German Torpedoes Sank Montreal Woman Twice

By James Donahue

There is a strange story about a prominent Montreal woman who died when the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat. Her body was not sent to the bottom of the Atlantic until the Germans sank the Hesperian, the ship on which her recovered body was being shipped to Montreal.

It seems that Frances Washington Stephens, the wife of George Washington Stevens, was traveling with friends aboard the Lusitania and drowned when that ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. That sinking was carried out by the submarine U-20, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger.

The 64-year-old Stephens perished in the incident, but her body was recovered and taken to Liverpool where it was embalmed and prepared to be returned to Montreal. The Hesperian, an Allen Line passenger liner making regular runs from Liverpool to ports on the St. Lawrence River, was chosen for delivery of the body.

As the 485-foot 9,500-ton Hesperian, now under charter to the Canadian Pacific Line, was steaming out to sea from Liverpool on September 4, 1915, it seems that Schwieger and his crew were back on patrol in the same territory with U-20. At a point about eighty miles off Fastnet Rock, in the south Irish Sea, the Hesperian came into view in the U-20's periscope.

That the U-20 fired without warning and sank the Hesperian killing 26 members of her crew and about 10 of the estimated 600 passengers she was carrying caused almost as much of a political storm as the sinking of the Lusitania. Only a few days before the Hesperian's loss, German Ambassador Bernsdorff assured the United States government that passenger liners would not be sunk without warning and that submarine commanders would do all they could to ensure the safety of non-combatants on the liners.

Needless to say, Schwieger was in hot political water over the sinking. On his return to Wilhelmshaven, he was ordered to Berlin to explain himself. He also was ordered to apologize for sinking another passenger liner in violation of a direct order.

The Hesperian was more than just a usual passenger and cargo ship at sea that day. She also was doubling as a hospital ship. When it sank, the body of Mrs. Stephens went to the bottom with it, not far from where the Lusitania was sunk. The steamer took its time before it succumbed to the sea, and there was a gallant attempt to tow the Hesperian back to shallow water. But in the end, it foundered and was seen no more.

There was another strange story linked to the Hesperian disaster. It seems that a wounded soldier, blinded by the shock of a shell blast on the Western Front, was also aboard the steamer when it was rocked by the torpedo. He was among the survivors who returned to Queenstown. On arrival he announced that the shock of the explosion somehow jarred his brain and his sight was restored.

The Hesperian was launched in 1907 at Glasgow, Scotland for the Allan Line, officially known as the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company. She made her maiden voyage the following year. Her sister ship, Grampian, was launched at about the same time.

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