He was born in Toledo, Ohio in September 1866.
He was the only known child of John S. Harbeck (1836-1921), a stave sealer, and Margaret Milligan (1841-1885). His father, a Civil War veteran, was born in New York, whilst his mother was native to Ohio.
His mother died on 4 December 1885 and his father was remarried in 1893 to an Ohio woman named Ida Wagstaff (1859-1950) who was twenty years his junior and the new couple moved to Los Angeles. John died in 1921, and his widow in 1950.
William himself was married on 16 February 1886 to Catherine "Katie" Stetter (b. September 1863), a Toledo-native of German parentage. The couple had two sons: John Samuel (b. 27 April 1887) and Stanley (b. 23 February 1892).
He earned his reputation in 1906, filming the aftermath of the earthquake in San Francisco and, having worked for the Selig Polyscope Company, was hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway's Department of Colonisation "to put Western Canada on the motion picture screen in a scenic, industrial and comic form." Harbeck turned out thirteen single-reelers for the C.P.R., promotional shorts and travelogues that were designed to show Canada at its best and attract Europeans there. The films had been so successful that the C.P.R. had renewed his two year contract, and in the spring of 1912 had sent him to Paris to study with Leon Gaumont, the trailblazing French filmmaker who first mastered the outdoor location shoot.
His next project was to have been a film on the Yukon and Alaska. He left Seattle in January of 1912 and sailed for Europe on February 27, visiting London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin, disposing of the various films he had taken with him and taking other films while there for later presentation in the American theatres. Harbeck wrote a letter to his wife from Berlin on 1 April saying that he had completed his business and was returning by way of Amsterdam to London and would be sailing home on the Titanic on 10 April. He asked his wife to forward his mail to the Hotel Cadillac in New York.
Harbeck had possibly been engaged by the White Star Line to film the maiden voyage. He was supposed to have been taken off the Titanic by a tug at Sandy Hook in order to film Titanic's arrival at the dock. He boarded the vessel at Southampton (using ticket number 248746, which cost £13).
One of Harbeck's first feature films, The Ship's Husband, was a light comedy about a matrimonial mix-up on board a ferry that ran between Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria. Life may have imitated art on Titanic. Although Harbeck was married and had two sons, the woman travelling with him on Titanic was not his wife, Catherine, but Henriette Yrois, a 22-year old model Harbeck had met in Paris. During the trip, Lawrence Beesley tells us that Harbeck watched his "wife" Henriette play solitaire throughout most of the voyage.
Both Harbeck and Yrois died in the sinking. When Harbeck's body was recovered by the CS Mackay-Bennett, (#35) it was found clutching a purse, which was later identified as belonging to Yrois (who wasn't found), and he was identified by his membership card in the Moving Picture and Projecting Machine Operators Union.
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.
SECOND CLASS PASSENGER.
NAME - WILLIAM H. HARBECK. 114 24th Avenue, N. Y.
When Catherine Harbeck came from Toledo to claim the body in Halifax she was almost turned away as an imposter because authorities told her Mrs. Harbeck had drowned with her husband. Mrs. Harbeck took the body back to Toledo for burial in Toledo's Woodlawn Cemetery.
His business partner, Mrs. Katherine George of Seattle, put in a claim for $41,000 for the films that were lost with Harbeck (including the Pendleton Roundup Pictures, which she valued at $25,000.) Two motion picture cameras ("Jury's Kine Popular") and equipment also figured in Mrs. George's list at $11,000. Mrs. Harbeck put in a claim for $50,000 apparently for 100,000 feet of lost motion picture films.
His widow never remarried and remained in Toledo for the rest of her life, living with her son, Stanley, who was unmarried. She died on 18 May 1940 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with her husband. Both her sons never married. John died on 21 May 1917 and Stanley on 21 July 1947.