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“Very Fond of Playing Patience”: William Harbeck & Henriette Yrois

"Very Fond of Playing Patience": William Harbeck & Henriette Yrois

William Harbeck was ending a season-long tour of Europe when he boarded Titanic as a Second-Class passenger; he was bound for home in Toledo, Ohio.

Ever since 1906, his star had been on the rise, beginning its ascent when he filmed the immediate aftermath of the infamous San Francisco earthquake.

Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1906. Courtesy of the Edith Irvine Collection, Brigham Young University, Utah.


He was then hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway and its Department of Colonisation. His goal, it was stated, was “to put Western Canada on the motion picture screen in a scenic, industrial and comic form.”

William produced over a dozen reels for the Railway, and his work was used in promotional material to make Western Canada a destination spot and entice Europeans.

And entice them, his films certainly did—as evidenced by the renewal of his two-year contract. 

The Railway then sent him on a trip to Paris to study with a French filmmaker named Leon Gaumont, who was the apparent master of outdoor, on-location shooting. So he left for Europe at the tail-end of February 1912, visiting London, Berlin, and Brussels. And Paris, of course.

On the first day of April, William wrote back home to his wife, Catherine; he planned to travel from Amsterdam, to London, to Southampton. Then homeward bound on Titanic. 

He already had another project lined up for when he was back in the States: to film the beauty of Alaska and the Yukon.

The aurora borealis over Dawson, in the Yukon territory, photographed by Morte H. Craig between 1902 and 1912. Courtesy of the University of Washington.


Furthermore, it’s believed that William had also been hired by White Star to film Titanic’s maiden voyage, owing to the claims of “Moving Picture News,” a trade periodical that asserted that he had, had a contract to the tune of $10,000.00.

But when William Harbeck boarded Titanic in Southampton on April 10, he did not do so alone.

He took to Titanic with a young woman on his arm.

She was a French model, 22 years of age, named Henriette Yrois. They had evidently become acquainted in Paris, where she lived.

The Second-Class entrance on Titanic's sister, RMS Olympic, circa 1911. Taken by / courtesy of Bedford Lemere & Co.


But Henriette was not his wife.

Fellow passengers, however, certainly were under the impression that she was, possibly because William went ahead and told them as much, or maybe just because it was assumed because there was no other reasonable explanation for a May-December couple to be traveling together with no companions.

The sole evidence of a romantic relationship between William and Henriette exists in implication: they boarded jointly, and their sequentially issued tickets (and thus, cabins) neighbored one another. 

Lawrence Beesley wrote in his survivor account that he saw them on board at one point, and he was evidently under the impression that they were married.

In the opposite corner are the young American kinematograph photographer and his young wife, evidently French, very fond of playing patience, which she is doing now, while he sits back in his chair watching the game and interposing from time to time with suggestions.

Excerpt from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic," by Lawrence Beesley.

Lawrence wrote that he did not encounter them again.

Other than that, there seems to have been very little documented about William and Henriette while on Titanic.

And neither of them survived.

Henriette’s corpse was never recovered. 

William’s body, however, was. It was identified by his “Moving Picture & Projecting Machine Operators Union” membership card.

William was pulled fron the ocean still clutching a lady’s purse, which contained jewelry and a wedding band. It was later confirmed to have belonged to Henriette.

The recovery crew of the MacKay-Bennett listed William H. Harbeck as follows.

NO. 35. - MALE. - ESTIMATED AGE, 40.

CLOTHING - Black coat; grey mixture tweed trousers and vest; red tie; black boots.

EFFECTS - Cheque books; travellers' cheques; lady's bag; gold watch and chain; two lockets; gold time meter; fountain pen; diary; false teeth; pencil; knife; diamond ring; union card. Moving Picture and Projecting Machine operators' union; 15 in gold, £15 6s. in silver, 10s. in purse in lady's bag; wedding ring in bag; pearl and diamond pin.


NAME - WILLIAM H. HARBECK. 114 24th Avenue, N. Y

When William’s widow, Catherine, arrived in Halifax to claim her late husband’s corpse, she was initially turned away by  theauthorities because “Mrs. Harbeck” had died on Titanic alongside her husband.

But reason eventually won out, and Catherine was permitted to transport William’s body home for burial in Toledo.

There was another mystery, however, that still has yet to be solved.

Catherine Harbeck solicited White Star for the items that had been recovered with William’s corpse, but White Star informed her that they had passed them on to the Provincial Secretary of Halifax because they were valued at over $100.00.

Catherine proceeded to provide the proper documentation to prove that she was the administratrix of her husband’s estate, and the effects were relinquished.

But it turns out that Catherine wasn’t the only person who wanted them back.

Months later, another letter arrived to the Provincial Secretary of Halifax, claiming ownership of the effects of the late Mr. Harbeck. The letter, from Seattle Washington, was signed by “Mrs. Brownie Harbeck."

The Secretary informed Brownie that the effects had already been expressed to Mrs. Catherine Harbeck, to which Brownie replied.

She inquired further about the specific amounts of money found on his body, both in gold and travelers checks. She continued, to much surprise, to claim that she was aware of Henriette's presence on the ship, and that she "knew the lady well."

After that, William’s son, John Harbeck, somehow discovered that the Secretary’s office was offering information about his dead father’s effects, which were legally in his mother’s custody. 

When the Secretary confirmed via letter that communication had occurred in fact between themselves and Brownie, John was irate.

The web of letters, still in the possession of the Nova Scotia Archives, end unceremoniously there.

To date, the identity of Brownie Harbeck remains unknown.

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