Saturday, October 18, 2008

Margaret Mather


Age: 58

Residence: Rome, Italy

Occupation: Heiress

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - portside dining salon


Margaret Graves Mather, born October 11, 1878 in Morristown, NJ, had family who lived in Princeton, NJ, but herself lived in Rome. The daughter of Frank Jewett Mather, a successful lawyer from Connecticut, Miss Mather had seven siblings. In 1906 her brother, Frank Mather, Jr., contracted typhoid fever and moved to Italy to recuperate, and Miss Mather and her parents went along to take care of him. After Frank, Jr. recovered from his illness he returned home in 1910 to take a teaching position with the department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

Miss Mather and her parents continued to live in Italy. Her mother passed away in 1920, and she took care of her father until he passed away in 1929 at the age of 94. She made periodic visits to the United States, but had become a full-time resident of Rome. A patron of the arts, Margaret Mather acted as benefactor for a number of artists over the years, including Gregorius Maltzeff, a noted Russian painter who had moved to Rome for further study after having graduated from the Royal Art Academy in St. Petersburg. When the revolution broke out back in Russia in 1917, Maltzeff was stuck in Rome and his monthly stipend from the Academy stopped coming. Miss Mather and other local patrons saw to it that Maltzeff was able to both continue his work and support his family.

One of the last people to book passage on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937, Miss Mather had been traveling in England and flew to Frankfurt in order to catch the flight on May 3rd. She was making her first trip to the United States in eight years and planned on visiting her brother. Frank Jr. had retired from Princeton in 1933 as Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology emeritus but had stayed on as director of Princeton's Museum of Historic Art, and continued to publish well-regarded treatises on art and art history.

Miss Mather loved to fly, primarily because she was highly susceptible to seasickness. Unfortunately, at the time there were as yet few options for crossing the Atlantic by air, and so when she visited her family in the United States she was usually forced to travel by steamer, " whose lavish comfort and entertainment," Miss Mather later wrote, "meant little to a seasick wretch." This time, however, she found that the Hindenburg's first American flight of the season dovetailed perfectly with her travel plans and was far from being fully-booked. She also learned that the flight would cost her less if she paid half the fare in registered Reichsmarks.

Margaret Mather arrived in Frankfurt by air on the morning of May 3rd and took her luggage to the Frankfurter Hof, where the rest of the passengers were assembling in preparation for the flight. Since she had several hours until the busses would take them to the airfield, Miss Mather hired a taxi and took a ride through the wooded countryside near Frankfurt, at which point a curious thought occurred to her: "What a beautiful farewell to earth." She had been oddly unexcited by her coming flight across the ocean, which struck her as odd since she loved traveling by air and had been fascinated by the images of the Hindenburg that had appeared in the news since the previous year. She later recalled that "I decided that I was tired and let it go at that."

The customs inspectors began their examination of the passengers' baggage at the hotel at approximately 4:00 that afternoon. The baggage inspection was, Miss Mather said, "courteous but thorough," and upon inspection it was discovered that her baggage was 15 kilos over the 20 kilo limit. When informed that she would have to pay a fine of 5 marks per kilo (which averaged out to about a dollar per pound, or $33 overall) she tried to argue against the fine, since she weighed 20 kilos less than the average passenger. The customs men, of course, did not see it that way.

At around 7:00 that evening, the passengers boarded three busses in front of the hotel, which took them to the airfield where they assembled in the hangar for another passport and ticket check prior to boarding. The odd indifference Margaret Mather had felt before suddenly vanished when she saw the Hindenburg moored in front of the hangar. She also noticed for the first time how few passengers there were for that flight, and how few women were among them. After the latest round of formalities, the passengers were led to the ship. Miss Mather climbed the gangway stairs which lowered from the belly of the ship and was shown to her cabin, which was one of the newly-installed staterooms on B-deck aft of the smoking room. Unlike the cabins upstairs on A-deck, Miss Mather's cabin had its own window. She took a quick look around, and then went up to the portside dining salon on A-deck, where the other passengers were congregating by the observation windows to watch the ship take off.

The Hindenburg cast off for America at 8:18 that evening. Margaret Mather was struck, as were most first-time passengers, by the unique sensation of rising into the sky aboard an airship. She later wrote, "It was an indescribable feeling of lightness and buoyancy – A lift and a pull upward, quite unlike the takeoff of an airplane."

After an hour and a half of cruising over the German countryside, watching small villages slide past below them by the light of the Hindenburg's searchlight. At ten o'clock a cold supper was served and Miss Mather was seated at the right hand of Captain Max Pruss, the ship's commanding officer, who appeared several minutes late. He was quite courteous to her and she noted that throughout the trip he ate lightly (usually no more than a single course at a meal) and drank nothing stronger than mineral water before heading down to the smoking room for a quick cigarette and then returning to the control car.

The next day, Margaret Mather spent most of the day lounging in her cabin, enjoying the view from her window, though there wasn't much to see besides the storm-tossed sea below. She marveled at the fact that, despite the fact that the ship was being buffetted by heavy winds, there was so little perceptable movement onboard the ship, and that she didn't feel the least bit seasick. She remarked on this to Captain Pruss at dinner, and he said that he was glad she was having such a good flight, but that with the stormy weather and the stiff headwinds that were slowing their progress, it was one of the worst trips he'd ever made.

Miss Mather became acquainted with many of the other passengers as the flight progressed. The Ernsts from Hamburg, George Grant from London, Herbert O'Laughlin from Chicago, the Doehner family from Mexico City… all made enough of an impression on her that she later mentioned them (though not specifically by name) in an article she wrote about the flight. She hit it off particularly well with John and Emma Pannes, an American couple flying home from Europe. Miss Mather and Mrs. Pannes spent a good deal of time together during the rest of the flight, watching as icebergs came into sight on the afternoon of the second day, as the Hindenburg approached Newfoundland.

By the morning of the final day of the flight, May 6th, Margaret Mather realized that her mood had improved steadily over the course of the flight, to the point where she now "awoke in the morning with a feeling of well-being and happiness such as one rarely experiences after youth has passed." She attributed much of this to the fact that, for the first time, she had crossed the ocean with none of the misery and stress of constant seasickness. She watched the New England coast and New York City from the observation windows as the afternoon progressed, with fellow passenger Peter Belin pointing out his alma mater, Yale, as they passed over it. Emma Pannes also pointed out the area on Long Island where she and Mr. Pannes lived. The weather worsened as the Hindenburg flew on toward Lakehurst, and Miss Mather was a bit concerned when they passed over the airfield and flew back out to the Jersey coast to wait out the storm. One of her fellow passengers reassured her, however, that Zeppelins could cruise around indefinitely if needed, pointing out that the Graf Zeppelin had once circled above Rio for three days waiting for a sudden revolution on the ground to end so that they could land.

Miss Mather and Mrs. Pannes watched together as the Hindenburg cruised up and down the Jersey coast. From time to time they'd catch a glimpse of the huge airship hangar at Lakehurst, then lose it again in the clouds. At about 6:30 PM a steward brought a tray of sandwiches around for the passengers. Miss Mather initially declined, but then reconsidered when the steward told her that the ship might not land for another hour or two. She and Mrs. Pannes watched the scenery for awhile longer from the portside observation windows, and suddenly they realized that they were over the airfield again and circling for landing. Miss Mather watched the ship's yaw lines drop from the bow, and saw the ground crew pick them up and carry them off to be connected up to the mooring tackle on the ground.

As Peter Belin stood nearby taking photos of the ground crew below, telling Miss Mather that he'd taken over eighty photographs during the flight, Mrs. Pannes excused herself to go back to her cabin to get her coat. Margaret Mather continued to lean out the open window and watch the men on the ground work to bring the massive airship down to earth.

Margaret Mather's location in the portside dining room at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, she heard a dull, muffled boom. She saw "a look of incredulous consternation" on Peter Belin's face, heard somebody cry "We're on fire!" and then the ship tilted down by the stern and Miss Mather was thrown 15 or 20 feet to the back wall of the dining room. She came to rest against the leatherette seat which was attached to the wall next to the rearmost observation window, and was pinned there by several other people who were also thrown aft by the sudden tilting of the floor. For a moment, Miss Mather thought she might suffocate from all the bodies pressing on her but the knot of people suddenly got to their feet, some of them climbing towards the windows to jump.

She stayed sitting where she'd landed, however, pulling her heavy coat up to protect her face from the flames that had begun to burn their way into the dining room. She watched as several of the passengers she'd gotten to know during the flight leapt through the windows and others crawled along the floor, injured from their sudden tumble. She thought to herself that it looked like " a scene from a medieval picture of hell," and waited for the crash she knew had to be coming once the ship reached the ground.

The crash, however, never came. The forward part of the ship, including the passenger section, settled so gently to the ground that Miss Mather never even noticed the impact. She was suddenly aware of two or three rescuers looking into the wreckage of the dining salon, calling "Come out, lady!" Stunned, Miss Mather looked around and realized that they were on the ground. As she got up she dazedly hunted about her for her handbag until one of the nearby rescuers called out "Aren't you coming?" She was led gently out of the wreckage via the gangway stairs in the belly of the ship – the same way she'd entered the ship in Frankfurt a few days before – and was then taken to a nearby car.

It was one of the large limousines which had been waiting to take the passengers to the Zeppelin company office in one of the station's airplane hangars. Now it was being loaded up with injured survivors to be taken to the air station's infirmary. Fellow passenger George Grant, himself hobbled by a broken leg and an injured back, saw Miss Mather being led to the car and said with relief, "Thank God you're safe!" She squeezed into the front seat next to the driver, and asked to be dropped off at the entrance to the air station so that she could try to find her family. The driver refused, saying that he had orders to take everyone to the infirmary. When Miss Mather protested that she wasn't even hurt, the driver said "Look at your hands, lady."

She realized for the first time that her hands had been badly scorched by the flames as she'd held her heavy overcoat tight around her face, and said no more as they crossed the sandy airfield. The car dropped the survivors off at the infirmary, and Miss Mather was taken into a room where a medic applied picric acid to her burned hands. She realized that she was sitting next to Captain Ernst Lehmann, who had commanded the Hindenburg in 1936 and was aboard this flight as an observer in his capacity as Director of Flight Operations for the DZR (the German airship line). Lehmann was, Miss Mather saw, terribly burned over much of his body. The two of them quietly passed the bottle of picric acid back and forth between them, swabbing at their burns as more badly injured survivors were brought in.

The cries of pain and the sight of the steady stream of terribly scorched people were soon too much for Miss Mather, and she needed to get away from the confusion. It wasn't much better outside. Most of the survivors had already been brought in by now, and more and more of the trucks and ambulances arriving from the wreck were carrying corpses. She finally found somebody who offered to drive her over to the air station's entrance to help her look for her family, but eventually it became clear that her family was no longer there. Miss Mather went back to the infirmary to have her hands bandaged, and by that time most of the survivors had been taken to local hospitals. She saw George Grant, his injured leg wrapped in bandages, being carried out on a stretcher. She saw the steward who had served them sandwiches earlier in the evening, walking around aimlessly but amazingly uninjured, his clothes spotless.

Finally, she was shown to an ambulance. The driver told her that they could take her to one of the nearby hospitals, or to the home of one of her family members. She asked to be driven to her niece's home in Princeton. Two Navy men sat with her in the back of the ambulance along the way, and as one of them helped her to sit up, he looked at her back and asked her "Do you know that your coat is all burned?" It was then that it occurred to Miss Mather that the fact that she'd been wearing a heavy overcoat had almost certainly saved her from far serious burns. It was full of holes, a couple of which actually had small bits of metal lodged in them. But it had kept the flames away from her long enough for her to escape with little more than burned hands.

The ambulance finally dropped Miss Mather off at her niece's house, where her family had gone after watching the Hindenburg burn, thinking that there was no chance that Margaret or anyone else had made it out alive. Now, only a couple hours later, here she was at the door. It was, both her brother Frank Jr. and her niece Mrs. Louise Turner, "a miracle."

Margaret Mather returned to Rome and continued to travel often by air for the rest of her life. She wrote an article, entitled "I Was On the Hindenburg" for the November, 1937 issue of Harper's Magazine, in which she gave an extensive account of her experiences during the Zeppelin's final voyage.

She passed away in Rome on December 19th, 1969, at the age of 91, and is buried at Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma.

Thanks to Michael Axel Maltzeff-McCain for having contacted me to let me know of Margaret Mather's connection to his grandfather, Gregorius Maltzeff. More information about Maltzeff's life and career can be found HERE and HERE at blogs maintained by his grandson.


halby80 said...

I have a great grandmother also named Margaret Mather. I was searching online for any information I could find on her when I found the article about your Margaret. What a thrilling story! Thanks for sharing.

Patrick Russell said...

Hi Hal,

Glad you found the article, and that you enjoyed reading it. Miss Mather certainly lived an interesting life, and was obviously VERY lucky to get out of the Hindenburg with such minor injuries.

Good luck in researching your great-grandmother! Lotsa stuff to be found online these days when you're playing genealogical detective.

Minus Manhattan said...

Margaret Mather was my great aunt. Fascinating read and nice to read more about her. Thank you.

Patrick Russell said...

Thank YOU, Minus. I'm really glad you enjoyed the article and that you learned some things about your great aunt. She seems like she led a long, fascinating life.

If you have any additional information about her (or especially any additional photos of her) please get in touch with me at

Take care,

Michael Floyd said...

Was Anne Bancroft's character based on her in the film?

Anonymous said...

Good evening, I hope to be of help signaling that this blog also talks about Margaret Graves Mather:

Greg VA said...

Funnily, I was looking up information on the Actress Margaret Mather (different MM) and again found this awesome site and became wrapped in the stories again. Fascinating and important recounts of this historical ship and its demise. Great work!

David72 said...

I had Margaret Mather the "Hindenburg" survivor mixed up with Margaret Mather the actress/singer while researching names on Unfortunately, I waded through a number of articles and advertisements before finding out that THAT Margaret Mather passed away in 1898 while performing. But I did find out a lot about HER in the process. :-)