Julie Hedgepeth Williams on why Titanic’s story is unsinkable

Julie Hedgepeth Williams, author of A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival (NewSouth Books), joins us again today, so close to the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic, to share her thoughts on why the story lives on. You can read Julie’s previous guest post about her great-Uncle Albert’s experience on the sinking ship here. If you’d like to hear the Caldwells’ story straight from Albert, head over to Parade, which has an exclusive interview with the man himself (a few years before his death in 1977, Albert recounted his memories of the disaster for his nephew Bill Romeiser, who recorded his comments).

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April 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage.

The story, though, is unsinkable.

I’ve been arranging a speaking tour all over the country about my book, A Rare Titanic Family. As I set up a stop in Kansas City, one librarian commented, “There are some subjects that people can hear about once and be satisfied. But there are a few subjects out there that they can’t get enough of. The Titanic is one of them.”

Why is that? It’s a question many are asking as the century mark approaches. There are, no doubt, many answers, but I believe communication technology of the era deserves some credit.

One reason the Titanic endures in our imagination is that so many people survived. That’s contrary to your expectation, probably. The Titanic caused an awful loss of life with some 1,500 victims, some among the most rich and famous in the world. And yet, the approximately 700 people saved, including my great-uncle Albert Caldwell, lived to tell the tale, and they are the ones who compelled the Titanic into our imagination with their vivid stories of the shipwreck.

Think about it. For millennia, people had gone to the sea in ships, and their loved ones only realized the ship had sunk when it was late to port and then failed to arrive at all. People involved in a shipwreck at sea could get into a lifeboat, but it would only be dumb luck that they would ever be found. In most cases, getting into a lifeboat would only prolong an inevitable death. That fact is perhaps one reason the regulations for lifeboats on the Titanic did not include one seat per person – regulations had not caught up with the fact that by 1912, help could be summoned by “Marconi wireless.”

Luckily for my great-uncle, the Titanic had indeed been equipped with the wireless, with which it sent out CQD (a traditional distress call) and then switched to SOS (the newer version of the distress call). However, as Albert told me, the survivors shivering in Lifeboat 13 on April 15 after the Titanic was gone were skeptical that the new technology had worked. They all had been told that ships had been summoned. And yet, the Titanic had not been able to awaken the ship the passengers had all clearly seen for awhile on the horizon as the Titanic struggled to stay afloat. Thus, the survivors in the lifeboats worried that the wireless might actually bring no one to their aid.

They didn’t know that, indeed, the wireless message had been picked up at Cape Race, Newfoundland, and sent inland, where the Titanic’s distress call was pulled out of the air by the wireless station on the roof of Wanamaker’s department store in New York. From there the information went to the Hearst newspaper chain, and the news quickly rolled inland.

This led to another reason the Titanic still holds such resonance: Thanks to the news via wireless, the sinking of the Titanic unfolded almost in real time. It wasn’t as instantaneous as, say, watching the second hijacked flight slam into the other World Trade Center tower. But for its time and place, the news of the Titanic was practically instantaneous. Albert Caldwell’s parents, back home in the small town of Biggsville, Illinois, read in their newspaper that the Titanic had sunk only a few hours after it went down. They frantically scanned the partial list of survivors. Not seeing the name of their son, their daughter-in-law, or the grandson they had never met, they got down on their knees and prayed earnestly for their family on the Titanic. They spent an anxious day waiting for the next day’s newspaper and were relieved to see that all three were on the “saved” list. For the senior Caldwells and so many around the world, the news played out with a tension seldom known in news events up until that time.

We’re used to that now – we often see news events unfold tragically via the live shot of a TV crew on the scene or a citizen journalist who posts images taken on his or her smartphone to the web. In 1912, though, the nearly instantaneous news by wireless was so novel and the tension so high that it seared the Titanic story deeply into public consciousness as a horror more real and more immediate than such things had been before. And when the survivors got home, they added to that realistic drama by telling the story, the deep details making the shipwreck even more tangible to those who weren’t on the ill-fated voyage.

I know there are many other reasons the Titanic fascinates. But certainly the new wireless technology contributed in two significant ways to making the Titanic the story that long outlived the ship itself.
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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.

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Guest post from Julie Hedgepeth Williams: The unsinkable story of the Titanic

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.  

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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. 

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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.