5 heroic and heartbreaking stories of people who died on the Titanic (1912)

5 Heroic and heartbreaking stories of people who died on the Titanic (1912)

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Tales of courage (and cowardice) about people who died on the Titanic fascinate us to this day. Here is an old newspaper article published just a week after the Titanic sank, discussing some of the ship’s higher-profile losses.

Please note: As you read this historical piece, please recognize that journalistic standards of that time often led to a blend of fact and embellishment.

In the rush to capture the shock and tragedy of the event, some reporters added sensational details or relied on biased or second-hand narratives that were not fact-checked and may not align with historical accuracy. While this article provides an intriguing snapshot of public sentiment at the time, it may not reflect a precise recounting of events.

For a more accurate understanding of the Titanic disaster, readers are encouraged to consult modern resources. Research conducted in the intervening years, aided by advancements in technology and analysis, has led to a more nuanced and precise picture of the events of that fateful night. This article is best enjoyed as a historical artifact, appreciating the context and perspective of its time.

April 21, 1912: Mistress of ocean was conquered by master of the sea

Beneath words “Titanic sank” is the tale of a tragedy that gave birth to heroism and cowardice

Greatest of leviathans went to oblivion in 100 minutes

By Gordon MacKay – The Washington Times (Washington DC) April 21, 1912

Adorned in the finery fitting to become a bride of Neptune, and dressed in all the conventional frippery that custom requires when a mistress of the ocean sails forth to be welcomed by the master of the sea, the White Star liner Titanic swung out of the harbor of Southampton on Thursday, April 11.

It was her maiden trip. The Titanic lost none of the usual honors such as sisters of the deep pay to their latest queen. Whistles tooted a godspeed, the minor craft in the harbor mingled their staccato shrieks, and the Titanic’s whistles boomed their thunderous acknowledgment as the maiden trip began.

Twenty-three hundred persons, representing every shade of social condition, touching the depths of poverty and mounting the heights of mllllonairedom, were aboard the splendid leviathan as she swung proudly and sure-footed out of the narrows and on her way across the deep.

One week later, 705 persons landed at pier 54 of the Cunard line, New York. On their faces were the lines of tragic sorrow; their nerves were frayed by a terror that had left most of them shattered and helpless; on their lips the story of the greatest sea tragedy in maritime history, a tragedy that committed the great Titanic to historical oblivion.

The Titanic
Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic sunk

Heroism and cowardice

Into the history of those who go down to the sea in ships is this catastrophe writ large. Beneath those two words, “Titanic sank,” is the tale of a tragedy that gave birth instantly to heroism and cowardice; to manly action and to knave-like conduct; to deeds of womanhood that were wonderful and stand forth in a heroic light, and deeds of men that showed the craven, painted into colors that will always stand for time to keep as a heritage of hate.

One hour and forty minutes was the time in which this disaster was staged. Into those few brief, fleeting moments were crowded stories that will live forever, and tales that can never die.

To relate them in detail is the work of a historian; to set them forth in simplicity is the necessity of a laborer.

To those 705 survivors, comprehending every type of ocean traveler, the name of Newfoundland must stand with a significance that will cause a shudder to shiver its way over them when they hear the name of that country spoken.

For 1,000 miles away from the famous Grand Banks, the Titanic found her grave. A giant iceberg, relic of the great icecap that barricades Greenland from the essential invasion of summer, swept away from its moorings. Moving slowly along in that majestic fashion typical of giants of the seas, the tremendous bulk of ice reached a spot 41.10 north latitude.

With majestic sweep

Moving with that majestic sweep, the Titanic was churning her way through the waters. The spume that she tossed up, as she kicked her bridal heels in glee of conquest, fell away, sparkling in the moonlight. It was a glorious night.

The stars studded heavens that were bathed in the mellow moonlight. Each gem of the celestial system seemed to be a crystal. The moon was clear, without a single blemish of cloud or haze. The Titanic, plowing along with First Officer Murdoch on the bridge, looked like some great giantess, her black sides standing forth in startling relief against the beauty of the night.

On board the great ship was a scene such as wealth and position lends to any place. Into the grand saloon of the Titanic, the common ground of which maritime society seeks its common level, had gathered the beauty, the wealth, the elect and elite, as well as some of the chivalry of those who formed the population of that floating village.

Finance lent the name of a Guggenheim and an Astor to give hallmark to that phase of the Titanic’s trip. Literature loaned Stead and Futrelle. One a veteran publicist and journalist, known and respected for forty years; the other, a youngster in the fertile fields to which he had escaped after hum-drumming in a newspaper, and in which he was steadily mounting the ladder of success. There was a national character to the assemblage, for Major Archibald Willingham Butt, aid to President Taft, was returning to America from Rome, where he had been commissioned with a message to he delivered at the Vatican.

England’s coronets found a representative in Lord Cosmo Gordon, who, with his wife, Lady Duff Gordon, was returning to America after a Parisian trip.

Isidor Straus, one of the greatest philanthropists and merchant princes of the era, was aboard, and with him was Mrs Straus.

People who died on the Titanic: Mr & Mrs Isador Straus
People who died on the Titanic: Isidor and Ida Straus

Saloon a gay scene

Within the saloon, there was such a scene as society always given to her fetes. Jewels worth a king’s ransom flashed from women who seemed carved of marble.

The hair of the daughters of wealth seemed to be alive, us the lights brought forth the sparkle of the gems that they wore in the coiffures. Huge ropes of pearls that formed a priceless collar for necks that rivaled the swan’s. In their contour were seen, smashing for the nonce the ever-brilliant sparkle of diamonds, diamonds, and more diamonds.

Twenty million dollars’ worth of wealth flashed and sparkled and shimmered and shone in that saloon, while women, fair and beautiful, saw languidly in that great surcease from care and trouble, the handsomely appointed chairs of an ocean liner.

Society was disporting itself in its varied ways and according to its varied moods. The orchestra was playing its usual nocturnal concert, the strains running all musical gamuts, from the lilting “rag” to the exquisite sonata. Society listened either in languid interest or passionate devotion to the God of Harmony.

Not all the concourse that made that saloon a living, vital thing dallied with either the music or wooed the muses.

Small tables, covered with the badge of the game, the green baize, were scattered at convenient distance from one another. Here the evening-clothed millionaire played bridge and matched his cards and his science against the twin factors possessed by the traveling man with a bankroll or one of his own set who was endeavoring, too, to find a satisfactory pastime — one that held financial interest as well as individual pleasure.

Women, too, women whose names adorn the social register of the elect, took their hazard in the inevitable game of bridge whist. They played with all the zest and zeal of typical and inordinate gamesters, and the scenes around these tables, where the players quietly and studiously employed their time in the game, were in marked contrast to those about.

Care and trouble banished

Care and trouble had been banished by the two handmaidens of frivolity, music and game. Those to whom age meant a respite from these things that bear the mark of social requirement and necessity left the saloon for their staterooms within a reasonable hour.

The great drawing room of the liner was thinning in its ranks, and by 11 o’clock, only those who were devoted music or immersed in the game, with a scattering of the idle loungers, still stayed in the vast room. The orchestra was winding up its portion of the collective entertainment, and was preparing to give the instruments to the custody of their cases.

That was the scene in the saloon when the Titanic was almost at 41.10 north latitude.

Aboard ship, where those in whose safety and keeping had been entrusted the lives of those on board, there were the usual scenes. Captain Edward J Smith, commander of the Titanic and commodore of the White Star fleet, was below engrossed in conversation with some of those whose names spelled wealth, fame, and fortune. The first officer, Murdoch, a clean-shaven, upstanding young Briton, was on the bridge, the subaltern who was in direct, though not active, command of the ship.

People who died on the Titanic: Captain Edward J Smith, commander of the Titanic
People who died on the Titanic: Captain Edward J Smith, commander of the Titanic

In the crow’s nest, where the lookout is stationed to peer straight ahead and to watch on every hand to see what’s dead ahead, a young Englishman whose name has perished, top, was stationed, fulfilling his part of the duty that goes to each and every man aboard ship. The petty officers, whose stations were at various points of the ship, were on duty.

Above the beautiful heavens, sparkling in their celestial light, below the emerald and turquoise waters, this was the setting for one of the worst disasters that man records since time began.

This is not the story that will deal with either hypothesis or analysis. It will deal with facts as they stand correlated to the tragedy of sea.

The Titanic was steaming along at a rate of twenty-three knots at this time when the pall of tragedy begins to sink over the life of vessel and the existence of 1595 souls, those who gave to the seats their tithe of conquest.

Three sharp bells

At the very moment when secure in their belief that everything was happy as the marriage bell, three sharp jangles burst on the night air. They came from the man in the crow’s nest bridge, and they meant only one thing. In a fog, it would have horrified one’s soul and deadened one’s thoughts. It was the signal “something dead ahead.”

The man in the crow’s nest saw this huge monster that arose from the deep in front of his beautiful ship. He grabbed the telephone, and rang with all fury to the man on the bridge. “Something dead ahead,” was his terse information, that showed its value in the three tinkles of that bell.

Hardly had the last tinkle died away when there was a crash. The iceberg, formed of thousands of tons of the welded water stood against the assault of the Titanic-like Gibraltar assailed by a mauser gun. The vessel cast itself at this mountain of pallid death, driven forward by the lessened power of her great engines. The monster of the North never felt the shock. The ice giant threw back the Titanic into the waters again, her bow bent and crumpled beneath the staggering violence of the blow.

As the impact of collision hurled the Titanic about, the iceberg battered at her side. The huge arm of ice tore a great hole that stripped the steamer from bow to midship, and allowed the rushing waters to billow unrestrained over her.

This was in 11.10 North latitude, the place where the Mistress of the Ocean met the Monster of the Seas.

DON’T MISS: 1,492 go down to their death in loss of Titanic

The instant the ship struck its maritime foe, Captain Smith took command of his vessel. He leaped to his commander’s place on the bridge and megaphone in hand, bellowed his orders. Forty-three years of service on the sea had given to the hoary-headed captain a dignity and official presence that awed.

1. People who died on the Titanic: Captain Edward John Smith

Commander at ease

Never did the commander seem more at case than with the stress of death upon him. Well, he knew the answer to this collision even if fate held the scales to free the passengers, and save their lives.

It meant that Edward J Smith, known and loved in maritime circles, had sailed his last voyage as commander of a vessel, for he had been in a collision at sea. Not the laws of the Medes and the Persians are more inexorable than the laws of the seas, and the captain knew.

But if thoughts like these were running riot through his mind, he gave no outward or visible sign. With that ease that born power gives to a person, he took command of the ship and the situation.

“Officers, to your posts,” bellowed that aged voice through the mega phone. “Send down the ship’s carpenter to sound ship,” was his next order.

The carpenter of the ship went down into the bowels of that great leviathan. He never returned, meeting death like a rat in a trap, overwhelmed in the waters that poured into the vessel.

It required less time almost than it takes to tell these incidents to pave the way for, the loss of a noble ship and 1,595 lives.

The passengers retained their calm in a wonderful manner. Many of them were asleep or had retired for the night when the crash came. To many, the shock was slight; to others, it sounded as if the ship was groaning in its death throes as the impact of the collision caused her to shudder from stem to stern.

Immediately after the crash, the officers took their stations. Stewards, the non-combatants of the sea, went among the passengers, calming their fears and deprecating the presence of immediate danger. This had the effect of steadying the frayed nerves of the passengers, those whose nervous systems were more capable of being worried and troubled.

2. People who died on the Titanic: William T Stead

Flirted with death

But not all of those aboard needed this reassurance. Many flirted with death, others joked at its presence; others worshiped at the shrine of mammon and reviled and scoffed nature and her emissaries of disaster. So impressed were the officers and men that the Titanic could not be sunk from external foe that they had impressed this deep-seated conviction on the majority of those aboard.

MORE: RMS Titanic news: These first stories of the sinking disaster dated April 15, 1912 were wildly inaccurate

People who died on the Titanic: William T Stead
People who died on the Titanic: William T Stead, whose faith that ship could not sink was unwavering

This made the task of reassurance doubly easy. Men like William T Stead, the famous English journalist, came to the deck, heard the story of the collision, and then with sublime confidence in the Titanic, retired again. Stead went below with the calm sententious comment: “I think I’ll retire; we’ll be all right in the morning.”

He never awakened on this earth again, nor was he seen by his fellow passengers after his senile footsteps wandered down the companionway.

Once the captain’s command breathed the spirit of confidence, women and children seemed to have been eased in their minds. The women rushed to the deck, escorted by their husbands or the male relatives aboard. Many of these were in a state of dishabille; in their first rush for the upper deck, they had forgotten the conventional attire for such a visit in the stress of conditions. However, once they reached the deck and they were assured that not the slightest danger existed, the women began to make a hasty toilet.

ALSO SEE: How I was saved from the Titanic: A Titanic survivor’s story (1912)

With the water pouring into the wounded leviathan, and the mastodon of the deep, lying in the sea on her injured side, the spectacle of maids dressing the hair of their mistresses amid such scenes was one calculated to awaken the risibilities.

Women got wraps

Women in whom the eternal feminine could not be denied, even in the face of disaster, went below again and hurried into outside wraps and came to deck again clad for any emergency. Meanwhile, the unconscious sneering at death went on apace. This had been stimulated and fathered by the entire official list of the Titanic, who believed in the slogan themselves and were not guilty of conscious falsehood when they imparted their own beliefs to the passengers.

Captain Smith’s one fetish had been the unsinkability of the Titanic, a fetish that was to demand an awful sacrifice later to prove that when nature collides with man, that the mere human is bound to inevitable defeat. His optimism about his ship had been reflected so often that its light had shone in the feelings and thoughts of the passengers.

The timid, those whose timorous souls rebelled against such smirk complacency and such man-made confidence, wanted to leave in the boats at once. They refused to be lulled into a sense of false security by the oft-repeated mouthings that the boat could not sink. They preferred to seek safety first and to prove contentions afterward.

All this happened in the space of a few minutes. It required but five minutes to bring all the passengers to a knowledge of the collision, and while there were a few hardy souls, like Stead, who went to sleep again, there were thousands awake and on the alert.

Five minutes after the vessel had encountered her frozen foe, the officers saw that all their vaunted heroics about the conquest of nature had been the veriest sophistries, for the vessel was doomed, and the trained eye of the sailor men knew that fact.

Captain Smith, who was living through his valedictory to life and the sea, recognized there was danger. Calmly, and heroically, he shouted his order: “Lower away the boats, men; Remember you are British.”

This was the ember that sprang into life, fanned by the breeze of fear, frenzy. Where calm had stood before, panic now was stalking, The men in the passenger list, the men to whose heroic deed the safety of hundreds is due, saw the danger and the necessity for action, too.

The gallant Butt, the millionaire Astor, the heroic Widener, the brave and courageous Straus. These men lent their aid to the officers aboard the ship. They saved the situation and turned rout and riot into calm and quiet.

Once the command to lower the boats was given, and the passengers felt that doom had clasped them, the men to man the boats sprang to their positions, the officers standing in command. That was a sinister spectacle — the presence of those officers. In their hands gleamed the barrel of a long-nosed pistol, the mute warning to the cowardly that any attempt to violate the law of the sea, that the women and children should be saved first, only meant a postponement of death for the time.

DON’T MISS: Titanic survivors tell how they made it off the doomed ship

The passengers were grouped together, according to the deck where their staterooms were situated. Not all the women aboard had gathered in huddled groups at the davits that clutched those long boats of safety and succor. Many women, satisfied that the Titanic could withstand any bruising of sea or its dangers had remained below — and never came back again.

3. People who died on the Titanic: John Jacob Astor

Sublime heroism displayed

As fast as the women came to the decks, the boats were lowered away. Some of those big lifeboats that could carry from thirty to fifty persons were lowered into the grasp of the water half-filled, and with seats emptied that might have meant numerous lives saved if false security had not aided the collision in the work of garnering a harvest for death.

The scenes attendant on the rescue work have been given to a world to applaud the sublime heroism and devotion to ideals of manhood that the incomparable Butt, Astor, Straus, Futrelle, and Widener and Thayer lent to this harrowing, tale of tragedy.

Mrs Astor, soon to become a mother, was tenderly escorted by her husband to the deck. Twice she refused to leave, and twice he was forced to push her gently but forcibly into the craft that spelled life and the crowning achievement of motherhood for this dainty bride.

Titanic survivor: Madeleine Talmage Astor
Madeleine Talmage Astor and her husband, John Jacob Astor, were honeymooning when disaster struck

Tenfold more harrowing was the case of this girl-wife, for this terrible curtain had closed down on her honeymoon and blotted its sweetness from her life forever.

Mrs Astor tried in vain to importune her husband to seek safety with her. The colonel, the man who has pitted his strength and cunning against the seas as master of his own craft, who has given to history a life filled with adventure and crowned by a heroic death, would not obey.

He knew well that Fate held the scales against his escape. But with that desire to treasure his wife, the head of the house of Astor said, “I will be with you tomorrow, dear, when you return to the ship.” And despite the tears and the petitions of his child bride, Astor remained behind to help the work of rescue among the remaining women and children.

Keen to keep his wife from dwelling on danger, he kissed her goodbye, saying that he would be awake to assist her to the Titanic when she boarded in the morning.

4. People who died on the Titanic: Isidor and Ida Staus

Kiss a last goodbye

That caress which he gave, received as a husbandly offering, was the earthly goodbye of John Jacob Astor to the wife he adored.

Carved into a niche of undying fame are the names of Mr and Mrs Isidor Straus. When the rush for the boats came, the Strauses went on deck and took their accustomed places with the passengers who were to seek the lifeboat assigned to that section of the ship. Straus sent his wife away, but refused to go himself, even though there was a seat left in that craft. He pulled a woman from out of the other groups, and with a courtly bow, said: “Madam, there is a seat for you.”

Four times Mrs Straus was placed in the lifeboat, and four times she crept back to the ship and the shelter of her husband’s protecting arms. He begged her to save herself, but it was in vain. He implored her to seek the lifeboat. But she turned an adamant ear to his appeals.

And then, with a glorious self-sacrifice that placed her name among the heroines of time, Mrs Straus placed her arms about her husband’s neck. “I will not go,” she said, “I have lived with you long enough to be able to die with you.” And with arms wrapped about each other’s neck, their lips together and their hearts beating in the unison of a union that even death could not sever or shatter, they sank together and died in the seas.

Across the vista of horror there comes to Americans a pride in the possession of two other heroes, whose names are writ in letters of gold in the story of the foundering of the Titanic. When the time came for those who were to be saved to leave the Titanic, the family of George E Widener was in the group of those who were in the third lifeboat to no lowered. Mr Widener was with his family. It comprised his wife and son, Harry Elkins Widener, a manly youth, who died with his father that his mother and some women might be saved.

People who died on the Titanic: Harry Elkins Widener
People who died on the Titanic: Harry Elkins Widener

5. People who died on the Titanic: Harry Elkins Widener, who perished with his father, George E Widener

Placed wife in boat

Widener placed his wife in the lifeboat and started for the rail, where stood Butt and Astor, flanking First Officer Murdoch, to preserve order by the strength of their own personal example and moral courage.

Mrs Widener implored that her husband be allowed to take an empty seat in the boat, which was ready to put off from the ship. Widener was forced twice to enter the boat and calm his wife, whose hysteria born of fear and separation from her kin had made her tremble on the verge of madness.

As he swung out of the lifeboat after comforting his wife, he espied a woman with a child, standing, dry-eyed and terror-stricken apart from a group of women. In a bound, he leaped to the side of the woman, snatched the child from her arms, took both to the life boat, swung the woman in a seat and then handed her child to her.

He kissed his wife goodbye again. The lifeboat pushed off from the Titanic, and the last sounds that Mrs Widener hears from those she loved was a cheery, “Goodbye, mother — Father and I will see you in the morning.” This from her son, Harry, a youthful hero, who met his death bravely and unflinchingly by the side of his idolized father.

People who died on the Titanic, by the numbers

Total number of Titanic passengers: 2,223
Total number of Titanic guests: 1,324
Total number of Titanic crew: 899

1st class deaths: 130
2nd class deaths: 166
3rd class deaths: 536
Crew deaths: 685
Total deaths: 1,517

Male deaths: 1,347
Female deaths: 103 
Child deaths: 53

Titanic survivors: 706

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Comments on this story

6 Responses

  1. That manly youth Harry Widener was a heroic gay man. At the age of 27 he was still unmarried and devoted to his mother. They came from one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families and Harry, after school at Harvard, was able to indulge his hobby of book buying and collecting costume prints. He was returning from a book buying tour of London. In his elegant evening suit, he cut a fine figure following the chivalric code of a gentleman as he faced death though evidence suggests he didn’t really think the ship would sink until late on. A young man to be greatly admired.

    1. Harry was a Harvard man through and through. He was said to have insisted on having freshly cut carnations dyed crimson every day to show his love of his school. His favourite book was “Treasure Island” and his book collections are now at the heart of the Harry Elkins Widener Library at Harvard endowed and laid out as a memorial to her dead son by his grieving mother. Everything about him was of the finest. His portrait in the memorial room to him shows a sensitive soul.

      1. Harry Widener could afford the finest of everything. He was fastidious about his the colour of his freshly arranged carnations, the cut of his impeccable suits, his severely neat haircut and the condition of his books. His family indulged his extravagant tastes and encouraged his book collecting. He was spoiled in so far as he got everything he wanted. Yet there is something shy and sensitive about him in his haunting portrait and photographs. There is something endearing about his love of “Treasure Island”, boyish even, and his devotion to Harvard. And the grief of his mother makes it hard not to think of him as a boy and then a young man whose life was cut all too short.

  2. It seems likely that Harry Widener was on the spectrum. He was obsessive about his collecting, his surroundings, his clothes, the colour of his flowers and his continual reading and rereading of his favourite book. Rituals and the security of the familiar seem to have been important to him. His shyness and closeness to his mother bear this out. Such vulnerability in this young man, as shown in his portrait, makes his death even more poignant.

    1. There were more male survivors because there were VASTLY more men aboard than women. The percentages for survivors were still in favor of the women.

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