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Titanic: Life, death aboard the ship that sank 100 years ago today

April 15, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • Charles Lightoller, left, was among Titanic survivors. At right is a detail from a page in the Titanic Album showing the only photograph ever taken of the radio room.
Charles Lightoller, left, was among Titanic survivors. At right is a detail… (Collection of Stanley and…)

The legend of the Titanic disaster has been plumbed, plundered and presented in 3-D, but the ship that famously sank 100 years ago today in the North Atlantic has shown remarkable tenacity in its grip on popular imagination.

Some argue about what keeps the tale of the Titanic sailing. Is it the money? The 1997 movie, James Cameron's film, depicting the interrupted journey of the British passenger liner from Southampton, England, to New York, certainly had something to do with it. "Titanic" burned dramatic images into the collective conscience.

But it's the real-life stories that seem indelible -- hundreds of tales of heroes, survivors, anguish and lost love.

It's no wonder the tragedy remains so vivid a century later. Years from now, the stories of April 14, 1912, will likely still be told.

Life or death? For them, a clear choice

The Titanic was an RMS -- a Royal Mail Ship. The ship's cargo of mail was considered precious. But was it worth dying for? On April 15, five men had to decide.

The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum tells the story of the three Americans and two Britons who served as postal workers aboard the Titanic. Americans Oscar Scott Woody, John Starr March and William Logan Gwinn and British colleagues James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith were experienced and greatly respected -- the cream of the Sea Post Service crop. Working on this maiden voyage of the Titanic was a coup, a high point in an era that itself was the high point of the service.

More than 3,000 mailbags filled with transatlantic mail were aboard the Titanic. While the ship was underway the clerks worked at sorting the mail for New York and other U.S. destinations.

The room on the Titanic where the five worked was a cut above the usual shipboard workspace. In most ships, such post offices where the men toiled over the course of a voyage were often cramped and stuffy. By comparison, theirs was posh.

But the men didn't like their third-class accommodations with "low class Continentals," the Smithsonian site says. Postal officials agreed to move them away from the noise and “instrumental music” of those of lesser means, and they were given a private area in which to dine.

On April 14, 1912, Woody and his colleagues were at the stern of the Titanic celebrating his 44th birthday, which was the following day, according to a fellow Freemason. But the party was interrupted when the ship hit an iceberg.

That night, as the Titanic sank, all five men struggled to save the mail, focusing on 200 bags that they attempted to drag from G Deck to C Deck.

Steward Albert Theissinger was helping them. He gave up to save his own life, but they did not. The last time he saw the men they were up to their waists in frigid water. Theissenger said: "I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued."

All five perished.

It took a century, but Titanic Album surfaces

Francis Patrick Mary Browne was one of the lucky few to disembark from the Titanic. The 32-year-old Jesuit priest in training was one of eight passengers who got off the ship at Cobh, Ireland, on April 11.  And with him he carted away a treasure: photographs he'd taken of the maiden voyage of a ship that four days later would be at the bottom of the sea.

The pictures taken by the man who went on to become Father Browne appeared in newspapers and journals following the Titanic disaster, as well as "virtually every book published about Titanic ever since," according to the Irish Times.

They are the only photos of the voyage of the ship that have emerged in 100 years. Browne in 1920 assembled 159 of his Titanic photos into a personal album, which came to be known as the Titanic Album.

Browne put the album together, adding his own handwritten captions, Edwin Davison told The Times in an interview Friday.

Davison and his father, owners of Dublin-based commercial photography company Davison & Associates, set out on a mission nearly 25 years ago to duplicate Father Browne's pictures, including those from the Titanic as well as thousands of others the prolific photographer priest snapped over the course of his lifetime.

This Titanic Album "is not for public display," Davison said. It has been held in a bank vault in Dublin, "one of the absolute prize possessions" of the Irish Jesuit order. Davison obtained the order's OK to bring the album to the U.S. for the first time, coinciding with the centennial of the ship's sinking. It's on display at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., now through April 22.

Browne's Titanic photos -- which were on crumbling and flammable cellulose nitrate film -- include the final known image of Capt. Edward Smith, the last time the ship's anchor was hauled in and the only picture of the radio room, called the Marconi Room.

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