Titanic Stories
Captain Archibald Willingham Butt of Augusta, GA, 1909. He died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Captain Archibald Willingham Butt of Augusta, GA, 1909. He died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

The American passion to centennialize—especially if there’s a buck to be made in the bargain—embraces not only triumphs but tragedies as well, and in both cases, the bigger the better. Thus, we were assured of some truly big-time hoopla and kerfuffle surrounding the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Persistent rumors about my age notwithstanding, I was not around for the actual event and did not share a pint or two with the navigator before he set sail.

In fact, my first knowledge of the sad affair came as a child when I was rummaging through some old books and found what was basically a pictorial history of the ship and a gallery of photographs of all the rich and famous swells who were on board. As an eight-year old I was predictably amused by a photo of one Colonel and Mrs. Archibald Butt. Only later would I learn that “Archie” Butt (as he was known affectionately by friends and confidantes, including Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft) was a fellow Georgian, born in Augusta.

Later still, I would pick up the tale of a certain physician who was not only a Georgian but a fellow Hart Countian. Unfortunately, he was famous among the locals as the kind of fellow who was not known to drink until someone finally saw him sober. In what was surely the mother of all ironies, the good doctor had gone out and gotten himself a good snoot full the night before and consequently missed the Titanic’s maiden and only voyage. Local lore had it that when ol’ Doc finally sobered up, he had piously written his good fortune off as simply “God’s will.”

Only recently did I encounter the truly tender and touching story of a former Georgian, Isidore Strauss, who had spent part of his childhood in tiny Talbotton, Georgia, where his father, Lazarus, ran a dry goods store—until 1863, when the local Grand Jury, acting in rather mindless concert with officials in nearby towns, issued a resolution condemning “the infidel and unpatriotic conduct of the representatives of Jewish houses who had engaged in [the] nefarious business” of war profiteering. As June Hall McCash relates in her terrific new book, A Titanic Love Story, practically everybody in town including every member of the grand jury itself came to assure Lazarus that these words were most certainly not directed at him, Mr. Strauss took the action as a “personal affront,’ loaded up his wagons with family and merchandise and quickly bade Talbotton a none-too fond farewell. Although young Isidore had attempted to enlist in the Confederate Army, after the war the family moved to New York, where Lazarus first leased space for his crockery business from the R. H Macy Company and then became an investor in the company, paving the way for his sons to eventually obtain a controlling interest in the firm. Along the way to great wealthy and a stellar record of philanthropy, Isidore married Ida Brun, the daughter of German immigrants, who would quite literally become the love of his life, and he hers. The extent of their mutual devotion became heartbreakingly clear when Ida declined a spot in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats, choosing instead to die in the icy waters of the Atlantic, cradled in the arms of her beloved Isidor.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines, (along with other assorted know-it-alls of all stripes) have noted the tendency of southern white evangelicals to find a “moral” in every tragedy. Hence among white Southerners especially, the Titanic’s demise naturally became the inspiration for hundreds upon hundreds of sermons, not to mention a number of poems and several songs, the great majority of which chalked the whole sad affair up to man’s arrogance in thinking that mere mortals could ever construct a ship or anything else that God or the forces of nature at his disposal could not destroy. (Think of the debacle described in Genesis when the prideful Babylonians undertook to build a tower that would reach all the way to Heaven.) This was the principal theme of Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman’s 1924 recording”>, “The Sinking of the Titanic:”

When they were building the Titanic, they said what they could do.
They were going to build a ship that no water could not go through,
But God with his mighty hand showed to the world it could not stand.
It was sad when that great ship went down.
There was also a stern rebuke for the rich for shunning the huddled masses fatally consigned to steerage:
When they left Eng-a-land, they were making for the shore.
The rich they declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they sent the poor below, they were the first that had to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

While it is true that black and white Southerners share a rich history, it is also true that they frequently experienced and perceived it quite differently. For example, Reconstruction seemed a period of liberation and great promise for blacks and one of distress and travail for whites. Accordingly, an event where more than 1,000 whites lost their lives got a distinctly different treatment at the hands of black musical artists and storytellers. For bluesman and folk artist Huddie”> Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” the central message of the Titanic affair lay in reports that world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, a larger-than-life black folk hero who beat down any and all white challengers and showed a distinct preference for white women as sexual companions, was denied passage on the Titanic because of his race:

Captain Smith, when he got his load
Mighta heard him holl’in’ “All aboa’d “
Cryin’, Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.
Jack Johnson wanted to get on boa’d;
Captain Smith hollered, “I ain’ haulin’ no coal.”
Cryin’, Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.

Thus not only was Johnson’s life spared by virtue of the Titanic’s racial exclusivity, but news of the sinking moved him to break into a popular dance step:

“Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock,
Mighta seen the black rascal doin’ the Eagle Rock”

Indeed, in Lead Belly’s portrayal, the Titanic’s doom should be cause for celebration among all black Americans:

“Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.”

In a mythical alternative version of the story, there is, in fact, one black person on the Titanic, the lowly stoker “Shine,” who, after repeated attempts to warn the uncomprehending Captain that the ship is filling up with water, simply jumps overboard and swims to shore despite pleas for help from rich white men offering money and beautiful white women offering sex. Thus it ultimately comes to pass that:

“When all them white folks went to heaven,
Ol’ Shine was in Sugar Ray’s Bar drinking Seagram’s Seven.”

Like all great historical events, the Titanic disaster yielded a vast array of human stories. The factual details might be shaky in some cases, but depending on how they are told and interpreted—and by and for whom—every one of them has an important truth to reveal.

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Photo credit: RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912, F.G.O. Stuart, Public Domain from Wiki Commons. Photo of Captain Archibald Willingham Butt is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948 - Via Wikipedia.
Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.