Of the families that boarded the “unsinkable” Titanic in 1912, only one fourth stayed together during the sinking and arrived safely in New York. Albert and Sylvia Caldwell and their 10-month-old son, Alden, were one of those rare Titanic families.
In A Rare Titanic Family (NewSouth Books), author Julie Williams draws on first-person accounts from her great-Uncle Albert and extensive research to tell the fascinating story of the young family who were saved by a combination of luck, pluck, Albert’s outgoing nature, Sylvia’s illness, and Alden’s helplessness. As the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches this April, Julie joins us today to share a little bit about why she had to tell the Caldwells’ story.
The “unsinkable” Titanic sank on her maiden voyage 100 years ago April 15, 2012. For me, the story of the Titanic was unsinkable. My great-uncle, Albert Caldwell, survived the disaster at age 26, along with his wife, Sylvia, and his 10-month-old son, Alden. I grew up hearing the story of the Titanic firsthand from Albert, who lived to be 91.
I thought I knew the Caldwells’ Titanic story as well as my own name, and in many respects I did. The story Albert told me was accurate. I heard about Albert’s secret personal tour of the ship that took him down to the ship’s furnaces, where he talked the stokers into letting him pose for a photo with a shovelful of coal while one of the stokers snapped his picture. I heard about a sailor’s nonchalant comment that the ship had only hit a piece of ice on the fateful night of April 14, 1912, and that Albert should get back in bed, which he did. I heard of Albert’s determination not to put his wife and baby off on a flimsy lifeboat, and of how his mind was changed by one of the stokers from the photo, who told him, “If you value your life, get off this ship.” I heard firsthand the harrowing tale of Lifeboat 13’s perilous attempt to set itself free from the Titanic.
And yet, when Albert died, I discovered I had hardly known the story at all. Among his effects I discovered a photo of the Caldwells on the deck of the Titanic. I found a booklet by Sylvia, Women of the Titanic Disaster, such a rare pamphlet that as far as I know, only three copies survive. I found a pair of soft little baby shoes smashed flat beside the book that might have been Alden’s as he wore them off the Titanic.
As I began to do research for my own book on the Caldwells, A Rare Titanic Family, I discovered other surprises in Albert and Sylvia’s Titanic story. The couple had been missionaries in Siam (now called Thailand) and Alden had been born there. The family wound up on the Titanic on their way home from that missionary posting. Rumors in our family held that Sylvia had feigned an illness in order to leave, and as I discovered among the mission’s papers, many in the mission believed the same thing. Although I uncovered evidence that Sylvia truly was ill, the mission only reluctantly voted to allow the couple to break their contracts to go home. And yet, the head of the mission wasn’t satisfied. He wrote to headquarters in New York, urging officials to have Sylvia examined by a doctor when she got home. If she were given a clean bill of health, the couple would be required to pay back their expensive journey home.
I gasped as I read this, because for years I had known that church officials had an ambulance waiting for Sylvia when the rescue ship docked. For years I had thought of this as a mission of mercy. Now I realized it was far more sinister.
The twists and turns of the Caldwells’ story turned out to be remarkable — it was a cat-and-mouse chase around the globe, and it took the Titanic to resolve the struggle between the Caldwells and the mission.
Though the Titanic’s story is often told in terms of April 10-15, 1912, the fuller story in the Caldwells’ case was so much spicier. The secrets my great-uncle kept from me were rich indeed.
Julie Hedgepeth Williams is a journalism professor at Samford University. She received a B.A. in English and history from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and a Master’s in journalism and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Alabama. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.