A Belgian cabaret singer claimed to have survived the sinking of the Titanic, but no one believed her. Years later, her nephew found evidence to support her claim, revealing the truth about a secret lover.
Berthe was born into a middle-class family in 1887, in the district of Ixelles, part of Brussels, Belgium. With humble beginnings but a taste for a lavish lifestyle, Berthe knew that success required effort.
She became a recognized Belgian cabaret singer with the stage name Bella Vielly. Throughout her late teens and early 20s in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Berthe could be seen performing in the nightclubs of Brussels. As a young beauty with a pleasant voice, she began to dominate the scene.
A Life of Wining and Dining
Known for her love of glamour and all things fun, a local Belgian newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, ambiguously described Berthe as "being well known in Brussels in circles of pleasure, and was often seen in the company of people who like to wine and dine and enjoy life." Don't we all!
Fittingly, Berthe would hang around after performing to enjoy the night. She was "often seen in the company of people who like to wine and dine and enjoy life," as Het Laatste Nieuws described her. Naturally, her smooth voice, good looks, and charm ultimately caught the attention of Fernand de Villiers.
With lots of money and time between services, Fernand de Villiers was the perfect suitor for Berthe. He treated her to the life she desired, and she accompanied him on travels around Europe. They were in love and enjoying each other's presence. However, their love affair was not meant to last.
As a member of the French Foreign League in the Belgian army, Fernand was called up for service. Berthe's lover was set to travel to Congo to assist in King Leopold's oppressive control of the region. Berthe may have loved Fernand momentarily, but she didn't let her heart linger for long.
When Quigg Met Berthe
It didn’t take Berthe very long to get over Fernand, the cabaret singer was not about to let his departure from Belgium discourage her from pursuing others. When Berthe was 24 years old, she regularly performed in different cafes. One fateful day, a new man arrived at the restaurant, a man Berthe didn’t recognize.
Accompanied by his mother and sister, Quigg Edmund Baxter was instantly bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by the young singer. A Canadian with money to spare and on a tour around Europe with his family, Quigg had an excellent reason to stick around Brussels for a little longer than he expected.
Hockey Player Turned Coach
Quigg was indeed a catch. He was the son of wealthy parents, and he had a successful career as a hockey player. But after an eye injury forced him to retire from the game, he was forced to pursue another career. He turned his attention to coaching and was soon hired by the Quebec Bulldogs of the NHA.
Naturally, Quigg quickly became one of the most respected coaches in the league. He was a natural leader, and he had a gift for motivating his players. In 1911, Baxter left his first year of studies in Applied Sciences at McGill University to accompany his mother and sister, Hélène Douglas, to Europe.
A Dalliance Across Europe
Quigg and Berthe's first meeting was actually thanks to his family. Quigg was accompanying his mother and sister to New York City and then back to Canada on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. After a few months of traveling Europe, Quigg and his family were about ready to head home.
Before heading to New York City, the Baxters had planned to leave Southampton, England, and stop in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland. Quigg and his family had a date set to board the doomed vessel, but the hockey coach couldn't bear to leave Berthe in Brussels.
Quigg had fallen absolutely in love with the Belgian cabaret singer. So much so he couldn’t bear to be without her on his journey back to North America. Quigg insisted that Berthe accompany him and the family on the RMS Titanic. And he was not going to take no for an answer.
Within a few weeks of meeting, the Belgian was absolutely besotted with the Canadian too. Ever the romantic and always up for an adventure, Berthe agreed to join Quigg and the Baxter family on their voyage. Even though she had never left Europe, Berthe embraced the journey with open arms.
An Expensive Journey
The Canadian’s mother had booked adjoining staterooms for herself, Quigg, and Helene. They were to stay in B-58 and B-60. This was no regular room on a ship; it was extraordinarily glamorous. While it cost $1050 for a first-class ticket in 1912, this would amount to $133,000 today.
With too much money to spare and a desire to be alone with Berthe whenever he wished, Quigg booked Berthe a last-minute First Class ticket in room C-90. Quigg was to stay in the deck directly above Berthe. On the ship, they had easy access to one another’s rooms thanks to Quigg’s quick purchase.
All Aboard and Undercover
There was one very pressing issue for Quigg and Berthe and their spiraling love affair; they were unmarried. In 1912, an unmarried man engaging in a romantic dalliance with a cabaret singer from Belgium would be scandalous. And this was especially true for someone of Quigg’s wealth and social standing.
The two could not be seen traveling together. However, if Berthe had booked a ticket under her name, the couple assumed the White Star Line might have questions as the Mayne surname was a middle-class name. Cleverly, Berthe told Quigg to book under the wealthy name Mrs. de Villiers, after her old flame Fernand Villiers.
Passengers on the RMS Titanic
Like Quigg and Berthe, the passengers on the Titanic came from all over the world. The most prominent number of passengers were from the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, Canada, and Ireland. There were also passengers from France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and many more.
There were 2,229 passengers aboard the ship, including 325 in first class, 285 in second-class, 706 in third class, and 913 crew members. Historian Susan Klemons wrote, “The passengers of the Titanic represented almost every country in the world, and they came from all walks of life.”
First Class Passenger Life
Quigg, his mother Helene, and his sister Mary chose to travel on the Titanic from Cherbourg to New York because it was considered a luxurious liner. Like the Baxters, many first-class passengers were wealthy individuals traveling for pleasure. Others were businessmen that regularly traveled for work.
The Titanic was the most decadent ship afloat, and first-class passengers could enjoy the boat's best. They had spacious cabins with private bathrooms, fine dining and lots of entertainment options. First-class travelers included John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and the unsinkable Molly Brown.
Searching for a New Life
The ship was a popular way for immigrants to leave Europe, and the ship was a comfortable and safe way to make the journey at a relatively low price. Many were working-class people who were traveling to America in search of a new life. Even though Berthe was not travelling third-class, she was also leaving for her new life.
The third-class experience on the Titanic was much less luxurious than the first-class experience. Third-class passengers had smaller cabins with shared bathrooms and fewer dining options. There were also no amenities available to third-class passengers, such as a swimming pool, a gym, or a library.
The So-Called Unsinkable Ship
Before Titanic embarked on her singular voyage, she was declared "unsinkable." In 1911, Shipbuilder magazine published an article describing the ship's construction and concluded that the Titanic was practically unsinkable. One passenger wrote, "I took passage on the Titanic because I had heard it could not sink."
Titanic was considered unsinkable because it was built with the latest technology and safety features. It had 16 watertight compartments that could be sealed off if one or more were breached. This made the ship virtually unsinkable, or so the experts thought. They discovered a 70 thousand tonne steel ship could absolutely sink.
Smooth Sailing on the Titanic
Everything was smooth sailing in the days between Quigg and Berthe's pickup on April 10th in Cherbourg and the night of the fateful sinking on the 14th. Even though it was the beginning of the Fall and there was a chill, passengers enjoyed being outside in the fresh Atlantic Ocean air.
Along with the Baxters and Berthe, the first-class passengers enjoyed the ship's many amenities, such as the swimming pool, the gym, and the library. The crew was well-trained and experienced, and they were confident that the Titanic would make it to its destination safely.
Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, a lookout spotted an iceberg dead ahead. He called the ship’s station master, “Iceberg, right ahead!” The crew attempted to slow the engine and put the boat in a hard starboard to avoid colliding with it.
With all they could muster at the fast pace they were accelerating, the crew did what they could; but it wasn’t enough. The ship hit the iceberg hard, rupturing several of its watertight compartments. After receiving iceberg warnings all day but still going at full speed, the Titanic was only to stay afloat for three more hours.
Unprepared for Disaster
The Titanic was a luxurious ship, but it could have been more well-prepared for disaster. The ship could have carried up to 64 lifeboats, enough for everyone on board to safely evacuate. But the White Star Line only put 20 lifeboats on the boat. This was enough for half the people aboard.
In 1912, ships were only required to have enough lifeboats to ferry people to a rescue craft, not to shore. Assuming the unsinkable ship did sink, a nearby boat would come to its rescue, and the crew could transport everyone on board efficiently and without difficulty. They could not have been more wrong...
A Lack of Panic Aboard
The collision was announced to the passengers, but the messaging was oddly calm. "There was no commotion, no panic, and no one seemed to be particularly frightened," first-class passenger Eloise Smith told the American Senate. "I had not the least suspicion of the scarcity of lifeboats."
Reportedly, Quigg himself was suspicious. He was sure something was wrong when the ship suddenly stopped. He went to find answers from the captain and Bruce Ismay, a White Star Line official. When he saw the captain, he was told, "There's been an accident, Baxter, but it's all right."
Get to a Lifeboat
Captain Smith’s confidence was short-lived. The collision had caused weaknesses in the hull, and the ship began to sink. Water began to seep into five “safe” compartments, and the Titanic was doomed. According to the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews, the ship could stay afloat with four rooms flooded, but five was one too many.
The only sure thing was that the ship would sink. Unlike the captain, Bruce Ismay did not attempt to convince Quigg that things were okay. He told Quigg to get Berthe, Mary, and Helene and get on a lifeboat quickly. Quigg didn’t waste time, and he went to collect his lover.
Unlike many other first-class passengers who wished to avoid the chill that evening, Quigg, Berthe, and his family headed quickly toward the lifeboats. This was Berthe's first time introduced adequately to Quigg's family, as she had been hidden away. You can imagine their surprise amidst the strangeness of the evening.
The newly acquainted group arrived at the ship's port side at around 1:00 a.m. People were unaware of the situation's urgency, so much so that the first lifeboat to launch, Lifeboat 7 on starboard, left only 28 people on a raft fit for 65 souls. These grave mistakes cost the lives of a thousand people.
A Final Plea for Jewelry
Wearing only a thin nightgown and a woolen coat to warm her, Bertha stepped towards the lifeboat and anxiously avoided boarding. As a singer traveling with all her belongings to a new country for a new life, everything valuable Berthe owned lay on the sinking ship. She quickly realized she needed to go back.
Berthe reportedly tried to leave the lifeboat to go and retrieve her jewelry. Berthe decided to stay on board only by the sharp words of Molly Brown - an American socialite, philanthropist, and millionaire, through her marriage to a wealthy mining engineer. If she had left, she would likely have never returned.
Separated at Sea
Yet again, Berthe refused to get in the boat. This time, it wasn’t because she wanted her jewelry. She didn’t want to be separated from Quigg. We don’t know why the young Hockey coach didn’t join them; it is likely because of the rule of women and children only. Or perhaps it is because he wanted to fetch the jewelry.
Either way, Quigg said his goodbyes. He called out to her and his family, saying, “Goodbye, and keep up your spirits, everyone!” And with those words, the girls departed the Titanic. This was the last time he was ever seen by the group. We do not know what came of Quigg, whether he froze in the water or sunk with the boat.
The Ship Goes Down
Watching from Lifeboat 6, Berthe was freezing but far enough away from the ship to feel safe. From there, with Mary, Helene, and Molly, she watched the Titanic's hull dip downwards, break in half, and sink down to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Survivors watched as people struggled in the icy water.
Molly later recounted the disaster, "I saw the lights go out, and then the ship seemed to break in two. I saw people jumping into the water and heard screams and cries for help. It was a terrible sight." As the screams and cries of hundreds in the water slowly faded, so did Berthe's hope to see her love again.
Unlikely Odds for All
The survivors in the lifeboats were in shock and disbelief. They had just witnessed the death of over 1500 people, including many of their friends and family. Only 37% of passengers and 61% of first-class passengers, including Berthe, Helene, and Mary, survived. As a woman in first class, Berthe was prioritized.
The odds of surviving Titanic were bleak for most, but being a man or a third-class member was a death sentence. A mere 24% of third-class passengers survived the voyage; of the third-class, only 75 survivors were men. 1496 souls were lost aboard the Titanic, and Quigg had not survived the night.
Collection by the Carpathia
The Carpathia, a Cunard Line ocean liner, responded to the Titanic's distress signals and steamed to the rescue at about 4:00 AM on April 15, 1912. Including Berthe and Quigg's family, the Carpathia collected 705 people from the lifeboats and capsized lifeboat D, with 30 anxiously awaiting rescue.
A few survivors who survived the night suffered and passed from the cold air alone or after being collected from the cold waters. The Carpathia's rescue of the Titanic's survivors saved the lives of hundreds of people. However, the results would be very different if it had been a few hours earlier.
Living With the Baxters
After an unexpected journey and a traumatizing event, the Carpathia headed to New York City, the destination the Titanic would have docked at that day had it not collided with the iceberg. Upon arriving in the Big Apple, Berthe realized she was very alone. The man she had boarded with had disappeared with no sign of return.
Berthe realized she was a long way from her Belgian home, and it would take having to board another ship. As if reading her mind, Quigg’s mother, sister Helene, and Mary invited Bethe to come back to live in Montreal. Berthe had only met the Baxters a day before, but the experience had bonded the unlikely group.
Back to Europe
After spending a few months living with the Baxters, Berthe decided that there was nothing keeping her in Canada. Without her beloved Quigg, and with no sign of his survival, she decided to make her way back to Europe and to embark on a fresh start once again.
Berthe ventured to Paris from Montreal and decided to stay for a little while. In Paris, she returned to her old profession of singing in cabarets, restaurants and cafes. It was like before, but Berthe was still without her love. She grew tired of Paris and knew the only place she could go.
A Quiet Life
Home is where the heart is. After a few years of travel and an experience that most wouldn’t be able to imagine, Berthe came home to Brussels, Belgium. It is unknown how Berthe was able to support herself upon returning home. It is likely she continued to sing, or perhaps she inherited enough from family to live a quiet life.
Berthe Mayné never married, and never had any children of her own. The former singer either wasn’t offered a hand, nor could she bear to be with anyone other than her dear Quigg. Berthe settled in a modest home in Beechen-Ste-Agathe, and lived out decades of solitude.
No Evidence of Bertha
After years of a simple life in Brussels, Berthe was ready to reveal the details of her past. When one of her nephews grew older, she began sharing her unbelievable story with him. But without any proof of her being on board, since she was listed under a fake name, he and anyone who heard Berthe's story found it hard to believe her.
Her nephew, Thierry Cornet, figured in her old age she decided to spin fantasy stories. Instead of listening to her experience on the Titanic, he dismissed her and nodded off her seemingly false narrative. Berthe went to her grave in October 1962 at the age of 75 with no one believing her story.
Discovering the Truth
After Berthe died, her nephew discovered a box of letters and old photos. The relics and mementos the Titanic survivor had held onto for all those years finally revealed the truth about her life and her voyage on the doomed vessel. All the stories Aunt Berthe had told her nephew Thierry had been true.
Berthe really had fallen for a Canadian millionaire, and, like she said, they planned to marry and start a new life together in Canada. But their plans vanished when the Titanic sank, and Quigg was just one of many victims. Berthe never got over the loss of Quigg, and she never took another lover until her death in the 60s.
An Unbelievable Story
The discovery of the box of letters and photos shocked Berthe's family, particularly Thierry. They had always known she had been in love with a wealthy man, but they had no idea he had died on the Titanic. The discovery helped explain Berthe's unwillingness to marry anyone else.
The box of letters and photos reminds us of the unfortunate fate that met the Titanic and the lost lives of loved ones. Berthe's story is a heartbreaking one, but it's also a story of life. Despite losing her love in the icy waters, Berthe lived a full life. Even in the darkest of times, happiness can persevere.