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Disaster recalled

Many passengers with local roots went down with the Titanic when it sank a century ago, but one woman lived to tell the tale

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / April 12, 2012
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One hundred years ago, Boston Globe readers opened their newspapers and were shocked to learn that the unthinkable had happened: The mighty Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable, state-of-the-art luxury liner, had hit an iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, taking about 1,500 lives.

As readers followed the tragedy over the next few days, they read about people from Massachusetts who were aboard the doomed ship. They scanned the names, looking for anyone they recognized. Neighbors. Friends. Co-workers. Relatives.

Several passengers from Southeastern Massachusetts were aboard the Titanic on its first voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. Many of them never made it home.

On April 16, 1912, readers who turned to page 5 of the Globe would have seen the pudgy face of Jacques Futrelle, a novelist from Scituate. Wearing round eyeglasses and his hair swept neatly to the side, Futrelle looked scholarly. He was on the Titanic with his wife, Lily May, and had just celebrated his 37th birthday.

They would have read about Frank D. Millet, a Mattapoisett native who was an internationally known artist. He traveled all over, and lived in New York and Worcestershire, England. He was on his way to New York to visit his brother.

There was a black-and-white photograph of John Maguire, a salesman with the Dunbar Pattern Co. in Brockton. He was dressed smartly in a jacket and tie, with a stiff white collar. He was returning from his first trip abroad - which turned out to be his last.

Above Maguire on page 5, there was a photo of George Quincy Clifford. The 40-year-old Stoughton resident was president of the George E. Belcher Last Co., a factory that produced shoe molds. He had been traveling on business with Maguire and another local shoe industry executive.

A century has passed since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, yet the stories of these passengers and others on the ill-fated voyage still resonate.

That is why Stoughton historian David Allen Lambert decided to lead an effort to dedicate a plaque in his town in memory of Clifford. Many people in Stoughton don’t know that the town lost one of its own in the disaster, he said.

Lambert first heard of Clifford when he was 12. He said Clifford was originally from Brockton and moved to Stoughton in 1909.

In February 1912, he left for Europe accompanied by Maguire and Walter Chamberlain Porter, the president of a shoe last company in Worcester.

Clifford “was out looking for contracts,’’ said Lambert, vice president of the Stoughton Historical Society, who works as an online genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. “Sadly, when he was en route his mother died, and he was notified by telegram when he reached Europe.’’

Clifford and his companions got return tickets on the Titanic. They traveled in first class, and Clifford was assigned cabin A-14.

Clifford’s body was never recovered. Lambert said that in 1912, more than 1,000 people packed Stoughton Town Hall to attend Clifford’s memorial service.

A cenotaph - a monument that marks an empty grave - was placed beside Clifford’s father’s grave in Union Cemetery in Brockton, but there was no nothing in Stoughton to make people aware of Clifford’s loss.

As the 100th anniversary approached, Lambert decided to take action and posted an appeal on Facebook, seeking donations to create a permanent memorial to Clifford.

Lambert ended up raising $500 and used some of his own funds to buy a plaque from the International Bronze Co. of New York. It measures 18 by 14 inches, and cost $595.

The plaque reads: “In memory of George Quincy Clifford (1871-1912), Stoughton citizen who was employed here as the president of the George E. Belcher Last Co. who perished during the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic - April 15, 1912. Presented by the citizens of Stoughton, April 15, 2012.’’

“It’ll be something people can look at 100 years from now,’’ said Lambert. Clifford was “someone we lost who was well-loved. He hasn’t been forgotten.’’

“This can be a Titanic memorial,’’ he said. “It’s just one of the stories of the [estimated] 1,517 souls’’ who died in the Titanic sinking.

More than 2,000 passengers and crew members were aboard the Titanic. The exact number of deaths is not known because of unreliable or disputed records, but it is estimated at about 1,500, scholars say.

Clifford’s shoe mold company was located in a brick building at 4 Capen St., off Route 139. The business is long gone, but the building is still there, now called the Rose Forte Apartment building. The plaque will be unveiled there on Sunday at 2 p.m. and the public is invited to attend.

A brief memorial service will be held in honor of the Titanic victims, and some of Clifford’s descendants are expected to be there to unveil the memorial.

The dedication ceremony will conclude around 2:20 p.m. - about 100 years and 12 hours to the moment the ship disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic. “The bow of the ship slipped through the waves at 2:20 a.m.,’’ said Lambert.

The sinking of the ship was vividly described by Lily May Futrelle, one of the estimated 705 survivors of the Titanic. A native of Georgia, she and her husband, Jacques, resided in Scituate in a home they called “Stepping Stones.’’

Futrelle wrote a detailed account of the sinking a few weeks after the disaster. Her two-part series “remains one of earliest and most authoritative eyewitness accounts of the catastrophe,’’ according to Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law who has done research and written about the Futrelles.

“I think she was a fascinating person,’’ said Wilkes, in a recent telephone interview. She was married to an accomplished author and was a writer herself. She once hosted a radio program for aspiring writers, and her 1911 novel “Secretary of Frivolous Affairs” was later made into a movie, he said.

In her account, Futrelle described being put into a lifeboat while her husband stayed behind. She jumped out before it was lowered into the water, and found her husband. She clung to him, but he told her to remember their children back home. “For God’s sake, go! It’s your last chance, go!’’ he said.

“The last I saw of my husband,’’ Lily May wrote, “he was standing beside [the American financier and multimillionaire] Colonel [John Jacob] Astor. He had a cigarette in his mouth. As I watched him, he lit a match and held it in his cupped hands before his face. By its light I could see his eyes roam anxiously over the water. Then he dropped his head toward his hands and lighted his cigarette. . . . I know those hands never trembled.’’

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the victims and survivors will be remembered during the Titanic Historical Society’s “Titanic Centennial Memorial Weekend,” April 20 to 22, in Springfield and Chicopee.

Established in 1963, the Springfield-based Titanic Historical Society says it is the largest Titanic organization in the world.

The society plans to unveil a new Titanic memorial at Oak Grove Cemetery, 426 Bay St., in Springfield on April 21. The ceremony is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.titanichistoricalsociety.org.

Kathleen Burge of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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