Titanic victims and villains, 100 years later
Of the writing of books and making of movies about the sinking of the Titanic there seems to be no end. As the world remembers this horrific tragedy 100 years later, it seems right to revisit it once again if for no other reason than to lay certain ghosts to rest and move on to a better future.
The details are well known: At 11:40 p.m. on the night of April 15, 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic glanced a glacier in the North Atlantic, opening a huge gash in its starboard side and filling watertight compartments so that it sank two and one half hours later. While the band heroically played on, the ship’s 2,224 passengers scrambled for safety. A total of 1,514 passengers were lost, many by hypothermia in the frigid waters. Ninety percent of those who died were men in second-class cabins, many of whom had given spaces in the limited lifeboats to women and children. One of the survivors was J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, who faced life-long social ostracism for cowardice in leaving the ship while many were still stranded on it. The Titanic was discovered on the ocean floor in 1985, and thousands of artifacts now exist in museums — and can be visualized in Hollywood docudramas that I assume will continue for the foreseeable future.
My grandparents had an Irish nurse on board, who in her prayers for survival, promised to dedicate her life to God. Miggy was saved and joined the Little Sisters of the Poor as a Catholic nun.
In a recent Phi Beta Kappa video lecture, historian Edward Trenner, a senior research assistant at the Smithsonian, retells the Titanic story with an interesting twist. He questions the rush to judgment that followed the terrible tragedy and marshals facts to broaden our understanding of the real reasons for the event. In doing so he exposes our tendency to try to find villains to blame for the victims — many of whom were not only those who lost their lives, but survivors who lost all their possessions and families left destitute because the primary breadwinner had drowned.
The villains include, of course, the White Star Line and Titanic Captain Edward John Smith. Why were there not enough lifeboats is the first question that springs to mind. The answer appears less obvious than one might think. Lifeboats obscured the views of promenade deck passengers, and hence were considered something of a nuisance. There were so many ships plying the North Atlantic waters in those days that it was assumed that a rescue ship would soon be there to pick up passengers and ferry them to safety. So lifeboats were primarily there to transport people from a stricken ship to a rescue one.
But why did Captain Smith insist on going “full steam ahead” when there were icebergs around? Apparently, the greatest danger at sea in those days was not icebergs, but fog — fog that might cause your ship to hit another one. Many icebergs had been hit by ships, to no harm. No one could have guessed that the particular side-grazing action would open the watertight compartments as it did. Moreover, icebergs could be seen even at night because waves lapping up against them were visible to lookouts. But this was a moonless night, and there were no binoculars with which to see the looming iceberg.
Well, then, why were the rich passengers allowed to board lifeboats, while those in steerage were kept behind locked passageways? Interestingly, as I’ve mentioned, the greatest loss of life was of second-class men who acted with noted chivalry. Also, steerage passengers were generally not allowed to mix with other passengers because they would be let off at Ellis Island and checked for communicable diseases as part of their immigration procedure.
Clearly the White Star Line is to blame for various oversights. The life jackets were made of inferior material, and families of the band leaders were sent bills for their drowned loved ones’ uniforms. However, few survived more than a few minutes in the icy waters, and the bill was obviously a clerical mistake.
The real villain, or so it appears, is the sea itself — the unpredictable, mysterious, unfathomable ocean.
With towering mountains of ice floating under darkened skies, man’s insatiable desire to conquer frontiers, and the ability to create marvelous seagoing palaces, accidents were bound to happen. April 15, 1912 seems to have been one of them.
Among the heroes of the ill-fated maiden voyage was Ida Strauss, wife of German-born immigrant Isidor Strauss. Strauss had volunteered to fight on the Southern side in the Civil War, but had been refused because he was only 16 at the time. He later moved to New York, and rose to become co-owner of Macy’s department store. As people were crowding into the lifeboats, Ida Strauss was offered a seat. But gallantly she said those memorable words: “I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so we will die together.” His body was recovered. Hers was never found.
Innumerable acts of generosity, chivalry and sacrifice were made that terrible night. It’s worth remembering, since we are so quick to judge, that people are rarely as bad as we consider them to be, nor as good as they wish others would see them. But amid the tragedies of life, there are acts of courage, bravery and genuine grace that bear remembering and lauding.
The Rev. Peter C. Moore, D.D., is associate for transformational discipleship at Charleston’s St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.