At age 23, Dickinson Bishop of Dowagiac, Michigan fell in love with wealthy 19-year-old Helen Walton from nearby Sturgis. Dick’s first wife had recently died, leaving him with a share in her family’s business, the Round Oak Stove Company. Helen’s father owned the Royal Easy Chair Company, which produced a chair that reclined at the push of a button. When they married in 1911, Dick and Helen embarked on a four-month European honeymoon with no expense spared. Dick bought jewelry for Helen and surprised her with a small dog she named Frou-Frou. A fortune-teller she met during the honeymoon told her she would survive a shipwreck and an earthquake but eventually die in a car accident.
Helen and Dickinson Bishop
Soon, Helen was pregnant. The couple decided to return to the US in grand style aboard the RMS Titanic for her maiden voyage. They boarded the ship at Cherbourg, and made friends with many first class passengers, including John Jacob and Madeleine Astor. On the night of April 14, Helen was already sleeping when Dick felt a slight jolt. Heeding the advice of a steward, he awakened his wife. They dressed and took their lifebelts with them to the boat deck, believing it was all simply a precaution. Frou-Frou remained in their stateroom.
While the passengers waited to find out what to do, the crew began to uncover the lifeboats. An officer pulled Helen toward Lifeboat 7 on the starboard side. As Dick helped her into the boat, he claimed he felt a push from behind and got into the boat with her. At no time did he hear an order of ‘Women and children first.’
Lifeboat 7 was the first boat to be lowered to the ocean’s surface. There were 28 people aboard, including another honeymoon couple, and several unmarried men. Helen removed her wool stockings and gave them to a bare-legged young girl who’d dressed in a hurry. They all took turns rowing until they were nearly a mile from the ship, but could still hear the anguished moans and cries from the water after the sinking. Another woman in the lifeboat held her pet Pomeranian, and Helen regretted leaving Frou-Frou on the Titanic.
The Bishops testified at the US Senate inquiry, where Dick was questioned as to how he managed to board a lifeboat when so many men willingly went to their deaths. Rumors spread that he’d disguised himself as a woman, which he vehemently denied.
Senate Investigation Committee at the Waldorf-Astoria
Helen delivered a son in December of 1912, but he died two days later. The couple took a vacation in California the next year, only to be caught in an earthquake. Helen was reminded of the fortune teller’s prediction, although Dick brushed it off as nonsense. Then in 1914, the car Helen was traveling in with friends crashed into a tree. Helen was thrown from the car and suffered a fractured skull. A steel plate was inserted and she recovered, but not without a personality change. Dick and Helen divorced, and in 1916, Helen slipped on a rug, hitting her head near the area of the steel plate. She died a few days later of a brain hemorrhage.
Dick married for the 3rd time, moved to Canada, and served in WWI. During his life, books and articles about why he had survived the Titanic continued to haunt him. The stories of him dressing as a woman to secure a seat in a lifeboat were never completely put to rest, despite other survivors claiming men were not excluded from boarding the lifeboats on Titanic’s starboard side.
Dick Bishop died of a stroke in 1961.