Saturday, March 23, 2013
The Shootings on the Titanic. Part II. The only First Class Passenger shot
"Yes, I know where they are. Come along and I'll get them for you," Second Officer Charles Lightoller said.
He wrote about the moment in his memoirs. He had just been asked if he knew where the ship's guns were. He led Capt. E.J. Smith, Chief Officer Henry Wilde, and First Officer William Murdoch to an obscure locker and distributed revolvers to each of them.
"I was just going out when the Chief shoved one of the revolvers into my hands, with a handful of ammunition, and said,"Here you are. You may need it"," he recalled.
Now armed, the Titanic's senior officers returned to loading lifeboats.
The Captain, Wilde and Lightoller went to port and Murdoch to starboard.
Capt. Smith knew he had to play catch-up with the forward starboard boats. Murdoch had already sent off a hundred people in three lifeboats. Only one port boat had been launched with fewer than 25 people aboard.
Smith had had to revise his game plan on the fly. He intended to load the port boats from A Deck, only to discover at the last moment that glass windows enclosed the deck and it would take valuable time that he didn't have to remove them. All the women who had been sent to A Deck were marched back up to the Boat Deck and were being helped into boats from there.
Another change in plan involved husbands and other men at the boats. Originally, Smith had ordered the men and women separated, with the men standing back as the women were led to the deck below to the lifeboats. The men were torn between two Elizabethan values; on one hand, they were expected to follow orders, to demonstrate strength of character, to show intestinal fortitute in the face of danger; on the other, they were expected to protect and comfort their women, to be at their side when danger threatened, to stand strong in uncertain circumstances.
Mrs. Emma Bucknell told a reporter what happened when men initially heard the Captain's idea:
"Once a group of men shouted that they would not be separated from their wives if it became necessary to take to the boats and made a rush to find accommodations for themselves. The captain seemed to straighten out his shoulders and his face was set with determination."
"'Get back there, you cowards,' he roared. 'Behave yourself like men. Look at these women. Can you not be as brave as they?"
"The men fell back, and from that moment there seemed to be a spirit of resignation all over the ship. Husbands and wives clasped each other and burst into tears."
Forced to adopt Plan B, Smith reversed himself. He maintained a strict policy of "women and children only", but he would allow husbands and escorts to lead women to the lifeboats and see them in. Then they were expected to step back. The only exception was made by Lightoller who, when loading No. 6, allowed Canadian yachtsman Arthur Peuchen to climb down the davits into the boat after the sailor in charge begged for help to row.
Twenty-four women were put in Lifeboat No. 4. Among the first was 18-year-old Ruth Taussig, whose mother Tillie refused to get in if her husband couldn't go with her. Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss led her maid Ellen Bird to the boat, but even when the officers agreed to make an exception for him because of his age (67), he refused to take a seat that a woman could use, and his wife insisted on staying on the Titanic with her husband of 40 years, regardless of the danger.
Frederick Kenyon told his wife he couldn't leave the Titanic as long as there was a woman or child on the ship. He kissed her goodbye and offered her the hope they would see each other again the next day.
Caroline Bonnell told a reporter for the Youngstown Vindicator that her uncle, who had pooh-poohed the danger earlier, "gallantly stood aside." He told his wife and niece he would join an acquaintance and they would follow in another lifeboat.
It was all so by the book. Dr. Alice Leader wrote to a friend from the rescue ship Carpathia:
"It is all photographed on my mind. There was no panic. Every one met death with composure---as, one said, the passengers were a set of thoroughbreds."
Mrs. Emma Bucknell recalled to a journalist (Chester Times (Pennsylvania), April 20, 1912):
"I did not hear an outcry from the women or the men. Wives left their husbands' side and without a word were led to the boats. One little Spanish girl, a bride, was the only exception. She wept bitterly, and it was almost necessary to drag her into the boat."
Gladys Cherry wrote to her mother, also from rescue ship Carpathia:
"We had a terrible scene with a little Spanish lady who would cling to her husband and at last he threw her in our arms and asked us to take care of her. (Published in On Board RMS Titanic, George M. Behe, 2011.)
"Pepita, que seas muy feliz" ("Pepita, you'll be very happy"), were his last words, she told family members.
The distraught woman was Mrs Maria Josefa Perezde Soto y Vallejo Peñasco the 22-year-old wife of Victor de Satode Peñasco. Although sometimes described as newlyweds, the couple had actually been on a 17-month European honeymoon of which the Titanic trip was the latest adventure. Penasco, 24, you see, was fabulously wealthy.
And connected. His mother was related by marriage to Spain's Prime Minister.
The boat loaded with as many woman as wanted or could be cajoled to leave, Capt. Smith, who was personally in charge of No.8, thought it time to lower away.
Said Mrs. Taussig (New York Times, April 22, 1912), who was watching from the deck,"Capt. Smith was preparing the eighth boat to be let down. There was only one seaman in sight, but a number of stewards had rushed up between the crowding men and women. The Captain turned to the stewards and asked them if they knew how to row. They answered ‘Yes' hastily, and four of them were allowed to jump in." (None of them knew how to row and the women in the boat would have to do it for them.)
Lucy Noël Martha Leslie, Countess of Rothes had the perspective of someone in the lifeboat. (New York Herald, April 21, 1912) "Captain Smith stood shoulder to shoulder with me as I got into the life boat, and the last words were to the able seaman--Tom Jones--'Row straight for those ship lights over there; leave your passengers on board of her and return as soon as you can.'
Mrs. Taussig again:
"There was room for fourteen more after the last woman had found her place, and they all pleaded to let the men take the empty seats."
"But the Captain said that he would not allow it. I was frantic. There was that boat, ready to be lowered into the water and only half full. Then the order came to lower. The men were pleading for permission to step in, and one came forward to take a place next to his wife. I heard a shot and I am sure it was he that went down."
"Then the boat swung out from the deck. I was still with my husband, and Ruth had already disappeared below the deck. I gave a great cry---I remember perfectly calling out the name of my daughter---and two men tore me from my husband's side, lifted me, one by the head and one by the feet, and dropped me over the side of the deck into the lowering boat."
Who was the husband making the fatal dash? Isn't it obvious?
A passionate Spanish gallant responding to his new bride's heart-rending pleadings?
Who else? Fifty-seven year old George Wick? Frederick Kenyon who was ready to die as a gentleman should? Thomas Pears, 29, was a risk-taker who raced cars and motorcycles, but his British upraising suggests he would obey orders on a British ship.
Spanish histories include quotes from Penasco's wife. In her account, she says she saw an officer fire his gun in the air to stop some disorder. Unless she's referring to the shooting at No.5, it's the earliest mention of anyone firing a gun at a port boat and coincidental with Mrs. Taussig's account.
She also said she saw Victor start to climb into the lifeboat, but stepping aside to let a woman with a child enter. She said she never saw him again---lost in the hubbub.
Did he try to get into the lifeboat, step back, and try again?
The circumstantial evidence points to Victor de Satode Peñasco being shot rushing Lifeboat No. 8.
Who shot him? By that point in time, Capt. Smith, Chief Officer Wilde and Second Officer Lightoller were all carrying guns and all three were helping load No. 8.
Lightoller made it a point of pride that he never fired his revolver (although he told Titanic survivor Dr. Washington Dodge on the Carpathia that he shot in the air one time at Collapsible D to maintain order).
Some survivors said they saw Capt. Smith with a gun in his hand later in the sinking, but while several women put into No. 8 mention the Captain, not one mentions a gun.
That leaves Wilde as the most likely suspect. (No ordinary crewman would shoot a passenger in the presence of the Captain or senior officers---without orders.)
On a final note, Victor and Maria Penasco were accompanied on their honeymoon trips by a governess-slash-maid, Fermina Oliva y Ocana. In a book published on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic ( "Ten of the Titanic, LID Editorial, by Javier Reyero, Cristina Mosquera and Nacho Montero) the authors ask, and answer, 'what happened to the maid?'
They quote her own account of being saved. (I'll paraphrase her story in Spanish.)
She was, she said, left out of the boat when it started to lower. She started screaming. She was desperate. She was seized by an officer and thrown "like a sack of straw" into the boat, about 3 feet.
"It was the most horrible moment of my life," she said.