It was several decades ago when a family from Augusta, Georgia moved to suburban Chicago and took up residence in a sprawling highrise apartment building. Mr. and Mrs. Jones were the proud parents of a small daughter and they were quite pleased about a blossoming friendship with an elderly lady who lived in an adjacent unit. Especially nice was the interest the lady seemed to take in the little girl who was far away from her own grandparents. Over a period of time the intimacy between the families grew and the little Jones girl came to think of her kindly neighbor as her own grandmother.
Dorothy Eells and her husband Harry were a childless couple who had previously lived in Massachusetts and New Jersey. They had married many years before and neither had been married previously. They were interesting conversationalists and Dorothy charmed them with her unusual accent. It was obvious that she was not a native of the United States but difficult to pinpoint her nationality by listening to her speech. She could tell many interesting stories and eventually related a saga of some historical significance.
The Jones child was enthralled with the tale her “grandmother” told of having survived the sinking of the greatest maritime tragedy in history. In the course of the growing friendship, the narrative unfolded with more and more dramatic details. Mrs. Eells began to share other items with Mr. and Mrs. Jones that had been left out of what had been related to their little girl.
This is her story.
Dorothy Eells claimed to have been born in England on August 20, 1909 to a barely pubescent girl of 13 named Rena Rosefox. Rena had been impregnated by a man named Archibald Willingham Butt who was born in Augusta, Georgia and was a 42 year-old with a promising future when the liaison occurred. The parents of Rena Rosefox were humiliated by this turn of events and as soon as the child was born, they took charge of her, alleging that they were the natural parents and leading the child to believe that Rena was her own sister. Following Dorothy’s birth in 1909, Rena was sent to a girl’s boarding school in Switzerland where Archie Butt continued to pursue her. Finally, in 1912, Major Butt, by then serving as Aide-de-Camp to President William Howard Taft, feared exposure of the situation and agreed to go to Switzerland and marry Rena Rosefox. Rena’s parents agreed to permit the marriage of their underage daughter in the hope that Archie Butt would give the child his name and acknowledge his paternity. Together Archie and Rena allegedly journeyed to England where Rena’s parents delivered Dorothy to them and the three embarked from Southampton on the Titanic en route to New York.
At the time of the alleged trip aboard Titanic, Dorothy was not quite three years old but in her later years she decided she would record her “memories” of that night in a 12-page handwritten account. She remembered Major Butt, her “Uncle Archie,” placing her and Rena in a lifeboat. The memory of the sinking and the screams of the drowning haunted her throughout her life.
After the Titanic sinking, Dorothy was reared by her grandparents in England and her mother eventually married but had no other children. It was many years later when Dorothy’s natural grandfather pulled an old book from the shelf which had been written shortly after the foundering of Titanic in 1912 and detailed the event. In the book was a formal portrait of her “Uncle Archie.” It was then that the old man confided “the truth” to Dorothy about her parentage. After the death of Everett Fox, Dorothy inherited the dusty Titanic book by Logan Marshall. She found that on the photo of Major Butt someone had penned the words “Dorothy’s father.” She kept the book throughout her lifetime, eventually bequeathing it to the Jones family. It is still in their possession.
There were times when Dorothy Eells allowed other outsiders to read the 12 page narrative about her experience aboard the Titanic. But most were skeptical of her claims and she would cry openly when her claims were challenged. Later, when Mrs. Jones asked her about making her story public, she tearfully declined, saying “no one ever believes an old woman.”
The friendship between the Jones and Eells family continued and as Dorothy’s health failed she depended on them more and more. Until her death she insisted that her Titanic tale was true.
In 1999 the Titanic Commutator, Volume 23, page 52, contained a letter to Ed Kamuda giving details of Major Butt’s alleged peccadillo and resulting pregnancy of the child Rena Rosefox. If the Titanic Historical Society possesses any details concerning the story, they have not see fit to respond. It was after this letter appeared that my detective work began. The following is the true story, as best as I have been able to ascertain from legal records in Canada, Massachusetts, and Illinois and from personal contact with members of the Jones family.
Dorothy Eells was actually born Dorothy Rose Fox on August 20, 1899 in South Barnstone, Quebec, Canada, the illegitimate daughter of Rena Rose Fox, who was indeed 13 years of age at the time of the birth. She was raised by her maternal grandparents, Everett Augustus Fox and his wife, nee Martha Gould. At an undetermined time, Dorothy came to the United States and settled in Wakefield, Massachusetts where she married a Mr. Styles. They had no children and later divorced. Living at various times in Wakefield and Boston (and later in New Jersey), Dorothy applied for a social security card in 1942 and stated that she was unemployed. Later marrying a younger man named Harry Eells, she finally settled in the Chicago area.
Dorothy Eells died on December 27, 1982 at her home on Lake Street in Aurora, Illinois of cardio-respiratory failure and pulmonary disease. Her death certificate, with personal data provided by her husband, states that she was born August 20, 1905 in England but does not give the names of her parents. Her body was cremated and she was interred in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. Later the Jones family moved to Springdale, Arkansas and Harry Eells followed them there. He remarried and died in 1990, believing his wife’s Titanic story to the end.
In order to determine the veracity of the allegations made by Dorothy Eells, consider the following point by point comparisons:
During the course of my research I contacted Mrs. Peggy Jones of
Arkansas who was most cordial and helpful. She promised to send me
a copy of the 12-page narrative as well as photos of Dorothy in
later years. Also, she agreed to provide a copy of the old photo
of Archie Butt on which was written “Dorothy’s father.” After I
began to share snippets of what my own research was revealing, I
received a terse message via fax from Mrs. Jones’ daughter stating
that they would provide no other information and requesting that I
not contact them again.
All rights reserved, Phillip Gowan