Daily Express, 14 January 2012
A Tale of Two Titanic Victims
In April 1912 the ‘unsinkable’ superliner RMS Titanic was on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, when it hit an iceberg in mid-Atlantic and sank with the loss of 1,517 lives. A century on, it remains the world’s most famous maritime disaster because of its combination of dramatic ingredients – the careless captain who refused to heed iceberg warnings, the first officer’s fatal error as he tried to avoid collision, the shortage of lifeboats, the desperate calls for help ignored by another, nearby ship.
But the Titanic story also fascinates us because the ship’s human cargo formed such a perfect microcosm of Edwardian society. From the wealthy tycoons and hereditary rich in first class, and the respectable bourgeois passengers in second class, to the mixed bag of migrants and refugees in steerage, dreaming of new lives in America.
Yet all of them – rich and poor – shared the same terrifying fate on that dark, freezing night in the middle of the ocean. And the courageous, selfless manner in which many of them faced the end transcended the boundaries of money and ‘breeding’, as shown by the stories of two individual passengers who died that night, now told in a new book.
The first is the business magnate John Jacob Astor IV, member of one of America’s most illustrious families and the richest man on board. ‘Colonel Jack’, as he was called, was returning home from an extended honeymoon in France and Egypt with his pretty, pregnant second wife, Madeleine. He was 47, she was 19. A few months earlier Astor had been ostracised by his high society friends in New York for divorcing his frigid first wife and taking a teenage bride; now the couple were hoping to be ‘socially rehabilitated’. Their onboard entourage was composed of his valet, Madeleine’s personal maid, a nurse to care for her during her pregnancy, and their pet Airedale, Kitty.
The first class facilities were staggeringly opulent. Besides their lavish ‘parlour suite’ stateroom, the Astors could enjoy luxurious lounges and reception areas, a Parisian café and palm court, and be serenaded by music from the ship’s band. At mealtimes, the Jacobean-style dining room served gargantuan feasts featuring oysters, foie gras and every other delicacy. In fact it was all rather like a floating version of Astor’s own sumptuous Manhattan hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria and the St. Regis.
But he and his young wife kept a low profile during the voyage. Fellow passengers observed that they seemed preoccupied with each other and reluctant to hobnob with their fellow grandees. Perhaps this was a result of the cold-shouldering they had recently received, or perhaps due to Madeleine’s pregnancy.
Four days into the journey, at 11.40 pm on the night of 14th April, the Titanic struck the iceberg which ruptured its starboard side and caused flooding to six compartments – an unsustainable breach. Soon after midnight Captain Smith gave the order for the passengers to muster on deck. After reassuring his frightened wife of the safety of her life-jacket, the Astors joined the others. Women and children were called to board the lifeboats, and while waiting to get on, Madeleine gave her fur shawl to a third class passenger so that she could keep her child warm.
The boarding process was highly disorganised and it was almost 2 a.m. by the time a reluctant Madeleine was helped into one of the boats, along with her maid and nurse. As it was about to be lowered, only two-thirds full, Astor asked the officer in charge whether in view of his wife’s ‘delicate condition’ he might join her. He was refused – no men allowed – but didn’t protest. ‘The sea is calm,’ he told Madeleine. ‘You’ll be all right. I’ll meet you in the morning.’ He gave her his gloves and stepped back from the rail.
He noticed that the officer, in barring males from the lifeboats, was even refusing to let boys get in. At the last moment Astor placed a girl’s hat on the head of an 11-year-old boy and lifted him into the boat. Then he went off to find his dog Kitty. Madeleine never saw him again.
At 2.20 a.m., two hours and 40 minutes after the collision, the Titanic’s last visible remnant – its raised stern- plunged beneath the waves. In the aftermath, hundreds of people were left floating in the icy water, most dying from hypothermia within 20 minutes. John Jacob Astor, too, is believed to have died in this way.
A week later a steamer retrieved his corpse, with $4,000 in sodden notes in his pockets – the equivalent today of $92,000 (£56,000). He hadn’t tried to use his wealth and influence to save his life. The story of his manly self-sacrifice – and that of other millionaires in first class – became internationally renowned. Rather less celebrated were the final hours of third class passenger Frank Goldsmith.
Goldsmith was a 33-year-old from Strood in Kent, a gentle Methodist, who had been working as a machinist at a tractor factory. With his wife Emily and nine-year-old son Frankie, he had left England to begin a new life in Detroit, Michigan, where his in-laws had already settled. The family were eager for a fresh start following the death of their younger son from diphtheria the year before, and looked to the future with optimism. In his luggage Goldsmith was carrying a fine new set of handmade tools, a parting gift from his workmates in Strood.
Also travelling in their party were two English friends – Tom Theobald and Alfred Rush, who celebrated his 16th birthday during the crossing by donning his first pair of long trousers.
Young Frankie had been excited for months. On their second day at sea he stood with his mother by the stern rail, watching the Irish coast receding after the ship’s brief stop at Queenstown, and cried ‘Mummy! At last we’re on the ‘lantic!’ And he made the most of the journey, joining the lively gangs of boys who turned the starboard deck into their playground. They improvised games, clambered over bollards and ventilators and hoisted themselves along cables.
It was utterly unimaginable to the Goldsmiths or to anyone on board this brand-new, state-of-the-art floating palace – the largest passenger steamship in the world – that it would soon be lying, torn in half, at the bottom of the ocean.
When disaster struck on the 14th, Frankie and his mother boarded a lifeboat along with other women and children from third class, many of them Lebanese. Frank embraced Emily and kissed her good-bye. Then he bent down and hugged his son, saying ‘So long Frankie, I’ll see you later.’
Their companion Tom Theobald took off his wedding ring, gave it to Emily and said: ‘If I don’t see you in New York, will you see that my wife gets this?’ Then Tom and Frank stood back, as did their teenage friend Alfred Rush, although some male passengers had managed to get into the boat and no one objected.
The lowering of the boat started, and with no more women or children around, a middle-aged man deftly stepped in and sat down in an empty place near the bow. This was Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. He was the shipping line’s most senior official and for the rest of his life would be reviled as ‘the Coward of the Titanic’ for deserting the ship while there still so many women and children on board…
Their lifeboat slowly pulled away from the Titanic and it wasn’t long afterwards that, with a loud crashing noise, it finally went down. Emily Goldsmith held her son’s head in her hands so that he wouldn’t see the horrifying spectacle, while Ismay sat with his back to it, unwilling to watch. From the water there now came the heartrending cries and screams of the hundreds who had jumped or fallen in during the final moments, Frankie’s father doubtless among them. His body was never identified.
Many years later, by now working as a milk cart driver in Detroit, Frankie lived near the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium. The roar of the crowd when a player hit a home run never stopped reminding him of the cries of the people freezing to death in the Atlantic.
The tragic irony was that, despite the shortage of lifeboats (enough for 1,178 people, when there were 2,223 on board) both John Jacob Astor and Frank Goldsmith should have survived. The lifeboats on to which they helped their loved ones departed with empty seats on them. But despite the vast gulf between the two men, in class and wealth, they were both Edwardian gentlemen. They didn’t plead or push themselves forward, but retained their quiet dignity to the end.
Titanic Lives by Richard Davenport-Hines. Harper Press, £20.
Why did it sink?
- Captain Smith ignored six iceberg warnings from other ships and continued full speed ahead
- First Officer William Murdoch, in command when the iceberg was sighted, attempted to change course and miss it but there was no time. Hitting the iceberg full on would have caused less damage and saved the ship, but sideswiping it proved fatal
- The bulkheads of the watertight compartments did not come up as high as they should have, which allowed water to pour over the top from one to another
- After parts of the wreck were recovered in the 1980s, the rivets used to hold the ship’s sections together were analysed and found to have been made from substandard iron. They broke on impact with the iceberg, causing the hull’s sections to come apart
Safety regulations introduced as a result of the disaster:
- ships had to carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board and seamen had to be trained to handle them
- ships had to maintain 24-hour radio communications with coastal stations and nearby vessels
- the International Ice Patrol was set up to monitor icebergs
- improved ship design made hulls less vulnerable to flooding
The psychic author
In 1898 the well-known American author Morgan Robertson published a short novel called Futility. It featured a luxury British passenger liner, the largest in the world and deemed to be unsinkable. On an April night in mid-Atlantic it struck an iceberg and sank. As it carried too few lifeboats, half her passengers died. The name of the ship? The Titan.