We have already written about the Titanic passengers considered as a group of individuals, who, although all on the same doomed ship, where not all equally likely to meet destruction the night the Titanic sank. This is made plain enough by an analysis of the demographics of the Titanic passengers who died. Men were disproportionately likely to die – around 1,514 people died when the Titanic sank, 1,352 of whom were men (i.e., not women or children) – and passengers with lower class tickets were more likely to die than First Class passengers. The fact that not all Titanic passengers were equally likely to die is also made evident when you look at the individual passengers on board the ship. And for reasons unrelated to the unfairness that characterized the Titanic tragedy, it is still quite interesting to look at some of the more notable passengers on the Titanic. And so we will…
Let us first consider a man who cannot be divorced from the Titanic tragedy: J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of White Star Line, the cruise line that owned the Titanic. He was one of the most loathed men to emerge alive from the disaster. First, he famously insisted that the Titanic shouldn’t be filled with 48 lifeboats (i.e., lifeboats sufficient to save all, or at least most, of the people on board the ship), even though Alexander Carlisle of the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff lobbied for this addition when the company was finishing up its design of the ship. Ishmay helped passengers into lifeboats as the ship sank, just as he should have, but at the last minute he decided to jump onto a lifeboat himself (or, rather, he dove into one at the last available chance). He didn’t push anyone aside to do this, so he essentially saved an extra life that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved (it just happened to be his own), but he became maligned around the world for not going down with the ship. He lived the rest of his life essentially as a hermit, shunned by the world and ignored by the love interest he developed after the Titanic catastrophe.
If we are able to take a softer view of Ishmay’s saving of his own life than his contemporaries, it is hard to do the same for Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. Gordon boarded a lifeboat as soon as he possibly could and bribed the crew to row away from the sinking ship as fast as possible. The lifeboat was only about a quarter of the way full when it was released from the Titanic, and no effort was made to pull passengers into the boat who were in the freezing cold water that surrounded the ship. Of course, there were also many people who showed extraordinary courage and integrity as the disaster unfolded. For example, consider the case of Wallace Hartley and the band he led. They not only didn’t seek a spot on any lifeboat, but also continued to play music as the Titanic was consumed by the sea, seemingly stoically indifferent to their own impending deaths.
It was a great misfortune to have found yourself on the Titanic at all no matter your fate, so it is worthwhile to note a few of the people who happened to have missed the boat or cancelled their trip. There is a story centering on five friends – degenerate types from the so-called “lower class” – who decided to go out for one more drinking jag before setting sail to the New World. Two people in this group, in what would have seemed at the time to be a stroke of good luck, caught a train that allowed them to board the ship at the last minute. The other three didn’t make the ship, saving them from almost certain death, given their gender and social class – indeed, the passengers who took their spots (part of the vastly unlucky group of last-minute fill-ins) on the ship died. Or consider J.P. Morgan, the legendary financier who controlled the International Mercantile Marine Company, the conglomerate that owned White Star Line. At the very last minute, like a few other passengers, he decided to cancel his trip.
When confronted with the staggering number of people who died in the Titanic disaster, it is easy to forget the individual Titanic passengers. Yet it was individuals who died, and the loss of one life is in general as tragic as the loss of the any other. Still, it is instructive to look at Titanic passengers in groups. It is an inescapable fact that it would have been better to be of a higher class or a woman or child if you happened to be on the Titanic. Then again, it also would have been better to go on an epic drinking binge the night before you were scheduled to leave on the Titanic. It is hard to know what, in the end, is actually advantageous.