by Richard Bak
Copyright © 2011 Richard Bak, all rights reserved.
Originally published in Hour Detroit magazine (November 2011).

The drifting slab of ice rose maybe as high as the third or fourth floor of Henry Ford’s Model T plant, an iconic symbol of American promise that few of the passengers bound for Michigan would live to see. The liner steaming towards 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 twelve-year-old Ruth Becker, who was traveling in second class with her mother, Nellie, and two younger siblings. They were headed for Benton Harbor, 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.”

Today, 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 at 2:20 a.m. “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.”

For nearly a century the Titanic has been an unavoidable 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. 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 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. There is meticulous attention to detail.” Merchandisers’ favorite disaster will get more exposure with its centenary next year. Books, documentaries, recordings, games, exhibitions, auctions, and tributes on both sides of the Atlantic are in the works. The outpouring will include a worldwide 3D theatrical reissue of Cameron’s film as well as a joint U.S.-British television miniseries, both set for a April 2012 release.

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 shores 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 advisor 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.

To Kathleen Marcaccio of Royal Oak, it’s the tales of the more ordinary people aboard the Titanic that she finds most enthralling. “I was surprised at how many steerage passengers there were on a luxury liner,” said the history-minded information services technician, who saw the movie twenty times in the theatre 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 sixty-four passengers, most of them immigrants, were headed for destinations around the state, including twenty-nine 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. 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, a deck officer, 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 more than 15 tons. Each of its outside propellers measured almost 24 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, thirty-three, and her daughters, eight-year-old Winifred and two-year-old Phyllis. “My grandmother, Jane, was taking the family to Detroit, where her husband worked with a contractor,” said Troy resident Jeanette Happel. “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 thirty-three-year-old toolmaker who was terrified of the sea, finally gave in, his fears offset by the prospect of making a much better living in the booming Motor City. He packed up his tools and booked third-class passage for him, his wife Emily, and their nine-year-old son, Frank Jr., persuaded that the Titanic was the safest vessel afloat.

The storyline from that point on is all too familiar. On April 14, its fourth night out at sea, the Titanic—moving too fast for the conditions and 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 breeched. But on this starlit evening some four hundred 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 of 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., with most passengers readying for bed. Shortly after midnight, Captain Edward Smith ordered all lifeboats prepared for launch. The Bishops—a young, wealthy 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, and for the next hour or so deck officers had a difficult time convincing people to leave the warmth and perceived security of a luxury liner for an uncomfortable seat in an open lifeboat. “It was then almost impossible to get people to venture into them,” recalled Dickinson Bishop, a twenty-five-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, nineteen and 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 had reluctantly left behind a lap dog named Freu Freu, acquired while on honeymoon in Europe. “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. Two were smuggled onto lifeboats and the third was pulled from the water. The frantic Freu Freu, locked inside her owner’s stateroom, went down with the ship.

Although there were isolated episodes of cowardice and some panic toward the end, calm and the tradition of “women and children first” generally prevailed as the gravity of the situation gradually became apparent. 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 turned sixteen on April 14, proudly turning in his knickers for a pair of pants. When a crew member tried to put the undersize 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 sixteen wooden lifeboats had shoved off, most of them only partially filled. Left behind were more than fifteen hundred people, whose final minutes were viewed with a mixture of pity and helplessness by those rowing away in lifeboats, desperate to escape the expected suction when the ship went under. “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 told a documentary producer near the end of her life. “I can still hear them.” Those in lifeboats guiltily kept their distance, lest the overwhelming numbers of desperate human beings swamp those already saved. All those struggling in the twenty-eight-degree water had only a short while to live, though few actually drowned. Most succumbed to hypothermia. Children and the elderly were dead within a few minutes; the more physically fit lasted 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 macabrely on the lightly rippling surface.

The Cunard liner Carpathia, which raced at full speed for four hours through ice fields to answer the Titanic’s distress signals, reached the scene ninety minutes after it sank and began plucking the 706 half-frozen and badly shaken survivors out of lifeboats. Throughout Monday, the outside world received conflicting reports of what had happened. It wasn’t until that evening, as the overcrowded Carpathia headed for New York, that the sinking was confirmed. For concerned Detroiters, the local White Star Line unintentionally added to the confusion. The Great Lakes’ most successful passenger steamship company (its fleet included the famous sidewheel excursion boat Tashmoo) was unrelated to the British saltwater firm of the same name, but for days its office on Griswold received a steady stream of phone calls and telegrams inquiring about passengers on the Titanic.

Roughly one-third of all those on board survived. Over the next three days, word of who had been rescued and who was missing arrived in slow and piecemeal fashion. Anxiety and sorrow recognized no class distinctions, as an illustration in The Detroit News made clear. Under the title, “Waiting,” a society lady and an immigrant woman unaccustomedly clung to each other in shared grief. Gertrude Judd, whose stately home on Iroquois was the scene of “many elaborate social affairs,” fretted over the fate of her mother, Emma Bucknell, a regular visitor to Detroit. She was relieved to find that the fifty-nine-year-old widow of the founder of Bucknell University had made it safely into a lifeboat, taking her turn at the oars until her hands were blistered. Inside a modest apartment on East Columbia, seventy-year-old George Eitemiller was described as being “in a state of utter collapse.” The old man’s worst fears had been realized. His twenty-three-year-old son and namesake, an auto engineer returning from a trip to London, was lost. His body, if it was recovered, was never identified.

On Thursday evening, April 18, the survivors disembarked at a floodlit New York pier as thirty thousand people jostled in the rain and called out names. Fred Quick, anxious to find his wife, “gave the old whistle just like I used to whistle when we were sweethearts back in England.” Soon Jane Quick and daughters came running, and “I grabbed all three of them,” he said. The next day most boarded trains to their final destinations. A group arrived in Detroit “hysterical, sobbing and nerve-shattered, often too excited to talk coherently, and still shuddering from the horror of their memories,” observed the Detroit Free Press. Their number included “three Belgians, who left the old country to seek fortune in Detroit and almost lost their lives on the way [and] were sorrowing because of the 17 friends who went down into the depths.” The only unaffected one was an immigrant’s infant son, “whose one year of life prevents him, happily enough, from a knowledge of the meaning of it all.”

What was the meaning of it all? Many thought the world was getting too big for its britches, that there was a misplaced trust in technology. “It would seem that we have too much confidence in the ingenuity of man,” Detroit Mayor William B. Thompson said, “and too little faith in Providence.”  On Sunday every church held its own memorial service. The sermons carried such titles as “Lessons from the Loss of the Titanic” and “The Titanic and Its Message for Us.”

Amid the admonishments, the grim chore of recovering the dead continued. In all, 337 drifting bodies were found by specially chartered “death ships” and passing steamers, the last one almost two months after the sinking. Bodies in good enough shape to be preserved were embalmed on board and brought to Halifax, the center of the recovery effort. Social proprieties were observed to the end. First-class passengers were placed in coffins; others were put in canvas bags. The majority of those buried at sea were steerage passengers and crewmembers.

Thirty-seven people traveling to Michigan perished, but the bodies of only seven of them were recovered and identified. Three were buried at sea. One rests in an English graveyard. The remaining three lay at Fairview Lawn, the Halifax cemetery where most of the 150 unclaimed or unidentified victims were interred. One of the block granite stones in the Titanic section bears the name of steerage passenger Achille Waelens, a twenty-two-year-old unmarried farm hand from Ruiselede, Belgium.

“My father settled in Ithaca in 1903, when he was about fourteen,” says Waelens’s nephew, Bernie Waelens, an 82-year-old Warren resident. “The story is that my dad sent his brother Achille twenty-five dollars to join him in Michigan.” A bank draft for that amount, along with a watch, pipe, and knife, were found in the pockets of Achille’s new suit when his body was pulled out of the Atlantic.

Several years ago, Waelens made the long drive to Nova Scotia, curious about the lost young man his father rarely spoke about. He was moved by the calm and apple-pie order of the cemetery, so much at odds with what he imagines his ancestor’s desperate last moments were like. “I never met my Uncle Achille,” he says. “My father had no picture of him. But he was my dad’s twin brother, so I guess I know what he looked like.”

In New York, a Congressional inquiry began the morning after the Carpathia docked. Senator William Alden Smith grilled White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay, who was vilified in the American press for leaving the sinking liner in a half-filled lifeboat. The British press ridiculed the U. S. senator from Michigan, an erstwhile farm boy with little knowledge of nautical matters, as “Watertight Smith” for his insistence that witnesses discuss technical points in layman’s terms, but the simplified testimony had the desired effect of educating the public about overdue maritime reforms. Laws were quickly enacted requiring every ocean-going passenger vessel to carry enough lifeboats for every person aboard, maintain a twenty-four-hour radio watch, and conduct regular lifesaving drills. An ice patrol service, the forerunner to the U. S. Coast Guard, was established.

Survivors had no choice but to try and put the tragedy behind them. The official British investigation was a whitewash, absolving the White Star Line of blame and thus limiting their liability. By and large, passengers were dependent on the kindness of friends, relatives, and private charities to help rebuild their lives. Some took to the stage in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and elsewhere, capitalizing on their fleeting celebrity to earn a few dollars. Jane Quick was one. “My grandmother would go on stage and tell her story,” Happel says. “She’d bring out her kids. It became too much, re-living the experience over and over. She told me she did it long enough to pay for her furniture, and then she quit.”

As their lives played out over the coming years, many survivors suffered emotionally from what today would be recognized as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Haunted by nightmares and flashbacks, some refused to ever set foot on a boat or go swimming again. Frank Goldsmith Jr., whose family settled in Corktown, never attended a ballgame at Navin Field. The cheering from the nearby ballpark, which opened just five days after the sinking, reminded him too much of the cacophonic shouts of the dying. Few spoke openly of their experiences. Nellie Becker screamed and cried whenever the tragedy was brought up in her presence, leading her to become permanently estranged from her youngest daughter. Two Detroiters who had been youngsters on the Titanic committed suicide. A few days before Christmas 1951, forty-eight-year-old John Davies—an English immigrant who had moved from Calumet to Detroit during World War II—poisoned himself at his home on Kendall. In March 1954, Happel’s aunt—now Phyllis Quick Murphy and the forty-five-year-old mother of four—shot herself in the head inside her house on Marlborough. Both victims were having marital problems. To what extent trauma or depression associated with the Titanic contributed to their troubled state of mind is impossible to determine.

Even the wealthy and well-connected Bishops couldn’t escape post-Titanic contretemps. The child Helen was carrying died two days after delivery, and then she was in a near-fatal car accident near Kalamazoo that left her with a plate in her head and a radically changed personality. Dickinson divorced her and remarried on March 14, 1916; the following day, twenty-three-year-old Helen died during emergency brain surgery. Until his own death in 1961, Dickinson was hounded by rumors that he had disguised himself as a woman in order to flee the liner.

In 1985, a U.S.-French expedition led by Robert Ballard discovered the broken liner on the ocean floor about a thousand miles due east of Boston. By then, decomposition and marine life had taken care of any human remains, including bones, while iron-consuming microbes were steadily eating away the hull. “It was front-page news around the world,” Kathleen Marcaccio remembers. “This was an amazing discovery. It put the Titanic back in the headlines again for the first time since its sinking.”

The liner’s discovery, and the controversial retrieval of thousands of artifacts that followed, focused renewed attention on the handful of survivors still alive at the time, including a retired Vernor’s delivery driver named Michael Joseph. In 1912, Joseph was returning to Detroit from Lebanon with his mother and two-year-old sister. In the confusion surrounding the launching of the last few lifeboats, the four-year-old boy lost his grip on his mother’s skirt and became separated. With the ship just minutes from sinking, a man grabbed the youngster’s hand and led him to a lifeboat. He was reunited with his family on the Carpathia. Back in Detroit, he was nicknamed “Ty”—but not after the Tigers’ famous centerfielder, Ty Cobb, as other boys of the era were. Joseph, who always referred to his unknown savior as “my guardian angel,” married and raised a family before dying in 1991. At Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township, he is commemorated with one of the most impressive monuments of any survivor: a seven-foot-high black granite slab dominated by a detailed etching of the Titanic.

The last Michigan survivor of the Titanic was Happel’s mother. Winifred Quick van Tongerloo died July 4, 2002, in East Lansing. She was ninety-eight and had outlived all but three others from that awful night. (The final survivor, ninety-seven-year-old Millvina Dean, who as a three-month-old had been the youngest person aboard the liner, died in England in 2009.) According to Happel, her mother never could fathom the world’s fascination with a distant event that had caused so much heartache.  “She used to say, ‘I don’t understand it. There have been so many other disasters since then. Why doesn’t it just go away?’”

For Happel, at least, there has been no evading the subject. The retired accounting clerk recalls the job interview she had with her last employer, a funeral home director in Warren. In the course of their conversation, the man mentioned how much he admired his recently deceased grandfather, who had come to Detroit as a boy in the early 1900s and persevered through an unfathomable series of tragedies. The nuns who educated the orphaned youngster called him a “miracle child” because prior to losing his little sister to a house fire in 1914, his mother to tuberculosis in 1915, and his father in 1920, Michael “Ty” Joseph had barely made it off of the Titanic.

A chill ran through Happel. “My God,” she blurted out. “My mother was on the Titanic.”

“Then I did something that you’re never supposed to do in a job interview,” she says, sheepishly. “I went over and put my hand on his shoulder.” Happel was hired on the spot. “I was just so overwhelmed with emotion,” she explains. “The Titanic can bring out those feelings.”

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