Thanks to James Cameron and Leo DiCaprio, I’m sure there is a good portion of my generation that has maintained an interest in Titanic. And of course, the ship endures in our consciousness because humans are drawn to tragedy. Then there’s the fact that it was unsinkable but sank on its maiden voyage. As Walter Lord, author of A Night to Remember put it, Titanic is “the unsinkable subject.” Despite all we know about the ship, there is still plenty of interesting information that isn’t part of the public consciousness. Take these anecdotes and impress your friends! (Or make people say, “um, ok, can we talk about something else?”)
1. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
You’ve no doubt heard of Molly Brown, the brash woman who refused to go down with the ship (wonderfully played by Kathy Bates in Titanic.) Margaret Brown was very much a real woman but Molly Brown is a bit of a fabrication. She never went by Molly in her lifetime. In fact, the name didn’t come about until the 1960s with “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, a Broadway play and later a film starring Debbie Reynolds. She was outspoken, but not just in her own interests. After the tragedy, Margaret used her newfound fame to become an outspoken advocate for things she believed in: women’s rights, Titanic survivors, and education. She even helped rebuild parts of France that were especially devastated by World War I. She is much more than the “Molly Brown” character that has been created and is so prominent in Titanic lore.
2. Men that survived the disaster were chastised
The “women and children first” protocol was actually fairly new when Titanic went down. The first recorded instance of its use was in 1852 when the HMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. By 1912, it was thoroughly ingrained in Edwardian society. Initial reports of the sinking claimed that most of the survivors were women and children, with some newspapers reporting that only one man was saved from the wreck. In a strange show of masculinity, the disaster was being recognized as a victory for chivalry and Anglo male bravery. As more accurate reports of survivors came in, and survivors reached North America, it was realized that 338 men of the 1,667 on board survived. Those men were chastised, called cowards, and accused of taking spots in lifeboats from women and/or children. Newspapers ran headlines like, “Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon Safe and Sound While Women Go Down on Titanic.” This is indicative of the time but now it’s hard to imagine anyone being chastised for surviving a disaster.
3. Until the ship completely went down, a lot of passengers didn’t believe it would actually sink
I know, this sounds crazy…but it seems to be true. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is full of examples of people that did not realize that people went down with the ship until the following morning and people that gave valuables to loved ones still on the ship for safekeeping. Even those that remained on the ship as it was going down thought that they would be rescued before she sank completely (the nearest ship was four hours away, longer than it took the Titanic to sink.) Many thought that the ship could be towed to New York and the next morning, as news came in that it hit an iceberg, The Evening Sun reported that all on board had been saved.
4. A survivor starred in a silent film about the sinking
Less than a month after the sinking, in May 1912, Saved from the Titanic hit nickelodeons. The 10-minute silent film was the first dramatization of the disaster and starred Dorothy Gibson, an actress and survivor of the shipwreck. She was initially hesitant to take on the project, understandably so, but ultimately co-wrote and starred in it. In the film, she wore the same clothing she wore the night of the sinking: a white silk dress and black heels. It was Dorothy’s last film (she left the movie industry to become an opera singer) and she reportedly suffered a mental breakdown after its completion. Unfortunately, no copy of the film exists today. Aside from a few production stills, everything from the film was lost in a studio fire in 1914.
5. The White House Lost One of Their Own
On board Titanic was Archibald “Archie” Butt (real name, I swear.) Archie joined the military during the Spanish-American War and after the war’s end volunteered for service in the Philippines, where he was promoted to the rank of captain. He ended up in Cuba in 1908 and later became an aide to President Theodore Roosevelt. When President Taft took office the next year, he kept Archie on as an aide. He was well-respected by both presidents, often participated in Roosevelt’s famous escapades, and was considered President Taft’s closest aide.
In early 1912, Archie took a vacation in Europe with American artist Frank Millet (also killed in the disaster). To drive home how much the President trusted him and his position in the Taft administration, Taft himself arranged for Archie to meet the Pope and the King of Italy during his European “vacation.” When it came time to return to the US, Archie booked passage on the Titanic. When he arrived home, he was to return to work at the White House, helping with President Taft’s reelection campaign. Of course, Archie wouldn’t make it home. President Taft delivered tributes and eulogies at memorial services for Archie, once breaking down to the point that he could not continue. Of his aide/friend, he said, “Never did I know how much he was to me until he was gone.”
6. A survivor wrote a children’s book that was published in 1994
Yes, this book took nearly a century to publish. The author, Daisy Spedden, survived the shipwreck with her husband, Frederic, and young son, Douglas. Douglas had a small, stuffed polar bear that had been on board the Titanic with them (it also survived the wreck). In 1913, as a Christmas gift for her son, Daisy wrote a story about their trip to Europe and voyage on Titanic with the polar bear as the narrator. Sadly, Douglas died in 1915, Frederic died in 1947, and Daisy died in 1950. A relative of the Speddens, Leighton Coleman III, found the manuscript in a Louis Vuitton trunk her grandfather had stored in a barn. She contacted the Titanic Historical Society, which got in contact with Hugh Brewster, a Canadian author working on a book on Titanic. An illustrator created drawings true to Daisy’s own drawings and the book was published by Little, Brown, and Co in 1994.
Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster
100 Years Later: A Snapshot of Life on the Titanic from Time
Major Archibald Butt from Biography.com
Meet Molly Brown from the Molly Brown House Museum
Sinking of the Titanic: Primary Sources from the Enoch Pratt Free Library
Polar, The Titanic Bear