Sacrifice at sea
Nearly 100 years ago, a friend gave the last seat in the last lifeboat to a Belmont woman, allowing her to survive the sinking of the Titanic
In the final minutes before the Titanic plunged into icy waters, one of the ship’s first-class passengers tried to shepherd two women onto a lifeboat ready to be lowered into the sea.
The younger of the women, Edith Evans, held back. “You go first, you have children at home,’’ she urged her friend, Caroline Lamson Brown, a 59-year-old Belmont woman returning from her sister’s funeral in England, according to accounts.
Brown obliged, and became the last person to step off the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat, according to numerous accounts. (Some passengers who jumped or were washed off the sinking ship managed to get into lifeboats and survived.)
Evans, 36, perished, along with about 1,500 other passengers aboard the British luxury liner in 1912. Her body was never recovered.
“It was a heroic sacrifice, and as long as life lasts I shall hold her memory dear as my preserver, who preferred to die so that I might live,’’ Brown said at a memorial service for Evans in New York City’s Grace Chapel, according to the New York Herald.
April 15 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most infamous maritime disasters in history, when the “unsinkable’’ ship sank in the North Atlantic hours after striking an iceberg near Newfoundland.
An Acton genealogist, Dennis J. Ahern, has been observing the anniversary by speaking about Brown, who also lived in Acton after she returned home. He will give a talk, “Acton’s Unsinkable Mrs. Brown,’’ at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Acton Memorial Library, 486 Main St.
Ahern learned about Brown soon after he became a trustee of the Acton library in 1982. He heard that an earlier trustee had been a Titanic survivor, and he began to research her.
Jonathan Keyes, who lives in Concord with his wife, Judy, is Brown’s great-grandson. So was his cousin, Stedman Buttrick Jr., also of Concord, who died last year. The family had never talked about their relatives aboard the Titanic, Judy Keyes said. (Brown was traveling with her two sisters, who also survived.) Judy Keyes discovered her husband’s link to the ship within the last five years, while doing her own genealogical research.
“There was virtually no talk about it,’’ she said. “I wonder if it wasn’t extremely traumatic.’’
Another local family lost a loved one in the disaster. Lexington resident Arthur Webster Newell and his two daughters, Madeleine and Marjorie, were returning to the United States on the Titanic after a trip to the Middle East.
Newell’s wife, Mary, and a third daughter, Alice, still recovering from an earlier three-month trip to Europe, had stayed at home in Lexington. Newell, chairman of the Fourth National Bank of Boston, wanted to visit biblical cities, including Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
When the Titanic began to sink, Newell, 58, led his daughters to one of the lifeboats and helped them aboard. He told them they would have to row around until the ship could be repaired. He stayed behind.
Newell’s body was later retrieved from the sea, and his gold watch and chain were given to his family. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. His wife and daughters would eventually be buried beside him.
Newell’s wife, Mary, never remarried and died in 1957, at the age of 103. She slept with her late husband’s watch under her pillow, and never allowed the Titanic to be mentioned in her house.
Another Belmont resident, Henry Hart, also perished when the Titanic sank. Hart, who was born in Ireland, worked as a coachman for a wealthy family in Belmont. He married Delia McGillicuddy, another servant in the household, in 1911 at St. Joseph’s Church in Belmont, Ahern said.
The newlyweds returned to Ireland shortly afterward to meet her family, and when Delia became pregnant, she stayed behind. Hart booked passage on the Titanic to return to America.
Hart, 27, was a third-class passenger. Only about 25 percent of the third-class passengers survived, and few of the survivors were men. Delia gave birth to a boy, and named him after his father.
The story of Edith Evans giving up her seat to Caroline Lamson Brown traveled around the world. But it is not clear why Evans didn’t also climb into the lifeboat, which was not filled to capacity, Ahern said.
A new book suggests that a member of the crew, William A. Lucas, did not fill the boat with passengers because he believed one of the plugs was missing, which would allow water to seep in. Lucas initially turned away both Evans and Brown, according to Andrew Wilson’s book, “Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived,’’ but Evans persuaded him to allow Brown into the boat.
Lucas, who survived, remained haunted by the legion of dead passengers, Wilson wrote. He committed suicide in 1921, when he was 35.
Some researchers have suggested Evans might have been afraid to be lowered to the ocean’s surface, Ahern said. In the cold and dark, when it wasn’t yet clear that the Titanic would sink, climbing into a small lifeboat was frightening. Another account said Evans had once been told by a fortuneteller to beware water, Ahern said.
“There’s no real good reason why Miss Evans wasn’t loaded into the boat,’’ he said.
When Brown returned to Massachusetts, the local newspapers wrote repeatedly about her. “Girl Went Down to Save Another,’’ read a headline in the Boston Daily Globe on April 21, 1912.
“This heroic young woman gave Mrs. Brown precedence in getting into the last boat to leave the steamship, simply because she knew Mrs. Brown was a mother,” the article said. “When Mrs. Brown had been dropped into the lifeboat the little craft was immediately cast off and the Massachusetts woman called to her friend to follow her, but called in vain.”
In her interview with the Daily Globe, Brown described the Titanic’s final minutes. “We had not been away from the Titanic’s side more than 15 minutes,” she said, “when the end came for the steamship. From the way she sank I feel positive she was practically broken in two. Her bow went under first and she seemed to settle. Then we heard the most awful roaring and rumbling that seemed as if it must be heard over the ocean for miles.
“Next the stern of the once-magnificent vessel reared high in the air and seemed to stand upright in the water for some time before it went down with a long slanting plunge. Dark as it was at the time, we were near enough to see every feature of the ending of the great vessel.”
Brown stayed with her daughter in Concord, and then with her son in Acton as she recovered. Nine days after the accident, her daughter told the Concord Enterprise newspaper that Brown “seemed to have recovered somewhat from the terrible shock, but was still very tired, and her pale face told the sufferings which she had undergone.’’
Brown helped found All Saints Church in Belmont, Ahern said, but eventually sold her home in town and moved to her farm in Acton. She died in 1928, at the age of 75, and is buried with her family in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.