Why are we still so fascinated with the Titanic?
HALIFAX, Canada — Simple, says the gravedigger. It’s about the movie.
No, says the academic. It’s about the money.
Absolutely not, says the model-ship builder. It’s about people.
This is what happens when you ask why the sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate us. The question has a special resonance in Halifax, a rainy, foggy port and capital of Nova Scotia that inherited perhaps the nastiest of all Titanic tasks. It was the seamen of Halifax, nearest major port to the sinking, who were sent out to collect corpses and wreckage in the days after the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912. Putting to sea with cargoes of ice, coffins and embalming fluid, they collected more than 300 bodies, buried many of them at sea, sent about 50 for burial elsewhere and buried the rest here.
“I can remember before that movie come out, there wasn’t very many people coming to visit the burial sites,” said John Rooke, a gravedigger and longtime Haligonian, as residents of Halifax are known. (“That movie,” of course, is James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.) As he spoke, a hard rain pounded the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where 121 Titanic victims are buried.
People come here to see the rows of markers all with the same date of death: April 15, 1912. And the curious have other places to explore as well.
The just-opened Titanic Belfast attraction woos customers with nine exhibition galleries full of details on the ship’s construction in Northern Ireland. In New York, the auction house Guernsey’s has been taking written offers and hoping to reap tens of millions of dollars from the winner-take-all sale of 5,500 artifacts raised from the wreck. Temporary Titanic exhibitions have been staged in Las Vegas and San Diego. Permanent exhibitions continue in Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where privately owned for-profit museums are devoted to the doomed ship. The 3-D version of “Titanic,” which hit theaters April 4, grossed $25.7 million in its first five days.
Clearly, Titanic sells. But why exactly? Plenty of people still wrestle with that question.
One is J. Joseph Edgette, folklorist emeritus at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who has made Titanic his life’s work and can tell you that 12 survivors are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a dozen more at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Edgette can tell you about Robert Douglas Spedden, the boy who survived the Titanic’s sinking at age 6, only to die three years later in what might have been the first fatal auto accident in Maine.
For the last eight years, Edgette has been tracking down graves and cenotaphs (markers for those whose bodies are elsewhere) of Titanic victims and survivors, inspecting cemeteries in Halifax, New England and beyond. It’s impossible, Edgette said, to deny the central role of wealth in the Titanic phenomenon.
“If you take the combined wealth of the passengers in first class on that ship, no other list of passengers even came close to that kind of wealth,” Edgette said. “And probably half of the first-class passengers were Americans, and they were from the wealthiest of the wealthy of this country.”
Yet upstairs at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, where volunteers John Green and Gerald Wright have been laboring for two years over a model of the ship, the big-money theory is about as welcome as a stray iceberg.
“It’s all about people,” said Green. For all the hundreds of hours he has spent squinting at 2-inch lifeboats and tinkering with railings with the circumference of toothpicks, Green said, he’s convinced that the key to the Titanic story is “the human aspect, the reality of how individuals dealt with the tragedy…. Never mind the money. That’s a crock, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ah, but down at the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market, which dates to 1750, Euen Wallace sees other forces at work.
As crowds filed in on a Saturday morning, Wallace, the operations manager, looked on from an upstairs perch in the market’s new building, replete with newfangled energy-saving features. Maybe the real theme of the Titanic story, Wallace said, is the limits of technology.
“As we move forward,” he said, “we’re constantly building new things that are newer and better and invincible, but something as simple as a block of ice can bring it all tumbling down.”
After a brief boom in the aftermath of the movie’s initial release, visits to Halifax’s Maritime Museum and the city’s Titanic cemeteries slowed from a torrent to a trickle, many Haligonians say. And in the local annals of disaster, they sometimes add, Titanic is neither the newest nor the deadliest. It’s not even the only White Star ship.
In April 1873, 39 years before the launch of Titanic, the White Star Line’s SS Atlantic ran aground and sank near Halifax, killing 562 of 952 aboard, one of the worst steamship accidents of the 19th century.
Five years after Titanic, in December 1917, a World War I munitions ship collided with another vessel in Halifax Harbor, touching off a vast explosion that killed about 2,000 people and injured an estimated 9,000. Massachusetts doctors were among the early emergency teams to reach the site, prompting thankful responses from throughout Nova Scotia.
In September 1998, Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the sea near Peggy’s Cove, about 30 miles from Halifax, killing all 229 people aboard.
When the9/11attacks disrupted air traffic throughout North America in September 2001, Halifax Stanfield International Airport took in 40 diverted flights, and the city sheltered about 8,000 passengers for up to four days, prompting thankful responses from throughout the U.S.
In other words, Halifax has seen catastrophe from many angles. Tour guide Blair Beed — whose grandfather worked as an undertaker’s assistant when the city’s curling rink was converted into a makeshift Titanic morgue — likes to mention that when shepherding cemetery visitors.
And, of course, Beed, the author of “Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards,” has his own ideas about why we’re still retelling the tale of the Titanic.
Naturally, he said, movies, celebrity and “women in their gowns getting in the lifeboats and waving goodbye with their silken hankies” are part of the picture. But there were subtle factors too.
For instance, Beed said, because it took time for the ship to sink, “there were survivors who could recall what other people were doing at the time of the sinking.” Moreover, he said, “it was a slow news day. There was no war, there was no famine, there were no great disasters other than the Titanic.”
And a century later, the great ship’s wake continues to ripple.
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