Time Machine

Gifted singer and Cedar Rapids socialite's husband perished on Titanic

Mahala Dutton Benedict Douglas

Mahala Dutton Benedict Douglas is shown in this photo, taken around 1900. She was an accomplished vocalist who married a Cedar Rapids businessman before divorcing him and marrying Walter Douglas, who perished in 1912 in the sinking of the Titanic. (Brucemore archives)
Mahala Dutton Benedict Douglas is shown in this photo, taken around 1900. She was an accomplished vocalist who married a Cedar Rapids businessman before divorcing him and marrying Walter Douglas, who perished in 1912 in the sinking of the Titanic. (Brucemore archives)
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The story of Walter and Mahala Dutton Douglas and their voyage aboard the ill-fated Titanic is well-documented.

Walter, who was recently retired from his Minneapolis linseed oil business, was the son of Irene Douglas and her husband, industrialist George B. Douglas, founder of the oatmeal mill that became Quaker Oats and executive of the Douglas Starch Works in Cedar Rapids.

Walter and Mahala were on a European trip to buy furniture and garden fixtures for their beautiful new home, Deephaven, on the east shore of Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota.

Their trip home was aboard the ocean liner Titanic, which hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean the night of April 14, 1912. Walter directed Mahala onto one of the lifeboats, telling her he would follow when he could. He drowned — as did more than 1,500 others — as the giant passenger liner sank.

Mahala’s Father

Mahala was born Jan. 26, 1864, the second child of Rollin Henry and Sophia Mahala Bradford Dutton, one of the founding families of Cedar Rapids,

Her father was a city leader, serving as the town clerk and then the assistant postmaster. He was a founding member of the Cedar Rapids Tanners Club, a political organization that supported the post-Civil War Republicans. He was on the school board, helped conduct the 1870 census and helped bring the Iowa State Fair to Cedar Rapids in 1871.

By February 1876, he was on a shortlist of candidates to be nominated for Iowa secretary of state. So it was a shock when he inexplicably disappeared on the night of July 3, 1876. He was finally spotted at the Gates House in DeWitt.

His brother-in-law, Edward Bradford, went to collect him and bring him home. But Rollin had locked himself in his room, claimed his name was “Hart” and refused to let his brother-in-law in.

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When Bradford and others finally got the door open, Rollin was sitting on the bed, pointing a gun at them. They made a hasty retreat, returning to find that Rollin had shot himself in the head. He died a short time later, reportedly in “a demented condition.”

‘Far above average’

After Rollin was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids, the Dutton family moved to 125 Fifth Ave. SE. Mahala and her sister, Anne, participated in musical and theatrical productions and their brothers worked in local businesses.

Mahala, it was reported, attended LaSalle Seminary for Girls, probably the fashionable girls school called Lasell Seminary in Auburndale, Mass., not far from Boston.

A gifted vocalist, she studied music and took over direction of the First Presbyterian Church choir back home, “with admirable results,” the newspaper reported.

Following an October performance in 1884, a newspaper review said “Miss D(utton) has spent several years in the study of music, and those years have not been in vain, for her naturally good voice has been trained and cultured to such a degree that her singing is far above average.”

In 1885, Mahala became a vocal music teacher at Coe College and performed at social events in the city and area. She was one of 20 young women who started a dramatic club to raise money for worthy projects.

Often a soloist at the Greene Opera House, Mahala joined the faculty of the new Academy of Music established in 1888. She was a contralto “well-known in Iowa on account of her beautiful voice.”

In 1891, she received further accolades for her April performance as Buttercup in “HMS Pinafore” at the opera house.

She was part of Cedar Rapids’ “society of young people,” according to The Gazette society columns, hosting parties at her home at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifth Street SE. Her friends included Lew Benedict and Walter Douglas.

Marriage

On Dec. 10, 1891, the attractive Mahala, at age 27, married Lewis Benedict at First Presbyterian in “one of the principal events of the winter.”

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Lew, a successful businessman, had bought C.L. Miller’s business (selling fruit, fresh fish, oysters and game) in 1884 when Miller decided to devote full time to the newspaper — The Evening Gazette — he had invested in with Fred Faulkes. Five years later, he was in the insurance business.

Following a wedding trip to Chicago, the Benedicts moved into their new home at the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street SE. Three years later, they built a house at Fourth Avenue and 10th Street SE, now the site of the Catherine McAuley Center. Lew concentrated on his business as city agent for Farmers’ Insurance Co. and in his interest in golf.

Mahala’s days of performing were, for all practical purposes, over. The Benedicts and Douglases took vacation trips together.

Divorce/Remarriage

Then Walter Douglas’ wife, Lulu, died of typhoid fever in 1899.

In 1902, Mahala spent several weeks in Hot Springs, Ark., with members of the Douglas family, including Water. Her husband didn’t go.

In 1904, Mahala left for Italy, again without her husband. An extended tour of Europe followed, ending in Paris, where she was welcomed by William Douglas and his wife. When she returned stateside, Mahala settled in St. Paul, Minn., near the widowed Walter.

At some point, Mahala and her husband divorced — fairly unusual for the times — because an announcement appeared in the Nov. 7, 1906, Gazette: “Mrs. Mahala Dutton Benedict and Mr. Walter D. Douglas were married yesterday in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria by the Rev. Dr. Stevenson.”

The couple — he was 46, she was 42 — stayed three months in Washington, D.C., before heading to Minneapolis, where they began building their showplace home.

Walter made several trips to Cedar Rapids to look after business interests. His last was in December 1911, shortly before the couple began their trip to Europe.

On April 10, 1912, he and Mahala boarded the Titanic to come home.

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