April 14, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the ship touted as unsinkable, during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, en route to New York. Much research has been done on the passengers, crew, and the ship itself over the years. But little has been reported about one group of passengers -- the dogs of the Titanic. Many think of their pets as part of the family, and it's evident that that sentiment was as true 100 years ago as it is today.
Widener University, named for a prominent Philadelphia family that had three members on board, will honor the memory of that fateful voyage with an exhibit, a part of which will feature the dogs on board.
I spoke with the producer and curator of the exhibit, J. Joseph Edgette, Ph.D., on the telephone last week. He shared his knowledge of the Titanic and her four-legged passengers.
Dr. Edgette, you're known as an authority on the Titanic. How long have you been researching and working on this exhibit?
Dr. Edgette: I've been researching the Titanic for about 20 years, but working on this particular exhibit for approximately eight months.
How many dogs were actually on board at the time of sailing?
Dr. Edgette: There might have been more, but based on eyewitness accounts and ship's records, there were 12 confirmed, only three of which survived.
I've seen pictures and read that the ship's captain, Capt. Smith, had his dog aboard. Was he one of the dogs that survived?
Dr. Edgette: The dog seen in those photos was indeed Capt Smith's. Benjamin Guggenheim did a lot of traveling, often on ships skippered by Capt. Smith, so he knew him and his family well. Guggenheim, although originally scheduled to sail on another vessel, ended up on the Titanic, and brought a large Russian Wolfhound as a gift for the captain's daughter. The day before sailing, Smith had his photo taken on board with the dog that he named Ben in honor of the man who gifted him. The dog remained overnight, but was taken home to his daughter the next morning, so he was not on board when the ship got underway.
Why were the three dogs saved when there was so little room in the lifeboats for people? Was there a public outcry that dogs were rescued when so many people perished?
Dr. Edgette: The dogs that survived were so small that it's doubtful anyone even realized they were being carried to the lifeboats. Two were Pomeranians and the third was a Pekinese, all tiny dogs. One Pomeranian named Lady, bought by Miss Margaret Hays while in Paris, shared the cabin with and was wrapped in a blanket by Miss Hays when the order was given to evacuate. The Rothschilds owned the other Pomeranian, and the Pekinese, named Sun Yat-Sen, was brought on board by the Harpers (of the N.Y. publishing firm, Harper & Row).
It seems only prominent families had dogs aboard the Titanic. Is that true?
Dr. Edgette: Yes. Only first class passengers had dogs on the voyage. One family even received an insurance settlement for their two dogs that didn't survive.
I'm surprised that family pets were insured back then. Do you have more background on that?
Dr. Edgette: Another wealthy passenger, William Carter of Philadelphia, was traveling with his wife Lucille and their two children. Carter insured his wife's jewelry and other items of value, including the 1912 Renault automobile purchased in Paris. A replica of that vehicle is what appears in Jack and Rose's steamy love scene in the 1997 movie. The vehicle was insured for the full purchase price of $5,000; their daughter Lucy's King Charles Spaniel was insured for $100, young Billy's Airedale for $200. The children begged to take the dogs when evacuating, but Carter insisted that they were too big and that they'd be fine in the ship's kennel. Both dogs perished and the insurance company paid the settlement.
What other dogs didn't survive the tragedy?
Dr. Edgette: A toy poodle belonging to Helen Bishop, a Fox Terrier named Dog, millionaire John Jacob Aster's Airedale named Kitty. Robert Daniel brought Gamin de Pycombe, his French Bulldog, on board, and there were several others, whose names aren't known. Although a few of the animals shared the cabins of their owners, most were kept in the ship's kennel and tended to by crewmembers, so they were considered more as cargo and not on any passenger manifest.
One particularly sad story involves a Great Dane owned by 50-year-old Ann Elizabeth Isham. Miss Isham visited her dog at the ship's kennel daily and when she was evacuating, asked to take him also. When she was told the dog was too large, she refused to leave without him and got out of the lifeboat. Several days later, the body of a woman clutching a large dog was spotted by crew of the recovery ship, Mackay-Bennet, and dinghies were dispatched. Eyewitness accounts by crew and ship's log confirm the sighting and recovery, and the body recovered is assumed to be Miss Isham.
Of the photos that have been circulated about the ship, were any taken of the dogs aboard the Titanic?
Dr. Edgette: There are two photos of dogs taken on board, one of crewmembers walking the dogs, and another of a group of dogs tied to a rail. The photos were taken by amateur photographer, Fr. Frank Brown, who disembarked the ship in Queenstown, Ireland before she embarked on her transatlantic journey. Interestingly, Fr. Brown's are the only photographs of the interior of the Titanic known to be in existence, as the White Star Line had contracted with the Rochester firm, Eastman Kodak, to take photos upon the ship's arrival in New York, which of course never occurred.
I've heard a tale of a cat who survived the voyage. Do you have any knowledge of that?
Dr. Edgette: Crew often had at least one cat on board each ship to help keep the rat population down. It's said that there was a cat with young kittens aboard the sea trials of the Titanic but when the ship arrived in Southampton from Belfast, she was seen disembarking. Up and down the gangplank she went, retrieving one kitten at a time that she deposited on the dock. She and the kittens quickly disappeared and it was later said that had some sort of premonition that the voyage wasn't going to be a good one.
The Widener University exhibit will be open from April 10 through May 12. Admission is open to the public at no cost.
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