Hartford Newspapers Scrambled For Stories Of 2 Titanic Survivors
New Britain Resident Escaped Sinking But Not Infamy; Ex-Hartford Man Spoke Of 'Dreadful' Cries
By Rick Green
April 14, 2012
During those frantic days after the Titanic went down, as newspapers scrambled for any fresh morsel about the ship and its 2,223 passengers, the race was on to reach the eyewitnesses who could tell the story transfixing the world.
And in the two-newspaper town of Hartford 1912, the tales to be told by two of the most prominent Connecticut passengers — "veterans of the game of globetrotting," as The Courant called them — were the sought-after prizes.
As it happens, Richard L. Beckwith, a financier formerly of Hartford, and William T. Sloper, a restless and sickly New Britain native son, were among the handful to climb into the first lifeboats lowered from the doomed, unsinkable vessel.
The debonair Beckwith, "widely known" in Hartford, would emerge from the tragedy still wearing a tuxedo smoking jacket with a dramatic description of the leviathan ship sliding into the North Atlantic. The other, the infamous and "highly strung" Sloper, just 28 and the son of a state senator and bank president, spent the rest of his life trying to explain how a man came to occupy a precious lifeboat seat.
That a couple of upper-crust world travelers would be the focus of Hartford's two eager newspapers was hardly a surprise. Newspaper coverage was dominated by stories of the influential and wealthy people onboard the ship. These two gentleman were part of a group of 57 surviving men among 175 first-class male passengers, which made them a very big story. The fact that they clambered aboard the very first lifeboats made them a target for the hundreds of journalists looking to tell what happened during the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.
Their words were among the first survivors' tales to make breathless front-page news in Hartford.
It was Beckwith, a Yale man who would become a New York real estate executive before his death in 1933, who told Courant and Hartford Times reporters that the iceberg collision felt like nothing more than "a scraping jar, a dull sullen sound." When the crash occurred around 11:45 p.m., Beckwith was in the bathroom, pausing after an evening in the ship's smoking room.
"There is one thing I shall not forget until the day I die,'' Beckwith, who was 37, told The Courant hours after he, his wife and his stepdaughter walked off the rescue ship Carpathia in New York, three days after the disaster.
"And that is the cry of the 1,300 who went to their death with the Titanic as she sank Monday morning,'' he said. "It was a dreadful cry and the memory of it will haunt like a nightmare for perhaps years to come. It continued for almost three quarters of an hour."
The massive boat, Beckwith said, had been traveling "damn fast'' for ocean waters where icebergs were present. "Too damn fast for that kind of sea."
In an impressive display of newspapering, The Courant carried banner headlines about the Titanic's iceberg collision on the morning of April 15, just hours after the news was transmitted by the still relatively new wireless radio technology. The Hartford Times followed that afternoon with an even more impressive front page, but the reports carried in both papers were sketchy, and in some cases outright false.
Over the next couple of days, as wireless reports detailed a tragedy of appalling, but still vague, proportions, the pending arrival of the rescue ship Carpathia in New York fed a media frenzy.
This was a time of great prosperity in Hartford, an era when the city's manufacturing might looked limitless. A few days before the Titanic disaster, Pope Manufacturing announced plans for a new four-story factory on Capitol Avenue. The Hartford Times optimistically noted that it was a milestone in the "wonderful development of the automobile industry in Hartford" that would "elevate the city to a still more prominent place in the motor world."
A new 1,400-seat movie theater — the Empire — had just opened at the corner of Asylum and Ann streets. Future Republican kingpin James H. Roraback was about to be elected the state party chairman. After the first reports of the disaster, the newspapers quickly turned to nervous insurance company executives, who worried that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars would be paid out in life insurance: "If the first cabin passengers are all saved, the American life insurance companies will not lose very much," The Courant assured readers.
As the full scope of the tragedy unfolded during those first days, reporters — including those from the Courant and the Hartford Times — swarmed New York, awaiting the arrival of the Carpathia and its load of 700 Titanic survivors. While the Times reporter and hundreds of other journalists, police officers and relatives jammed the Cunard Line piers on the rainy night of April 18, the Courant went straight to the exclusive Waldorf Hotel. There, by luck (and, more likely, due to a dependable tipster) he found "those survivors in which Hartford people are most interested in": the Beckwiths and Sloper.
In the chaos of the evening, reporters tried to sneak up to the rooms occupied by Sloper and Beckwith family members, hoping to elude the hotel detectives chasing down journalists. In the hotel lobby, spontaneous and emotional reunions unfolded. And on that momentous night, William Sloper made the decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Choosing to talk only to the eager and competitive Connecticut reporters, Sloper — returning from a three-month restorative holiday in Egypt — told his dramatic, if curious, tale.
"His face was gaunt and sallow, his appearance bedraggled and his mind suffered so much from shock that while telling the 'Courant man' his story he suffered frequent lapses,'' The Courant's page 1 story on the morning of April 19 noted, wryly adding that he was "eating a very hearty dinner" in his room at the Waldorf.
"It did seem rather lucky that I escaped,'' Sloper told the paper, explaining that he had been playing bridge and was headed to his stateroom when there was "a sudden lurch." Grabbing "a heavy overcoat, a sweater and a cap" he went to the now snow-and-ice-covered ship's deck "with the young lady with whom I had been playing cards with.''
Spurning the aggressive New York and national media, Sloper told Connecticut reporters that the hysterical woman clung to him, tugging him into the first lifeboat, before the Titanic's officers restricted the boats to women and children.
"I owe my life to the fact that the young lady lost control of herself and went into that first boat pulling me in after her. ... My inclination was to stay aboard,'' said Sloper, who called the entire debacle "an awful dream."
Despite favorable treatment from his home state press, for poor Sloper, the damage was done. A doubting New York newspaper reported, in a widely distributed story, that the young man slipped on to the lifeboat wearing a woman's nightgown. He would live an additional 43 years in the New Britain area, prospering as a stockbroker, but never shaking a derisive nickname: "Skirts.''
Beckwith, meanwhile, paused "debonnair and complaisant" when a persistent Courant reporter found him outside the Waldorf, about to enter a limousine with his wife and stepdaughter to return to his Manhattan apartment on Riverside Drive.
"It had been a very pleasant trip,'' said Beckwith, who went to the Titanic's boat deck in those odd minutes after the ship struck the iceberg and the first lifeboats began tentatively filling. "There was absolutely no confusion and people who held back believed there was more danger going in the open boat than sticking to the ship, which they were confident was unsinkable."
Ironically, it was Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, which built the doomed ship, who ushered Beckwith and other first-class passengers into the second lifeboat. From there, in a boat only two-thirds filled, Beckwith, his wife and daughter watched the Titanic slowly unload passengers for about an hour.
"The lights of the ship were burning but it seemed as if the ship were gradually filling with water. Suddenly the craft listed, turned up on end with great rapidity and went down,'' Beckwith said. "The boat went down so straight there was little suction, just a long, loud blasting followed by an explosion, and if I remember rightly, a second one.
"That is all."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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