Chicago Now Re-unites Eastland Relative with the Past

Chicago Now Re-unites Eastland Relative with the Past
Photo of Willie Novotny from the Chicago Daily Tribune, Friday, July 30, 1915
Novotny Family Headstone at the Bohemian National Cemetery

Novotny Family Headstone at the Bohemian National Cemetery

I was surprised and thrilled to receive an email last week from Adele R. of Michigan. Adele read my CN review of Michael McCarthy’s book, Ashes Under Water, and leaned that her Great Uncle James Novotny was a storyline in McCarthy’s book. She also discovered the featured image I’d posted. Adele wrote:

I discovered your article on the Internet, which reviewed the Eastland book by Michael McCarthy, and was overjoyed to discover the picture of the Novotny family gravestone included with your aricle.  My grandfather John Novotny was the older brother to James.  John lived in Ironwood, Michigan, and I have a copy of the back of the postcard that he sent to his family to tell them that he had arrived safely in Chicago by train to attend his brother’s funeral.  My mother, the daughter of John, was born six months after the tragedy, but when I was a child she told me about her uncle and his whole family drowning when a ship rolled over.

The tragic story of the Novotny family is one of legend to those who follow the Eastland saga. According to McCarthy, James Novotny was a young Bohemian (Czech) cabinet maker at Western Electric Hawthorne Works. James married another Bohemian émigré and they had two children, a girl and then a boy. The entire family perished on the Eastland, but notoriety arose not because of their untimely deaths, but because of the problems that occurred at the Second Regiment Armory morgue.

George Hilton, in his book, Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic, presents details about the Novotny’s in his List of Victims (Appendix D). At the time of their deaths, James was 33, his wife Agnes, 35, their daughter, Mamie, 9, and little William “Willie” Novotny was only 7. All were laid out at the Armory and sometime during the week following the disaster, the bodies of James, Agnes, and Mamie were identified. But Willie remained, alone and unidentified. The Chicago Daily Tribune picked up the story in the Tuesday, July 27, 1915 edition. The article read:

WHOSE IS THIS LITTLE BOY? NO. 396 AT THE MORGUE. “Whose little boy is that?” Almost every one seeking relatives or friends at the Second Regiment armory morgue has asked the question as they passed the body of a dark, curly haired boy, between 8 and 9 years old. Some mothers, looking for their own babies, have shed their tears over him as they gazed at the little face. Sadly they have shaken their heads and asked the question. The body, numbered 396, has been there since 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon. The boy had been dressed all in white.

Willie’s story was news all over the city that week. But finally on Friday, July 30, 1915, the Tribune broke the news with a photo and this story:

“396” THIS LITTLE EASTLAND VICITM IS IDENTIFIED AT LAST. Two boys yesterday identified body No 396 as Willie Novotny, their 7 year old playmate.

McCarthy gives us closure:

All of Chicago was moved by the tale of the nameless little feller. And when Willie was finally identified, he became the face of all the Eastland victims. His funeral was a civic event. More than five thousand people attended, showing up at the Skola Vojta Naprstek, his Bohemian school.

Cars rode in a mile-and-a-half-long procession. Hundreds of schoolboys and girls were on hand. The four Novotny caskets were surrounded by elaborate flower arrangements. A Boy Scout bugled taps.

With thirteen thousand people arriving at the cemetery, Mayor Thompson spoke. “The hearts of all Chicagoans go out in grief to the sufferers from this calamity. The city mourns.”

 Adele emailed me again today to say that she had translated the inscription on the Novotny headstone: Here lies the family Novotny, died 24 July 1015, at the catastrophe/disaster ship Eastland.

I think that says it all.

For more on the Novotny family, read:

Ashes Under Water, The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America by Michael McCarthy

The Sinking of the Eastland, America’s Forgotten Tragedy by Jay Bonansinga

To view the second film clip of the Eastland disaster, discovered by NIU graduate, Alex Revzan, in February check out:

Also, Reboot Illinois staff writer, Caitlin Wilson, wrote an article on February 25th about notorious disasters in Illinois history, the Eastland being one of them. Check out her blog at:

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