More than a century ago, the Titanic went out to sea on its maiden voyage and never returned. After hitting an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the ship sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The story of that fateful night continues to be told as we remember the 1,500-plus people who lost their lives. It’s important to honor those who perished, but what about the ones who survived?
706 lucky people made it onto the lifeboats and survived this terrible tragedy. Today, they are no survivors left. Millvina Dean was just two months old at the time of the disaster, but she lived a long, happy life. She eventually passed on in 2009 at the age of 97.
Here is a look back at some of the few people who were fortunate enough to survive “the unsinkable Titanic.”
Socialite and philanthropist Margaret Brown is arguably the most famous Titanic survivor. She is known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” She is so popular that there was a Broadway musical about her, as well as a movie starring Debbie Reynolds. On that dreadful night, Brown helped with evacuation efforts and managed to make it onto Lifeboat 6.
Brown begged the crewmen to go back for more people, something that was illustrated in the 1997 movie Titanic. Sadly, her pleas were rejected. Once she got on the RMS Carpathia, a rescue ship, Brown gave out food and blankets to everyone on board and established a Survivors’ Committee, raising funds for those who lost everything that night.
Once the ship reached New York, news of her selfless bravery made her famous. She later wrote to her daughter, “After being brined, salted, and pickled in mid-ocean, I am now high and dry. I have had flowers, letters, telegrams, people, until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal… if I must call a specialist to examine my head, it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic.”
The renowned Molly Brown didn’t let fame get to her head. Instead, she continued fighting for causes such as women’s suffrage and workers’ right. The powerhouse even ran for Congress and earned a French Legion of Honor award after she helped with relief efforts in France during World War I. Brown also dabbled in acting before she passed away in 1932.
Madeleine Astor was involved in a scandal on board the Titanic. The 18-year-old had just married a 47-year-old divorcee, John Jacob “JJ” Astor. Madeleine got pregnant on their long honeymoon abroad, so the newlyweds set sail for home. Sadly, JJ didn’t make it, which made Madeleine’s pregnancy hard.
A newspaper at the time reported her reaction: “She recalled, she thought, that in the confusion, as she was about to be put into one of those boats, Colonel Astor was standing by her side. After that… she had no very clear recollection of the happenings until the boats were well clear of the sinking steamer.”
Late that summer, Madeleine gave birth to a healthy baby. However, she became a known survivor, and the public’s interest in her made things even more challenging. Reportedly, she felt “inconvenienced by the curious.” She didn’t like to speak about the event, but it was like a dark cloud that followed her throughout her life.
Since she was Astor’s widow and the mother of his child, Madeleine was entitled to a trust as long as she didn’t get married again. However, she did, in fact, remarry in 1916 and then got divorced before tying the knot once again- to an abusive Italian boxer. In 1940, she passed away at age 46.
Eva Hart was a seven-year-old child when she boarded the Titanic with her family, making her the youngest survivor who had memories of the tragedy. Hart gave multiple intriguing interviews about her memories from the Titanic. She said that her mom woke up her dad and forced him to go up on deck to see what was going on.
She was “literally pulling him out of bed,” she explained. When he got back, her parents hurried back up there. “If we hadn’t done at that at that time, I very much doubt I’d be talking to you today… it was a question of who was there in time to get into the all too few lifeboats.”
She continued, saying that her father put her on the lifeboat and told her to hang on to her mother’s hand. “Then it dawned on me that he wasn’t coming, that I wouldn’t see him anymore.” Hart also stated that if there were enough lifeboats, “no one would have died that night at all.”
In a twist depicted in 1997’s Titanic movie, Hart’s father gave his wife his coat. In the pocket, there was the only known letter written on Titanic stationery from that fateful day. Hart’s mom actually wrote it, hoping to send it to her own mother. At the end of the letter, Hart added, “Heaps of love and kisses to all from Eva.” The letter went up for auction in 2014. Eva passed away in 1996 at 91 years old.
Almost four-year-old Michel and two-year-old Edmond Navratil have become known as the “Titanic Orphans.” The boys were not with a parent or guardian when they were rescued. Apparently, their father, who was separated from their French mother at the time, took the children and set sail for America under a fake identity.
Luckily, he managed to put his children on the last lifeboat, Collapsible D, before he went down with the ship. At first, nobody knew whom the kids belonged to, which is why they were dubbed the “Titanic Orphans.” But once their picture circulated in the newspapers, their mother recognized them and went to pick them up.
In 1953, Edmond passed away, making his brother, Michel, the last male survivor of the Titanic. He died at age 92 in 2001, but not before becoming a philosophy professor in France who spoke philosophically of the tragic event that took his father’s life:
“He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms. A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die,” he told the BBC. Michel went on to explain that, in a way, he also died that night: “I died at 4. Since then, I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”
The ship-owner J. Bruce Ismay has gotten a bad rap. He was depicted as a coward in the press and a villain in the movie. In an interview with the BCC, his great-grandson, Malcolm Cheape, said: “There were a lot of lies in the American press about his escaping on the first lifeboat and dressing up as a woman and things like that, which must have deeply hurt him.”
Ismay later testified that he only got on the lifeboat after helping others and didn’t board until there were no women or children nearby. He was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, but he distanced himself from the public.
Cheape says, “I suspect he suffered from post-traumatic stress. I think longer-term, he must have looked back on it and wished he’d never been there.” His father, John Cheape, said that his mother and grandmother never discussed the Titanic: “What she did say was that it absolutely shattered his life.”
The elder Cheape went on to explain, “I think the whole family suffered without any doubt.” Ismay died in 1937 at age 74. The role he played in the disaster might be one of the Titanic mysteries we’ll never know the truth about. Do you think he was an innocent survivor? Or a villain? What would you do in that situation?
Lady Lucy Duff-Gordan is another controversial survivor of the Titanic; she was a fashion designer who focused on evening gowns, movie costumes, and lingerie. Lady Duff-Gordan and her husband, Cosmo, boarded Lifeboat 1. Reportedly that boat left with just 12 people on board when it could have easily held 40.
Cosmo insisted that when he entered the boat, there were no children or women present. Rumors have circulated that he actually bribed the crewmen into not going back to rescue his fellow passengers. Subsequently, the press had a field day with the story and attacked the couple.
After all the criticism they got, Lady Duff-Gordon wrote a letter to a friend which read: “According to the way we’ve been treated by England on our return we didn’t seem to have done the right thing in being saved at all!!!! Isn’t it disgraceful?” The letter went up for auction in 2015.
Interestingly, Lady Duff-Gordon escaped another sinking. She was set to sail the Lusitania, but her illness prevented her from getting on board. It turned out to be a good thing considering the ship was torpedoed by German submarines during World War I. Unfortunately, her fashion house went down shortly after. She passed on in 1935 at the age of 71.
Ship stewardess Violet Jessop was even more unsinkable than the renowned Molly Brown. She survived no less than three shipwreck disasters. Shockingly, all three boats were produced by White Star Line. In 1911, she was on the Olympic, a sister boat that was virtually identical to the Titanic. The Olympic collided with a British Warship called the Hawke. Thankfully, the Olympic managed to make it to port without sinking.
She was also aboard the Titanic on its maiden voyage but got on Lifeboat 16 and survived. In her memoir, she wrote: “I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with her children. Sometime after, a ship’s officer ordered us into the boat first to show some women it was safe. As the boat was being lowered, the officer called: ‘Here, Miss Jessop. Look after this baby.’ And a bundle was dropped on to my lap.”
But that wasn’t the last of it. She later worked on another Titanic sister ship, the Britannic. In 1916, it struck a German mine; the ship sank, and 30 people lost their lives. Fortunately, over 1,000 passengers were saved. “I leaped into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel, which struck my head,” she recalled.
“I escaped, but years later, when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!” After all that, she continued to work on ships until her retirement. I would be terrified of boats and the ocean after one accident, let alone three! She is certainly a brave lady. She passed away in 1971 at the age of 84.
Future Hall of Famer Karl Behr boarded the Titanic to pursue a woman who would later become his wife, Helen Newsom, who was on a family vacation. Behr woke up Newsom’s family as soon as he heard about the collision, and they all made it to Lifeboat 5. Karl Behr eventually became a professional tennis player.
While describing the shock and grief that the survivors experienced, Behr reportedly said: “Although the sinking of the Titanic was dreadful… the four days among the sufferers on the Carpathia was much worse and more difficult to forget.” Ironically, while onboard the Carpathia, Behr met fellow tennis ace Richard Williams, who had severe frostbite on his legs.
A few months after the disaster, Behr and Williams played a tournament together. Behr went on to become a successful tennis player and banker. He also married the love of his life, Helen Newsom, and the couple had four children together. Despite his happy life, his granddaughter, Helen Behr, said that that fateful night haunted him forever:
“He wished he had saved someone from the water so that at least an act of heroism could have resulted from his survival.” She said that “He was crushed by inarticulate sadness beyond anyone’s understanding.” In 1949, Behr passed away at the age of 64.
Better known as the Countess of Rothes, Lucy Noel Leslie, is remembered as a heroine of the Titanic catastrophe. She helped row Lifeboat 8 and manned the tiller. The crewman in charge, Able Seaman Thomas Jones, reportedly said, “She had a lot to say, so I put her to steering the boat.”
The Countess also used her emotional nature to console frightened passengers and continued to care for them after being rescued by the Carpathia. She showed true courage in a horrific situation. The Countess continued to correspond with Jones and another survivor until she passed away in 1956. After she died, the letters were discovered.
Nobody knew about her kindness and bravery until the letters were found. Her granddaughter Angela Young wrote, “It wasn’t until she died that we discovered these testaments to her courage and selflessness on that terrible night.”
Young went on to explain, “It’s hard to believe now, but my grandmother never talked about the Titanic disaster after she arrived home.” This doesn’t come as a surprise at all. It seems all the survivors wanted to put the trauma behind them, but witnessing such a horrendous tragedy is not easily forgotten. After the event, the Countess continued her philanthropy and became a World War I nurse.
Charles Lightoller was yet another Titanic hero; he was the eldest crewman that survived. Lightoller was the second officer, and he was in charge or lowering lifeboats on the port in the midst of the disaster. He remained on board until the very end and was taken down by the ship.
He later recounted in his book Titanic and Other Ships, “I was drowning, and a matter of another couple of minutes would have seen me through… when suddenly, a terrific blast of hot air [from a boiler explosion] came up the shaft and blew me right away from the airshaft and up to the surface.”
Thankfully, he survived, but he put everyone else’s life before his own. Somehow, he was able to climb onto a lifeboat that was upside down, and he waited there patiently with others until they were finally rescued. Wow! Talk about good karma.
After the tragic events of April 14, 1912, he served in World War I. Then, he set up a guesthouse in England with his wife and bought a yacht. Sounds like a nice life. He later used his boat to rescue British soldiers who were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during World War II. The brave nobleman died at the age of 78 in 1952.
Molly Brown wasn’t the only inspirational heroine on Lifeboat 6, Elise Bowerman was also saved by that boat. Before and after that dreadful sinking, Bowerman was an advocate from women’s rights. According to Biography.com, this is what she wrote about that fateful night:
“The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into lifeboats, where we were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with icebergs floating about is a strange experience.”
She continued doing kind work. After the Titanic’s disastrous maiden voyage, she became a nurse in World War I and, while stationed in Romania and then St. Petersburg, where she witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1917. In 1918, once women were allowed to vote in England, she studied law and was the first barrister to work at the Old Bailey, a famed London Courthouse.
That’s not all; she also served in the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service. After that, she helped organize the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. She worked hard and was extremely passionate about her beliefs. In 1973, Bowerman died at the age of 83, but not without leaving behind a legacy.
Dorothy Gibson was a silent film actress on vacation with her mother on the Titanic. Luckily, she was saved on Lifeboat 7. She later recalled that when the ship went down, “suddenly there was a wild coming together of voices from the ship and we noticed an unusual commotion among people about the railing. Then the awful thing happened, the thing that will remain in my memory until the day I die. No one can describe the frightful sounds.”
Gibson then starred in Saved from the Titanic, the first movie based on the horrific event, which premiered just a month after the sinking. She, too, was haunted by the tragedy to the point where she left the entertainment industry and moved to Europe. She died in 1946 at the age of 56 from a possible heart attack.
The RMS Titanic was considered a luxurious and “unsinkable” ship. It obviously turned out to be sinkable, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t extravagant. This is what life was like the Titanic before it tragically sank to the bottom of the ocean.