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North Dakota Lusitania Survivor

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North Dakotans have sometimes found themselves in the thick of historical disasters. In 1915, early in World War I, a German U-boat torpedoed the SS Lusitania off the Irish coast. The ocean liner sank within 20 minutes. Over 60% of the passengers died.

Dr. Carl Elmer Foss was a second-class passenger on his way to England to volunteer with the British Red Cross Society. He was born in 1887 in Walsh County, North Dakota, and lived in the Park River area until he moved to northern Montana a few months before the sinking.

On this date in 1915, days after the sinking, news came of his rescue. He was the first survivor to return to the U.S. and share his account of the sinking. Foss saw the distant submarine shortly before the torpedo struck. He was in the dining salon when he heard “a loud, voluminous boom,” and he rushed on deck as the ship tipped on its side. He grabbed a lifebelt and jumped overboard.

He reported helping other passengers to safety, including a man whose legs were badly cut and women who struggled to swim. He also told of a lifeboat ripped apart by the ship’s propeller blades, saying one man in the lifeboat “was cut to pieces before my eyes; the water was red where the boat went down.” Foss was critical of Lusitania's crew for "doing nothing" to save passengers. Help for Foss came when a tugboat arrived to pick up survivors.

Foss had several dark years in Montana after the sinking. His infant daughter died from the Spanish flu, and in 1917, he, his two brothers, and two other men, were charged with murder and conspiracy for a fatal shooting in 1917 in connection with a land dispute. Foss’ murder charge was dismissed in 1918, but in 1919 he was convicted on the conspiracy charge. He was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison, and was sent to prison after losing his appeal in 1920. He was paroled in 1921 after serving several months.

Also, in 1920, after his conviction and before his imprisonment, he was separately charged with performing a criminal surgical operation, though a jury acquitted him after two trials.

Foss died in 1924 following surgery on his appendix. He was only 36.

Centennial Book Committee. (1984). Park River … 100 years 1884-1984. Printed in USA
The Guardian. 1915, May 10. Page 8
Great Falls Tribune. 1915, May 12. Page 3
Great Falls Tribune. 1915, May 13. Page 4
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1915, May 13. Page 4
Boston Evening Transcript. 1915, May 25. Page 10
The Butte Miner. 1915, May 25. Page 2
The New York Times. 1915, May 25. Page 4
Escanaba Morning Press. 1915, May 27. Page 6
Great Falls Tribune. 1918, January 6. Page 11
Great Falls Tribune. 1918, June 8. Page 5
Great Falls Tribune. 1918, October 26. Page 5
Great Falls Tribune. 1918, November 28. Page 4
Great Falls Tribune. 1919, September 7. Page 4
Great Falls Tribune. 1919, October 5. Page 11
Great Falls Tribune. 1919, October 12. Pages 21, 22
Great Falls Tribune. 1920, January 30. Page 5
Great Falls Tribune. 1920, March 20. Page 12
Great Falls Tribune. 1920, July 14. Page 5
The Billings Gazette. 1920, July 21. Page 5
The Glasgow Courier. 1920, July 23. Page 7
Great Falls Tribune. 1920, September 14. Page 8
Great Falls Tribune. 1920, September 17. Page 8
The Independent-Record. 1921, April 22. Page 10
Great Falls Tribune. 1924, February 27. Page 4
The Billings Gazette. 1924, March 1. Page 7

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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