Spencer Silverthorne: A Tale Retold
Aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Mr. Silverthorne went to great lengths to help a writer named Carlos Hurd waterproof a cigar box and attach floats in preparation for arrival in New York and the breaking of Captain Arthur Rostron’s ship-wide news blackout. All this effort was directed, evidently, at an opportunity for Mr. Silverthorne to get his version of ‘remarkable survival’ out to the world press, so that no one would question how he had happened to be aboard a lifeboat while some 311 women and children remained aboard the sinking Titanic.
During the week of April 20, 1912, Carlos Hurd’s dispatches related Spencer Silverthorne’s heroic tale of scurrying throughout the foundering Titanic, dodging exploding boilers as he carried the wounded above the rising waters ‘ ‘working like a machine,’ loading women and children into the lifeboats. ‘Someone thought of the steerage folk,’ Hurd quoted Silverthorne as saying. ‘And we helped save some of them’ Then it suddenly occurred to me that all the boats were filled and we had nothing to put the rest of the women and children in’ I remember that as I stood on the deck, the thought occurred to me that I might swim to an iceberg’ I didn’t have far to jump. I landed in the water. Somehow I got in a boat.’
The reality was rather less dramatic. At 12:55 AM, with no signs of disorder yet manifesting (according to Colonel Archibald Gracie’s record, corroborated by Richard Norris Williams, Jack Thayer and Hugh Woolner), William Murdoch was loading and lowering lifeboat Number 5, the second boat sent away from Titanic’s starboard side. Murdoch was having difficulty, at that early stage in the sinking, convincing women or even the men mulling about to enter the lifeboat. According to Third Officer Pitman (in the American Inquiry, page 277) he and Murdoch were allowing husbands to enter Number 5 with their wives; they even called for men without wives, to avoid launching Boat 5 half-empty. Despite the large crowd gathering on the boat deck, most people believed that the ocean’s dead calm state ‘ which gave the illusion that the sinking ship’s was as steady and solid as land itself ‘ meant that the Titanic was safer than one of her lifeboats.
Spencer V. Silverthorne was simply one of the men allowed by Murdoch and Pitman to quietly enter Boat 5. The calm and disbelief were, at that hour, such potent toxins that Boat 5, with a seating capacity of sixty-five people, cast off with just forty-one aboard, only thirteen of them women and children.
At the British Inquiry, Pitman described the Boat 5 cast off thus: ‘Murdoch shook hands with me and said, ‘Good-bye; good luck.’
Pitman would recall later that the words meant Mr. Murdoch never expected to see him again, that he intended to stay with the ship, no matter what horrors the next two hours might bring.
In the two documents that follow, Mr. Silverthorne appears to have, over the course of four decades, told progressively more subdued versions of his escape from Titanic.
‘The first document is a handwritten letter to Walter Lord. It is undated and all that can be said to a certainty (as regards time) is that it was penned sometime between the historian’s first attempt to write a book about the Titanic and his 1955 interview with Mr. Silverthorne (also reproduced in this section). Lord’s first attempt was (in a manner of speaking) a crayon-illustrated first draft of A Night to Remember, written when he was fourteen years old, in 1931 (Walter Lord’s childhood first draft is presently housed in the archives of the British Maritime Museum). About this time, young Walter Lord began making his first contacts, via mail, with Titanic survivors. He also began building historical archives about the Alamo and the Civil War era submarine, Hunley.
In his pre-1955 handwritten account, Spencer Silverthorne appears to have been more honest with Walter Lord than he was with Carlos Hurd in April 1912. More in corroboration of Pitman’s testimony, Silverthorne’s second account described the reluctance of people to enter the lifeboats, an hour after the iceberg impact. In his first post-1912, post-Carlos Hurd account, Silvertorne said that First Officer Murdoch forced him to enter the lifeboat (at an hour when even married couples, though offered seats in the lifeboats together, were reluctant to leave the Titanic). Silverthorne, though shedding his earlier dramatics, evidently still felt enough male survivor social stigma to embellish: ‘The 1st officer Murdoch who had charge of the boats on the starboard side grasped me by the arm and pushed me in and shoved”
Later, in his July 14, 1955 interview with Silverthorne, Walter Lord was able (as was a talent of his) to bring a participant in history somewhat nearer to reconstructing events as they actually occurred. This time, as Mr. Murdoch swung out the lifeboat, to be lowered away, Silverthorne saw some of his friends in Number 5. They called to him, and the First Officer simply allowed Silverthorne to join his friends in the lifeboat.
Mr. Silverthorne was a buyer for a major department store, rooming on E Deck starboard, first class, in the same stateroom block as Mssrs. Flynn and McGough (E-25) and Mr. Calderhead (E-24); these rooms were located between the first and second smokestacks. At 11:40PM, during the moments of impact, Silverthorne’s friend James McGough had no doubt that the rumbling and quivering of the hull outside his stateroom was caused by an iceberg. ‘His room had been too hot and his porthole was open,’ Walter Lord noted, ‘and as the berg brushed by, chunks of ice fell through the porthole and into his cabin.’
Spencer Silverthorne’s pre-1955 handwritten account opens about an hour before impact. At the critical moment, Mr. Silverthorne was sitting in the first class smoking room, five decks above Mr. McGough’s encounter with falling ice. He was sitting comfortably in a leather armchair, reading a copy of the same popular novel that publisher William T. Stead would be seen reading in this same room more than two hours later: the new best seller, The Virginian.
I left London’ April 10 in company with 6 other buyers, 3 of whom I had crossed with on the Olympic on the 21st of February ‘ I had engaged a stateroom on the lower deck ‘ Deck E ‘ in company with Mr. Calderhead ‘ who is the toy and doll buyer for Gimbal [in] New York. In the next stateroom were Mr. McGough and Mr. Flynn ‘ House furnishing buyer for Gimbal [Bro(thers)] New York and Toy buyer for Gimbal [of] Philadelphia ‘
On Sunday evening April  ‘ after our dinner we walked the deck until 10:30. We had been generally remarking all evening how cold it was and that we must be in the vicinity of ice ‘ I had for the first time that evening since being on the boat walked to my stateroom for my heavy overcoat ‘ At about 10:30 my friends retired and I went into the smoking cabin to continue a book which I was reading ‘ At a table near where I sat a party of four were playing auction bridge ‘ I am going to digress for a moment to say that of this party only one was saved ‘ A Mr. Romayne from Louisville Ky. They continued their game for some ten minutes after the boat struck and [were] settling ‘ (They were playing for 5cents a point: a pretty stiff game) Mr. Romayne owed some 76 dollars, which left him with but a few dollars ‘
‘He did not have time to go to his stateroom where he had 1200 dollars hid in the bosom of his dress shirt locked in his trunk so came away [from the sinking] with no money at all – //At 20 minutes of twelve I sat reading when I felt a jar which shook me in my seat but which was not nearly as severe as one would suppose for the damage which was done.’ The vessel shook for a moment and we could feel her slackening speed. I jumped to my feet remarking to one of the’ [?whist] players who had crossed with me on the Olympic when we had lost one of the blades from [a] propeller. [I remarked] that I guessed we had lost another propeller ‘ I picked up my overcoat and cap [and] walked out through the palm garden [of the Caf’ Parisian] onto the rear promenade deck and walked over to the starboard side[, where] I saw two passengers who had been sitting in the palm room.
I reached the side just in time to see the immense grayish-white iceberg scraping by the side of the vessel.
The promenade deck was [over] 65 feet from the water line and the iceberg was some little distance above this ‘ it floated to the rear and out of sight as the vessel had not quite stopped ‘ I walked from there to my cabin to see if the boys were awake ‘ and [I] met many people in the companionways rushing from their staterooms in their night clothing. I assured a number who saw me coming down the stairs that there was no danger ‘ and that I was going to bed ‘ I found all the boys up and getting into some clothes – – The iceberg struck on the side of the ship our cabins were [on] ‘ and a little forward but of course much lower down in the vessel. ‘ We all went on deck again where many of the passengers were gathering looking at the ice on the forward [well] deck which had scraped off some of the berg. This time I had left my overcoat in my cabin and, becoming cold, went down again when I found my roommate ‘ who had been on deck in his pajamas. [He was] dressing and I started to undress, telling him we would be going again in a minute [that the ship would soon resume course], when the officer called al passengers on deck with life preservers.
We of course rushed our clothes on and tied life preservers on, which we found in our cabin ‘ taking time only to notify a woman across from us who had not heard the call and [then we] walked on [to the promenade] deck where we were ordered to the boat deck. ‘ We were anxious to find the rest of the boys and on the boat deck on the starboard side [we] found 4 of them already with life preservers but only partially dressed ‘ one still in his pajamas and overcoat.
The boats were being lowered but ‘ the people, especially the women, were reluctant to take them; it seemingly being much more safe on the vessel than in the small lifeboat 75 feet [down] in the water – –
Several boats were lowered with only ‘ as many people as they would hold. None of us had any intention of taking a boat, believing as nearly everyone did that the vessel could not sink and only for the fact that my roommate noticed the woman whom we had awakened and went forward to help her into one of the boats’ This boat was just about to be lowered when my friend was helping the woman in and I was standing close to see if I could be of assistance to him when The 1st Officer Murdoch who had charge of the boats on the starboard side grasped me by the arm and pushed me in and shoved my friend who had just helped the woman in, so that he fell on the woman and I on another and the boat was lowering away ‘ Two of our friends got on the other boats but 3 were lost.
There was but one woman on the starboard deck when our boat left ‘ [one woman] who was with her husband and refused to come when the officer called for them. They [husband and wife, starboard] however came on a later boat.
Early in the sinking, Captain Smith had sent out an order, ‘Women and children first,’ into the lifeboats. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, in command of boats on the port side forward, had interpreted this command to mean ‘women and children only,’ an interpretation that caused delay by triggering heart-wrenching good-byes in which some women actually climbed out of the lifeboats to rejoin their husbands on the deck. A bad situation was made worse by Lightoller’s definition of boys aged nine or older being old enough to be ‘men,’ with the result that third class passenger Rosa Abbott, the only woman known to have gone down with the Titanic and survived (out of more than 300 women and children still aboard when the last lifeboat departed), stayed behind because her two young sons were barred entry to the boats under the Lightoller protocol ‘ by which boats on the port side were launched half-empty and in twice the amount of time as boats under the Murdoch protocol: ‘Women and children first, but men, too ‘ after the women, if there is room.’ Under the Lightoller protocol, Walter Lord believed that Mrs. Abbott’s story was probably not unique, and might not even have been unusual.
The second Silverthorne account was typed by Walter Lord, following an interview dated July 14, 1955. Bracketed sentences or phrases [as in the case of the Archibald Gracie reference] are annotations added by Lord and Pellegrino in 1991.
[Mr. Silverthorne] had been in Britain on [a] buying trip for Nugent’s Department Store in St. Louis. [He had] done many favors for Brandeis Department Store in Omaha, receiving many in return ‘ and suddenly [Spencer Silverthorne] found himself saddled with the favor of taking back for Mr. Brandeis a pin worth $15,000. [The] general idea was for Mr. Silverthorne to get it through the Customs. He declined to wear it, but put it in his trunk, as a sort of compromise.
When the ship stopped at Queenstown, the Irish lace commissioners flocked aboard, displaying their wares on deck. They swarmed around Mrs. Astor, who found a little jacket hard to resist, but the price was too high. It was $1,000 [and young Mrs. Astor, still not adjusted to the fact that she had just married the wealthiest man on Earth, believed the price too rich for her]. As Mr. Silverthorne walked by, the commissioner, who knew him as a big buyer, called over to him and asked him, as an expert on lace, to tell Mrs. Astor that the jacket was worth every cent. Mrs. Astor asked him to take over negotiations, and finally he got the jacket [sold to her] for $800. From then on, he was at least on nodding terms with the Astors.
Sunday night, he had dinner with most of the other buyers making the trip – – Brandeis (who had one of the private deck suites. [B-52, 54,56 block was occupied by J. Bruce Ismay; B-51,53,55 deck suite was occupied by ‘Lady’ Cadeza, her son, and his valet: There may be some confusion on Silverthorne’s part, for the Cadeza suite, with its private Promenade was, according to Mrs. Rene Harris’ account, open to guests and was most notably the site of a card game attended by the Harrises. The suite was also famous for an insurance claim on a vivid, 7.5 carat pink diamond.]) [Also at dinner,] a couple of men from Jordan-Marsh in Boston, Flynn, McGough, and Calderhead (with whom Silverthorne roomed on E Deck). The others went below early, but Mr. Silverthorne didn’t feel like retiring yet and went to the smoking room. He settled in a big leather chair and began browsing through The Virginian. Out of one eye, he began watching a bridge game going on, which included some professional gamblers. [It seems possible that after the iceberg passed, Mr Silverthorne left his copy of The Virginian on the chair, forgot about it during the slowly unfolding disaster ‘ and that this was the very same copy William T. Stead was observed reading in a broad armchair, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world, when steward Brown passed through the smoking room shortly before Titanic tore herself in two.]
At 11:40 there came a bump, bump along the side of the ship’ not enough to upset glasses, but enough to jolt the chair. He cried, ‘We’ve hit something!’ Then got up, and walked out onto the stern end of the Promenade Deck with the smoking room steward. They were just in time to see the iceberg scraping by on the starboard side. It was flush against the side of the ship, perhaps 100 feet high’ anyhow, a little higher than the Boat Deck [one level above the Promenade Deck]. As it slid by [astern], ice was tumbling off into the water, and perhaps onto the Boat Deck. In another moment it was gone, lost in the darkness astern.
He went forward on the Promenade Deck to see if there were any signs of damage, and looked down onto the well deck and forecastle. They were both covered with ice on the starboard side – – tons and tons of it in big and little chunks that had fallen off the berg when it scraped by.
Soon all was quiet again. It was bitter cold, and he thought the excitement was over for the evening. He went in and started down to his cabin for bed. As he passed B Deck, a door opened, and Mr. Straus looked out, with Mrs. Straus peering over his shoulder. ‘Aren’t you the man from St. Louis?’ called Mr. Strauss, remembering their meeting a few days earlier. Mr. Silverthorne said he was, and Mr. Straus then asked, ‘Do you think there’s any danger?’ Mr. Silverthorne assured him he didn’t think so, that the ship would soon be going on, and he went on below.
Reaching his cabin, he was surprised’ to see that Calderhead wasn’t there any longer. He had clearly been in bed, but the blankets were rumpled, and Calderhead was gone. He then began taking off his evening [dinner] clothes. He was down to his underdrawers when he heard the cry, ‘All passengers on deck!’ Hastily, he redressed, this time in his day suit, and started up [toward the Boat Deck]. As he passed down the corridor to the stairs, he saw men hauling mail bags along, moving them to a higher deck. The bags were sopping wet.
Seeing the soaked mail bags drove home the fact that the accident was more serious than he had supposed. He decided to go back for his money. A ship’s officer stopped him and told him to go on up to the Boat Deck instead. He argued, but in vain. He climbed up the stairs, looking for Calderhead and ‘the boys.’
On the Boat Deck, he continued looking for his friends, but could find no signs of them. As he passed the gym, he glanced in and saw through the window Mr. and Mrs. Astor sitting on the idle mechanical horses. They both had on lifebelts, and Mr. Astor had an extra one on his lap. He was cutting it open with his pen knife, amusing Mrs. Astor by showing her how it worked.
Mr. Silverthorne passed on, and watched them swing out the boats. Suddenly he saw ‘the boys’ in one [of the boats swinging out, on the starboard side, not very far from the Astors and the gym]. He called to them, ‘What are you doing that for?’ His thought – – it was far safer on board. But they said something about being told to get in, and called to him to come along too. Without thinking any more about it, he jumped in. There was plenty of room, and the boat dropped down to the sea with only about 19 people in it [actually, Colonel Gracie counted 41 occupants; just under 2/3 full].
Rowing away, he was struck by the fantastically clear night. So sharp and clear that it affected not only sight, but hearing. The music from the band drifted clearly across the water. [He did not] know what they were playing, but [at least at that early stage in the sinking, near 1:00AM] it certainly wasn’t ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ In a little while, another boat came up [Officer Lowe’s boat, nearer the time of the sinking]. This boat was much more crowded, and some of her passengers were transferred over, to even them up. [This likely occurred about 2:00 AM, within a half hour of Titanic’s final plunge.]
Meanwhile, the Titanic was sinking by the head, the lights tilting much more sharply. Then there was a rumble of machinery, cries, and she was gone.
Now they were completely in the dark and alone. No one knew which way to row, or what to do. The sea was flat calm, but the slow swell, always [on] the ocean, gently swung the boat up and down. The cold was bitter, the stars brilliant. As they waited in the dark for help, the boats – – which at first had clung together – – began drifting apart.
Toward morning, a wet, bitter breeze sprang up. The wind off the ice blew a biting spray that soaked them to the skin, and almost froze their hands to the oars. The sea became choppy, and the passengers huddled in the boat, more miserable every second.
About dawn, they spied the lights of two steamers, one much closer than the other. They rowed toward her, and she proved to be the Carpathia. The other, the Californian, came up much later. As the sun rose, Mr. Silverthorne saw dozens of icebergs, floating all around them – – an incredible sight, which completely astonished him. Slowly they edged toward the Carpathia, arriving about 8:00AM. Rope ladders were [hanging] down, but his hands were so numb with the cold that he couldn’t make it [up the ladder]. A rope sling was lowered and hauled him up.
He was taken to the dining saloon and given a tumbler of hot brandy. Soon he made his way to the smoke room, where ‘the boys’ had established themselves. It was good to be with them again, but an even more welcome sight was Macy’s wine buyer, [who had been] on his way to Portugal on the Carpathia. The bond between all buyers blossomed, and the Macy man produced limitless quantities of Bourbon, which he seemed to have with him. Mr. Silverthorne thawed out with these ministrations, which lasted for the better part of two days.
In a letter written by the Countess Rothes, days after the sinking, Captain Smith is said to have ordered the people in her boat to row toward the lights of a mystery steamship drifting idly, only a few miles north of the Titanic. Helen Candee, in her memoir, also recalled being ordered to row toward the lights, but as they rowed, as far as three or four miles, a breeze came up, the water became choppy, the icebergs in Helen’s path shifted, and the lights were eclipsed from view by ice. According to Spencer Silverthorne, as told to Walter Lord, the lights reappeared (still in the north), as the Carpathia approached from the south. Interestingly, he definitively named the mystery ship that, according to many Titanic survivors stood agonizingly near, and stood still, while 1500 people waited for death.
‘According to Silverthorne, her name was Californian.
‘Posted April 2004
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