On a starry night in April 1912, halfway through its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, RMS Titanic sideswiped an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank with a tremendous loss of life. The sleek, fast passenger liner, the largest in the world and deemed unsinkable by virtue of its size and modern construction, carried only enough lifeboats for half of those on board. In all, 1,500 souls perished.
The tragedy shocked the world at a time that, in retrospect, seems an Indian summer before the horrors of the Great War. Despite the passage of time since 1912, which has witnessed far greater calamities, the sinking of the Titanic retains its power to fascinate and appall.
The event naturally generated enormous press coverage and drove newspapers to badger the 712 survivors for eyewitness accounts. One of them was a twenty-eight-year-old Virginia banker, Robert W. Daniel. A few scraps of paper in the VHS's collections give a glimpse into Daniel's ordeal. The earliest, a telegram sent by Daniel when the ship stopped at Cherbourg, cryptically told his family he was "On Board Titanic." Within a week, half a dozen other cables followed to let them know he had survived, having been picked up more dead than alive by RMS Carpathia. An accomplished swimmer, he had jumped overboard after the lifeboats were lowered and was apparently pulled, unconscious, into one of the four small canvas-sided collapsible boats from the Titanic. On the way to New York, he befriended another survivor, Eloise Smith, who had been widowed by the sinking. They married within a year. In contrast to his willingness to speak to reporters in 1912, in later years Daniel refused to talk about the experience because of the stigma attached to male survivors. The telegraphic mementoes of Robert Daniel's Titanic experience are in the Hallie Wise Williams Daniel collection in the VMHC Research Library.