Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday

As there is no fixed date for Easter, I have not included one in the above "Title".  BUT it does usually come sometime in early April.  More about that ("the Easter Rule") below.  But it is the celebration in the Christian religion of the day when Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, following His crucifixion by the Roman authorities in Judea. This idea that Christ was crucified by the Romans and that in this way he paid for the sins of mankind,  that he overcame death and was resurrected into eternal life is central to the faith of Christians all over the world. As it is a faith belief, I will not attempt to document it as historical fact, although there is a very great deal about the life and death of Jesus Christ that can in fact be documented.   That it was merely the end of His life as a human being who walked among us,  and the beginning of His eternal life after His physical death must remain a point of faith for me and Christians like me (depiction of the resurrection of Jesus by Bernhard Plockhorst, 19th century).   That said, let's move on to a bit about Easter traditions.....

Easter From the Second Century in Rome

The fact that easter became a festival of holy days is an example of the early church's successful practice of co-opting popular pagan holidays (like Christmas for example), and making them part of regular christian life and traditions.  Christian missionaries who fanned out across Europe in the Second Century faced many customs and pagan beliefs already in place.  These missionaries tried to avoid interfering with these practices too much, preferring to tranform these practices into traditions which harmonized as seamlessly as possible with Christian doctrines.  This was for the very practical reason of avoiding persecution.  If the Christian rite was held at the same time and in a similar way as the pagan rite, then the new Christians might possibly survive long enough to spread the word.  The old festival of "Eastre" which celebrated the coming of the spring came at about the same as the new Christian's celebration of Christ's resurrection.  So the early missionaries simply held their "Eastre" celebrations at that same time, and thus avoided much of the persecution which might have come their way.   For years "Easter" (as it came to be spelled) was held variously on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.  But in 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea, which had been convened  by the Roman Emperor Constantine (above, Emperor from 306 to 337) who had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire isued the "Easter Rule" which stated that Easter was to be celebrated on "the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox." Therefore, Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25. 

 The Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, etc.

Our old friend "the Easter Bunny" originates  from the fact that according to the English historian, the Venerable Bede (an English Monk at the Northumbrian monestary of Saint Peter), the goddess of Eastre was worshiped by the Anglo-Saxons in the person of her earthly incarnation or symbol, the hare. The idea of the Easter Hare spread eventually to the Germans, who brought it to America in the 18'th & 19'th centuries.  The tradition was disdained by the Quakers, and other groups who thought that a white rabbit was rather a frivolous symbol for a serious event like Easter. Only after the Civil War with all of it's murderous destruction did the tradition of Easter, with it's emphasis on life after death, and with it the easter Bunny come to be celebrated throughout the country.  The Easter Egg goes waaaay back in time. The Egyptians placed eggs in their tombs and the Greeks placed them on top of graves. Tradition has it that Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Christ's cross to Mt. Calvary earned his living as an egg merchant. When he returned to his farm after the crucifixion he found that his eggs had all turned a fabulous array of colors.  So it was easy for the early church to come up with this symbol for Easter. This tradition went in all manner of directions.  During the 1880's in Germany,  for example Easter eggs were actually a substitute in some areas for a birth certificate.  The egg would be dyed a solid color, and the child's name and birthdate would then be etched into the shell with a sharp tool.  Eggs of this type would actually be honored in courts as evidence of the child's age and identity.  And of course there were the fabulous jewel encrusted Faberge' eggs which were created by Peter Carl Faberge' for the Russian royal family beginning in 1886 (one of which is pictured above). Of the 50 eggs made by Faberge' through 1918, 42 have survived in museums around the world, and are valued well into the millions! But it is the symbolic value of life renewed that makes the colored Easter egg so appropriate for this holiest day in the Christian calender! So HAPPY EASTER!!

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!



by Charles Panati, Harper & Row, New York,


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APRIL 20 = Adolf Hitler is Born

On today’s date, April 20, in the year 1889 at 6:30 in the evening was born one of, if not the most monstrous individual ever to walk the earth – Adolf Hitler. Just as the great leader of France – Napoleon, was not actually born in France, but rather on the island of Corsica, Adolf Hitler was not actually born in Germany, but in Austria, specifically in the small town of Braunau am Inn, across the border from Bavaria. Hitler’s father, Alois was a minor Austrian customs official. Alois was the illegitimate son of Johann Hiedler and a peasant woman from the village of Strones, one Maria Anna Schiklgruber, and had only taken the name of Hitler in 1876, when the old man had returned to the scene after a long absence and testified before a notary that he was in fact the father. By this time he was spelling his name “Hitler” and thus his son took that name. Hitler’s mother, was actually the second cousin of Alois, Klara Poelzl (the two had to acquire an Episcopal Dispensation to permit the marriage), who was 25 at the time of the marriage, while Alois was 48. It was the third marriage for Alois, and Adolf was the third child. The first two children died in infancy, and the fourth, Edmund died at age 6. Only the fifth child, a daughter, Paula, would live into adulthood, as did Hitler’s half brother, Alois.

Vater und Mutter, Alois, Angela, and Geli

Hitler’s father, with whom he had a very strained relationship (Alois had wanted his son to follow him as a civil servant, while Adolf had…. other ideas) died in 1903. His mother, whom he loved dearly then at age 42, moved young Adolf and his sister to Urfahr – a suburb of Linz. There, she supported herself and her two children as best she could on her small savings and her late husband’s pension. She died on Dec. 21, 1908 when Adolf was 19 years old. His half-brother Alois would eventually wind up as the owner of a small beer house in Berlin. Adolf didn’t much like him, and didn’t wish to hear his name mentioned. His sister Paula
survived him. He also had a half-sister, Angela. He brought her to Berchtesgaden as his housekeeper. Angela had a daughter, Geli,(pictured, right) with whom Hitler would have the one true love affair of his life, other of course than with himself and his ambition.  BUT... just imagine: his father could just as easily have taken the name of "Schiklgruber".  Can you picture it?? "HEIL SCHIKLGRUBER!!" I don't think so....

Hitler: An Evil Genius

ANYWAY... those are the bare facts of Adolf Hitler’s birth, his very early life and his family. But what can one say of the man, the monster, and his place in history? I shall leave that task to the historian and reporter William L. Shirer who saw so much of the history of Hitler’s Third Reich first hand. He was the man who in the words of historian William Manchester, “saw it all, and saw it first.” In the very early pages of his huge, but fascinating book, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” , Shirer wrote that Hitler

“…who founded the Third Reich, who ruled it ruthlessly and often with uncommon shrewdness, who led it to such dizzy heights and such a sorry end, was a person of undoubted, if evil genius. It is true that in the German people, as a mysterious Providence and centuries of experience had molded them up to that time, he found a natural instrument which he was able to shape to his own sinister ends. But without Adolf Hitler, who was possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect, a soaring imagination and – until the end, when, drunk with power and success, he overreached himself – an amazing capacity to size up people and situations, there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich.”

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


by William Shirer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

APRIL 19 = Lord Byron Dies

"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

The Death of Lord Byron

So wrote George Gordon, better known to the world as Lord Byron, who died in what is now Greece on today's date, April 19, in 1824. He wrote these words in 1815 after meeting his beautiful young cousin by marriage, Mrs. Robert John Wilmot, who was wearing a black mourning gown brightened with spangles. Byron had many close relationships with the women in his life which were of a more intimate nature than the verse quoted above. The scandal surrounding his divorce forced him to leave England in 1816. He settled in Switzerland near the home of fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It was Mary Wollstonecraft who commented on Byron's volatile temperament some years after his death after reading a collection of his work:

"The Lord Byron I find there is our Lord Byron -- the fascinating. faulty, childish, philosophical being, daring the world, docile in to a private circle, impetuous and indolent, gloomy, and yet more gay than any other....(I become) reconciled to those waywardnesses which annoyed me when he was away through the delightful and buoyant tone of his conversation and manners."

Lord Byron died in Greece where he had gone to show his support for Greek independence from Turkey. The remainder of "She walks in beauty":

"One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!"

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


"Lord Byron: The Major Works" by George Gordon Lord Byron (Author), Jerome J. McGann (Editor), Oxford World's Classics

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Friday, April 18, 2014

APRIL 18 = The Great San Francisco Earthquake

"The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, and billowing as they came."

That was how San Francisco Police Sergeant Jesse Cook described the opening moments of the great San Francisco earthquake which took place on today's date, April 18, in 1906. The earthquake, which came from the infamous 600 mile-long San Andreas Fault registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, and lasted about seventy-five seconds in two separate jolts. Thousands of cheaply made buildings on landfill areas of the city were wrecked, and as huge fissures opened and closed, most of the city's gas and water mains ruptured. The fires which broke out after the quake burned for three days.

Chief Sullivan Might Have Saved the Day...

The death and destruction are all the more horrendous when considered in light of the fact that the bulk of it might have been avoided. Chief Dennis T. Sullivan (pictured, below right)
of the San Francisco Fire Department had worked hard for years on an elaborate plan to fight the huge blaze which he feared would one day strike the city. His plan included a system of fire-breaks and the reactivation of old cisterns for emergency use. Funding his plan brought the Chief into combat with corrupt politicians. But he courageously persisted. Tragically for the city, Chief Sullivan's plan would never go into effect. After a social gathering on the night of the 17'th followed by a call to two fire scenes, Chief and Mrs. Sullivan elected to spend the night at the fire station on Bush St. rather than make the long drive home. They retired to separate rooms on the third floor at 3:00 a.m. When the quake struck just after 5:00 a.m., Chief Sullivan awakened to masonry crashing all around him. He ran to the jammed door of his wife's room. Forcing it open, he fell three stories through a huge hole in the floor caused by the quake. He sustained multiple fractures, and was in a coma. He died several hours later. The city's magnificent City hall was ruined. Luxurious Hotels crashed to the street. Sam Wolfe, a guest of the Grand Hotel, ran for his life as the building disintegrated with the quakes arrival. He found the street to be equally dangerous:

"The street seemed to move like waves of water. On my way down Market Street the whole side of a building fell out and came so near me that I was covered and blinded by the dust. Then I saw the first dead come by. They were piled up in an automobile like carcasses in a butcher's wagon, all over blood, with crushed skulls, and broken limbs, and bloody faces. A man cried out to me, "Look out for that live wire!" I had just time to sidestep certain death."

The Great Caruso Is Caught in the Quake

Rich and poor, famous and obscure alike were thrown into chaos. The great operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso (pictured, below left)
who the night before had performed in a production of Bizet's Opera "Carmen", was driven from his hotel into the street where he sat atop a wagon clutching an autographed picture of Theodore Roosevelt, and guarding his belongings with a pistol. A young actor named John Barrymore, (below, right) then unknown, had finished a performance of a play he hated, and afterward he
dressed in his tuxedo to go spend his night drinking. By the time the quake hit he was wondering the streets fully inebriated, secure in the belief that the chaos would lead his troupe to assume he was a victim of the quake and leave without him, thus getting him out of his contract. He stayed loaded for two days, and the troupe did indeed leave without him. Millionaire C.C. Kendallof Omaha, was driven from his room at the Palace Hotel and sought like almost everyone, to escape the city. He headed for the ferry and found himself part of a desperate crowd:

"It (was) only a few blocks from the the ferry, but it took me from 6:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. to cover the space.... Men and women fought about the entrance to the ferry like a band of infuriated animals. I made my escape -- I do not know how, for I was as desperate as any of them. As the boat pulled over the bay, the smoke and flame rose sky high, and the roar of falling buildings and cries of the people rent the air."

Italian Wine, Fixed Bayonets, and General Funston.

The 585 man fire department, minus the leadership of it's dead chief, found it's efforts frustrated because water mains were smashed throughout the city. The Italian community around Telegraph Hill turned to using over 1,000 gallons of wine from their cellars to hold back the flames. Upon hearing reports of widespread looting, Brigadier General Fredrick Funston (below)
took the liberty of declaring martial law and called out troops from the Presidio Army base, ordering them into the streets with bayonets fixed. Funston had not consulted any civil authority, but the city's corrupt mayor, Eugene E. Schmitz, pretended that he had given his consent. As the city whose treasury he had so happily looted went up in flames, Schmitz gave his full approval to the wholesale execution of looters and mere suspected looters that was being conducted by Funston's troops and vigilante groups as well. The efforts of the troops to use explosives to stop the flames proved ineffective, and thousands of refuges were driven by the second day to take refuge in Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio. The troops took axes and broke open warehouses of food in order to feed them. The exodus continued into the third day with more than 75,000 making it across the bay to Oakland, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Many more moved into the hills just outside the city limits. The fire was finally stopped on the broad expanse of Van Ness Avenue where squads using dynamite at last created several successful backfires. But by that time the flames had consumed 520 city blocks, and over 28,000 buildings. Damages totaled over five hundred million dollars. Of the buildings destroyed, half were homes. More than 700 people were killed.

And Enrico Caruso never returned to San Francisco again.

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!

Darkest Hours : A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times by Jay Robert Nash, Nelson-Hall Publ.,
Chicago, 1976. pp. 490 - 507.

Disaster!: The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fire of 1906by Dan Kurzman, Harper Collins Publ., New York, 2001

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

APRIL 17 = Apollo 13 Returns to Earth

Bergman : "The one un-jinxed element of this flight in addition to their survival.   Beautiful pictures, the para- chutes opening... descen- ding into a slight cloud cover over the Pacific.  But a spectacularly clear day after earlier threats of bad weather. And a mill pond sea... calm as could be."  Reynolds: "And there's the splash..." 

These were the words of two ABC newsmen, Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds as they describe the return of Apollo 13 to planet earth on today's date, April 17 in 1970.  Apollo 13 had suffered a major malfunction which had put the Astronaut's lives in danger for several days, until the return to a safe splashdown on this date.  It had been only a few minutes before the splashdown that we found out that the Astronauts had survived.

Apollo 13's Ill-fated Mission to the Moon

Apollo 13's  mission had been to land on and explore the Fra Mauro highlands, which had been named after the 80-kilometer-diameter Fra Mauro crater inside of it. It is a very large, hilly area thought to be composed of moon rocks from the impact that began the moons formation. The mission had been launched on April 11.  Aboard Apollo 13 were (pictured above, L to R) the mission commander. James A. Lovell for whom this was the fourth and final space flight, and with him were John L. Swigert, the command module pilot and Fred Haise, the pilot of the lunar module.  This was the first space flight for Swigert and Haise. All three were former test pilots.

"Houston. we've had a problem..."

On the afternoon of April 14 a significant problem arose.  Mission Control asked Swigert to turn on the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, and he did. About a minute and a half later, the astronauts heard a "loud bang," in addition to changes in electrical power and firing of the attitude control thrusters. This is when Swigert made the famous report to the Johnson Space Center in
Houston (where Mission Control - pictured left - was located): "Houston, we've had a problem." About two minutes of their subsequent conversation can be heard on a Wikipedia Sound File by clicking on the highlighted words in the quotation at the top of this paragraph.  In that recording you can hear the crew reporting not only the "loud bang" that they heard, but also right at the end you can hear them reporting that they could see that they were venting some sort of gas into space.  At first, the crew thought that a meteoroid might have hit the Lunar Module. But what had actually happened was that the number-2 oxygen tank, one of two in the Service Module, had exploded due to some faulty wiring insulation.  This explosion had taken out the ship's main supply
of air and power. Lovell said later that he thought "...the odds were very small at that time that we were going to get out of this alive." 

The Perilous  Return Trip

With so much of their oxygen gone, the decision was sorrowfully made that the landing on the moon would have to be cancelled.  The only hope of success would now be to get the crew back to earth alive. This with depleted energy left on the space craft meant
that a whole bunch of new emer- gency proce-  dures would have to be impro- vised.  This also  brought the dangerous situation into the focus of television news all over the world.  As Americans and people around the world, anxiously followed the situation on TV, a whole array of jury rig-type solutions were utilized.  The craft was taken around the moon to use the its gravitational pull to fire the modules back toward earth.  Various odds and ends around the craft were put together into a make-shift purifier to leave enough breathable air for the men to breathe (pictured, above).  And a whole series of dramatic and quite untried navigational maneuvers had to be used in order to correct Apollo 13's course in order to bring her back into the earth's orbit at the right place.  And to top it all off nobody was at all sure that Apollo 13's heat shield had survived thee initial explosion.  So as said before, it was not until after a six minute radio silence during the plunge to the ocean that anybody could be certain that the crew had not burnt up during re-entry.  But they had indeed survived.

"When that spacecraft splashed down an water came over the windows," Jim Lovell would later remember, "I said 'Hey, we're home!!'" 


"Apollo 13", directed by Ron Howard, 1995.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

APRIL 16 = "Bat" Masterson's Last Gunfight

"I have come or a thousand miles to settle this! I know you are heeled, now fight!"

With this belligerent cry, Bat Masterson began the final shootout of his fabled career as a gunslinger on today's date, April 16, in 1881.

"Bat" Masterson's Rise as a Gunfighter

Bartholemew "Bat" Masterson (pictured above, circa 1879) had been born on November 26, 1856, the second of five boys of a Kansas homesteader. Two of Bat's brothers, Jim and Ed also became known for their exploits with the guns, but it was Bat, with his slate-blue eyes, compact build, and handsome mustachioed appearance who became the best known of the three. He fought his first gun battle in Sweetwater Texas in 1876. It seems that he had taken up with a local girl named Molly Brennan. BUT, Molly had a boyfriend, one US Army Sergeant Melvin King, who found them together one night. King began shooting, and apparently, Molly threw herself in front of Bat to protect him from King's bullets. Molly was killed instantly when one of King's bullets passed through her, and lodged in Bat's pelvis. King was cocking his gun for another shot when Bat got off a fatal shot at King as he fell. While convalescing, Masterson used a cane to help himself walk. He had a slight limp thereafter, but even after he no longer needed the cane, he carried it - likely as an adornment to his rather dandified appearance.

"Bat" Masterson as an Elected, Official Lawman

He joined his brothers as lawmen in the rugged town of Dodge City, Kansas in 1877 wherein he served as a sheriff's deputy alongside Wyatt Earp. He was later elected sheriff of Ford County in Kansas. In this job, he won accolades for his capture of the train-robbing Roark Gang, and for leading the posse that captured the killer Jim Kenedy, whom he wound up killing with a shot through the shoulder. During this time, Masterson was involved in a shootout which lead to the death of Ed, his older brother. Ed was attempting to arrest two cattle drivers, Jack Wagner and Alf Walker, when he was killed.
Bat was nearby and claimed to have fired the shots which felled Wagner (who died the next day). Contemporary newspaper accounts were ambiguous as to whether Bat had actually played such a pivotal role in the fight, but Bat's testimony in subsequent court cases on the (pictured above, Masterson's Colt Revolver) fight leave little doubt that he had played the role of his older brother's avenger. In spite of having thus acquired a reputation of being a tough, reliable lawman, Bat was defeated for re-election as Ford County Sheriff in 1879.

Masterson's Last Gunfight - April 16, 1881

His last fight came in 1881 during a time when Bat earned a living as a gambler. He was in Tombstone. Arizona when he received news that his younger brother Jim was having trouble back in Dodge with two business associates, A.J. Peacock and Al Updegraff. Bat immediately boarded a train for Kansas. It was within minutes of his arrival in Dodge that Bat spied his brother's two antagonists across the street, triggering his cry that he had travelled far to settle the matter. The gunfight lasted for three or four minutes with Peacock and Updegraff taking cover around the corner of the city jail, and Bat diving behind a railway embankment. Several other bystanders became involved, and at one point a shot ricocheted close enough to Bat that he could taste the dirt in his mouth. Eventually, Updegraff was wounded when one of Bat's shots pierced his right lung. The local officials in Dodge soon arrived and put an end to the gun play. Updegraff was wounded along with a bystander, but nobody was killed. It was decided that by Western standards, the fight had been conducted fairly enough, and after paying a $10.00 fine, Bat Masterson left town that very evening.

Masterson's Philosophy of the Gunfight(er).....

Although Bat Masterson (pictured, right with "The Dodge City Peace Commission", circa 1883. Masterson is standing, second from right; Wyatt Earp is seated, second from left) never again participated in another gunfight, his fame as a gunslinger/lawman followed him the rest of his life (Bat pictured below in later years). He continued to drift around the west earning his keep as a gambler, and as a town Marshall, and combining the two roles of gambling house manager and town Marshall in Crede, Colorado. Before his death of natural causes in 1921, he turned to writing. Writing in the publication "Human Life" in 1907, he produced the following maxims which shed some light on the attitudes which brought him his life as a fabled gunfighter:

“Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business. Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with the pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use. Then again he may possess both the courage and the experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation.

"Any man who does not possess courage, proficiency in the use of firearms, and deliberation had better make up his mind at the beginning to settle his personal differences in some other manner than by appeal to the pistol. I have known men in the West whose courage could not be questioned and whose expertness with the pistol was simply marvelous, who fell easy victims before men who added deliberation to the other two qualities."

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


by Paul Trachtman, Time/ Life Books "The Old West" Series, Time/Life Books, New York, 1974.

by Joseph G. Rosa, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1964, pp. 115-16

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

APRIL 15 = R.M.S. Titanic Sinks

"The problem every writer faces when trying to write about the "Titanic" is that we are all shackled to using mere words to describe something that is beyond language.  The Titanic sinking is a historical event so primal, so visceral, and so horrible that it soon becomes obvious to the chronicler of such an event that language has not yet evolved to the point where words can truly convey the tragic essence of the disaster." 

- Stepehen J. Spignesi in his book "the Complete Titanic" 

The RMS Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 on the evening of April 14, and sunk at  2:20 a.m. on April 15, in 1912, one hundred two years ago today.  Of the 2200 souls whom she carried on this, her maiden voyage, only 700 survived, mainly because Titanic only stowed enough lifeboats for about a third of her compliment.  Many of those who were killed died of hypothermia from the freezing water of the North Atlantic Ocean while they floated in lifejackets.  But these are facts which every one of you already knows. Let's face it: this is one historical event which has been covered and recovered many times over.  I waited until 2012, the centennial, not from lack of interest. Afterall, the address here is "historysstory" , and there is surely no single historical event that is more rich in stories than this one.  But as Mr. Spagnoli so aptly puts it above, words pale before this tragedy. And how to do something that you have not already read or seen in the movies?  As I am a musician, I shall focus primarily on those men who played on in the face of what they surely knew to be certain death.

RMS Titanic, the  "Unsinkable" Ship of Dreams Strikes an Iceberg

The Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) "Tit- anic" was to be the pride of the White Star Line. At over 800 feet in length, she was the biggest, most luxurious ship afloat. White Star, the shipping company had constructed her and her sister ship the Olympic to compete with their rivals, the Cunard line. There was much money to be had in transatlantic crossings, mainly by filling as many Third Class, or "Steerage" passengers as possible on board at @ 900 Pounds Sterling. This was a lot, but immigrants lured by the accommodations - which in Titanic made Third Class as good as second class on most ships, flocked to this big new ship.  Everything after that was pure profit for the White Star Line.  And Titanic had the most luxurious accommodations in the world to attract the cream of society's elite.  With extra luxurious state rooms (pictured above), an exercise gym, a heated pool, a Turkish Bath and countless other high-class frills, Titanic had attracted J.J. Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss, and countless others of society's notables to make this truly the ship of dreams for the upper crust in the First Class, and the lower class in Steerage, and everyone in between. Captain Edward J. Smith was in command of Titanic, this was to be his final voyage before retiring. And Thomas Andrews, who had designed the Titanic was also aboard lovingly checking every detail of the ships operation, and determined to note and fix anything that wasn't working.

And in the true spirit of the age she was deemed "unsink- able" due to her division into sixteen water-tight compartments. In the event of an accident, each one of these compartments could be sealed off. Titanic could still float with any four of these compartments flooded.  Thus she was practically unsinkable.  But after four days of idyllic happiness, this wonder of this age of progress met her match in a ten thousand year old hunk of ice. At @11:40 on the night of April 14, she was making a speedy 22 knots.  Captain Smith had retired for the night, leaving the ship under the command of his First Officer , William T. Murdock. The water was extra calm, almost like glass. It was a moonless , but very clear night.  Thus the icebergs from the Greenland Ice field through which Titanic was passing had no illumination, and no waves braking against their water lines. So when Titanic came upon an iceberg, Seamen Frederick Fleet stationed in the crow's nest of Titanic's foremast did not see it until it was too late for the great ship to avoid. 

"ICEBERG RIGHT AHEAD!!" Fleet yelled into his phone to the bridge. "Jesus Mary!!" First Officer Murdock whispered as he struggled to dodge the berg. "Hard-a-starboard!!" he yelled to Wheelman Robert Hitchens. Hithcens threw himself against the Titanic's wheel with all of his might. "Wheel hard over!" Hitchens yelled. "Hard-a-port" Murdock yelled back. Titanic seemed to miss the berg by a few feet, but she had in fact struck it hard on her starboard side sustaining a gash of over three hundred feet in her hull. The rivets which held her together had popped out of their moorings under pressure from the jagged edge of the iceberg, and the steel plates which they held in place gave way. Slowly, inexorably the mighty and unsinkable Titanic began to fill with water. And the watertight compartments which only went as high as "E" Deck were powerless to stop it as the water pulled her down by the bow and began to flow over the top of the compartments, one filling into the next just like an ice cube tray (note diagram above). Mr. Andrews, called by Captain Smith to inspect the damage quickly came to the conclusion that Titanic was doomed, and that she had about an hour and a half to live.

Titanic's Orchestra Plays to the End

Titanic's Orchestra was actually divided into two separate groups which played at different times and in different parts of the ship,  lead by Violinist Wallace Hartley (right), whose quintet played at most of the main functions such as dinner, and a Trio which played in the reception room outside of Titanic's "Cafe' Parisien".  The other members of the Orchestra were: Georges A. Krins &; John L. Hume (violin), Theodore R. Bailey &; Percy C. Taylor, Piano, Roger M. Bricoux &; John W. Woodward, Cello,  and John Frederick Preston Clarke, Double Bass, who is also listed in some sources as playing Viola as well. Once the berg had been struck, and the passengers began assembling in their life jackets, Hartley and his fellow orchestra members assembled in the First Class Lounge and began playing mostly ragtime tunes in order to help keep the passengers calm.  Whether they were ordered to play, or did so of their own volition is unknown.  And exactly what instrumentation they used is something which I have been unable to find recorded anywhere which is hardly surprising.  Doubtless, people had more important things on their minds than noting which members of the Orchestra were playing.  But play they did.  When the passengers actually began to board the lifeboats, following the orders of the Captain, women and children first, they moved to the front half of the boat deck.  The following quote from shtml sums up their experience as well as anything I have read:

"What went through their minds as they played together on that night can only be guessed.  As the slant of the decks increased more and more, did they even consider that this was their last hour alive, or did one or two of them hold out a slight hope that eventually one of the officers would amble over, and instruct them to a life boat?  Whatever their thoughts were, we will never know.  All eight bandsmen were lost."

My guess, as a musician is that they were aware that women and children were being taken off the ship first, that they were unlikely to find a spot for themselves.  And they therefore elected to spend what were clearly going to be their last hours on earth playing rather than in a panic about their inescapable fate.  Frankly, I've often thought that had I been Mr. Clarke, I may have given some thought to making my Double Bass into a floatational device.  But Fred Clarke (I've read his name listed that way in at least one source) evidently decided to help his fellow musicians in the selfless task of calming their fellow passengers in their final moments.  Every survivor's account testifies to the fact that the orchestra played throughout the final crisis; clearly they were made of sterner stuff than I can imagine finding in myself. There have been reports that the violin owned by Wallace Hartley may have been recovered and will be auctioned soon. For my take on that see the special "Today in History" posting
on March 28: "The Titanic Violin?"

"Nearer My God to Thee" or "Song D'Automne"?

There have been conflicting reports over the years as to which tune was the last that the Orchestra was heard playing.  There is at least one report that it was "Song D'Automne, which was among the tunes which the Orchestra had in it's playbook.   But there are many more accounts that the last tune heard was the Hymn "Nearer My God to Thee". The hymn certainly seems appropriate for the situation, and that has been the tune which the orchestra was depicted playing in three major film versions of the story.  But the answer to this question is something which will never be known.  I have also found conflicting information both in print and online as to how many of the musician's bodies were ever recovered. Wallace Hartley's body was certainly recovered, as was Fred Clarke's.  In fact Hartley's body was interred while "Nearer My  God to Thee" was played by an orchestra. As reported in the Calgary Herald:

" 'I shall never forget hearing the strains of that beautiful hymn as I was leaving the sinking ship,' an anonymous rescued sailor told the 'Western Daily Mercury' in 1912.  'It was a favorite hymn of mine, but at such a time and under such tragic circumstances it had for me a solemnity too deep for words.' "

Most of Titanic's Passengers Go Down With Her.

Only seven hundred five of those who sailed on RMS Titanic managed to survive the night of April15, 1912. Millionaire Isador Strauss met his God in the company of his wife, who refused to leave without him.  Another millionaire, Benjamin Guggenheim, determined to leave his earthly life as a gentleman, dressed , as did his loyal valet, in his finest evening coat, and drowned so attired.  Thomas Andrews, who had taken such filial pride in his ship, spent a great deal of time helping passengers into the life boats, and was last seen in the First Class Lounge staring into space.  There have been conflicting reports over the years as to the last siting of Captain Smith, but he definitely followed the old tradition that the captain goes down with the ship.  Not so White Star's General Director, Bruce Ismay who, like Mr. Andrews also spent considerable time helping passengers into seats in the life boats, before helping himself to one.  He lived in infamy forever after.  Fifteen hundred seventeen men women and children perished that night. About 75% of the Steerage passengers, whose hopes for a better life formed such a big portion of Titanic's economic base were lost. The survivors were all picked up by the liner "Carpathia" whose captain, Arthur Rostron heroically rushed his ship beyond her expected endurance to the scene of the disaster.

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 by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1976

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