When I think of the Titanic sinking, my first thoughts go to the 1,500 people who died in the freezing cold North Atlantic waters on the night of April 14, 1912. Everything we know about the disastrous event comes from the 700 people who survived, but oddly enough, their accounts have always seemed only to paint the backdrop for the tale of the people who never finished that journey from England to America. The John B. Thayer memorial collection on the sinking of Titanic is about the survivors and includes first hand accounts of the sinking and some really fabulous letters from Bruce Ismay to Marian Thayer, in which we learn that surviving the sinking may have been nearly as tragic as not surviving.
The Thayers were just what one would expect from the first-class passengers on the Titanic: a railroad executive from Main Line Philadelphia traveling with his lovely wife and intelligent and ambitious son, Jack. The railroad executive, John B. Thayer, did not come home–he drowned in the Atlantic Ocean and his remains were never found. His wife, Marian, and his son, John B. Thayer (“Jack”), did survive and life went on … but with quite a bit of suffering.
Jack wrote about his experiences on the Titanic on three occasions. The first was a statement to the press immediately following the sinking, and although vivid in detail, this account contains no reflection. In fact, reading it now makes me think that it was provided by someone in shock. Twenty years later, Jack had quite a bit of perspective. He wrote:
The spectacle of nearly 1,500 people struggling in the ice-cold waters of the Atlantic, and the steady roar of their voices, which kept up for 15 or 20 minutes, is a memory that does not become dim, even after 20 years.
Eight years later, in 1940, still struggling with his memories, Jack wrote again, this time for his family. This account was published and provides a fascinating glimpse into his memories, almost thirty years after the event.
Jack’s mother, Marian, began corresponding with Bruce Ismay, the CEO of the White Star Line which commissioned the Titanic, less than a month after the sinking and they continued to exchange letters for about one year. Ismay may have survived the sinking of the ship, but he was a tortured soul from that day forward. Although Marian’s letters are not included in the collection, her suffering is evident from Ismay’s responses. A constant refrain in Ismay’s letters is his wish to ease Marian’s grief and loss. The year following the sinking was filled with sadness and Ismay responded to one of her letters on May 5, 1912, stating, “as you say, the easiest way would be to join those who have gone before, I well know the feeling.”
History has not been kind to Bruce Ismay, portraying him, from the time of the tragedy to present day, as a coward for accepting a place on a lifeboat when women and children remained on the ship. It is difficult to say how much of his depression resulted from guilt, although Ismay clearly stated his lack of guilt and responsibility following British and American inquiries into the sinking during the summer of 1912. After being questioned at both inquiries, Ismay wrote to Marian in August 1912, “I cannot blame myself in anyway for the awful disaster and had no more to do with it than you had. Still, horrible accusations were made against me.” Marian Thayer did not seem to view Ismay as a coward, nor did she appear to hold him responsible for the death of her husband. Regardless, life after the Titanic was not easy for Ismay. He wrote, “I have been very depressed lately and have lost all desire for living and see no future for me.”
The future for the Thayers was also a sad one. Marian Thayer never remarried and her son Jack, while leading a busy and successful life, does not appear to have ever truly recovered from the sinking. Jack graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, fought in World War I, worked in banking (eventually returning to the University of Pennsylvania in a professional capacity), and had a family. Depression must have run close to the surface, however, and it resulted in his death by his own hand in 1945, following news that one of his sons had died while serving in World War II.
So, this year, while I am remembering 1,500 people who died the night between April 14 and April 15 more than a hundred years ago, I will also take a moment to think of those who survived and lived with their memories, guilt, and depression throughout their lives.