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Honeymoon into history Niagara Falls couple's voyage on the doomed Lusitania turned into the ultimate love story

It was supposed to be the trip of their dreams.

Newlyweds Harold and Lucy Taylor of Niagara Falls wanted a honeymoon that would be grand and elegant -- a trip they would always remember.

They would, but not for the reasons they planned.

Their honeymoon became a date with history, a brush with tragedy on a day that changed the course of the world. Their fate was printed on their travel tickets, in a single word:

Lusitania.

On that fateful trip, the bridal joy of Lucy Taylor, just 19, would be shattered when a torpedo streaked through the icy waters of the Atlantic and an explosion doomed the luxurious ocean liner that had seemed so perfect a start to a new life together. In the panic, the young bride was separated from her husband and swept into a crowded lifeboat. She watched in horror as victims in the freezing water tried to climb into the lifeboat, only to be beaten back by others already in the boat.

"It seemed terrible to me," she said, later, her voice breaking, "to do that."

Harold Taylor, 21, was left aboard the Lusitania. He had given his lifejacket away to an elderly woman, and he couldn't swim. He was swept into the sea when the ship sank.

In that moment, Lucy thought she lost him forever.

Harold fought death, the odds against him.

Now, 90 years later, the tale of the Taylors is one of terror and redemption, of loss and survival. It's also, in the end, a love story.

And, up to now, it's a story that has never been told in its entirety.

Here, for Valentine's Day, it is.

>The grandest trip

Like most newlyweds, the Taylors had to watch their budget. So, after their wedding in St. Peter's Church in Niagara Falls on April 29, 1915, they decided to cross the Atlantic on the Mauretania -- an ocean liner that was affordable, although much less fancy than the glamorous Lusitania. They were headed for England, to visit relatives.

Then Harold and Lucy got a surprise, in the form of an unexpected gift from a kindly aunt.

"She paid the difference from the Mauretania to the Lusitania," said Lucy Taylor, years later, in a 1965 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., one of the few interviews she ever gave about the Lusitania.

"That," said Lucy, with a light laugh, "was our wedding present."

That's how the Taylors -- so achingly young in their engagement picture, and such a handsome couple -- ended up on board the doomed Lusitania when it slowly cruised out of New York harbor on May 1.

And although there were 1,959 people on board the ship, the Taylors immediately attracted attention.

When they boarded in New York, Lucy Taylor -- always a sharp dresser -- was wearing a fashionable hat bedecked with an elegant peacock feather.

But as she climbed the gangplank, a sailor came up to her and -- much to her surprise -- yanked the feather off her hat.

He glared at her and threw the feather overboard. Peacock feathers on a ship, the sailor said, were very bad luck.

"He said to her, you never wear a peacock-feathered hat on board a ship," said Harold Wesley Taylor, the couple's son, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.

To this day, descendants of Lucy Taylor collect peacock feathers.

"It's lucky," said Cynthia Kiebala of Medina, Lucy's granddaughter, whose dining room at Christmas contained a gorgeous peacock ornament. "We're connected to history."

>A stylish romance

When Lucy Haddock told Harold Taylor she would marry him, she was a dark-haired beauty who lived with her parents in Niagara Falls.

Harold was 21, and still some years away from the 40-year career he would build at Niagara Mohawk. He would end up serving in World War I as part of the British Army, which conscripted him as soon as he arrived on British soil in 1915; the couple did not return to the United States until 1922.

But in April 1915 Harold and Lucy were focused only on their love, and on their wedding plans.

In an engagement photo, Harold wears a dark suit and Lucy a dress with a wide lace collar, adorned with a gold locket. That locket would later sink to the ocean floor, left behind in Lucy's stateroom on the doomed liner.

He called her "Cis," and she called him "Hal." They weren't flashy about their affection for each other -- that wasn't their style -- but everyone knew that their love went deep.

"I never saw anything other than a devoted couple," said Kiebala.

Both the Haddock and Taylor families had emigrated to the United States from England when Lucy and Harold were teenagers. In fact, descendants of the couple believe that Harold first fell in love with Lucy in England -- where she was the daughter of a grocer -- and convinced his family to follow the Haddocks to America when they moved there in 1912.

The couple married quite simply. Lucy's wedding outfit, a quaker-style dress in soft gray, was packed into her trunk and then loaded onto the ship. It, too, would be lost in the disaster.

Among their wedding presents, the couple received money -- about $100, which would be worth close to $2,000 today -- and gifts, including the tickets for the Lusitania.

When she boarded the ship in New York, the new bride felt nervous about the security of her wedding money. So she tucked it into a little mesh bag, and then tucked the bag under her mattress.

Lucy, feeling seasick, had gone to her cabin and was asleep at 2 p.m. on May 7. That's the moment the torpedo ripped a hole in the Lusitania's side, and the honeymoon turned into a nightmare.

>Ship of dreams

The Lusitania was, in its day, a marvel. It was one of the biggest ships around, at 780 feet, and one of the fastest -- capable of traveling at speeds up to 25 knots, much faster than the Titanic, which had been much celebrated in 1912 but sank on its maiden voyage.

The Lusitania, a Cunard liner, had been launched in 1907 and was famous not just for its size and luxury but for its speed, which was considered a guarantee of its safety against any danger it might face.

In May 1915, there was decided danger.

World War I was under way. German U-boats cruised the waters around England and Ireland, looking for merchant ships and other vessels to prey upon.

In fact, New York newspapers of the time carried warning messages from the German Embassy to American passengers, telling them that travel by water -- on liners including the Lusitania -- was not safe.

"The warnings were generally disregarded," said Kiebala, about her grandparents' decision to ignore warnings and board the ship. "It's like warnings today -- there are so many of them, they're disregarded."

The Lusitania's final trip went smoothly, until the liner approached the southern coast of Ireland, on its way to the harbor at Liverpool, England. Just off the Old Head of Kinsale on the Irish coast, the liner was spotted by German submarine U-20 and torpedoed.

The Lusitania sank swiftly and mercilessly. From torpedo hit to final plunge, the disaster took just 18 minutes to unfold -- less time than it takes to watch a TV sitcom.

After the strike, a wave of panic moved through the passenger cabins.

Harold Taylor, who had been up on deck while Lucy battled seasickness in the couple's third-class cabin, rushed downstairs to warn his wife.

"We're hit," he told her.

"Hit!" Lucy exclaimed.

"We've been torpedoed."

There was no more time to talk. Harold strapped a lifebelt around Lucy's body and then put one on himself, and the couple ventured out of the cabin for the upper decks.

The ship was listing dangerously by this point. The Taylors decided to make for the lower end of the ship, to try to find a lifeboat.

Lucy, years later, would remember mostly the things she left behind.

Her shoes -- she went barefoot from the cabin, although she did manage to throw a sealskin coat over her shoulders. Harold's suit jacket. Her gold locket. The little mesh bag full of wedding money -- all the couple had in the world.

"She would say, 'If I only, if I only . . .," said David Lepp, Lucy's grandson, who lives in Rochester. "We'd say, 'Well, Grandma, you didn't. But at least you're here.' "

>Wrenched apart

Lucy Taylor was lucky -- she found a seat in a lifeboat. Only a few of the ship's 22 boats could be launched, and of those, only six made it to shore.

Climbing into the crowded boat, Lucy pleaded for Harold to be allowed to go too -- she saw that there were other men in the lifeboat, "a lot" of them -- but he was told to get back.

Then, before she knew it, the lifeboat was pushing off. The crew warned the people inside to row quickly away from the sinking liner, so that they wouldn't get sucked down with the ship.

Lucy was terrified. While on that lifeboat she saw things that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She saw babies and children float past, clinging to pieces of wreckage, and was unable to help them.

She saw dying people in the freezing water try to climb into the lifeboat, only to be beaten back by the people already in it, who rapped on their knuckles to make them let go.

And she saw her beloved Harold, standing on the deck of the Lusitania, waving to her as she rowed away. She waved back, and kept waving, until the moment when she saw the ship go under, taking Harold with it.

"Long as I could see him, we waved," she said later in an interview. Her voice faltered. It was all she could say.

>Harold's miracle

Harold Taylor couldn't swim, and he had no lifebelt, when the ship went down. What happened to him next is told differently, depending on who you ask.

Harold himself believed -- although he rarely mentioned the Lusitania in later years -- that he was sucked into the ship's funnel when the liner went down. Then, as air and water combined in the bottom of the funnel with the ship's furnaces, a massive explosion occurred, and Harold was convinced that he was shot up into the air along with others who had been sucked into the funnel.

Some of his descendants doubt that story, wondering if that could possibly have happened.

Whatever the case, Harold ended up clinging to a piece of floating wreckage, far from where the ship had gone down, and far from the path Lucy's lifeboat was cutting through the icy waters toward the Irish coast.

After drifting for a time, Harold was pulled from the ocean by a small craft that was trawling through the water looking for survivors.

By living to make land, Harold joined a small minority of the lucky ones. Most of those on board the Lusitania -- 1,198 people -- died.

But Lucy thought her husband was drowned. When she got to shore, she fired off a telegram to her parents in Niagara Falls, telling them that she was saved but "Harold had gone."

For a day, she grieved for him, a young widow-bride.

Then, on May 8, Lucy stopped into a hotel in Queenstown, now Cobh, where survivors from the wreck had gathered. She was walking down a staircase in that hotel when, all of a sudden, a sailor raced up to her.

Only it wasn't a sailor.

It was Harold, clad in makeshift clothes he had donned when he got to land.

Lucy couldn't believe her eyes. Her new husband wasn't dead -- he was saved -- despite everything she had believed.

"I think I was," she said later, "the happiest person alive."

>The aftermath

The reunited couple sent a new telegram back home. "Both saved," it read.

Then they recuperated as best they could and made their way to England. It would be seven years before they would return to Niagara Falls, where they would buy a house on Munson Street and live for decades, until Harold's death in 1960. Lucy died in 1976.

The couple raised four children, and saw their family blossom with many grandchildren. Over the years, they said little about the Lusitania, and today, their double gravestone in North Tonawanda's Acacia Park Memorial Gardens bears no witness to the terrible disaster they survived, which changed the course of world history by precipitating the United States into World War I.

In later years, Lucy would say that the Lusitania disaster seemed distant to her.

"It doesn't seem really real anymore," she said. "It's like one of those -- bad dreams."

Still, there were small signs of what they had been through.

Lucy would never again go near water, or onto a boat, however small.

A player piano, sitting in their Munson Street home, also served as a constant reminder of the wreck. They purchased the piano with the money Cunard settled on them after the disaster.

And their first child, a girl, bore a telling middle name.

Lusitania.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Sources for this story

Details, quotes and description in this story come from published and recorded eyewitness accounts. Among the major sources used: Lucy Taylor's 1965 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which is the source for all of Lucy and Harold Taylor's direct quotes in this story; family records, including the Taylor's marriage certificate; photographs in the possession of various family members; newspaper accounts from 1915 in Buffalo and Niagara Falls; and recollections of the Taylors' children and grandchildren, including Audrey Kerswell of Camillus, Cynthia Kiebala of Medina, David Lepp of Rochester, and Harold W. Taylor of Charlotte, N.C. Also helpful was the book "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy" by Diana Preston, which mentions the Taylors among many other passengers on the ship.

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