On April 15, 1912, the RMS Carpathia was fifty-eight miles away when the Titanic radio operators sent a distress signal. This smaller, distant ship had onboard 725 sun seeking passengers, mostly steerage, travelling from New York to five Mediterranean ports. However soon the then unknown Carpathia would go down in history as the ‘ship of widows’. For these women, surviving the Titanic meant surviving in its shadow for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, it was not as close as the SS Californian, but it was the only ship to act on the Titanic wireless SOS distress signal. Powering away, it headed northwest to the Atlantic ice fields and location of the stricken Titanic. Risking his own ship to the two-hundred-foot icebergs, Captain Rostron navigated through them to the compass position given. But the sea was empty of ships. One as large as the huge liner would surely be noticed.
But time had ran out. The Titanic was gone. A series of human errors had coalesced to compound its fate.
The Titanic was Gone
At 4am, on that icy dawn, a still, glassy sea lay scattered only with silent lifeboats. The mighty Titanic had sunk hours before and taken 1700 souls with it down to the icy, minus 2-degree depths of the North Atlantic.
Captain Rostron had prepared his ship for the rescue mission. But he could never prepare himself for the sight of the sad little boats with their dismal load of women and children, many in just nightdresses and ballgowns.
One by one his crew hauled the frozen silent survivors on board and bundled them to warmth in the ship’s lounge and dining areas. Hot soup and coffee gave some comfort but how could anything erase the grief of leaving one’s husband and teenage sons to a sinking ship in icy waters?
Grief and Loss
The 705 survivors of the sinking, mostly women and children, would never shed their grief. Long before PTSD was a well-known condition, these women surely were candidates for that long lasting mental trauma. They would forever live in the shadow of the Titanic.
Most were wealthy first-class women due to the class system of loading of the boats, but some by mere chance were second or even third class. The statistics speak for themselves; only 2.7 per cent of first-class women died, just 4, and 3 had opted to stay aboard, whereas15 per cent of second-class women died and in third class, 53 per cent died.
Most men did die, between 83 to 91 percent depending on class again. Interestingly, a higher percentage of British men died than any other nationality, possibly due to their chivalrous nature and politeness in queues.
Those who survived, either left in lifeboats to row the women, or clambered onto a boat after the sinking. A few men like Bruce Ismay had slipped through the cracks of the panic-led loading. Branded as cowards, they would live to regret their actions on that night.
Survivors Tell their Stories
Many, many refused to ever speak of the sinking again. They closed the book on the matter, but really the events of that night lay frozen in their souls forever.
Those few who responded to historian, Walter Lord, recalled the Titanic as an auditory, rather than visual memory. One by one they told Lord, the author of A Night to Remember of the roaring wail, the collective screams, the unbearable sound of 1700 people dying. Time does not erase this sound. Just a few years later soldiers from the Western Front would experience the same with the thunder of guns, and the screams of their comrades.
So, who were they, and what happened to these 705 survivors who by either fortune or misfortune, depending how you view it, managed to survive? Andrew Wilson in his book, The Shadow of the Titanic examines this question. As I own this book along with many other books on the Titanic, I can share some of his fascinating findings and showcase the lives of a few of the women survivors.
Widows, Young and Old
They were not all widows, but many were, the young and the old. Pepita Penasco, the new bride of wealthy eighteen-year-old Victor Penasco, farewelled her new husband to step aboard a lifeboat. Neither spoke English nor fully grasped what was going on. They were on an extended honeymoon. Later in the lifeboat, she screamed for him to no avail. His body was not recovered, posing a problem for the seventeen year old. In Spain, a person could not be declared dead without a body without waiting twenty years.
So eventually wanting to remarry, she arranged an unidentified corpse to be named as Victor, so she could move on from the tragedy. Pepita was well set financially, as Victor was the heir to his grandfather’s fortune.
Writer, May Futrelle lost her husband that night, the crime writer, Jaques Futrelle. The couple had left their children behind with grandparents to take a tour of Europe promoting his detective novels and discover background for their writing. His specialty was daring escape plots, but on the fateful night, he found himself in a plot with no escape.
May last saw her husband on deck lighting a cigarette with John Jacob Astor by his side. She kept him in her sight as the lifeboat was lowered and rowed away. Another young woman wailed beside her at the loss of her talented sculptor husband. May Futrelle forever honoured his talent and memory by promoting his books and finishing his uncompleted novel.
Madeleine Astor was just eighteen and the new and pregnant wife of Lord Astor the richest man in the world. She too was ushered unwillingly into a boat, reluctant to leave her husband. Read her story in the next section.
Wives Reluctant to Leave the Titanic
Many arguments broke out between couples. They wanted to stay together. Some only left their husbands for the sake of the children. The common encouragement being, ‘You go, dear and I’ll stay awhile.’
Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss, an older married couple, decided to stay onboard together and would die in the sinking. Many women not only had to leave their husbands, but their teenage sons. Young Jack Thayer was fortunate to survive the sinking and reunite with his mother Marion, but this was a rare event.
Imagine how these women, safe in lifeboats, felt watching as the giant liner reared its stern and sank before their eyes, knowing their family members were part of this. Out beyond the liner they were powerless to help all the 1700 in the water. Some rowed towards the sinking liner but most did not, fearful of being sucked under or swamped by desperate frozen swimmers. Yet the lifeboats were barely full, some only at third capacity. The Duff Gordons went down in history for their chilling selfishness as they bribed other passengers to not row towards the sinking liner to save people in the water.
Being a Widow In 1912
Onboard the Carpathia, widows wept and told those who tried to comfort them, ‘Go away, we have just seen our husbands drown.’ Apart from the sheer emotion of it, being a widow in 1912 was no easy matter. Husbands were the sole breadwinners back then and women of middle class did not work. Adding to this issue was the fact that many travellers had carried their life savings onboard the ship. They were starting anew in America and had brought their wealth with them. This was the days before international wire transfers of funds. Bodies found at sea had their suit pockets stuffed with cash.
Fortunately, the Red Cross would help those left penniless, but many widows had lost their will to live. Marion Thayer never recovered from losing her beloved fifty-year-old husband. She remained haunted by the vision of his body at the bottom of the ocean and died on the 14 April exactly 32 years after the disaster. Her son, Jack killed himself at the age of fifty, the same age as the father he left behind on the Titanic.
Renee Harris bravely tried to run her husband’s Hudson Theatre but ended up miserable and penniless. A second marriage failed and by 1940 she lived alone in a single room in a welfare hotel. When someone once commented on her luck at being saved, she replied that she had not been saved.
This was not an uncommon response from survivors. Many felt it would have been better if they have died along with their husbands and sons. Some suffered survivor’s guilt, others had no will to embrace life. They drifted along like ghosts, a shadow of their former selves. Young Constance Willard never married, never had children, never worked. She lived out her days in a mental institution where her only joy was caring for cats.
Young Madeleine Astor, the pregnant widow of fabulously wealthy John Jacob Astor seemed best suited to recover and move on from the tragedy. But did she? At least her husband’s body had been recovered and given a stately burial on land. His will left her well cared for by way of a $5 million trust fund, a Fifth Avenue apartment and $100,000 in cash, a lot of money in 1912. But there was a sting to it. She could only have it if she did not remarry. A dilemma for a young widow of eighteen.
After four years of playing the perfect widow, Madeleine again fell in love and decided to turn her back on her fortune to marry again. But by 1932 she had to escape this unhappy second marriage. On a trip to Europe on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, she met a young professional boxer, and he became her third husband. Ultimately, he used her and her money to advance himself at her expense. Her life, full of promise did not bring her any lasting happiness.
Child Survivors of the Titanic
Life after the Titanic was difficult emotionally and financially for widows. Was it any better for the child survivors?
Young Eva Hart, just seven at the time, was by 1992, one of the oldest survivors and the inspiration for the character in the Titanic film of 1998. Eva like other young survivors never married nor had a sexual relationship. She was the only surviving child of ten born to her mother, Esther. They had not died on the Titanic but previously as infants. If not for Esther, Ava would have died too.
Esther had misgivings about travelling on a ship dubbed ’unsinkable.’ It seemed to her to be flying in the face of God. She refused to sleep at night, convinced something would happen and it did. Wakeful, she roused young Eva and went up to the decks to be one of the first women to board a lifeboat. But their lives were forever haunted by the events of the night. They may have been better to have not survived without their husband and father, Benjamin Hart.
Little Douglas Spedden escaped the sinking in lifeboat 3 with both his parents and white mohair toy bear, Polar, as they were first class travellers. But just three years later Douglas was killed in a rare automobile accident leaving his shattered parents forever childless. Their story is told in Polar, the Titanic Bear written for Douglas by his mother, Daisy Spedden. A beautifully illustrated book, it was a favourite of my Titanic obsessed son when he was eight years old.
The Titanic Cast a Long Shadow
There are few happy stories to tell about the survivors. Those who did open up seemed to have unhappy lives, lives lived in the shadow of tragedy. It did not help that World War One broke out just two years later. From this event, more widows would emerge. This war cast another shadow over Titanic survivor’s lives. Twenty years later another war would erupt. It is no wonder those touched by the Titanic had issues moving forward in those challenging times.
Annie Robinson, a young stewardess on the Titanic was the first of ten survivors to commit suicide. Many others lived lives of mental trauma, going forward only as ghosts of their former selves. I will not go into the sad details of these but mention one interesting case. Frederick Fleet, the young man on watch that night hung himself. He must have suffered enormously feeling it was his fault for not sighting the iceberg sooner. But the binoculars were missing from the poop deck!
‘If only’ is a phrase that can be used over and over for this tragedy. So many human errors and human vices came to coalesce on that night, culminating in disaster. From my fascination with twentieth century history, it seems to me that the Titanic tragedy and the Spanish Flu were two events that book-ended the greater tragedy of the Great War. For these survivors where was no comfort in collective grief.
This leaves an opportunity for another topic, that of grief and trauma. Maybe another day. This article is sad enough! If you did enjoy this article, I have written another on the Titanic, Women of the Titanic, and include the disaster in my historical novel, Whispers Through Time.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.