Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking

Aimee Heidelberg - December 14, 2023

The century-old story is familiar, but still intriguing, born of tragedy and catapulted into legend. The ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, carrying passengers from all walks of life, representing twenty-seven countries. Titanic sailed on its maiden voyage to New York on April 10th, 1912. Her passengers were a cross-section of society. There were immigrants. Businesspeople. Military luminaries. The extremely poor. Unfathomably wealthy society families. The elderly and the newborn. Stewards, stokers, and officers. Most would never arrive in New York. On April 14, Titanic hit an iceberg, causing fatal structural damage. Within two and a half hours, she sank down to the depths of the Atlantic ocean, over 12,000 feet below the surface. As she plunged beneath the waves, she claims 1,517 souls. There were, however, 706 survivors, whose stories did not end that fatal night.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
From L to R: Charles Lightoller, Margaret Brown, J. Bruce Ismay, and Violet Jessop. Public domain.

Post-Titanic Infamy for Some Survivors

Some post-Titanic survivor’s stories are already famous. First Office Charles Lightoller, survived Titanic but later aided in the dangerous evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. There’s Margaret Brown (who never used “Molly” as a nickname), who ran for U.S. Senate and became an activist for women’s rights. There is J. Bruce Ismay, manager of White Star Line, remained vilified for the remainder of his life for ordering the ship to speed through ice floes but escaping in a lifeboat as passengers died. He lived a quiet life in Galway, Ireland to escape his notoriety. Finally, Violet Jessop, a stewardess who survived Titanic and the sinking of her sister ship, Britannic. Their fascinating stories have been told and retold in popular culture since 1912. But most survivor’s stories seem to end with the Carpathia’s rescue, despite being as intriguing as Lightoller, Brown, Ismay, and Jessop.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Titanic’s crew being given fresh clothes in New York, April 1912. Public domain.

Titanic‘s Crew

Titanic‘s 900 crewmembers were mostly men, with just twenty-three women. The crew hailed predominantly from England and Ireland. These include the firemen who fed the boilers to keep the ship running and engineers (all lost) who kept the mechanical systems operational. Titanic had stewards keeping the passengers happy, the bakers, cooks, and serving teams keeping the passengers fed. The ship also had some uncommon jobs, too; two women, Annie Canton and Maud Slocombe, tended the Turkish Bath, Thomas McCawley, who ran the ship’s gymnasium, two surgeons, four purser clerks, and three lift operators. Some of the most compelling workers weren’t even considered employees, the ‘outside contractors,’ two men working the Marconi communications who send out Titanic’s distress call, eight musicians and three self-employed barbers considered ‘victualling crew’ who worked for tips. 686 crew would never return to their homeland, but the 214 that did continued to have adventurous lives.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking

Charles Joughin’s Baffling Titanic Survival Story

Charles Joughin, Titanic’s Chief Baker is one of the rare survivors who went down with the ship and lived to talk about it. He had been busy with filling the lifeboats, putting soft loaves in the lifeboats for extra supplies beyond the pre-stocked hard biscuits, and throwing deck chairs over the side as floatation devices. Joughin braced himself for what came next with a taste of liquor. He got caught in a crowd headed toward the rear of the ship. Finding the railing at the rear (now top) of the ship, he climbed onto it as Titanic slid underwater. He simply stepped off as she went down. His head barely got wet, and no suction pulled at him. He tread water until he came across a collapsable boat, transferred to another lifeboat, and despite the freezing cold and wet, pulled himself up the rescue ship’s ladder.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Olympic and Titanic, side by side in March 1912. Joughin would serve on both. Public domain.

Charles Joughin Escapes – Again

Surviving Titanic in the most dramatic manner possible didn’t deter Joughin from a career at sea. He returned to Liverpool and served on Titanic‘s sister ship Olympic. At the onset of World War I, Joughin joined the marines, serving as a baker on the SS Congress. On a short run from San Francisco to Seattle, the ship caught fire about thirty to fifty miles off the coast. The captain quickly beached the ship, saving all members of the crew, including Joughin, who escaped in a lifeboat this time. But his escape wasn’t without drama. He slipped and fell into the water getting into a lifeboat but suffered no injuries. Despite two disasters, he remained a seafaring baker. In December of 1941, he worked aboard yet another sinking ship, the freighter Oregon that had collided with another ship. Seventeen people died in the incident, but once again, Joughin escaped.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
A. J. Priest, Titanic fireman (c. 1912), CC 2.0).

Arthur Priest Escapes Titanic

Arthur John “Jack” Priest, a twenty-four-year-old fireman, serviced Titanic‘s massive boilers. He worked on the Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke in 1911. But it wasn’t his first brush with shipping accidents, he had been on the Asturias when the ship collided with another during its 1908 maiden voyage. He transferred from Olympic to Titanic for its maiden voyage. Firemen (another term for ‘stoker’) on Titanic kept the boilers firing, day and night. Priest wasn’t on duty when Titanic hit the iceberg, but in his quarters, low on the ship, still put him in peril. He had to navigate corridors and gangways to get to the upper decks. Most boats were gone by the time he and his colleagues reached the boat deck. Priest likely escaped on lifeboat 15, where crew ordered men into the boat when they couldn’t see any more women or children.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking

The Truly Unsinkable Arthur Priest

Priest returned to sea after Titanic. He sailed on the Alcantara in the North Sea during a February 1916 battle with the German raider Greif. Despite this second wreck, Priest again returned to sea. Priest served, with fellow Titanic survivors Violet Jessup and Archie Jewell, on the medical ship Britannic during World War I. In November 1916, Britannic hit a mine, quickly sinking. Thanks to lifeboats for everyone and help from nearby vessels, only thirty perished in the wreck. Arthur Priest, again, escaped harm. He returned to sea once more, aboard the Donegal when it sank in April of 1917. Priest served on board for six incidents and four wrecks in less than ten years. He said, possibly not really joking, that he was forced to retire from his seafaring career because nobody wanted to sail with him. Arthur Priest died at age 49 from pneumonia in 1937.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Robert Hichens (l) was at the wheel of Titanic (Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship and similar in design, bridge pictured). Public domain.

Robert Hichens Draws Ire on Titanic

Quartermaster Robert Hichens accepted his first North Atlantic duty on Titanic, having served his career to that point on Union Castle and British India lines. He steered the ship’s wheel when the order came down to turn the wheel “hard a’starboard” away from the iceberg. When his relief showed up at 12:23 am, the officer on duty directed the men to tend the lifeboats. Hichens held charge of Lifeboat 6. Some of the women aboard the lifeboat accused Hichens of talking sharply to the lifeboat’s women, wrapping himself up in extra blankets, and drinking all the whiskey. He defended his use of some blankets, “I was standing at attention, exposed, steering the boat all night, which is a very cold billet.” But worse, the women said he refused to return to Titanic to pick up survivors in the water, which he defended as fear of suction as Titanic went down.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Torquay Harbor, Devon, April 1964. Christine Matthews (geograph.org.uk, CC 2.0),

Robert Hichens – A Boat Deal Goes Sour

Hichens life would be riddled with conflict (and possibly undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD) beyond the Titanic. In the late 1920’s, Hichens and his family moved to Torquay, Devon in southwest England. In 1930 he tried to start a boat charter business, financing a boat from Harry Henley, paying £100 down, with the remaining £60 to be paid over two years. He borrowed the initial £100 from fellow Torquay resident J.E. Squires, repaid £50, but couldn’t pay back the rest due to a bad season. Squires repossessed the boat. Hichens, now with no business, no job, and even an estranged wife, started drinking heavily. He roamed the country seeking work, but never found a stable position. As he spiraled downward, Hichens focused on Henley as the reason for all his woes. He bought a revolver, determined to kill Henley and himself.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Former Torquay Police Station on Market Street, used until 1944. Derek Harper (2008, CC 2.0)

Attempted Murderer, Robert Hichens

Hichens returned to Torquay on November 12, 1933, to carry out his murderous plan. He told an acquaintance in Torquay, “I have come down to do Henley and myself.” He showed the revolver to another friend, who tried to dissuade Hichens. By 10pm that night, Hichens had visited three pubs. Drunk, he went to Henley’s home. Hichens and Henley fought over money Hichens still owed, and Hichens shot Henley in the head. Bad aim and good luck spared Henley; the shot missed his skull. Hichens second shot missed entirely. Henley punched Hichens in the face and escaped to the police station. While under arrest, Hichens tried to cut his wrists. After four years in prison for the attempt on Henley, Hichens found work on a cargo ship, the English Trader. He died at age 58 on the ship in 1940, rest the end of a troubled life.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
THIRD CLASS PASSENGERS – The dining hall (l) and lounge (r) for third class passengers on Olympic, sister ship to Titanic and similar in design. Harland and Wolf, public domain.

Titanic’s Third-Class Passengers

Titanic‘s third class accommodations were famously more luxurious than those on other ships They had good food, clean rooms, even easy chairs and a piano. Survivors recall raucous parties almost every night, a treat for people who regularly toiled seven days a week. Tragically, most of the third-class passengers, seven hundred and nine (nearly 3/4) of them, died in the sinking. Some couldn’t navigate their way to the Boat Deck, or were reportedly gated below decks. Stories from Titanic‘s third-class passengers are nowhere near as prolific as those of their first-class counterparts. These people were not well-to-do, who didn’t have social clout to make headlines in the aftermath of the sinking. After the tragedy, the third-class survivors scattered across the country to live relatively quiet lives, finally reaching America. Some went back to their homeland, having lost everything in the disaster. And some had even more adventures.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Daniel Buckley, Titanic survivor (1915). Public domain.

Titanic’s Third-Class Escapee Daniel Buckley

Irish third-class passenger Daniel Buckley boarded Titanic with a £7, 15s, 17d ticket, headed to New York. Asleep in the single men’s quarters near the front of the ship when he heard a jarring noise, he leapt out of bed only to find his feet in water. He initially reached the upper decks, but realized he had no lifebelt. A flooded staircase thwarted his effort. A locked gate blocked Buckley further as he tried to get back to the Boat Deck, but the third-class passengers soon broke the lock and went up to the Boat Deck. After helping load boats, Buckley jumped in one, along with several other men. When crew ordered them out, a woman in he boat tossed a shawl over his head and told him to “hold fast.” The crew didn’t notice, lowering the lifeboat, possibly number 14.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
U.S. soldiers advance Argonne Campaign, 1918. Public domain.

Daniel Buckley Defends his Country

Buckley, one of the few third-class passengers, testified at the American Inquiry into the sinking. He provided valuable information about the treatment of third-class passengers, particularly how crewmembers locked them behind gates. Settling into his life in New York, Buckley worked as a bellboy at Manhattan’s Yale Club by 1917. Buckley enlisted in the military to serve in World War I. His regiment experienced heavy losses in the Rouge Bouquet Campaign, but Buckley survived the German bombing of the American trenches, only to be wounded just weeks later. On October 9, he wrote to his mother, “I believe the war will soon be over, as the Germans are getting a great licking.” But Buckley would not see that victory. He died at twenty-eight years old, shot by a sniper during the October 1918 Argonne Campaign. The shot came as Buckley helped evacuate wounded comrades at the Meause-Argonne front.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Frank Goldsmith as a young child (l) and a collapsible lifeboat from Titanic, possibly the one carrying Frank Goldsmith. Public domain.

Third-Class Child Survivor Frankie Goldsmith

Nine-year-old English boy Frank Goldsmith boarded Titanic in Southampton. The family planned to settle in Detroit, Michigan, following relatives that had moved to the Midwest ahead of them. Young Frank quickly made friends with a gang of boys around his age. They would run around the ship, exploring corridors and peeking in on the firemen at work. Young Frank never felt the impact of the iceberg; his father woke him from a deep slumber. They made their way up to the Boat Deck after the main lifeboats were gone and the collapsible prepared for launch. They entered collapsible lifeboat C, lowering at 2:00 am. Forty-three people escaped on the collapsible, but Frank’s father did not sit among them, lost as the Titanic went down. No more boats would launch from the starboard side.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
A protest of over 100,000 over a school amendment, held at Navin Field, Detroit. Public domain.

Frank Goldsmith Holds on to Hope

Aboard the Carpathia, Frank befriended a Titanic fireman, who gave Goldsmith hope that his father might have been rescued, telling him “Don’t cry, Frankie, your dad will probably be in New York before you are.” For years, Goldsmith hoped his father would walk through the door shouting a hearty “Hello!” Back at their home in Detroit, near the new Navin Field baseball stadium, the sinking haunted Frank. The crowd sounded far too close to the sound of the Titanic victims dying in the freezing water. The sound was so jarring he never brought his own children to a baseball game. Despite his initial reluctance to discuss his childhood tragedy, he became a prolific guest speaker, sharing his memories at Titanic-related events and appearances. He wrote the only book about the sinking from a third-class passenger, Echoes in the Night: Memories of a Titanic Survivor (1991).

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Second class lounge design for Olympic and Titanic (l) and Olympic (Titanic’s sister ship) smoking room. Public domain.

Second Class Passengers

Second class passenger space upgraded the luxury from the third-class spaces. Where third class furnishings in the public spaces were all metal, wood, and other easy to clean surfaces for hygiene purposes, second class had comfortable mahogany furnishing with padded fabrics, a library, and regular entertainment from the orchestra. After dinner, the men would saunter over to the second-class smoking room, with wood paneled walls and floored in linoleum, decorated in opulent Louis XVI style. The cabins were more private. While third class cabins could bunk up to ten people, second class cabins had only two to four beds. Second class passengers had access to a barber shop, a promenade, a library, And the bed linens were changed every day. Two hundred and eighty-four people sailed in second class. One hundred and seventy-three second class passengers would die in the disaster.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Lawrence Beesley and companion in Titanic’s gymnasium (1912). London Illustrated News, 20 April 1912. Public domain.

A Lifeboat Almost Crushed Lawrence Beesley

Only the first class passengers were given access to the Titanic’s gymnasium. But for a brief time before the ship departed, second-class passengers were allowed to explore first class areas. A famous picture from the pre-sailing period shows a man and woman in the ship’s gymnasium. The man is second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley, a widowed 34-year-old science teacher headed to the United States and Canada for a vacation. Beesly stood by lifeboat thirteen when a crewman ordered him to jump into the lowering boat after the women and children visible in the area had loaded. Lifeboat thirteen found itself in its own peril when it became caught up in Titanic‘s outwash, pushing the crowded boat underneath the still-lowering lifeboat fifteen. While screaming and shouting for lifeboat fifteen to stop lowering lest they be crushed, the occupants of lifeboat thirteen cut the ropes tethering them to Titanic and quickly escaped.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Scene from A Night to Remember. Goosefriend (CC BY-2.0).

Lawrence Beesley Delves into the Entertainment Industry

Once again married, with three sons and returned to his education career, Beesley wrote one of the first survivors to write an account of the night, The Loss of the SS Titanic (1912). In the 1950s, he contributed to one of the definitive books on Titanic, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. The book wasn’t his only connection to the entertainment industry, though. He attended the filming of A Night to Remember (1958) as an invited guest. Beesley snuck onto the set to be on the ship as it sank. An actor spotted the survivor. The director had to remove Beesley, lest he violate union regulations and had production stopped. Beesley attended the premier, giving an interview to the newsreel, praising the realism of the film. Beesley lived to age 89, passing away in 1967. Beesley’s son Alec married Dodie Smith, writer of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Michel and Edmond Navratil reunited with their mother Marcelle, 1912. No known restrictions.

Orphans of the Titanic

One of Titanic‘s most intriguing stories is the tale of the Navratil brothers, three- and two-year-old French boys traveling ins second class with their father. But this was no ordinary father/son trip. Their father, estranged from his wife, whom he suspected of infidelity, had kidnapped them during an Easter weekend visit. Instead of returning them to their mother, he boarded the Titanic under the name Charles Hoffman. Their father perished in the sinking but managed to get both boys in a lifeboat. The boys, now separated from their father and unable to speak English, were unable to help officials figure out their identities. They were the only ‘unclaimed’ child survivors from Titanic. They stayed with first-class passenger Margaret Hays until they could be identified. Back at home, Marcelle Navratil, their mother, recognized them from newspapers and hurried to America to claim her sons.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Michel (4 yrs) and Edmond ( 2 yrs) Navratil . 1912. No known restrictions.

Titanic’s Michel Navratil Lives to See the Internet age

After returning to France with his mother and brother in May 1912, Michel Navratil thrived in academia. At university, he married a fellow student in 1933. After earning his doctorate, he became a philosophy professor at the University of Montpellier in southeastern France. He lived to see Robert Ballard discover the Titanic, where he lost his father so many years ago. In 1987, he went to the United States to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the disaster. He returned to North America in 1996 to visit his father’s grave. Michel is described as a “very quiet individual and was very interested in what people had to say. After all, he was a professor of philosophy,” says Edward Kamuda, founder of the Titanic Historical Society of Springfield, Massachusetts. The last male survivor of Titanic, Michel passed away at age 92 in January 2001.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Edmond Navatril (r) plays with a stuffed cat next to his brother Michel. April 1912. No known restrictions.

Edmond Navratil Goes to War

Just two years old on the Titanic, small enough to be hauled up into the rescue ship Carpathia in a burlap sack, Edmond Navratil had few memories of the famous ship or his fame as Titanic’s Orphan (although not an orphan at all, with a very much alive mother). As an adult, Edmond Navratil married, and pursued a career track in the built environment. He started as an interior designer, architect, and builder. But World War II interrupted his professional practice. Edmond served in the French army. The Nazis captured Edmond for his involvement in the Resistance during World War II, but managed to escape his prison camp. This experience damaged his health. He passed away at age 43 on July 7, 1953, in part from the lingering effects of his captivity.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Olympic’s smoking room (l) and Grand Staircase (r), near duplicates of the ones installed on Titanic, c. 1910 – 1914. Public domain.

First Class Passengers

Titanic‘s first class were used to luxury. The White Star Line provided luxuries and amenities even these experienced travelers could appreciate. They had a Turkish bath and a world class swimming pool, something that had only been offered on ships since 1906 on the Adriatic. First-class passengers had a choice of the dining room, a la carte restaurant, or the Café Parisian. There were abundant stewards and stewardesses to help with everyday needs, whereas the second and third classes had limited stewards to share. But that luxury wouldn’t help them on April 14th. Out of the three hundred and twenty-four first class passengers on Titanic, one hundred twenty-three perished in the cold ocean. Two hundred and two survived the disaster. Their accounts would fill the society pages of newspapers due to their celebrity status, unlike the second- and third-class passengers, whose accounts were much less publicized.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Madeline Astor and baby son of the late John Jacob Astor, born August 14, 1912. Public domain.

Madeline Astor’s Honeymoon

Madeline Astor, a newlywed on the Titanic, boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France, for a return trip back into New York society. Astor, in his late forties and divorced from his first wife, fell for the beautiful young socialite when she was just eighteen years old. They married in September of 1911. The couple were returning from their Egyptian and Parisian honeymoon on Titanic. John Jacob Astor was killed in the sinking, but the five-months pregnant Madeline survived in lifeboat four. Upon her return to New York, doctors put Madeline on bed rest, as the tragedy took a toll on her nerves. Even so, she delivered a healthy baby boy in August 1912. She named him John Jacob Asotr VI after his father. Astor’s will provided for his wife and son financially and gave them his house on New York’s fashionable Fifth Avenue – as long as she never remarried.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
William K. Dick, Madeline Astor’s second husband (1915). Public domain.

Madeline Astor Continues to Court Scandal

Although the loss of Astor shattered the young bride, the young widow found love again in 1916, marrying childhood friend William Dick. She gave up the house, her trust fund, and a name that kept her in society papers. The couple had two sons, but ultimately divorce in 1933. She then married a prizefighter, Enzo Fiermonte, but it the marriage foundered, becoming violent. They divorced in 1938 on grounds of “extreme cruelty.” Fiermonte sold his story to a tabloid, a serialized version of their marriage from his perspective. Around this time, she started taking (and possibly abusing) prescription drugs to ease the blows from Fiermonte and grief from the loss of her mother. Even in death, Madeline couldn’t escape scandal. In March of 1940, Madeline passed away at 46, officially from heart failure, although rumors circulated about the role her prescription drugs might have played in her death.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Dorothy Gibson reenacts that fateful night wearing the clothes she wore during the sinking. Randy Bryan Bigham Collection (1912), public domain.

Dorothy Gibson Relives the Titanic

Dorothy Gibson already had fame when she set sail on Titanic, known for her film acting and modeling. She modeled for Harrison Fischer as one of the original “Harrison Fischer Girls,” the feminine ideal in the early 1890s and early 1900s. Her travels, with her mother, to Europe in 1912 were a welcome break after completing some films. The pair booked passage on the Titanic for their return trip. On the fateful night of the sinking, Dorothy and her mother left the doomed ship on lifeboat seven. Shortly after her rescue, Gibson starred in the film Saved from the Titanic in May of 1912, wearing the clothes she actually wore during the sinking. Despite Gibson’s reluctance to relive the night, the film received high praise.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Dorothy Gibson (l) in a 1911 publicity photo, and Jules Brulatour, 1917. Public domain.

Dorothy Gibson’s Scandalous Life, Post-Titanic

As Gibson moved away from her film career, scandal followed close behind. Gibson had a long-term affair with her married producer, Jules Brulatour. They managed to keep this a secret until disaster struck the covert couple. In 1913, Gibson and Brulatour were out for a drive. Gibson drove Brulatour’s car when she hit and killed a man. During the following weeks, their affair was exposed. The press went wild with the salacious story, leading to Brulatour’s divorce. Despite the stress of a scandal, Brulatour granted his wife the divorce, quickly marrying Gibson in 1917, but this union didn’t last long, just two years. The excitement of an illicit affair became mundane after the relationship went public.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
San Vittore prison in Milan, where Gibson was held for suspicion of anti-Nazi activity (image 1880s). Public domain.

Gibson’s Other Secret Life

In 1928, Gibson moved to France with her mother, delving into mysterious political intrigue. Her experiences in World War Two are unclear, but the stories circulating about these years would make a good movie. She may have spied for the Germans, or spied for the Allies; Gibson’s loyalties were ambiguous despite her mother’s Fascist sympathies. During World War II the Gestapo arrested her as an anti-Fascist “resistance agitator.” The Nazis sentenced her to prison, a term she served at San Vittore Prison in Milan. Gibson, however, escaped San Vittore in 1944. There are two stories about her release. The first claims an Italian official helped orchestrate Gibson’s escape. The other story says she agreed to spy for the Nazis. There is no verification of either story, but after leaving prison, she returned to Paris for her remaining years. She died in 1946 at age 56 of heart failure.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Eleanor Widener (n.d.). Public domain.

Eleanor Widener’s Titanic Trauma

Eleanor Widener boarded Titanic with her husband George, a railway and streetcar company president who had been in England for business. Their adult son Harry had joined them on this trip. Harry, an avid bibliophile, researched and collected rare books. His interests led him to England in 1912, to buy books. He was particularly taken with the rare second edition of Bacon’s Essais published in 1598. When Titanic went down, so did her husband and son. The books her Harry so carefully selected, including Bacon’s book, followed them to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Eleanor Widener escaped the doomed ship on lifeboat number four.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Widener Library, Harvard University, dedicated to Titanic victim Harry Widener. Caroline Culler (2015, CC4.0).

Eleanor Widener Changes Harvard

The death of Widener’s son and husband prompted her to leave a legacy at Harvard University, a place that left a deep impact on her family. She donated the funds to build a library dedicated to her son. The Harry Elkins Widener Library embodied a particular dream of Harry’s. A young man with a passion for books, Harry wanted to donate his personal book collection to Harvard, but found its current library in Gore Hall to be unsuitable for such a prominent university. Eleanor had the library constructed in the popular Beaux Arts style, clad in red brick with classical elements, creating a monument on the campus. The library has over fifty miles of shelving. The library’s Widener Memorial Room is dedicated to Harry and his love of books, and contains first editions from Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Swimming bath on the Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship. Public domain.

Harvard’s Widener Legend

Legend has it that Eleanor believed if Harry had learned to swim, he might have survived Titanic. The story says this belief led to the stipulation that every Harvard graduate has to pass a swimming test. Harvard denies this; the swimming requirement was for crew team members in the early 1880s. If they wanted to row on the Charles Rivier, they had to pass a swim test. This requirement appeared years before the Titanic. In 1919, Harvard did require swimming proficiency, part of “compulsory physical training.” There is currently no swimming proficiency, and definitely not one tied to a requirement imposed by Eleanor Widener, at Harvard University. There are some lesser-known actual stipulations in Eleanor’s will, however. The Widener Memorial Room must always contain some sort of fresh-cut flower, a tradition carried on to this day. Additionally, Harry’s personal collection be housed in its own room.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., Eleanor Widener’s second husband, c. 1916. Public domain.

South American Adventurer, Eleanor Widener

While Eleanor Widener set up her son’s memorial as a lasting legacy at Harvard, she wasn’t done with her world adventures. In 1915, she married surgeon and Harvard professor Alexander Hamilton Rice Jr. Rice had a passion for adventure, an interest Eleanor shared. She was the first Caucasian woman known to greet indigenous people of the Rio Negro region in South America. The people greeted her warmly, and Eleanor made friends with them. A later trip to the Amazon region, however, didn’t end as well. The people of the deep Amazon attacked the exploration party. Two locals were killed in the conflict. While they abandoned that expedition, Eleanor and her husband continued to explore South America. Eleanor died of an embolism while shopping in Paris on July 13, 1937.

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Dr. Robert Ballard, leader of the team who discovered Titanic. Titanic Belfast. Photograph by Declan Roughan / Irish News Ltd (2011, CC 2.0).

Titanic Makes News Again

Although Titanic foundered on that freezing April night, it has continued to make history. The wreck lay on floor of the Atlantic Ocean until September 1, 1985, when it was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard and the team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the French National Institute of Oceanography led by Jean-Louis Michele. The discovery came during a covert mission to find two sunken U.S. nuclear submarines. The Navy had granted the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Ronald Thunman permission to search for Titanic in the area once the sub mission wrapped up. But they hadn’t expected the team to actually find the Titanic. Ballard told National Geographic, “the Navy never expected me to find the Titanic, and so when that happened, they got really nervous because of the publicity. But people were so focused on the legend of the Titanic they never connected the dots.”

Titanic Survivor’s Stories Are As Dramatic As The Sinking
Coal retrieved from the wreck site on display by RMS Titanic, Inc. Ben Sutherland (2008, CC 2.0).

Titanic‘s Exploration and Exploitation

Titanic, however, is reluctant to give up her secrets. The wreck is deteriorating, and exploration of the site is extremely risky. Hollywood director James Cameron has developed deep-sea technology to explore the wreck (and replicated his dive footage for the blockbuster movie) but it focuses on documentation of the structure and debris field rather than artifact retrieval. Dr. Ballard has discouraged other organizations from retrieving artifacts from the site, but this hasn’t stopped for=–profit groups from travelling to the wreck. RMS Titanic Inc., for one, retrieved items from the wreck and displayed them in traveling exhibits until their parent company went bankrupt in 2016. More recently, Titanic made news for another disaster, passenger vessel Titan, imploding while bringing tourists to the wreck, killing the five men aboard. Scientists and salvage groups continue to debate about Titanic exploration and artifact retrieval, but interest in the ship lingers on.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

As hundreds of men perished, one ignored a rumor to survive. Nicholas Wade, New York Times, 9 April 2012.

Dorothy Gibson survived the Titanic – then starred in the first movie about it. Erik Hawkins, All That’s Interesting, 28 February 2022.

James Cameron takes viewers through Titanic deep dive in 1997. Paige Gawley, 22 June 2022.

Madeline Astor: The gilded beginnings and harrowing survival of the Titanic‘s most famous widow. Shayna Murphy, Mental Floss, 25 April 2022.

The engineers lost aboard Titanic. Dr. Denis Griffiths, Universidad d Cordoba (n.d.)

The first-class gym on board the Titanic. Stuart Marsh, 9Honey, 2016.

The Irish man who was hidden on a lifeboat as the Titanic sank. Senan Molony, Irish Central, 10 April 2023.

They said it couldn’t sink. Alison Gavin and Christopher Zarr. National Archives, Spring 2022, vol 22(1).

Titanic by the numbers: From construction to disaster to discovery. Lesley Kennedy, National Geographic, 22 June 2023.

Titanic‘s unsinkable stoker. (n.a.) BBC.com, 30 March 2012.

Why the Titanic still fascinates us. Andrew Wilson, Smithsonian magazine. March 2012.