Who Died First? A German Torpedo And An Irish Autopsy Roil A Cincinnati Courtroom

Almost every major event in history seems to have a curious Cincinnati connection—and the RMS Lusitania is no different.
The Lusitania docked at New York in 1907 after its maiden voyage. Eight years later, a German torpedo sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the sea. // PHOTO PROVIDED BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Victor E. Shields was a well-to-do Cincinnati liquor merchant. His wife, Retta Cohen Shields, came from a family of means. Mr. Shields wrote a will leaving everything to Mrs. Shields. Mrs. Shields wrote a will leaving everything to Mr. Shields. Both wills were simple and straightforward, plain as day.

All was well until a torpedo launched by a German U-Boat sank the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915. Mr. and Mrs. Shields were both passengers and, at least in the days following the horrible tragedy, were assumed to have died together and simultaneously among the 1,198 lives lost on that fatal day.


Neither Mr. Shields nor Mrs. Shields, nor their attorneys, had considered the possibility that a German submarine might shuffle both of them from this mortal coil concurrently. According to the accepted standards of the law, if the Shields did die at the same time, Mr. Shields’ estate would have reverted to his heirs, and Mrs. Shields’ estate would have reverted to her heirs. But, if either was proved to have died first, that person’s estate would have passed to the surviving spouse, leaving nothing for the heirs of the first to die.

The Shields had no children, but siblings and other relatives expressed a great deal of interest in determining who got all the money. Lawyers for the potential heirs of each spouse rushed to the Hamilton County Courthouse and filed a series of motions that constitute one of the strangest court battles in all of Cincinnati history. The courtroom drama dragged on for nine months and all of it hung on a single question: Who died first?

That question lingered without hope of resolution for more than 70 days until a very much deteriorated corpse washed ashore at Castle Gregory, a tiny hamlet in County Kerry in the far west of Ireland. The sea-mangled body wore the remnants of a Lusitania life belt. Letters found in the jacket pocket, an engraved watch and a monogrammed penknife all proved beyond any doubt that these were the earthly remains of Victor E. Shields.

At this revelation, Cincinnati attorney Sidney G. Stricker, representing the estate of Victor Shields, sprang into action. He wired the United States Consul General in Ireland to have the body of Victor Shields transported post haste to Cork, the nearest Irish town with a creditable medical college. There, an autopsy determined that Shields’ death was not caused by violence or injury as in an explosion. Nor had he drowned. The evidence suggested he died of exposure or shock, most likely exposure, and that death had occurred several hours after his last meal.


That disclosure raised the question of Retta Shields’ death. Her body was never found. Attorney Stricker told the Cincinnati Enquirer [21 August 1923]:

“To complete the chain of evidence I prepared at once and mailed through the Cunard company a printed questionnaire to each of the surviving passengers of the Lusitania, which contained a picture of Victor E. Shields on one side and of Retta Shields on the other. I propounded the same questions as to each, which were in substance, when, where, and under what circumstances they last saw Victor E. Shields and Retta Shields alive, before or after the ship was torpedoed, and what conversation, if any, they had with them at such time.”

Amazingly, almost all the survivors returned the questionnaire, many with heart-rending accounts of chaos and panic and loved ones lost as the giant ship sank. Several contained very precise information about the whereabouts of the Shieldses before and after the fatal explosion. One response, in particular, yielded conclusive evidence that Mrs. Shields had died first. According to Attorney Stricker:

“Among the numerous letters was one from a woman who sat at the same table in the dining salon with both Mr. and Mrs. Shields at luncheon as late as 10 minutes after 2 o’clock, which was 10 minutes before the ship was torpedoed. She testified that Shields left the table first, stating he was going up on deck; that Mrs. Shields left the table later, stating she was going to her cabin to prepare their luggage for disembarkation.”


The Shields cabin was very close to the point of impact of the torpedo, explaining why Mrs. Shields was never seen after the explosion. In all probability she was killed in the detonation or drowned immediately after because the ship rolled toward the gaping hole blasted by the torpedo as seawater poured through it into the hull. Other passengers testified they saw Mr. Shields rushing madly about on deck, wearing a lifebelt, looking frantically for his wife. The Lusitania sunk just 18 minutes after the torpedo’s impact.

The evidence overwhelmingly indicated that Retta Shields died within minutes of the torpedo’s explosion and that Victor Shields died of shock or exposure several hours later, floating in the ocean. The entirety of Retta Shields’ estate therefore legally passed to her dying husband as he succumbed to the elements.

Despite conclusive evidence that Victor Shields had survived long enough to inherit his wife’s estate, both sets of heirs reached an amicable agreement in February 1916, almost nine months after the submarine attack that killed Victor and Retta. According to the Enquirer [3 February 1916]:

“From the start heirs of Mr. Shields were disposed favorably to the memory of his helpmate, and this state of mind tended to bring about a speedy adjustment.”

Although few details were announced, it appeared that Mrs. Shields’ heirs received the property she had inherited from her parents and some of the insurance settlements. The bulk of the couple’s property went to heirs of Victor Shields. Attorney Stricker provided the sad conclusion to the saga:

“The body of Victor E. Shields was subsequently returned to the United States and was buried at the United Jewish Cemetery in Cincinnati on the Shields’ family burial plot, where it remains a perpetual memorial to the tragedy of the Lusitania. The body of Retta Shields probably rests at the bottom of the sea with what is left of the Lusitania.”

What is left of the Lusitania lies approximately 350 feet beneath the surface of the sea, about 11 miles south of the lighthouse at Kinsale, Ireland. Over the years, several expeditions have been organized to explore and salvage the wreck, but none have been successful. It is generally acknowledged that the attack on the Lusitania contributed to America’s decision to enter World War I.

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