Mix-up of Titanic proportions
Wrong brother buried in Neepawa cemetery
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/01/2015 (2924 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NEEPAWA — “Thus was laid to rest the remains of Leonard Hickman, an efficient English farm labourer,” the Neepawa Press reported May 10, 1912, on the funeral for the only Titanic victim buried in Western Canada.
Bereaved local folk even had the headstone cut and inscribed already when the casket was lowered into the ground.
Except it wasn’t Leonard Hickman they buried that day at the Riverside Cemetery in Neepawa.
The story isn’t so much a mystery as more what was once called a “tale from the crypt.” Bodies can be misplaced. Even maternity-ward newborns are sometimes mixed up.
What’s surprising is the story isn’t more widely known. It finally made the return trip across the Atlantic three years ago, on the centennial of the Titanic disaster, when the British Broadcasting Corporation sent a reporter to Neepawa to, cough, dig up the story.
Hickman was a person of “irreproachable character,” the Neepawa Press maintained. He emigrated in 1908 from Fritham Hauts, in Hampshire, England, at the age of 21, to Eden, a hamlet 16 kilometres north of Neepawa.
Eden must have lived up to its name in his eyes. There’s a photo of Hickman duck hunting with local men, in a scrapbook kept by Cecil Pittman, the authority on the local Titanic story who has written the weekly history column, Looking Backwards, in the Neepawa Press for 25 years.
Hickman worked on the farm of Harold and Catherine Honeyman and, before three years were up, had proposed to their daughter, Margaret. She accepted, and he presented her with a diamond engagement ring.
Then he left for England, just before Christmas of 1911, to tell his parents the news in person, and to persuade them and his siblings to join him in Eden. The entire family, consisting of 11 members, agreed. But a coal-miners strike precipitated a fuel shortage, putting some ocean liners out of service, including the one booked by the Hickmans. Alternative passage was arranged on the ill-fated Titanic, but there wasn’t room for everyone. So only Leonard and his two brothers, Lewis and Stanley, and four male friends from Fritham, made the trip.
We know what happened next. The indestructible Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking over 1,500 people down with it, including the three brothers. There were 13 Manitobans on the ill-fated ship — nine men and four women. The men died and the women survived.
Of the Hickman group, only Leonard’s body was recovered. One account claims the White Star Line, the Titanic’s owner, arranged to ship the body to Neepawa. But another story claims Hickman wasn’t eligible for free passage because he rode in second class. In this account, the Eden branch of the Independent Order of Foresters, to which Hickman was a member, paid to have his body returned to Neepawa. Otherwise, it would be buried in Halifax.
The train departed May 4 and — no surprise — was late, arriving just an hour before the funeral on May 10. Honeyman, Hickman’s boss and future father-in-law before the disaster, and James Smith, who knew the family in England, inspected the casket to ensure everything was copacetic.
They discovered a corpse, but it wasn’t Leonard Hickman. The man in the casket was older, heavier-set, and had a moustache. The men didn’t know what to do. Mourners were already filing into the church. They decided to keep it a secret. “To have said it was not Leonard was going to create awful confusion,” Honeyman confessed later.
It’s not clear whether the Knox Presbyterian Church was in on it, but the Rev. R. Paterson informed mourners it would be a closed-casket service due to the deterioration of the corpse from floating in the Atlantic for two weeks.
Neepawa went the whole nine yards on the funeral. All businesses and offices closed, and flags flew at half-mast. The funeral culminated with a citizens’ band leading the procession to the Riverside Cemetery.
Honeyman and Smith likely extrapolated very quickly that it was Lewis Hickman, Leonard’s brother, in the coffin. This would later be confirmed when effects found on his person, including a silver watch-and-chain and amber cigarette holder, were identified by Lewis’s widow, Marie, in England.
A week after the funeral, Honeyman wrote to another of Leonard’s brothers in England, Albert, and confessed the whole story. “Tell Lewis’s wife he’s laid to rest,” Honeyman said.
What caused the confusion is a card found in Lewis’s pocket. The card was from the Independent Order of Foresters in Eden, to which Leonard belonged. Lewis must have been wearing Leonard’s coat that night, perhaps grabbing it in a panic when the Titanic started to sink.
Word spread quickly. The tombstone was changed to list all three brothers. Pittman estimates 150 to 200 people visit the headstone in Riverside Cemetery every year, including bus tours.