As his wrist was lovingly snapped from the roomy door, and he sank like a frozen angel into the depths of the North Atlantic, who amongst us did not shed a salty tear for the passing of Jack Dawson?
I was so mesmerised when I first saw Titanic, that I began a weekly ritual of stuffing my mother’s shoulder pads into my training bra (to pass for twelve), and solemnly making my pilgrimage to the cinema. Kernel after kernel of popcorn was slowly inserted into my mouth as I stared wide eyed at the screen, the flickering images of Leo’s hair, Kate’s tits, and icebergs reflected in my heart shaped pupils. Twenty one times I went to see it at the movies. That is a lot of DiCaprio. Posters of Ginger Spice began to be plastered over by Leo’s icy blues, and my Top of The Pops magazines lay in tatters around my bed as I adoringly snipped out anything Titanic related. I was obsessed.
And so imagine my surprise to discover that a most fascinatingly sinister little slither of information had passed me by, after all my years of maniacal interest.
While researching an article on Victorian spiritualists, I came across a Titanic passenger named William Stead. Stead (1849 -1912) was a newspaper editor and rather radical journalist for his time. He launched a campaign against child prostitution, and had the legal age of consent raised from 13 to 16. Pretty nifty, eh? In fact, he was said to be an all round brilliant man, who spent his last evening on board the Titanic telling hair-raising tales of cursed mummies, and chortling through his eleven course meal. He had been on his way to a peace congress at Carnegie Hall, and it was said that he was due to receive a Nobel Peace Prize that year. As the boat sank, he helped women and children into the boats, and gave away his own lifejacket to another passenger. Top bloke.
Here’s the interesting thing. While in the 1890’s he did go on to develop a strong interest in spiritualism, in 1886 he had had, as yet, no supposed contact with the supernatural. He had always claimed that he would die from either drowning or lynching, and in March of that year he wrote and published a short story called How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor.
The short story is believed by many to portend the sinking of the Titanic nearly thirty years later, and it is easy to see why. Written to highlight the dangers of a ship with insufficient lifeboats, there are a number of parallels to the real disaster.
Shortage of boats. The Titanic carried 2,208 passengers, and yet only had enough boats for half, 1,178. In Stead’s short story the ship has 916 passengers, and had enough lifeboats for 390.
Boats half filled. Despite having enough boats for half of the passengers, only 701-713 people survived the sinking of the Titanic, as the chaos and confusion on deck meant that the lifeboats were launched only partially filled. This is also the case in Stead’s story, and in both the crew had to shoot male passengers who were trying to jump into the boats.
“Meanwhile the captain had reloaded—alas! what a pity he only had two barrels— and a third and fourth boat went off with half their proper complement.”
The Steamers Sank At Night. The Titanic sank at 02.20am, and in Stead’s story the boat goes down just before dawn, with many of the passengers still in their nightclothes as they swarmed, terrified on the deck.
The Dark Haired Girl and JJ Astor. Stead writes of being drawn to an Englishman and his beautiful dark haired daughter;
“One Englishman of distinction attracted me strangely. He had his wife and family with him, and a more beautiful group I never saw. The eldest girl was a dark beauty about eighteen years of age, and it was a pretty sight to see the father beau-ing her about.”
The last time that Stead was seen alive, he was clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor, the richest man on the ship, and potentially in the world at the time of his death. JJ Astor was on board with his new dark haired bride, 20 year old Madeline Astor, twenty seven years his junior. It is interesting that Stead’s narrator is drawn to this passenger, when he so closely resembles the man that he would die with.
While there is some dispute as to the last words of JJ Astor, reports agree that one of his final acts was to give his place in the lifeboat with his wife to either a woman and her daughter or to two children. He was later seen calmly smoking a cigarette on the deck. The older gentleman in Stead’s story behaved in a remarkably similar manner.
“Women first here. Thompson, you will steer her. Take four men, and no more. The young English lady was lowered down, although she clung hard to her father and begged him to let her stay. “No, darling, good-bye. Be happy!” he said, and then stood composedly amid the hurly-burly.”
Tragically for Stead, one aspect of the story which proved not to be prophetic was his own survival. While his narrator does fall into the sea,
“I heard a humming noise in my ears, and with a gasp I was up amid a blackened, wriggling sheet of drowning creatures, “
He is rescued by a lifeboat that drifts past him. While Stead’s body was never found, we do know that he was with Astor at the end, and that he drowned or froze to death in the North Atlantic.
As a caveat to his tale, William Stead added an editors note at the bottom. It read,
[NOTE.— This is exactly what might take place and what will take place if the liners are sent to sea short of boats.—ED.]
Rather chilling, wouldn’t you say? The Titanic remains one of the most fascinating moments in history for me, and having discovered Stead’s haunting foreshadowing of the event, I think I love it now more than ever.