The 'Titanic': A Night That's Still Remembered

As the centenary of the ‘Titanic’ approaches, the fascination with the ill-starred ship and its passengers is rising yet again — including a large-scale exhibit at The Henry Ford


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All images courtesy of Richard Bak

The drifting slab of ice rose maybe as high as the third or fourth floor of Henry Ford’s Model T plant, a symbol of American promise that few of the passengers bound for Michigan would live to see. The liner steaming toward it carried a small city within its hull — restaurants, a hospital, Turkish baths, a heated pool, a gymnasium, a post office, a wireless station, and 2,223 travelers and crew, double the population of Royal Oak at the time. It was late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a moonless, chillsome Sunday night, and the RMS Titanic was on the cusp of fulfilling a terrible destiny.

Among those on board was 12-year-old Ruth Becker, who was traveling in second class with her mother, Nellie, and two younger siblings. They were headed for Benton Harbor, Mich., having spent the last several years in India, where Ruth’s father was a Lutheran missionary. “We’ve had a little accident,” a steward told Nellie, shortly after the ship unexpectedly stopped dead in the water. “They’re going to fix it, and then we’ll be on our way.”

A century later, the irony of that remark is inescapable. However, nobody aboard the Titanic could have imagined that the mighty ship’s first voyage would be its last, that the boasts of “unsinkable” would devolve into the unthinkable: one of the greatest maritime catastrophes ever and the beginning to the end of the unbridled confidence of the Edwardian Age. The Beckers managed to make it safely off the doomed vessel, but 1,517 others did not. The Titanic, lights blazing and band playing almost to the very end, disappeared early Monday morning at 2:20. “It was bitter cold, a curious, deadening, bitter cold,” Ruth would later say of her experience in a lifeboat filled with trembling, half-dressed passengers. She described watching the dying ship’s final moments, its upright stern standing like a large building before sliding into the sea, followed by “the most terrible noises that human beings ever listened to, the cries of hundreds of people struggling in the icy-cold water, crying for help with a cry that we knew could not be answered.”

Ever since that appalling night, the Titanic has been an inescapable part of our folklore, the word serving as shorthand for epic disaster. That most people today have at least a cursory knowledge of history’s most famous shipwreck is due in no small part to James Cameron’s 1997 film. (Two earlier movies, A Night to Remember and Titanic were released in the ’50s.) Titanic was an international blockbuster and pop-culture phenomenon that remains the second-highest grossing movie of all time (surpassed only by Cameron’s more recent film, Avatar). The fictionalized love affair of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) aside, the film is commendably faithful to historical fact. “Cameron liked to joke that he made a ‘chick flick’ with no possibility of a sequel,” says maritime historian Cris Kohl of Windsor. “Still, he went all out in re-creating the ship and the sinking.” Merchandisers’ favorite disaster will get more exposure with its centenary next April. Books, documentaries, recordings, games, exhibitions, auctions, and tributes on both sides of the Atlantic are in the works. The outpouring will include a 3-D theatrical reissue of Cameron’s film as well as a joint U.S.-British TV miniseries and an exhibit at The Henry Ford.

Why this fascination with the Titanic? According to Kohl, beyond the “supreme irony” of the world’s greatest ship plunging to the ocean floor on its maiden voyage, “much of the interest lies with the large number of rich people on board and how they acted.” Millionaires were the rock stars of their day, he says, their lives followed with a mix of aspiration and curiosity. Among the “money kings” who went down with the ship were John Jacob Astor IV, whose wealth today would be measured in the billions of dollars; George Widener, heir to the largest fortune in Philadelphia; and John B. Thayer, vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a shipping magnate who two years earlier had launched the freighter Allegheny on the banks of the Detroit River. Other notables included millionaire playboy Benjamin Guggenheim; Macy’s co-owner Isador Strauss and his wife, Ida; artist Francis Davis Millet (whose 1883 painting, Reading the Story of Denone, hangs at the Detroit Institute of Arts); Grand Trunk Railway president Charles M. Hays, whose oversight included the Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee line; and Major Archibald Butt, the influential adviser to U. S. presidents Roosevelt and Taft. There were others. Never before in American history had a single calamity claimed so many members of the social elite.

Kathleen Marcaccio of Royal Oak is more taken with the tales of the “ordinary” people aboard the Titanic. “I was surprised at how many steerage passengers there were on a luxury liner,” says the 54-year-old information services technician, who saw the movie 20 times in the theater and owns thousands of pieces of memorabilia associated with the film. “When you start looking at the people involved, you find this wide range of human-interest stories. There were so many books that came out after the movie, and I just devoured them all. You pick up on new angles. It helps bring the big story to life.”

There are surprisingly strong Michigan ties to the Titanic. At least 64 passengers, most of them immigrants, were headed for destinations around the state, including 29 bound for Detroit, Pontiac, and Dearborn, with many of the rest traveling to the mining regions of the Upper Peninsula. The very first person put into a lifeboat was Helen Bishop, a newlywed from Sturgis, Mich. The only rescued passengers to subsequently have their ashes spread over the actual site of the sinking — Frank Goldsmith Jr. in 1982 and Ruth Becker Blanchard in 1994 — were both Michigan-bound. (A third person, deck officer Joe Boxhall, was the only other survivor to have his cremains scattered over the ship’s final resting place.) Moreover, the U.S. senator who chaired the high-profile investigation into the tragedy was William Alden Smith. The white-haired Republican from Grand Rapids used the proceedings to hammer home maritime reforms and to scold the world about its excesses. “What this nation needs is a severe lesson that will strengthen the pillars of its faith,” he said. “We are running mad with the lures of wealth, of power, and of business. We are setting society into castes, with the forces of wealth and power on one side and destitution and poverty on the other.”

The Titanic was all about wealth and power. The White Star Line spent three years building the “ship of dreams,” and everything about the British luxury liner was gargantuan. It was as long as three football fields. The anchor weighed 15.5 tons. Each of its outside propellers measured 23.5 feet across and weighed 38 tons. At a time when a new Model T roadster cost $680 and gas was 7 cents a gallon, the price of a first-class parlor suite was $4,350. Second-class accommodations on the Titanic, geared to society’s growing and newly affluent middle class, were equal to first-class on other liners. Those in third class (also known as “steerage”) paid as little as $40 for a one-way ticket. That amount still represented several weeks’ pay for the typical laborer in 1912.

The Titanic left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, stopping at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, to take on additional passengers before heading for New York. Traveling in second class were Jane Quick, 33, and her daughters, 8-year-old Winifred and 2-year-old Phyllis. “My grandmother, Jane, was taking the family to Detroit, where her husband worked as a carpenter,” says Jeanette Happel, 75, of Troy. “They were originally supposed to leave England on another ship, but a coal strike forced them to change their tickets to the Titanic. My grandmother didn’t want to go. She said, ‘I don’t want to go on any ship that hasn’t been tried.’ But she didn’t have any choice.”

Another reluctant passenger was Frank Goldsmith. His wife’s relatives had lived in Detroit for several years and regularly encouraged the family to emigrate from their home in Kent, England. Goldsmith, a 33-year-old toolmaker who was terrified of the sea, finally gave in, his fears offset by the prospect of making a better living in the booming Motor City. He packed up his tools and booked third-class passage for him, wife Emily, and their 9-year-old son, Frank Jr., convinced that the Titanic was the safest vessel afloat.

The storyline from that point on is all too familiar. On April 14, the fifth night of its scheduled weeklong voyage, the Titanic — sailing too fast for the conditions — narrowly averted a head-on collision with an iceberg. The resulting scrape along the starboard side initially seemed innocuous. The ship was designed to stay afloat even if five of its bulkhead compartments were breached. But on this starlit evening some 400 miles southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland, rivets popped, plates buckled, and suddenly six forward compartments were taking on water. The Titanic, carrying lifeboats for only half its passengers and crew, slowly began to sink bow-first into the Atlantic. In less than three hours it would be completely gone.

The collision occurred at 11:40 p.m., as most passengers readied for bed. Shortly after midnight, Captain Edward Smith ordered all lifeboats prepared for launch. The Bishops, a young couple who were the only Michigan-bound passengers in first class, joined the growing crowd being ordered to the boat deck. There appeared to be nothing wrong with the ship, at least not serious enough to entice someone to climb into an open lifeboat dangling from davits. “It was then almost impossible to get people to venture into them,” recalled Dickinson Bishop, a 25-year-old Dowagiac native. “The officers implored people to get aboard, but they seemed to fear hanging out over the water at a height of 75 feet, and the officers ordered the boat lowered away with only a small portion of what it could carry.”

Helen Bishop, 19 and several weeks pregnant, was the first person seated in lifeboat No. 7, which at 12:45 a.m. was the first boat lowered down the side. She reluctantly left behind a lap dog named Frou Frou, acquired while honeymooning in Florence, Italy. “When I started to leave her, she tore my dress to bits, tugging at it,” she said later. “I realized, however, that there would be little sympathy for a woman carrying a dog in her arms when there were lives of women and children to be saved.” There were a dozen dogs on the Titanic, of which three remarkably survived. The frantic Frou Frou, locked inside her owner’s stateroom, was not one of them.

The gravity of the situation gradually became apparent. Although there were isolated episodes of cowardice and some panic toward the end, calm and the tradition of “women and children first” generally prevailed. Overall, four out of every five men would die while three-quarters of the women were rescued. Frank Goldsmith Jr. recalled being placed in a lifeboat with his mother while his father stood back. “My dad reached down and patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘So long, Frankie, I’ll see you later.’ He didn’t, and he may have known he wouldn’t.” Alfred Rush, who was traveling with the Goldsmiths to Detroit, had just turned 16, proudly turning in his knickers for a pair of pants. When a crew member tried to put the undersized lad in a boat, he jerked his arm free and declared, “No! I’m staying here with the men.” Goldsmith later wrote: “At age 16, he died a hero.”

By 2 a.m., the last of the Titanic’s distress rockets had been fired into the sky and all 16 wooden lifeboats had shoved off, nearly all of them only partially filled. Left behind were more than 1,500 people, whose final minutes were viewed with a mixture of pity and helplessness by those rowing away in lifeboats. “The water was like glass,” Helen Bishop remembered. “By the time we had pulled 100 yards, the lower row of portholes had disappeared. When we were a mile away, the second row had gone, but there was still no confusion. Indeed, everything seemed to be quiet on the ship until her stern was raised out of the water by the list forward. Then a veritable wave of humanity surged up out of the steerage and shut the lights from our view. We were too far away to see the passengers individually, but we could see the black masses of human forms and hear their death cries and groans.”

An unknown number of people were entombed in the ship as it broke in half and plunged more than two miles to the ocean floor. Others either leaped or were spilled into the icy sea. “They jumped and they screamed and they yelled for help, and of course nobody came to help,” an aging Ruth Becker Blanchard said near the end of a very long life. “I can still hear them.” Those in lifeboats guiltily kept their distance, fearful of being swamped by the overwhelming numbers of desperate human beings. Those struggling in the 28-degree water had only a short while to live, though few actually drowned. Most succumbed to hypothermia, the more physically fit lasting perhaps a half-hour before their internal organs permanently shut down. The anguished cries and desperate flailing petered out. Soon all was quiet. Hundreds of frozen corpses, held upright in life belts, bobbed on the lightly rippling surface.

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