Disaster-prone women

To say that Violet Jessop was disaster prone is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has issues with his hair (and a few other issues besides…). Her story takes survival and pure luck to a whole new level. Violet achieved a peculiar kind of fame when she managed to survive three disasters.

She was the first of nine children born to Irish emigrants William and Katherine Jessop,  in Argentina, where William was a sheep farmer.  After his death, Violet and the family moved to Britain, where she attended a convent school. When her mother became ill, she left school and took a job as a ship’s stewardess.

Violet Jessop

Violet Jessop

Violet was aged 23 when she was aboard the world’s largest civilian ship  RMS Olympic when it collided with HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight on September 20, 1911. Olympic′s hull was breached resulting in the flooding of two of her compartments and a twisted propeller shaft. Despite the serious damage, she limped back to port. It was Violet’s first maritime collision.

She would be part of a far more serious disaster on board the Olympic′s sister ship, the RMS Titanic. which she joined as a stewardess on April 10, 1912. Four days later, on 14 April, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, starting to founder and, over the next two hours, broke in two and sank. Violet was ordered into lifeboat 16, and, as the boat was being lowered, one of the Titanic′s officers gave her a baby to look after. The next morning, she and the rest of the survivors were rescued by  RMS Carpathia. According to Violet, while on board the Carpathia, a woman grabbed the baby she was holding and ran off with it without saying a word. She never saw the child again.

Undaunted by two disasters, Violet went back to sea. Four years later, during World War One, she was serving on the hospital ship, HMHS Britannic (another sister ship of the Titanic) in the Aegean Sea when it struck a mine. The ship’s portholes had been kept open for better ventilation. As a result, water poured in and the ship sank with the loss of 30 lives.


RMS Titanic

Once again, Violet made it into a lifeboat, but this one was perilously close to the Britannic as it went under, threatening to take the lifeboat in its wake. Violet leaped into the water and tried to swim away, but was sucked under nonetheless. She resurfaced but struck her head on a lifeboat keel and had to be rescued. She later attributed her survival to the cushioning effect of her plaited auburn hair.

Of course, by this time Violet was a veteran in ship survival. She said she made sure to grab her toothbrush before leaving her cabin on the Britannic, as that had been the one thing she missed most when the Titanic went down. Violet continued her life on the ocean wave, but with no further sinkings reported.

Now if you thought that Violet was unlucky (or incredibly lucky, depending on whether the glass is half full or empty), then meet Melanie Martinez, from Louisiana.

DISASTER Melanie Martinez

Melanie Martinez after another disaster

I wouldn’t suppose Melanie is up for home visits that much these days. I mean when Betsy, Juan, George and Katrina dropped by they tore the place apart. They’re hurricanes by the way. Betsy visited Melanie in 1965, Juan 20 years later, George in 1998 and Katrina in 2005. Poor Melanie was left picking up the pieces every time.

But then things started to look up. A TV makeover show dropped by and gave her home in Braithwaite, New Orleans, a $20,000 facelift – new kitchen, the latest appliances and a 50-inch television. What more could a body want?

Ah, but then on Wednesday, August 29, 2012 – the seventh anniversary of Katrina – Hurricane Isaac howled in from the Gulf and hit her again. Cue a fifth total wipeout for the New Orleans woman.

Violet and Melanie may have been disaster prone, but First Officer Leta Frost, of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, aka “Wrens”) practically courted fatal mishaps.

During her post-World War II career with the Royal Navy’s Safety Equipment and Survival School, Leta did all manner of daredevil – some might use the word ‘lunatic’ – things.


Image of First Officer Frost in a Sproule net (courtesy of the Telegraph)

In order to test whether a rescue beacon would operate properly, Leta was dropped into the ocean and waited to be located. On another occasion she jumped into the English Channel, acting unconscious and waiting to be scooped up by a ‘Sproule net’. She was also hung by a winch from a helicopter and lowered onto a ship, all the while directing the pilot by radio, as he couldn’t see her.

Leta served with the Wrens from 1942 to 1956. To all intents and purposes, she was a human guinea pig – who thrived on the fact that disaster might strike at any time.

I’m not sure how well she would have got on with the other two ladies, but I’m sure there would have been plenty to talk about…



About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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24 Responses to Disaster-prone women

  1. Phew! For one horrible moment, I thought this was going to be about me!


  2. You’ll get a section all of your own, Denise 🙂


  3. Beth says:

    Really interesting read – thank you!!


  4. Thank you, Beth. Glad you dropped by


  5. John L. Monk says:

    Fascinating. Was this inspired in any way by Lindy Moone’s constantly falling down the stairs blog post? 🙂


  6. Well, I was considering asking her to do an interview…:)


  7. Nice one, David. It seems to me that all 3 women were lucky, as opposed to being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freakish event happened. But what are the odds? It is said that “lightning doesn’t strike twice,” yet I know of a man from Memphis who was actually struck by lightning twice! Surviving these oddities is what points to uncanny. good fortune.


  8. The word that comes to mind for all these women is “resilience.” What stories.


  9. Tough cookies, alright Carol


  10. Amazing stories, David. Thanks for sharing 🙂


  11. mysm2000 says:

    Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    Think you’re a klutz? Always bumping into things? Trouble always happens to you? Read this post from History with a Twist and you’ll realize worse things could happen and you’ll enjoy a good laugh along the way. Truth truly is stranger than fiction! Enjoy my Sunday reblog.


  12. P. C. Zick says:

    I will never again complain about the tiny little disasters in my life!


  13. Bill Kasal says:

    Always entertaining, David!


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