John Dillon was born in New York state toward the end of 1831. While he was still a young boy, his family decided to pull up stakes and move west to Iowa, arriving in the city of Davenport in 1838.

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John F. Dillon. Courtesy of the Quad City Times 

When he was about seventeen years old, John decided to become a doctor. He started training under the watchful eye of one of the most accomplished doctors in the area, and a year later began attending medical school. He earned his full medical degree in 1850; he was only 19 years old. Obviously, they didn’t need to be in school for as long as they do today.

Following the recommendation of one of his professors, he founded a medical practice in the town of Farmington in southern Iowa.  Dillon worked hard to develop his fledgling career, and things started off well. Unfortunately, he quickly realized that the medical profession just wasn’t going to work out.

When some men at a nearby brickyard contracted cholera, the people there sent for the doctor. Dillon immediately sprang into action. But, as much as he wanted to in that moment, the young doctor had a medical condition that rendered him physically unable to ride a horse, forcing him to walk to his patients.

In matters of life and death, time is always of the absolute essence. To Dillon, this meant that if he couldn’t get to those who needed him most as quickly as possible because of his physical infirmities, then maybe he should leave it to those who could.

His decision made, Dillon closed his office and made preparations to return to his family in Davenport. Of course, there was still a burning question in his mind: how was he going to make a living?

At a loss as to what to do, Dillon consulted a friend of his in Farmington who happened to be a lawyer. The man made the suggestion to him that if he couldn’t be a doctor, then maybe he should try being a lawyer. The idea kicked around Dillon’s head the entire trip back, and by the time Dillon had arrived in Davenport, his mind was made up. He began studying to become a lawyer.

To support himself while he studied, Dillon opened a drug store. He was still a doctor, and knew all about the potions and powders of the day. Besides, when you didn’t have to ride a horse out to treat anyone. By 1852, Dillon applied for and was granted admittance to the Scott County bar.

John Dillon was now a full-fledged lawyer. Little did he know it, but he had just taken his first steps in what for him would be a stellar career.

   In his first year as a lawyer, Dillon was elected as the prosecuting attorney for Scott County, Iowa.

In 1853, Dillon had married Anna Price, a daughter of a prominent Davenport politician. He adored her.

Anna was strong-willed and intelligent, every inch John Dillon’s equal. She loved art and music, and was dedicated to helping her fellow human beings. Anna was involved in different benevolent organizations and causes over the years toward this end.

Anna was also known to frequently take in babies and children in need, sheltering them in her own home with her own funds.

By the late 1850’s, John Dillon became a Judge of the Seventh Judicial District of Iowa, covering four counties in the eastern portion of the state. By 1863, he had been elected to the Iowa Supreme Court.

   While he was a district judge , Dillon had started writing books on the law. Eventually, royalties from these would make him a small fortune. 

As he wrote, his star rose even higher, and he was appointed the Circuit Judge for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of the United States, which put seven states under his watchful eye. After ten years as a federal judge, Dillon retired in 1879.

With his extensive knowledge of the law, he was offered a position as a law professor at Columbia University in New York City. Eager to start this kind of second career for himself, Dillon and his family packed up their belongings and moved east.

Judge John Dillon was at the pinnacle of his success. He had wealth and fame, and was respected by people around the nation. But above all, he was proudest of his family.

   Although they lived in New York City, John and Anna still loved Davenport. They still had many friends and relatives there, and took every opportunity to visit. As much as she loved these places, Anna adored Europe. For over a decade, she usually went there once a year, sometimes staying for an extended period of time.

In 1898, Anna was really looking forward to the trip. She was nearly sixty years old in 1898, and had been ill for months. She felt that a visit to the mineral baths of Europe would help her feel better.

As usual, she’d be bringing her daughter and namesake, Anna, with her.

Around 1888, Anna had married a man who had treated her horribly almost from their wedding day. With the help of her father, Anna was able to quickly get a divorce. She had moved back in with her parents, and had been her mother’s travelling companion ever since.

This time, Anna wanted a change of pace from the usual company she travelled with. After some looking, Anna booked passage to Europe on a very reputable and reliable French company.

Shortly before she was due to leave, John Dillon began to feel uneasy about his wife’s trip. He didn’t believe in premonitions, but no matter how much he tried to rationalize his feelings, he couldn’t shake the idea that something bad was going to happen on that trip.

   Usually, John was used to long absences from his wife and children. For them, extended trips were part and parcel of their lives, and so they probably didn’t think much of them leaving. He had broken his leg in late 1897, and had been bed-ridden for quite a while as it healed. It would be good for him to get away from the house.

   Still, Dillon had a horrible feeling that just would not go away. 

It bothered him so much that he finally asked Anna to postpone the trip until the fall. She wasn’t any more a believer than he was, and she told John that everything would be fine. Nothing bad was going to happen. How many times had she taken this trip before? She’d always come back to him, safe and sound.

Besides, the ship had a reliable reputation. It had made the trip back and forth between New York and Europe for years with very few problems. All would be well.

John and Anna had been married for forty years, and he knew when he had been defeated. Reluctantly, he conceded her point and quit arguing, despite his feelings.

On July 2nd, 1898, John escorted his two Anna’s, joined by his wife’s nurse and daughter’s maid, to the pier to see them off on their voyage. They lovingly said their goodbyes and parted ways.

John took out his handkerchief and waved to them from the pier as their ship pulled out and began to make its way towards the open ocean. He watched as his beloved wife and daughter faded into the distance, waving their own handkerchiefs to him from the promenade deck.

John Dillon had been a professional lawyer longer than some people had been alive in 1898. He was an intelligent and persuasive man. But as he stood at the end of that New York City pier that day, nothing could help him shake the feeling that something awful was about to happen.

   The La Bourgogne was a French steamship that had successfully navigated the Atlantic waters between France and New York for a decade. It was fast and dependable. If asked, a good many people might have recommended it for travel before it departed that July day in 1898. 

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The S.S. La Bourgogne. Courtesy of Google Images

   721 other people were on board with the Dillon entourage, including the crew. The ship was in excellent condition, and for the first two days made steady progress north toward Canada before veering east toward Europe.

In the early morning hours of July 4, 1898, the LaBurgogne was travelling off of Nova Scotia through thick, heavy fog. The ship was moving fast in spite of the low visibility. Without warning, the steamer collided with the Cromartyshire, a British ship that was also making its way through the area.

The La Bourgogne severely damaged the Cromartyshire, tearing off its bow as well as doing damage on the deck. After a quick inspection, the crew determined that their ship wasn’t going to sink, and so went to work on clearing the wreckage caused by the collision.

As they worked, they heard the steamer’s whistle blow, which they answered with their fog horn. A short time later, the crew saw a signal rocket launch from the French ship, followed by a shot.

Once again, the Cromartyshire answered in kind, sending up their own rockets. This time, there was no response.

The crew went back to work, unaware of the events that were unfolding aboard the La Bourgogne.

The collision with the Cromartyshire had torn a ten foot gash in the starboard side of the steamer. It was so early in the morning that most of the passengers were still asleep below decks at the time. Some were able to sleep through it, while others, awoken by the crash, rushed to the main deck.

The ship had been mortally wounded, and nearly everyone who was there in that moment knew it.

A.D. LaCasse, a language professor from New Jersey, was one of those on deck when the collision took place. He quickly ran below to his cabin and woke up his wife. Together, they returned to the deck, ready to follow orders to evacuate. Others had done the same, and the decks were soon crowded with frightened passengers.

The captain had blown the ship’s whistle and sent up the signal rocket after the collision in an effort to contact anyone who might be in the area for help. He and some of the officers stood on the deck, shouting orders at the crew to get passengers into the lifeboats and lower them safely into the water. The sailors mostly ignored them, seemingly frozen in place.

Then, in one stunning surge, all hell broke loose.

Although later reports contradicted each other, several eyewitnesses saw the crew man lifeboats without helping anyone else. Others said that passengers from steerage crowded around the boats, preventing the crew from doing their jobs.

Some watched as the La Bourgogne’s second officer tried his best to free lifeboats from where they were tied or chained to the ship. He ran from boat to boat, working desperately to work free as many as he could. Some passengers tried desperately to do the same, seeking to lower people safely into the water.

Several of the passengers boarded lifeboats that were still connected to the ship, waiting patiently for one of the crew to lower them. Some of the men tried their best to free the boats themselves. A few managed, but many more were stranded.

Many crew members were trapped below decks as water poured into the ship. These men tried to save the ship, but as soon as the water put out the fires in the boilers that powered the vessel, they knew all was lost.

The last time the captain was ever seen he was on the bridge, apparently having lost all control, waving his arms around, screaming and shouting at someone.

Through it all, the ship continued to list to the starboard side as it sank slowly into the Atlantic. As it did, it became harder for people to maintain their footing on the slanting deck. Some of the people in lifeboats still lashed to the ship were dumped out into the water below, unable to stay inside.

With little choice, others jumped as the La Bourgogne began its final decent into the water. The suction caused by the vessel was immense as it slipped below the waves, pulling everyone and everything down with it.

Survivors tried desperately to swim away, fighting against the awful pull. Among those struggling in the water was A.D. Lacasse’s wife. She had slid from the deck as the ship’s list had become so extreme that she could no longer keep her footing. Thankfully, she had worn a life jacket, which helped her to say afloat.

Her and her husband had become separated in the crush of people on the deck, but she had no time to worry about that now. She swam as hard as she could to get away from the dying La Bourgogne. She later remembered being surrounded by desperate and drowning passengers – children, women, and men – screaming in terror as they were sucked under the water.

As she swam, something bumped hard into her, pushing her away from the whirlpool and into calmer water. Almost before she knew it, someone roughly seized her arm and dragged her into a life boat. Looking to see who her rescuer was, she was both astonished and relieved to see her husband holding onto her. She didn’t know it yet, but Mrs. A.D. Lacasse would become the only female passenger to live through the disaster. 

Others were not so lucky.

In what would be the most controversial testimony to come from the La Bourgogne disaster, several people testified to horrifying acts of cruelty on the part of the ships crew.

According to some, many of the crew had sought to save themselves by getting on available lifeboats and cutting them free before the La Bourgogne actually sank. Allegdly, they guarded them with ruthless efficiency.

In the water, people tried to survive any way they could. Some swam, while others clung to makeshift rafts. Some had managed to board lifeboats. There were many who tried to climb into the boats from the frigid water, desperate to survive. To their shock, the ruthless and callous people who were already in the boats threw them back into the water to die.

Men and women alike were assailed with oars and boathooks. Some were bludgeoned to death by iron bars or oars, while others were pushed under the water to drown.

One man survived by clinging onto the lifeline of one of the boats. As he held on for his very life, he was forced to watch as his mother, a short distance away, was pushed under the waves with oars by the lifeboat passengers as she tried to climb into their boat. 

Charles Liebra had put his two sons on board a lifeboat before the ship sank.  Liebra himself went into the water with the LaBurgogne, and when he surfaced he could not find his sons. Desperately, he tried to climb into a passing lifeboat, only to be beaten black and blue by those on board. Back into the water he went, staying afloat any way possible before he was rescued. His sons were never found.

As the men on the Cromartyshire made their repairs, they were able to make out two lifeboats coming toward them. Quickly discovering the fate of the steamer that had struck them, the crew of the British vessel went out and began rescuing as many people as they could.

Out of the 725 on board the La Burgogne, only 163 survived, making it one of the worst maritime disasters of that era.

   John Dillon was crushed.

For the past several days, he had been worried about his two Anna’s. The idea that something bad was going to happen to them just wouldn’t go away, and that worry was never far from his thoughts. When he received the phone call informing him of the disaster, Dillon’s whole world collapsed.

As news about the disaster trickled in, Dillon held out hope that perhaps his wife and daughter were still on board a lifeboat that hadn’t been found yet. If they were still adrift, then they might yet be rescued. As time passed, however, the awful truth gradually sank in, and hope was replaced to a simple desire to bring their bodies home for burial.

Dillon and another man who had lost family on the La Bourgogne hired a ship and went out to the Atlantic, hoping to recover their remains. After ten days, they gave up. Their bodies, like so many others, were never recovered, claimed forever by the jealous Atlantic. Dillon returned to his home in New Jersey, now all the more dreary for the absence of his beloved family.

The horrible premonition that had haunted him for so long had finally come true.

   After an investigation, shipping company authorities claimed that the crew of the La Bourgogne had performed heroically during the disaster. They had manned their stations and followed orders, only abandoning ship when told to do so by their superiors.

They also claimed that, according to eyewitness testimony, it was steerage passengers who were to blame for the immense loss of life. They had panicked when the ship began to list, and had blocked the crew from doing their jobs and getting people in the boats or cutting free those that they could. Shipping authorities also claimed that some boats weren’t able to be freed because of of the listing of the La Bourgogne as it sank.

Addressing the claims that crew members had deliberately prevented people from getting on board rafts by hitting them with oars, the shipping company claimed that the crew was acting in the interests of the survivors on the boat. Already overloaded, one more passenger would cause the raft to capsize, more than likely killing twenty or thirty people. The one was sacrificed for the greater good.

Some believed, some didn’t. In the end, it didn’t matter. The investigation, as far as the authorities were concerned, was over. The survivors were left to mourn their lost loved ones, and live with whatever horrible things they had seen or done.

Although his friends were worried that the shock of losing the two Anna’s would kill him, John Dillon carried on. Although he was probably a little sadder, he moved on with his life.

He never forgot his wife and daughter. He returned to Davenport, their beloved city where they had spent so many good years, and commissioned a monument in their memory to be erected at the Dillon family plot in Oakdale Cemetery.

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The Dillon Monument in Oakdale Memorial Gardens, Davenport, Iowa. Author’s Collection.

Over the years, Dillon visited less and less, probably having to do with the toll that such a long trip took on his aging body. In 1902, he made sure to stop and visit the monument dedicated to both his Anna’s, taking the time to remember their lives and the wonderful years that he had shared with them.

John Dillon passed away in New York City in 1914. His body was shipped back by train to Davenport and interred with the rest of his family, just behind the monument.

Dillon had never experienced any kind of premonitions before July of 1898, and he never had any after. Was it some kind of divine intervention? A psychic sense that was tied to the well-being of his family? The ‘Why’ of the incident is open to speculation. 

In the end, it didn’t really matter. John Dillon had tried  his best to save his family from a vague terror, but had ultimately failed. The La Bourgogne had sunk, and there had been nothing for him to do but mourn the dead.

Dillon had made sure that their memory and the disaster that claimed their lives would be forever etched in stone. And even though he couldn’t save them or be buried near their earthly remains, he made sure that his memory and theirs would be close to each other for the rest of time.

   You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland. 

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Sources 

Downer, Harry E. A History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa. Volume II. Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.

Asheville Citizen-Times. 7/6/1898

The Morning Astorian. 7/7/1898

The Observer. 9/25/1898

La Bourgogne Sinks At Sea. The New York Times, 7/7/1898

New York Times. 9/7/1898

Davenport Daily Times. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/6/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/7/1898

A Hard Blow. Davenport Democrat and Leader, 7/13/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 9/3/1898

A Tribute. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 4/23/1900

A Handsome Monument. Davenport Democrat and Leader, 9/6/1901

Judge Dillon Here. The Daily Times, 10/31/1902

Two Handsome Features of Oakdale Cemetery. Davenport Democrat and Leader, 10/21/1906

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/3/1914

Historical Magazine Tells Story of Judge John F. Dillon. The Davenport Times and Democrat, 10/6/1929

Oakdale Monument Tells Sea Tragedy. Quad City Times, 6/19/1955

Finch, Hortense. That Amazing Man Named Dillon. Quad City Times, 10/12/1965

www.oceantreasures.org

Gillette, Greg. Central Jersey’s Hero of the Bourgogne. Blogs.mycentraljersey.com

 

 

 

 

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