Revisit Chilling Tales of Life and Death from the PEOPLE Archives on the 110th Anniversary of the Titanic's Sinking.
The lives of a variety of Titanic passengers were studied in the March 16, 1998 edition of PEOPLE, from Molly Brown to Captain E.J. Smith.
Editor's note: It's been 110 years since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, killing an estimated 1,500 passengers. "Sunken Dreams: Tales of Life and Death from a Night to Remember," which first appeared in the March 16, 1998 issue of PEOPLE, is being republished to commemorate the tragedy.
Witnesses claim the enormous ship sank with a small gasp. It was April 15, 1912, early in the morning, 700 miles east of Halifax, Canada.
The RMS Titanic had sideswiped an iceberg 2 1/2 hours earlier on her maiden journey from Southampton, England, to New York City, popping rivets and collapsing the hull's iron plates well below the waterline. The sea rushed in furiously, overwhelming one watertight compartment after another of the ship's apparently unsinkable hull until the bow was submerged and the tail rose tall against the dark sky. At 2:20, the ship sank entirely beneath the surface.
That's all there is to physics. But it was that night's human tragedy that drew the public's attention. Titanic took out with 2,200 passengers — billionaires, immigrants, 13 honeymoon couples, and an eight-piece band who played until the ship sank — and only enough lifeboats for almost half of them. Only 712 people were recovered in the end; the rest drowned or became stranded in the water.
"It was the largest ship in history, filled with celebrities of the time," says James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film Titanic, which has become the first film to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, has been nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards, and propelled actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into the rarefied realm of superstardom. "It'd be like crashing a jumbo plane filled with half of Hollywood's biggest stars into the Washington Monument."
Titanic's sinking, however, was not instantaneous, and catastrophic decisions were taken in her final minutes. A study into her real-life victims reveals tales of bravery as well as all-too-human flaws.
Mrs. J.J. Brown's tour of the Old World in 1912 was a huge hit. She traveled to Egypt to buy antiques, met John Jacob Astor, one of the world's wealthiest men, and paid a visit to her daughter, Catherine Ellen, in a Paris finishing school. Brown was fortunate enough, or so she felt, to book a ticket home on the finest ship afloat: Titanic, even after news of a sick relative cut short her visit.
The ship sank, but not the Molly Brown, or "Unsinkable" as she became known. Brown, dressed in a black velvet two-piece suit and carrying 24 women and two men in lifeboat No. 6 (capacity: 65), argued vehemently with Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who refused to return to the wreck site for fear of survivors in the sea swamping the boat. Brown taught the other women to row and shared her sable coat to keep warm in the severe weather.
Brown threatened to toss Hichens overboard after he rejected a flare emitted by an approaching ship as a "shooting star" (although not, as in the 1964 movie musical bearing her name, while waving a pistol). She took authority and told the women to row to safety.
Brown had once again proven her worth. Margaret Tobin was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1867, and traveled to Leadville, Colorado, at the age of 18 to find "employment and a rich spouse," according to her great-granddaughter Muffet Brown, a graphic artist in Los Gatos, Calif.
She married prospector James Brown, who was 13 years her senior, in 1886, seven years before he struck gold at the Little Jonny Mine and began amassing his $5 million fortune.
Molly, on the other hand, couldn't stand being cooped up in their Denver estate. Before divorcing James in 1909, she traveled to Europe frequently with her son Lawrence and learned numerous languages. Brown collected donations for needy survivors and pushed for women's suffrage after the ship sank (with 13 pairs of her shoes and a $325,000 the jewelry). Brown, who died in 1932 after a stroke, was most known for being the pluckiest of Edwardians. "It was just bad Brown luck," she claimed after the accident. "We can't be sunk.
When Astor asked an officer whether he might take one of the numerous empty seats in her lifeboat, he mentioned his wife's "delicate state," but the officer refused. Astor handled it with grace. He took a drag from his cigarette and handed his gloves to his wife. His partially crushed, soot-stained body was discovered floating in the Atlantic a few days later, with $2,500 in his pocket. Astor may have been struck by a collapsing chimney, according to experts.
Mrs. Astor, who remarried twice and died in 1940, rarely spoke of the tragedy in the years after, except to recollect her final memory: Kitty, on deck, pacing feverishly. John Jacob Astor V was the name she gave to her newborn son, a future playboy, on August 14, 1912.
CAPTAIN E.J. SMITH — The Titanic's Unsolved Mysteries
Smith was feted by rich New Yorkers at a luncheon in his honor four months before the sinking. He was known as "the millionaire's skipper" and was one of the most knowledgeable and pleasant shipmasters on the Atlantic route. So, why did Smith, in the middle of the night, navigate his fully loaded ship across a field of icebergs? The skipper took the answer to the bottom of the Atlantic with him, although he has no history of being reckless.
J. BRUCE ISMAY — He would be held accountable by history.
"People want someone to blame," says Michael Manser, whose great-uncle, the head of the Titanic's parent company, has assumed that role in most tales of the liner's final hours. No one will ever know whether Ismay, who drew the first Titanic plans on a dinner-party napkin, urged Captain Smith to fire up the engines to arrive in New York early for publicity's sake — as the film's Ismay does. What is certain is that the chairman, who was 49 at the time, fled in one of the last lifeboats, leaving a shipload of passengers, his butler, his secretary, and his reputation behind.
BENJAMIN GUGGENHEIM was a playboy who was resolved to die in style.
Guggenheim – entrepreneur, father of three, and known playboy — quietly returned to his stateroom with his valet and changed into his dinner suit after learning that the ship was sinking. After refusing a life jacket, Guggenheim, then 47, told a steward, "We've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." "Tell my wife in New York that I did my best to fulfil my responsibilities."
ISIDOR AND IDA STRAUS – They were inseparable in life, and they were inseparable in death.
Ida Straus turned down at least two chances to flee the sinking Titanic, preferring to die alongside her 41-year-old husband, a well-known philanthropist who owned Macy's department store. The couple's six children and numerous acquaintances were not surprised when they learned of their demise. "They wrote to each other every day when they were away," says Joan Adler, head of the Straus Historical Society. "She referred to him as my dear papa,' and he referred to her as my darling mama.'" They had even celebrated their birthdays on the same day for years.
DOUGLAS SPEDDENA — A youngster with a bear had his life cut short.
Douglas Spedden, 7 years old, saw life as one great, if often lonely, adventure. Frederick, who had inherited a banking fortune, and Daisy, a shipping heiress, spent much of the year with their only child traveling to exotic locations. Nothing, however, could have prepared Douglas for what awaited him as he boarded the Titanic with his parents, a maid, his nanny, and his dearest friend, a plush white bear named Polar.
The entire group left the ship in lifeboat No. 3 an hour after the Titanic hit the iceberg. As the Titanic sank, Douglas slept clutching Polar. The morning sun had illuminated the icebergs around them by the time he awoke.