The typewriter of Edith (Rosenbaum) Russell, a Titanic survivor and a history-making World War I correspondent, went forever silent in 1975.
Still, 42 years after her death, Russell continues to contribute to history’s literary archive, and 21 La Grande High School students are helping make sure of it.
The students, all from John Lamoreau’s world history class, recently transcribed a 17-page letter Russell wrote in 1917 describing what she saw on and near the front lines in France during WWI. The letter appears in the August-October edition of the Titanic Commutator, the official journal of the Titanic Historical Society, based in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts.
“This is original research,” Lamoreau said. “I am so proud of the work (the students) did.”
The history teacher describes the work of the students, who were all sophomores in the 2016-17 school year, as original research because of the World War I photos that accompany the letter in the Commutator. The photos were all found by Lamoreau’s students, many via the Library of Congress website. The photos match, sometimes stunningly, descriptive accounts in Russell’s letter.
For example, Russell writes on page 12 of sugar factories that had been reduced to tangled masses of iron “resembling a sunken steamship.” Lamoreau’s students found a WWI photo taken in France of a destroyed sugar factory that looked almost like a sunken steamship.
Page 14 of the published letter contains a photo of two WWI soldiers with a pair of friendly lions, one of which appears be to gently nuzzling the back of a man’s head. The unforgettable photo matches Russell’s description of two mild-
mannered lions named Whiskey and Soda, which she writes of seeing in a tent at an encampment of soldiers in France.
The LHS teacher noted that the photos found by the students enhance the credibility of Russell’s entire letter.
“They make everything else she wrote about seem authentic,” Lamoreau said.
A large number of other WWI letters Russell wrote appeared as dispatches to the New York Herald and the New York World, according Randy Bryan Bigham, a journalist and historian who wrote the foreword in the Titanic Commutator for the letter transcribed by the LHS world history students.
Lamoreau, a collector of Titanic memorabilia, purchased the letter several years ago. The typewritten letter was challenging for his students to transcribe because it has numerous crossed-out words with replacements scrawled across the top plus notes written down the sides of the pages. Russell wrote everything in cursive, which Lamoreau said was a struggle for the students because it is no longer taught in most public schools.
“It was difficult to decode her notes,” said Natalia Robles, one of Lamoreau’s students.
The transcription challenge was compounded by the letter’s faded type and occasional spelling errors.
“It was written long before spell check,” Lamoreau said.
He added that some keys on the typewriter Russell used in 1917 apparently were worn out from heavy use, making her correspondence more difficult to transcribe.
Challenges posed by old-time technology did not prevent the LHS students from gaining a feeling of connection to Russell.
“We all got to know her together,” said Alaina Carson, a student in the world history class.
Robles had a similar sentiment.
“It was like I got into her head a little. I got to see what she sees and how she reflects on it,” she said. “She was just like us. She was not a soldier or a nurse.”
The Titanic survivor and WWI correspondent went by the last name of Rosenbaum until about 1918, when she changed her name to Russell because of discrimination against people who had German-sounding names, Lamoreau said.
The article in the Titanic Commutator with Russell’s transcribed letter has a byline after which are listed the names of the 21 students in Lamoreau’s world history class. The students in addition to Robles and Carson are: Katelin Banes, Tanner Barnhart, Justin Comfort, Abby Crews, Caitlin Crouser, David Durbin, Madison Dutcher, Alyssa Jones, Garrett Kincade, Ashlynn Nelson, Mariah Nickerson, Caylee Shaw, Logan Stubblefield, Lilia Torres, Jeffery Vaughn, Zackary Watson, Christian Waugaman, Alex Weissenfluh and Baylee Young.
“They can all now say they are published writers,” Lamoreau said.
Russell was already well known before WWI started because she survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Russell was a 32-year-old fashion journalist when she boarded the ill-fated ship. She is one of the best known survivors because she brought a music box shaped like a pig when she left the sinking ship. It played a tune when its tail was twisted, and Russell used the music box to calm the frightened children in the lifeboat, Lamoreau said.
Russell first went to the front lines of World War I in 1916. She spent some of her time in the trenches, Lamoreau said, becoming one of the world’s first embedded women war correspondents.
Robles marvels at how Russell survived both the Titanic and World War I.
“It was like she had a rabbit’s foot,” the LHS student said.
Robles believes that surviving the sinking of the Titanic inspired Russell to work as a WWI correspondent.
“I think she thought, ‘I survived. I should do something with my life,’” Robles said.