Ocean County and the Sinking of the RMS Titanic
by Steven J. Baeli
April 2, 2012
Photo from the Asbury Park Press April 15, 1912
April 15, 2012 marks the centennial of the sinking of infamous passenger cruise liner, Titanic, an event that continues to capture the attention of people around the world.
In this, the 100th year of that tragic accident on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean, the public-at-large has been reacquainting itself through books, magazines, television shows, exhibits, cruises that will retrace the doomed ship’s voyage, and, of course, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, a film that was until 2009, the highest grossing movie in box office history, and one that may reclaim that crown when it is re-released in 3-D in this month.
Some may be surprised to learn that there are many Ocean County connections to the Titanic disaster, and that there are multiple threads connecting us to this event via residents and perennial visitors who perished in the tragedy, relatives of the county who knew people aboard the ship, and through heartfelt outpourings of sympathy in poems written by two Ocean Countians.
has shown time and again that Ocean County has played an integral part on the
state, national, and international stages, and it continues to do so in many
positive ways, but sadly there is on occasion a tragic side, such as the
stories that you are about to read.
A Scene of Horror & Disbelief
Map from the Asbury Park Press, April 16, 1912
The Titanic was one of three Olympic-class ocean liners owned by the White Star Line. Her sister ships were the HMHS Britannic, which sank in 1916 after hitting German war mines, and the RMS Olympic, which had a successful career at sea before being scrapped in 1935.
The maiden journey of the British, Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Titanic, began when the ship left its dock in Southampton, England, stopping first in Cherbourg, France to pick up passengers, and then on to Queenstown, Ireland to do the same before heading to New York City in America.
Legend dictates that someone had declared that not even God could sink the mighty Titanic, but the ship did indeed meet its fate after hitting an iceberg four days into her journey some 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, sparing only 711 of its 2224 passengers and crew.
entire scene was one of chaos as passengers, who did not at first comprehend
the extent of the damage to the ship, suddenly realized the magnitude of their circumstances,
which rapidly reduced the situation down to primal survival instincts and mass
Photo plate from "The Truth About the Titanic" by Colonel Archibald Gracie's (1913)
As panic set in, the desperate masses rushed to the lifeboats, only to find that there were not nearly enough to transport even half of those aboard the ship, and to make matters worse, many of the smaller crafts had already disembarked filled with first and second class women and children.
survivors later reported hearing gunshots, while others claimed that they
witnessed crew members shooting steerage passengers who had attempted to board
the lifeboats, and for those who were inevitably trapped on the sinking liner, a
decision had to be made as to whether to go down with the ship, or to jump
sixty feet into the freezing ocean and hope for the best. In either case, escape was futile, and so the
sea claimed its victims and swallowed the ship that could not be sunk.
As news of the disaster began to filter back to the mainland, the information that was transmitted was at first unreliable, leaving many reporters to merely speculate as to the fate of the Titanic, but for some in Ocean County, false hopes would turn to misery as they learned that many of those reports were deadly wrong.
Headline from the Asbury Park Press, April 15, 1912
One family of passengers on the Titanic was the Comptons of Lakewood, which included matriarch, Mary Eliza Ingersoll Compton, and her two adult children, Sara Rebecca Compton, and her brother, hotel magnate, Alexander Taylor Compton, Jr., who owned a large interests in the Laurel House in Lakewood, New Jersey, where the family seasonally resided prior to the tragedy. Alexander also owned shares in Lakewood's Laurel-in-the-Pines and the Waumbek Hotel in Jefferson, New Hampshire.
Sara Rebecca Compton
Photograph from the San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 1912
The Comptons, who boarded the ship in Cherbourg, were first class passengers who enjoyed all of the amenities offered to the wealthy travelers, and who were probably feeling very privileged to return from their stay in Europe on the new modern marvel that everyone was talking about. But like so many other unsuspecting passengers on that tragic night, the Comptons soon found that their dream cruise would turn deadly.
Little is known about the personal lives of the Compton family beyond their status as hoteliers who summered at the Laurel House and partook in the benefits of the societal high life that was so prominent in Lakewood at that time. When not in New Jersey, the Compton’s traveled abroad or would spend time at their various hotels.
In addition to his business holdings, Alexander Compton was the treasurer of the New Hampshire based Jefferson Hotel & Land Company, the combination of which allowed him to live the life of a lavish bachelor, where he spent much of his abundant free time on well-established golf courses around the country.
But for all his status and wealth, Compton was not mentioned in any of the larger broadsheets as being among the most prominent men who perished, which may account for the lack of photographs of the man and his mother in any newspaper. One photograph of sister Sara survives.
Compton and Sara were at first assumed to have gone down with the ship, but unlike
Alexander, they managed to escape an icy death on one of the lifeboats. The family was together throughout the
ordeal, until Mr. Compton was informed that only women and children were being
put off the liner. Mrs. Compton protested and attempted to stay with her son,
but he assured her that he would find another boat, telling her, “Don’t be
foolish, mother. You and sister go ahead. I'll look out for myself.”
Aboard the rescue ship, RMS Carpathia, Mary Elizabeth sadly told her story to reporters, relating that, “When we waved goodby [sic] to my son, we did not realize the great danger, but thought we were only being sent out in the boats as a precautionary measure. When Captain Smith handed us life preservers, he said cheerily: ‘They will keep you warm if you do not have to use them.’ Then the crew began clearing the boats and putting the women into them. My daughter and I were lifted in the boat commanded by the fifth officer.”
For those who had escaped, the scene before them must have been horrifying as they watched the Titanic lift into the air, split into two with a mighty roar, and then sink into the Atlantic Ocean, taking with her everyone who was not fortunate enough to find safe passage on the lifeboats.
“There was a moan of agony and anguish from those in our boat when the Titanic sank,” said Mrs. Compton, “and we insisted that the officer head back for the place where the Titanic had disappeared. We found one man with a life preserver on him struggling in the cold water and for a moment I thought that he was my son.”
Sara Compton also gave an account of her tribulations in an affidavit given to fellow passenger, Colonel Archibald Gracie, an amateur historian who interviewed and published the stories of many survivors aboard the Carpathia. According to Miss Compton, a ship’s officer named Mr. Lowe threatened to shoot a man attempting to board their lifeboat, he producing a gun and discharging it into the air as a warning to anyone who would attempt the same. Sara otherwise defended Mr. Lowe, testifying that his “manly bearing gave [them] all confidence,” as he successfully dealt with malfunctioning pulley systems on the lifeboats, and staved off what he perceived to be potential threats to his watercraft.
Mary Elizabeth Compton, one of two of the oldest woman on the Titanic, returned to her home in New York City, after which she continued to vacation in Lakewood, and engage in international travel. She died in 1930 in Moore, North Carolina.
Sara Compton, who never
married, inherited her brother’s estate and continued to trip about the world
in style until her death in Miami, Florida in 1952. Most of the Compton
family was laid to rest in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Newark, New Jersey, where a
cenotaph was placed in Alexander’s honor alongside his father, mother, and
brother, Lorin, who died in 1872 at the age of two. Sara’s place of rest is unknown as of this
Alexander Compton was a lesser known man of means, Isidor Straus made the top
of the missing list along with business magnate John Jacob Astor in terms of
being a world-renowned entrepreneur.
In 1895, Isidor Staus and his brother, Nathan, purchased the R.H. Macy company and assumed ownership of what would become the world-renowned Macy's Department Store founded in 1843 by Rowland Hussey Macy. Seven years later, the Straus brothers, having grown the business tremendously, moved it to Herald Square on 34th Street, New York City.
As a result of his financial success, Isidor and his wife, Rosalie Ida Blun, were able to travel at will, and one of their more frequented stops was Lakewood, New Jersey, which had become a playground for the rich and famous after era of the Bergen Iron Works was replaced with the resort town that it had become.
It was a common belief at the turn of the 20th century that breathing in the salt air was good for one's health, and it was that conviction, along with the explosion of hotels that followed, that caught the attention of the well-to-do who came to vacation.
It was the off-season in Lakewood, so Isidor & Ida Straus had instead gone to Europe with their daughter, Beatrice, traveling on the German liner, Amerika, but their decision to embark on the Titanic’s maiden voyage for their return trip would prove to be a fatal one.
with them was Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing, who would perish along with
the Straus’s when the vessel sank, and Miss Ellen Bird, Ida’s personal maid, who
had been hired by Mrs. Straus in London just prior to their return trip. Luckily, Miss Bird was put aboard a lifeboat
by her employers and survived the tragedy.
Photo plate from "The Truth About the Titanic" by Colonel Archibald Gracie's (1913)
It is said that Mrs. Straus had vacillated about whether to stay or to go with her maid, but in the end she gave the young woman her fur coat and decided to stay onboard with Isidor, who as a man was not allowed to board the lifeboat. Others tried to change her mind, but she simply refused, telling her husband, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go,” and sitting in a deck chair waiting for the end to come, they resigned themselves to their fate. Their story of love and sacrifice was depicted in the 1997 film, Titanic.
Mrs. Straus nor Mr. Farthing’s bodies were ever found or identified, but
Isidor’s remains were recovered, and later buried at the Beth-el Cemetery,
Brooklyn, New York.
The Ryerson Family
The Ryersons, former residents of Lakewood, had been “sojourning in Europe and were suddenly called home to attend the funeral of their son [Arthur] who was killed about a week ago in an automobile accident.”
Their hasty attempt to get back home to New York would, of course, put them on the deck of the Titanic, where Arthur Ryerson would perish. His wife, Emily Maria, and his children, Emily, Suzett and John (commonly know as "Jack"), along with Emily’s maid, Victorine Chaudanson, and Jack’s governess, Grace Scott Bowen, would all survive after being put onboard Lifeboat #4, which made it safely to the Carpathia.
Another of the Ryerson’s daughters, Ellen, was not with the family. She was married to sculptor, Victor Salvatore, who was famous for his bronze statuary of James Fenimore Cooper, and another called “The Sandlot Kid,” both located in Cooperstown, New York at Doubleday Field.
to Arthur, he had a distant cousin named William Edwy Ryerson whom he had never
met, and who was working aboard the ship. William
was employed on the Titanic as a
dining steward, and was later ordered to man a lifeboat, a directive that saved
his life. William had left his family
behind in England to seek work on the vessel, and safely returned to them after
Arthur Larned Emily Maria Borie Emily Borie Suzett Parker "Jack"
Despite their nomadic lifestyles, the Comptons and the Straus’s had a direct connection to Ocean County. The following stories are of those citizens who were indirectly related to the tragedy.
One such story came from Whitings resident, Daniel W. MacMillan, whose sister, Elisabeth Walton, and her husband, Edward S. Robert, were aboard the Titanic along with two family members, Georgette Alexandra Madill and Elizabeth Walton Allen, and Mrs. Robert’s maid, Emilie Kreuchen.
soon as news of the disaster reached Ocean County, MacMillan traveled to New York
to meet the rescue ship, Carpathia,
not knowing if his sister and her family had endured, but to his great relief all had survived the ordeal.
Elisabeth Walton Georgette Alexandra Emilie Unknown
Robert Madill Kreuchen Man
Another survivor was August H. Weikman, the ships barber, who was the brother of Mrs. Frank Holler of Island Heights. The following is an account given by Mr. Weikman, published in the New Jersey Courier on April 25, 1912:
Island Heights Woman had Brother Picked up from Sea – August H. Weikman, ship’s barber on the Titanic, is a brother to Mrs. Holler, widow of Capt. Frank Holler of Island Heights. Mrs. Holler said her brother was delighted when he received a personal letter from J. Bruce Ismay, manager of the line, promoting him to the place of barber on the new steamer, and telling him to come cross on the Olympic to return on the Titanic.
Ismay, in his letter, said he wanted Weikman to cut his (Ismay’s) hair, as soon as he reached London, and Mrs. Holler said her brother told her that meant a sovereign ($5) as a tip from Islay. Mrs. Holler did not know till Friday evening sure that her brother was saved.
Weikman’s manner of escape was unique. He was blown off the deck by second of two explosions of the boilers, and was in the water more than two hours before he was picked up by a craft.
Photo plate from "The Truth About the Titanic" by Colonel Archibald Gracie's (1913)
“The explosions,” Welkman said, “were cause by the rushing in of the icy waters on the boilers. A bundle of deck chairs roped together, was blown off the deck with me, and struck my back, injuring my spine, but it served as a temporary raft.
“The crew and passengers had faith in the bulkhead system to save the ship and we were lowering a Benthom collapsible boat, all confident the ship would get through, when she took a terrible dip forward and the water rushed up and swept over the deck and into the engine rooms.
“The bow went clean down and I caught the pile of chairs as I washed up against the rail. Then came the explosions and blew me fifteen feet.“After the water had filled the forward compartments the ones at the stern could not save her. They did delay the ship’s going down. If it wasn’t for the compartments hardly anyone could hardly gave to away.
The Hays Family Frederick
W. Sutton, and a False Alarm
Charles Clara Margaret Mary Anne
Hays Jennings Bechstein Perreault
Island Heights seemed to have had several threads connected to the sinking of the Titanic. Among them was the Charles Melville Hays, an executive with the Grand Trunk Railway, who perished along with his personal secretary, Vivian Ponsonby Payne. His wife, Clara Jennings Hays, their daughter, Margaret Bechstein Hays, and their maid, Mary Anne Perreault, all survived.
connection of the Hay’s family to Ocean County was Howard VanSant, a cousin to
Charles Hays. VanSant was at the time a former
mayor of Island Heights who had been appointed to as United States Consul at
Hays was also the cousin of Reverend S. Monroe VanSant of the New Jersey conference, and the nephew of former Island Heights postmaster, James Hays of Newark, who had once served as the president of the New Jersey State Board of Education.
Frederick W. Sutton
A third Ocean County connection was Frederick W. Sutton, a summer resident of Island Heights, who was a business partner of J. Alpheus VanSant, in Philadelphia.
Sutton did not survive the wreck, but his body was recovered and identified.
A False Alarm
Richard Evans of Forked River, had been told that his brother, Joseph, had been assigned to sail as an officer aboard the Titanic, but that ship transfer never took place, much to the happiness of both men.
A Witness to the
J. Forrest Greenfield of Point Pleasant was sailing on the RMS Mauretania on his return from Europe, and gave the following account in the April 25th edition of the New Jersey Courier:
Pt. Pleasant Man Says Mauretania Passed Bodies of Titanic Victims – Point Pleasant, April 20 – J. Forrest Greenfield of Point Pleasant, who returned from Europe on the Mauretania on Friday, said yesterday that the ship passed the bodies of two men and that of an infant on Wednesday, floating among the wreckage of the Titanic.
Mr. Greenfield said the first news of the wreck to reach the Mauretania was on Wednesday, when a Marconigram was received. Thereafter bulletins were posted at frequent periods and the passengers in that way were informed of the awful catastrophe.
Immediately upon receiving the message on Wednesday, Mr. Greenfield said the vessel took a more southerly course. It was while making for a more southern route that they encountered the drifting wreckage of the White Star palace. Although no icebergs were encountered, Mr. Greenfield told of sighting huge field of the floating ice.
“On Wednesday night after passing through the wreckage,” said Mr. Greenfield, “almost every passenger placed extra clothing at convenient points and barely dosed upon his bedding. The buzz of wireless was anxiously listened to throughout the night and it was with a sensation of thankfulness that the tension of our nerves was raised with the dawn on Thursday.”
The Legacy of
the RMS Titanic
The threads that connect Ocean County to the sinking of the Titanic are many, and they certainly hold some importance to our own history as well as to that of the world-at-large. The tragedy was global in its impact, and broad in its morbid appeal, even to those who had no connection to it at all.
County had its share of connections as well, where Alex Smith of Red Bank was
an uncle of Titanic captain, Edward J. Smith, who perished on the ship. Another man, a ship postal clerk from Asbury
Park named William Logan Gwinn, had requested a transfer to get home to his
sick wife, only to find himself a victim of the sea. With his death, Gwinn left behind an infant
daughter and a three-year-old son, who had been “counting the days when daddy
would arrive in New York.”
In a strange twist, the Asbury Park Press told a bizarre tale five days after the ship went down about a Mr. and Mrs. Herbert French of Allenhurst, Monmouth County, whom the paper reported to be among the missing. The odd part of the story is that there are no official records of anyone named French ever having been onboard the Titanic. Titanic survivor, Mary Marvin, claimed that she had seen Mr. French with John Astor, who was helping him look for French's wife. Perhaps Mrs. Marvin was mistaken, given the confusion of the event in which she lost her groom while on their honeymoon, but we will never really know for sure.
With the exception of the strange tale of Mr. & Mrs. French, similar types of the aforementioned stories were common around the globe, and there was a blanketed feeling of sadness much like there was after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963, and of course the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
Much like the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the memory of the sinking of the RMS Titanic will forever be cited as one of the greatest tragedies in human history, and perhaps the greatest in terms of naval disasters.
But for those who lived it, the impact of the catastrophe hit home in such a way that made many people cry and caused others, like ninety-year-old, Richard Stokes of Island Heights, who was nearly blind at the time, and W.F. Randolph of Barnegat, to pour their sorrow into rhyme, each individually writing poems to express their feelings. Both poems were published in the New Jersey Courier on June 6, 1912, and each has been reprinted here today:
______________________________________________________________________The Sinking of the Titanic
The Titanic disaster, the worst in history,
And why she went down will remain a dark mystery.
She was thought unsinkable, by Captain and crew,
And most of her passengers held the same view
To make a quick passage there was not the least need;
She was intended for comfort and not built for speed
It was night! On an iceberg she suddenly crashed;
Her bow was stove in, her bulkheads were smashed
The boats were soon lowered, the men were all brave;
They gave their own lives, he women to save
It should be families first – And not women alone;
For what’s life to a woman when her husband is gone
Many thought not of danger, and had not the least fear
Ah, little they thought that their end was so near
Was the Captain to blame? It will never be known;
But like a brave man with his ship he went down
While some of her passengers never woke from their sleep;
The mighty ship sank in the fathomless deep
Sixteen hundred and forty-three sank to their death in the sad sea
While the band played “Nearer, my God, to Thee!”
By W.F. Randolph
Titanic with her precious freight, two thousand souls or more
Was speeding on her maiden trip for west Atlantic shore;
The sea was smooth, the night was clear with starlight overhead
And many had retired to rest when evening prayers were said
On board were some of prominence as well as peasantry
Who, in the largest ship afloat upon the Atlantic sea
Felt just as safe from danger there as any place they knew
On shipboard or in palace home up on Fifth avenue
The men aloft received their charge a bright lookout to keep
For icebergs in the spring that float and flounder in the deep
And ere low twelve they rang their bell and through the trumpet said
To officers upon the bridge, “An iceberg right ahead!”
With starboard wheel they did their best the giant mound to clear
But just to clear it with her stem was all that she would veer
And striking with her starboard side a heavy, glancing blow,
In through her broken bilge with force the sea began to flow
They tried the bulkhead doors to close so that the ship would float
The officers then called for men to man and load each boat
The lifeboats would not carry all and life rafts proved to be
No better than the lifebelts were in that cold, icy sea
Then in surprising order come the ladies at their call
With noble men who did their best to load and save them all
With scarcely men enough to pull those loaded boats away
To wait in hope of rescue till the dawn of the day
But ere the last boat pulled away while many prayers were said
They saw the ship was filling fast and sinking by the head
Some in the berths, some in saloon and others on the deck
There sixteen hundred souls were left to perish with the wreck
The peasant and the millionaire submissive to their fate
With wives and children in the boats both had to separate
The grief that fills the human heart with unenduring pain
Was felt by those who in this life will never meet again
While many in their lifebelts swam or floated near the wreck
When life was ebbing fast away came music from the deck
The band had struck a sweet refrain that rang o’er the sea
A prayer in silence or in song, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”
Ere morning dawn the ship went down with many souls on board
Who in that palace casket lie where buried by their Lord
And in the resurrection morn that sweet refrain will be
Remembered when those loved ones meet up by the crystal sea
In sympathy the nations mourn with stricken ones who weep
For loved ones who were left behind to perish in the deep
They gave their lives a sacrifice the weaker ones to save
But He who gave His life for all will sanctify their grave
Where separations never come, and grief will be no more
When reunited loved ones meet up and on the other shore
Oh, may we meet those noble men who on the Titanic gave
Their lives a ransom like their Lord that others they might save