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Stories from the Titanic

by Brian Clarey

Imagine, as I am now, that my name is Mr. Wallace Henry Hartley, 33, of Dewsbury, England, a violinist and bandleader. The year is 1912, and a couple days earlier I was chosen to lead the band on the brand new showpiece of the White Star cruise line: the RMS Titanic.

Hartley is the name on my boarding pass, handed to me at the entrance to the new Titanic exhibition at the Greensboro Natural Science Center, which runs through Nov. 27 — everybody gets one, embossed with an actual name of one of the 1,316 passengers on board for the vessel’s maiden voyage.

And it’s easy for me to immerse myself into the role — the exhibit features more than 125 artifacts recovered from the debris field around the sunken ship, re-creations of first-class and steerage cabins, posterized bios of passengers and quotes from survivors, attendants in period dress.

The artifacts are fascinating, to be sure: immaculately preserved floor tiles, liquor bottles, a ceramic chamber pot and au gratin dishes found stacked in rows on the ocean floor when the wreckage was discovered in 1985. But frankly, better examples of early 20 th century relics can be seen in museums all over the world. What makes the Titanic special, what keeps people interested in the demise of this, the largest passenger ship ever built, are the stories of those aboard her when she struck ice in the North Atlantic on that moonless night, took on 2,000 tons of seawater every five minutes until her bow went under and the entire ship snapped in two.

When the Titanic pushed off from Southampton, England for New York City on April 10, I — that is to say, Wallace Hartley — shared the journey with Dorothy Gibson, the American silent-film star and singer; Benjamin Guggenheim, heir to the mining fortune, who was traveling with a mistress; John Jacob Astor IV, scion of one of the wealthiest families in the world at the time, who was traveling with his second wife, 18-year-old Madeleine Talmage Force; Margaret Brown, crusader for literacy and women’s suffrage; and Isidor and Ida Strauss, co-owners of Macy’s department store.

The Strausses, as the story goes, perished on board because Ida refused to leave the side of her ailing and bedridden husband. Margaret Brown, also known as Molly, earned the accolade “Unsinkable” after she found her way to a lifeboat and then, when she realized there were empty seats in it, made the pilot turn back to the wreckage to look for more survivors.

These folks were in first-class cabins, which ran about $2,500 at the time, a mere $57,200 in 2011 dollars. As esteemed staff, I’d be traveling second class, which was comparable to first-class on every other ship in the White Star line, in cabin E-109, near the seven other members of the ship’s orchestra.

And down in steerage, packed into windowless, double-bunked chambers saturated with heat from the boiler room, were servants, laborers, seamen deadheading back to home port. Among them were David “Dai” John Bowen, at the time the lightweight boxing champion of Wales; Andrew Emslie Johnston, a master plumber who brought his entire family in his 10-member party; Sleiman Attala, a 30-year-old Canadian journalist of Syrian descent; and Andrew Emslie Johnston, a native Austrian bringing his family to America for a better life.

Most of these stories end the same way: a watery mass grave less than 1,000 miles off the coast of New York. Of the 2,200 or so souls on board, just 711 of them survived. At the end of the exhibit, guests can check the names on their boarding passes to see if they made it.

Wallace Henry Hartley did not. But the man whose name is on my boarding pass today is part of one of the most memorable tales to come out of the sinking of the Titanic. Around midnight on April 14, 1912, as the ship was taking on water and beginning to list, Hartley brought his 8-piece band to the First Class Lounge and exhorted them to make music as the frantic passengers prepared for evacuation. As things grew more desparate, the band reassembled on the deck near the lifeboats to play one last time. None in the band survived, though passengers who made it home alive recall with great clarity the music they made: waltzes, ragtime and popular tunes of the day. There is some disagreement as to the very last number played by the band as the ship went beneath the depths, but smart money says it was “Nearer My God to Thee,” the very same song Hartley requested be played at his funeral. And Hartley’s last words are a matter of record. After a wave washed half of his band overboard and the rest were dragged down with the hull, he was heard to exclaim, “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell!” Unlike most who perished that day, Hartley’s body was found, still in his performance uniform, still clutching the box holding his sheet music, a gold fountain pen bearing his initials in his pocket.

His role in the tragedy, now legend, was described by a newspaper as “among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.” And to stand in his shoes, even for an hour or so, is an honor indeed.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition runs through Nov. 27 at the Greensboro Natural Science Center, 4301 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro; 336.288.3769; www.natsci.org

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