April 2005 Issue
With artifacts from the Titanic on display at COSI in Columbus, Ohio descendants of the doomed liner's passengers share their family stories.
Before the Titanic left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, bound for New York on her maiden voyage, she was already the stuff legends are made of, filled with such then-inconceivable amenities as a Turkish bath featuring gilded cooling rooms and a masseuse, a hospital ward boasting a fully equipped operating room, a regulation squash court and the first heated swimming pool ever installed on a ship.
No lightweight, the Titanic's future was thought to be one of invincibility for decades to come.
<>Lost at Sea
Travel to Columbus this spring and summer to see poignant artifacts from the Titanic.
On the surface, it could be mistaken for just a big piece of corroded iron. But the 15-foot-high hook once represented life hanging in the balance.
The davit, which was used to lower massive wooden lifeboats into the Atlantic Ocean almost 93 years ago, is just one of the historical treasures recovered from the ocean floor for "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit," on display at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus through September 5.
From 1987 to 2004, seven research and recovery expeditions were conducted by the Atlanta, Georgia-based RMS Titanic company to collect artifacts from the ocean floor for exhibit, ranging from a section of the hull to a pocket watch to playing cards to porcelain dinnerware bearing the logo of the White Star line. Over the past 11 years, more than 15 million people have seen the Titanic exhibit in museums around the world, from Los Angeles to London.
"These objects, these pieces of history, connect with people in a very personal way," says RMS Titanic exhibit designer Mark Lach. "Since 9/11, we've come to realize how uncertain life really is. The same can be said for the Titanic. Everybody who got aboard had every expectation of arriving safely in New York on a vessel thought to be unsinkable. That's something people can [relate to]."
Visitors to the exhibit will see what the 46,328-ton floating palace was really like, right down to a re-creation of first- and third-class cabins and the opulent Grand Staircase with recovered bronze cherub base. A press of the palm against the 16-foot-wide by 10-foot-tall berg made of real ice gives a chilling indication of the water's frigidity that early spring morning. The memorial gallery pays homage to those who lived to talk about the tragedy - and those who didn't.
But it's the personal items that are the most poignant: the shaving mugs and dainty jewelry that prompt speculation about their owners.
For Lach, one of the most moving objects is the case carried by Adolphe Saalfeld. A perfume salesman, Saalfeld was traveling from his home in Manchester, England, to New York where he planned to visit the upscale boutiques on Fifth Avenue to introduce his wares.
"Since the chemicals used to tan leather actually repel the microorganisms that are eating away at the ship, the contents contained in leather bags are protected beyond belief, whether it's a hand-written love letter or an item of clothing," says Lach, who was on the 2000 dive that recovered Saalfeld's case. "I'll never forget the moment we brought up this little leather satchel that looked like a small sleeping bag. We had no idea what was in it."
As the recovery team began unrolling the parcel, scents of carnation, lavender and rose filled the room. Saalfeld's 65 miniature vials of perfume were brought to light - still corked, still affixed with paper labels, still fragrant.
"The emotion of that moment for those of us in the room was overwhelming," recalls Lach, who invites visitors to the exhibit to see - and smell - for themselves.
"This is an incredible opportunity to learn everything there is to know about this great ship," says Sarah Rogers, vice president of exhibits for COSI Columbus. "The artifacts speak for themselves: Custard cups that, when recovered, were lined up in neat rows at the bottom of the ocean, although the crate they had been packed in had disintegrated long ago. Wine bottles still corked and half-filled.
"They represent moments frozen in time."
But the ship's charted course - as well as that of history's - was tragically altered at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, when, two hours and 40 minutes after striking an iceberg, she sank off the coast of Newfoundland.
Class distinction was obliterated among the 2,228 on board. Wealthy men, such as industrialists John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, went down alongside third-class (steerage) passengers who scrambled in vain for one of the 1,178 spaces available in 20 lifeboats. The death toll was staggering. More than 1,500 lost their lives in the frigid Atlantic waters.
Although it'll be 93 years ago this month that the Titanic went down, interest in the ship's saga has never ebbed. An Academy Award-winning movie, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical and countless factual and fictional tomes have kept the fascination fresh.
Ohio has its share of Titanic stories. Some are featured at "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit" on view at COSI in Columbus through September 5.
Descendants of passengers remember their families' link to the disaster with telegrams and tales carefully handed down through generations. Each gives a somber glimpse of the sheer terror that turned a journey filled with happiness and hope into one drowned in heartbreak.
When he was a child, Thomas Goldsmith whiled away many an afternoon chatting with his grandfather, Frank J.W. Goldsmith, in the family den. But when it was time to say good-bye, Frank refused. Parting words were just too painful: "So long Frankie, I'll see you later," were the last words his father, Frank J. Goldsmith Sr., spoke to him from the deck of the Titanic before Frankie, then 9, and his mother Emily, were helped into a lifeboat.
The senior Goldsmith perished with the ship.
"My grandfather carried that memory through his whole life," Ashland resident Thomas Goldsmith recalls. "I only said good-bye once as a child. After he told me the story, I never said it again."
Like many families who booked third-class passage aboard the Titanic, the Goldsmiths of Strood, Kent, England, were seeking a new life in America. The family was bound for Detroit, where Frank Sr., a toolmaker and lathe operator by trade, was optimistic about finding a job in the burgeoning automotive industry. The couple was also struggling with the pain of losing their 5-year-old son, Albert, to diphtheria, and hoped a change of scenery would be healing. Until they were settled, the family would stay with Emily's parents. Traveling with the Goldsmiths were one of Frank's co-workers, Thomas Theobald, also eager to seek his fortune in the United States, and Alfred Rush, who planned to live with his brother in Detroit.
Thomas recalls being captivated by his grandfather's tales about life aboard the Titanic, from spending afternoons with other young passengers, climbing the baggage cranes hand-over-hand, to watching the stokers and firemen at work in the ship's boiler room.
In his book, Echoes in the Night, published by the Massachusetts-based Titanic Historical Society, Frank wrote about the trip from the perspective of the child he was at the time: "It was extremely exciting to me as it would surely have been to many young people. Not only were we going to America, we were [stopping in] another land, France! Then, bonus-wise, we would also be going to Ireland next, two 'fairy tale' places that tripled the joy in the eyes of a 9-year-old boy. â€¦ As my mother and I stood close to the center of the railing watching Ireland slowly disappear from our view, and with a thumping heart, I cried, 'Mummy! At last we are on the 'lantic.'"
The first inkling the family received that something was wrong was when the ship's surgeon pounded on their cabin door, and advised them to don lifejackets.
"Since he was a child, grandfather was actually pretty excited about getting in the lifeboat," Thomas says. "He saw it as just another adventure at sea. My great-grandparents, however, understood the gravity of the situation."
After Emily helped Frank into his lifejacket and put hers on, mother and son, along with the senior Goldsmith, Alfred Rush and Thomas Theobald made their way to the port side of the deck. Thomas slipped his wedding band off and handed it to Emily, asking her to give it to his wife if he
didn't make it. (Theobald's body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett. He was buried at sea on April 24, 1912.)
"Mother and I then were permitted through the gateway, and the crewman in charge reached out to grasp the arm of Alfred Rush to pull him through because he must have felt that the young lad was not much older than me, and he was not very tall for his age," Goldsmith wrote in Echoes in the Night. "But Alfred had not been stalling. He jerked his arm out of the sailor's hand and with his head held high, said, and I quote, 'No! I'm staying here with the men.' At age 16, he died a hero."
As the lifeboat braved the choppy sea, Emily pressed her son's head to her breast so he would not witness the ship sinking.
"Grandpa told me that at one point the Titanic somehow seemed to right itself, and someone called out, 'Oh, look, it's going to float,'" Thomas says. "His mother released him at that point, in time to see all the lights go out. He told me that as the stern began to rise, the only way you could see it was that its shape blotted out all the stars."
Emily and Frank were among the 705 passengers and crew rescued by the Carpathia, the liner that arrived on the scene almost two hours after the Titanic sank. Once aboard, Emily, a talented seamstress, organized sewing circles to make garments out of cloth and blankets for those passengers dressed in nightclothes when they entered the lifeboats.
After reaching Detroit, Frank and his mother settled in a house near Navin Field, where the Detroit Tigers played baseball. (Thomas recalls that the roar of the crowds during games reminded his grandfather of the sound of the Titanic's final moments; consequently the Great American Pastime was not theirs.) Emily remarried two years after the tragedy and was a Red Cross volunteer until her death in 1955. Frank, who married in 1926 and fathered three sons, served as a civilian photographer for the U.S. Air Force during World War II. One of his assignments brought him to Ohio, and after the war he settled in Ashland and opened a photo supply store in Mansfield. He died in 1982 at age 79. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Titanic rests.
"He's finally back with his dad," Thomas says quietly.
First-class passenger Caroline Bonnell and her cousin, Natalie Wick, joked throughout the voyage that they hoped to catch a glimpse of an iceberg. Caroline's granddaughter, Christy Bittenbender of Chagrin Falls, says the pair wasted no time in scampering up on deck moments after the collision.
"They didn't see anything," Bittenbender says. "The ocean seemed to be pretty quiet."
The duo had just spent a month touring Europe with Natalie's father and stepmother, George and Mollie Wick. Before returning to their home in Youngstown, the entourage stopped in England to visit Caroline's aunt, Lily Bonnell, who decided to accompany her relatives back to Ohio for a short stay.
As the cousins gazed out over the Atlantic, an officer approached and told them to go below and put on life belts.
"Mollie and George couldn't conceive that anything was wrong," Bittenbender says. "Mollie thought a boiler must have exploded. George sloughed the whole thing off, believing that the boat had received just a glancing blow.
"The prevailing attitude was that it was no big deal."
Calm turned to confusion when Titanic Capt. Edward J. Smith called for the lifeboats to be loaded.
"Women and children were told to stand in a group and get ready to get in them," Bittenbender says. "Most pleaded they didn't want to. No one could conceive there was a serious problem. Passengers put more trust in staying on the huge liner Titanic than being forced to climb into a rinky-dink boat and be lowered into the ocean."
Caroline, Natalie, Mollie and Lily were assigned to lifeboat No. 8. So was Ida Straus, wife of Macy's Department Store founder Isidor Straus. But Ida chose to remain on the Titanic rather than leave without her husband. Both perished. Their last moments together have been romanticized on stage and screen.
"The boat we were in was the second to be let down over the side but the first to strike the water," Caroline wrote in an April 19, 1912, essay for The Cleveland Press. "In it, though it would have held more, were 20 women, two sailors and a steward. The latter were to do the rowing."
George Wick was last seen waving to his family from the Titanic's railing.
A stiff breeze sprang up, churning the sea into choppy waves that pitched the lifeboat to and fro. The darkness deepened.
"We were provided with the most miserable little oil lamp I have ever seen," Caroline continued in the Press article. "I guess it didn't have any kerosene in it, for it kept going out as fast as we could light it with the matches which the steward happened to bring along.
"We couldn't have seen at all nor signaled had it not been for the fact that one woman had a cane that had a little electric light at the end of it.
"As far as I know, there was no food or water in the craft, but I will not complain of that."
Caroline knew she was lucky to be alive.
The Bittenbender family scrapbook is filled with Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer stories about the event, as well as telegrams Caroline sent to her family once she was safe: "Aunt Lily, Natalie, ... Mollie and myself are all right. Much love."
Caroline died in 1950 at age 67. Natalie passed away in 1944.
Caroline never talked much about the Titanic. It wasn't until 38 years ago, when Bittenbender was gathering facts for an eighth-grade term paper about the ship, that she realized her grandmother's connection to it.
"I don't dwell on it," Bittenbender says. "It's too horrible to think of people dying that way."
Premonitions of tragedy
Johan George Reuchlin's reason for being on the Titanic was strictly business: He was testing the waters about the future of luxury liners. George was managing director of the Holland America Line, headquartered in Rotterdam, and the company had ordered construction of its own luxury liner from Titanic shipbuilder Harland and Wolff. The 37-year-old father of three was invited to be a guest of the Titanic's White Star Line, and given first-class accommodations. George's impressions of the ship's magnitude were summed up in a postcard he sent to his son Henri: "This is the biggest ship in the world; the rooms in this ship are at least three times as big as our home's salon [formal living room]."
"Since he and my grandmother had three small children, she opted not to go," says George's granddaughter Antoinette Koolemans-Beynen, who lives in Columbus. George boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France, on April 10. Beynen's grandmother, Agatha, was filled with trepidation about her husband's voyage, which was compounded by her fear of the sea.
"She had a premonition that something would go wrong," Beynen says.
Initial news reports listed George as among the survivors, and the family rejoiced. But as several days went by with no word, uncertainty set in.
"My grandmother was filled with questions," Beynen explains. Had he been picked up by another ship? Had anyone seen my grandfather on deck after the iceberg hit?"
After several weeks it became apparent that George did not survive. His body was never recovered.
For Beynen, the Titanic exhibit represents a missing piece of family history.
"I've always wondered about my grandfather's life," she says. '"I hope someday some of his belongings will be discovered, too."