Greeks can be found all across the planet from one period of recorded time to another. Detailed accounts of individual Hellenes, their families and entire communities continue to see publication on almost a daily basis.
How these individuals are received by the society around them offers to us a view not only into the time period in which these Greeks lived and acted but how the perception of them is imbedded in each account left to us. Consequently we are never offered simply one version of an event or account of a single individual’s actions but rather several ways of examining what has been left to us.
This is certainly evident in the news account, Letter from Lusitania: Enduring keepsake, by Johnny Woodhouse as published in the Beach Life newspaper just this past May 7th (www.beachesleader.com). Woodhouse offers us an extremely detailed well-written account focusing on one specific passenger Thomas James Silva’s trip aboard the RMS Lusitania in April 1915.
This may come as something of a surprise to those of you who know that the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, on May 7, 1915 causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. Silva then only 26 years old, married and with a young family died during the attack.
This specific event was used by British as a propaganda opportunity to help shift public opinion in the United States against Germany and so it is a historical event said to have directly influenced America’s eventual declaration of war two years later, in 1917. This is one reason why so many reporters over the last 100 years have sought out the Silva family.
Another is that Silva’s death is as one journalist has noted so “uncommonly well-documented. There is his last letter home– on Lusitania stationery – the desperate telegrams after the sinking, a communication of regret from Cunard, clips of news coverage, tributes of sympathy, and a gripping letter from a survivor about his last minutes alive.” This wealth of information “elevates him from the mass of the 1,198 who died into a well-drawn character of nobility and strength. Fleshing out one individual may offer its own tribute to the rest (www.rmslusitania.info).”
For his part, Woodhouse employs not only an array of eyewitness accounts and available published documents but the recollections and heirlooms of Georgia Goodling of Atlantic Beach Florida, a Silva descendant, to weave a most complex and intriguing tale of not only the sinking of the RMS Lusitania but also as the means to explore how generations of the Silva family have dealt with this loss.
Woodhouse proves such a careful storyteller that we are able to tease out quite a tale of Greek-American history out of this decidedly tragic event. For Frank James Silva was the biological son of Plutarch Timayenis, a member of the ill-fated Timayenis clan. Let us review some of the Timayenis clan so that we can better understand Frank James Silva.
Four brothers, Demosthenes, Telemachus, Plutarch, and Nicholas Timayenis came to the United States. Within Greece and the eastern Levant the Timayenis family was not simply a prominent family but by all manner of family connections related to the highest strata of the merchant class. Thomas Timayenis (d. May 29, 1882) father of these men was a professor of languages at the University of Athens. Their mother, Fotini Rodocanachi Timayenis was the sister to J. M Rodocanachi the consul of Greece in Boston. Rodocanachi was himself a notable international merchant as well as a Grand Master of the Boston Freemasons.
In time both Demosthenes (1856-1918) and then Telemachus (1853-1918) became consuls for the Greek government. Each of these men represented Greek interests and aided the newly arriving Greek workers in their efforts to adjust to American society. Unfortunately, Telemachus is best recalled for a number of well publicized financial scandals and for the publication of his anti-Semitic beliefs.
Telemachus authored three books on the Jews: The Original Mr. Jacobs: A Startling Expose, ?The American Jew: An Expose of His Career?, and Judas Iscariot: An Old Type in a New Form. Timayenis has not only the distinction of being the first to write and publish such anti-Semitic literature in the United States he is remembered (and reviled) for his success. The Original Mr. Jacobs sold over 200,000 copies and went into its thirtieth edition with twenty printings.
On May 3, 1885, the New York Times carried a story on the suicide of the youngest brother Nicholas (1866-1885) over his love for Theckla Carlson a young Swedish waitress. Demosthenes refused to allow his younger brother to marry Carlson because of her low social station. Faced with the threat of being sent back to Greece and never seeing Theckla Carlson again Nicholas threw himself into the Charles River.
Of Plutarch Timayenis, biological father of Thomas James Silva, we know very little. Woodhouse is forced to sketch out, as best he can, Plutarch’s life as first working for his maternal uncle’s import/export business and then serving as a bookkeeper for the Ralli Brothers, whose firm he describes as “a major purchaser of U.S. cotton.” Then, in his search for Plutarch, Woodhouse is forced to cite a New York Times September 25, 1890 article. In this report Plutarch is said to have stolen a wealthy woman’s brooch and while no more is offered in this news account the man simply disappears from the pages of history.
Plutarch’s life was more complex if still largely a mystery. After his employ with the Ralli Brothers firm Plutarch worked with Thomas Zizinia in this Greek cotton merchant’s offices of the Savannah Cotton Exchange. In 1887, Plutarch Timayenis was admitted as an attorney for Zizinia. By 1889, Timayenis was accepted as a full participating member of the Savannah Cotton Exchange.
Whatever happened to Plutarch later in life we cannot now say but when he met and married May Lucy Silva (1861-1954) of Savanah in the mid-1880s he was an American citizen, lawyer and prosperous businessman on his way up. The Timayenis-Silva marriage produced three children Margaret in 1887, Thomas in 1888 and Frank in 1889. Sometime, not long after Frank James Silva’s birth, Plutarch and May Lucy Silva divorced. Timayenis headed to Boston and Silva, reclaiming her maiden name, remained with the children in Savanah. In 1900, May Lucy Silva married her second husband William Henry Teasdale (d. 1949), Superintendent of the Savanah Cotton Exchange for 35 years.
But we know that the two families did not completely sever their relationships. In the early days after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania May Silva Teasdale reached out to her former brother-in-law Telemachus, then Editor of the Eastern and Western Review magazine who had been asked to use his good offices in securing further information for the family.
Here is the text of his June 3, 1915 letter:
“Dear Mrs. Silva:
I have duly received your letter of May 13th. It is impossible for me to express in words how sorry I feel because of the untimely death of Tom. I learned to love him. He was a manly fellow, of noble character, and every inch of him a man.
Upon receipt of your letter I went to New York, but all my endeavors remain fruitless. I feel sick at heart, and am really unhappy, so that it is impossible for me to add anything further. Consolation must come from Higher up.
If there is anything in the world that I can do for you, do not hesitate to bear me in mind.
- T. Timayenis”
Frank Thomas Silva’s body was never found. The extended family never gave up hope and in the course of their investigations learned that one of the survivors Charles Thomas Jeffery (1876-1935) had met and befriended Silva aboard ship and was with him when the torpedoes hit the Lusitania. Jeffery’s letters to the family are part of the extremely detailed information available on Silva’s final days.
By all accounts Frank James Silva was a fine young man with every prospect for a good life. The events of war ended his life. The actions and recollections of three generations preserve his memory. By chance alone his passage aboard the ill-fated Lusitania is especially well documented as is the period immediately afterward when his fate was still unknown. As a means of identifying his body the family reported that on his right arm was the tattoo of a Greek key. Over the past 100 years various reports about this tattoo have claimed it was in honor of his father’s Greek heritage.
Also deposited among the Silva Family Papers in the Georgia Historical Society we find listed: “May Silva Teasdale’s papers include a loose-leaf notebook of letters from the family of her first husband, Plutarch Timayenis, in Smyrna and Athens, Greece, correspondence.” In Greek-American history it is too often the case that we move forward in our broader understandings one fact, one person, one event at a time. Such is our re-discovery of the lives of Plutarch Timayenis and the extended Silva family.