Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Five Famous Victims of the Titanic

Tomorrow is the 99th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, and Geoff, owner and quizmaster at the Liberal Cup, has been asking questions about it at Tuesday night pub trivia for the last couple of weeks.

The story never particularly interested me, although it was one of history's deadliest peacetime maritime disasters. The ship was carrying 2,223 passengers — and had a legal capacity of 3,547 — but had lifeboats for only 1,178 people. Because of the disorganization and confusion of the evacuation, though, only 706 people survived. Most of the rest died of hypothermia in the waters of the North Atlantic, some 370 miles of the coast of Newfoundland.

You've probably seen the movie, and know all this. I've only seen the movie once — on video, not in the theater — so I had to go look all this stuff up. One interesting fact is that while 60% of the passengers in first class survived, those survivors were almost all women; only 20% of the Titanic's male passengers survived.

A first-class ticket on the Titanic cost a fortune — $4,350, which depending on how you calculate it is about $95,860 in 2008 dollars (my team missed this question last night). Many of the first class passengers' bodies were recovered, while most of the third class passengers were buried at sea. These five passengers, all first-class travelers, died in the disaster. I hope their families got refunds; does anyone know?

1. John Jacob Astor IV. He was not only the heir to one of the great American fortunes, but also an author, an inventor, a real estate investor and the founder of the Astoria Hotel (now half of the Waldorf-Astoria). He helped finance the Spanish-American War, where he served as a colonel, and made his yacht, the Nourmahal, available to the U.S. Navy during the conflict. He and his second wife, 19-year-old Madeleine, were returning to New York because she was expecting a child, and they wanted him to be born in the United States. Madeleine, her maid and her nurse survived; John Jacob Astor IV and his faithful Airedale, Kitty, died when the ship went down. His son, John Jacob Astor VI, was born four months later.

2. Jacques Futrelle. Despite his French name, he was a native of Georgia, a newspaperman who launched the sports section of the Atlanta Journal before moving to New York, then to Boston. He gets credit as an early father of the classic detective story, for a serialized mystery called "The Problem of Cell 13" that introduced Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, "The Thinking Machine." Futrelle was only 37 when he died; his wife, the writer Lily May Peel, survived. She said she last saw him with John J. Astor, smoking a cigarette.

3. Francis David Millet. An American painter, sculptor, and writer whose daughter, Kate, was a frequent subject of John Singer Sargent's paintings. Millet was a founder of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and served as secretary of the American Academy in Rome; he was traveling to New York on Academy business. Millet's paintings still hang in many American museums, and he painted the ceiling of the Call Room of the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore, Maryland. He died on the Titanic with his friend Archibald W. Butt, a former journalist and military advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. Millet and Butt had been traveling together, and a memorial fountain to the two men stands in Washington, DC.

4. and 5. Ida and Isidor Straus. Isidor Straus was co-owner, with his brother Nathan, of Macy's Department Store. He had also served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, elected to serve the unexpired portion of a term from 1894-95. Isidor and Ida married in 1871 and had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. By all accounts they were inseparable, and Ida refused to leave her husband behind to board a lifeboat. They died together, but only Isidor's body was recovered; he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. A plaque commemorating them is on the main floor of Macy's flagship store, in Manhattan.

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