True Stories from the Titanic

Curious Chapbooks & Hysterical Histories

SHE WAS THE GRANDEST SHIP EVER BUILT. But when the RMS Titanic went down, one age ended and another began. Read the real stories of her most famous passengers. Some survived; some didn't. But they all went down in history together. Preview this powerful chapbook by Sally Sams below.

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Colonel and Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV

Margaret Tobin "Molly" Brown

Benjamin Guggenheim

Captain Edward Smith

William T. Stead

Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus


The Age of Innocence. The Gilded Age. La Belle Epoque. No matter what you call it, the period that began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and continued through the first decade of the twentieth was a time of unprecedented peace, prosperity and progress. It ended officially in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, as the largest moving object ever made by man, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, finished her maiden voyage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean -- taking with her more than 1,500 souls and the confidence of a generation.

The Titanic was a perfect reflection of the world of unbridled optimism into which she was born. Starting in the 1870s, there had been a dizzying array of new and profoundly exciting inventions: the electric light bulb, the telephone, sound recording, the automobile, the airplane, the motion picture camera. Life was so good, in fact, that the U.S. Patent Office briefly considered putting itself out of business, reasoning that everything had already been invented. There was simply no problem technology could not solve, no natural obstacle mankind's own inventiveness could not overcome.
The world of the Titanic was also one in which the line dividing the haves and the have-nots was perfectly drawn. There was no income tax on the new industrial-age millionaires -- so the rich were incredibly, almost unfathomably rich. At the other end of the economic spectrum, there was no Social Security -- and nothing to keep those on the bottom of the ladder from falling off entirely. Plus, wave after wave of new immigrants poured into the U.S., penniless but eager to begin a new life in the land of opportunity.

The Titanic, built in 1911 by Britain's White Star Line, represented both the best and worst in this age of prosperity and progress. Almost four city blocks long, she was not the fastest ship on the ocean -- nor was she meant to be. The Titanic was built for safety and comfort, equipped with both the most advanced technology and the most luxurious appointments of any ship afloat.

Most striking to nautical experts was her watertight construction, based on a double bottom and a system of 16 separate watertight compartments formed by watertight bulkheads that ran the entire length of the ship. The Titanic could stay afloat with any two of the compartments flooded -- leading Shipbuilding magazine to devote a special issue to this new engineering marvel, pronouncing it "virtually unsinkable." The Titanic did have 20 lifeboats, but these were strictly a formality -- more for public relations than to satisfy any real need. No one seemed troubled that there was room on the lifeboats for less than half the "unsinkable" ship's passengers.

Most impressive to the White Star Line's customers were the Titanic's glamorous amenities, including the First-class Dining Salon, which rivaled the finest restaurants, a French-style sidewalk cafe, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, and private promenade decks off the luxurious First-class suites.

But for all its luxury, the Titanic was not built just for the creme de la creme of society. The White Star Line also planned to make money with Second-class family trade and Third-class immigrant passengers. The Third-class accommodations, located below decks, were a completely different world from the posh First-class suites above -- and the two worlds rarely met.

The Titanic's maiden voyage was to be the event of the year. The rich and powerful from both sides of the Atlantic rushed to make reservations: Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon, Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus. The president of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, was on board. So was Thomas Andrews, managing director of Harland and Wolff Shipyard, the Titanic's builder. Even financier J.P. Morgan, whose company owned the White Star Line, was slated to make the trip -- although he had to cancel at the last minute. In fact, so many luminaries were clamoring for First-class passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage that some had to settle for Second Class instead.

Departing on April 10, 1912, the Titanic was to go from Southampton, England, to New York City with 2,207 passengers aboard. There were actresses and accountants, industrialists and immigrants. And all the Titanic's passengers, from John Jacob Astor IV of First Class -- on his way home after an extended European tour -- to Assyrian immigrant and Third-class passenger Philip Zenni -- on his way to a new life in Cincinnati -- were delighted to be traveling to New York on the most splendid ship ever built.

Then the unthinkable happened. On the evening of April 14, four days into the voyage, the "unsinkable" ship struck an iceberg that ripped holes in her skin for some 300 feet and flooded the first six watertight compartments. Captain Edward Smith, the White Star Line's most experienced and highly regarded captain, quickly dispatched crew members to assess the damage. He also called on the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, who delivered the devastating news: the Titanic was going down.

Stewards began waking the First-class passengers, helping them into their lifebelts and guiding them up to the deck. Crew members made announcements in Second and Third Class. Meanwhile, the ship's stokers, firemen, stewards, cooks, carpenters -- even the musicians stayed at their posts, working until the very end to keep the ship afloat with her lights burning.

For the First-class passengers, it was a quick, cold ending to their smug and safe world. Some seemed more perturbed than frightened, like John Jacob Astor, who refused to get off the ship until it was too late. And Lady Duff-Gordon, who bemoaned the loss of her secretary's "beautiful nightdress" over the screams of the dying. Others, like pacifist and spiritualist William T. Stead, remained peaceful to the end. For actress Dorothy Gibson it was an adventure. Margaret "Molly" Brown fought all the way. Still others, like Benjamin Guggenheim and Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus, accepted their fate on their own terms. Some survived, some did not. But they all went down in history together.


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Encyclopedia Titanica

"The Sinking of the Titanic": A Survivor's Account

Molly Brown House Museum