Arts & Entertainment

A 'Titanic' Degree of Separation In Newton

  Excerpt from a March 1912 letter written by the author's cousin, Harry Elkins Widener, to his friend, about sailing home from Europe on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Credits: Used with Permission: Harry Elkins Widener Collection, Harvard University, HEW 12.12.25
Harry Elkins Widener, and a copy of his letter about his trip on the Titanic, now part of the archives of Harvard University. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
George Widener and Eleanor Elkins Widener, featured in the book, Last Dinner on the Titanic, along with a copy of the First Class menu from Jennifer Jean Miller's collection. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
A photo of Bruce Ismay from the 1912 book, The Titanic Tragedy, God Speaking to the Nations, with accompanying copies of photos of the Titanic on its maiden voyage, and, now underwater; all items from the collection of Jennifer Jean Miller. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller


NEWTON, NJ - It will be 100 years on April 15 since the R.M.S. Titanic plunged into icy waters, sinking 12,000 feet deep (over two miles) into the Atlantic, a few hundred miles from the Nova Scotia coast.

Yet her legacy still fascinates many, as well as the theories as to how and why the stated “unsinkable” 882 foot long vessel sunk less than five days into her maiden voyage.

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I have always held a curiosity about the Titanic, and have been researching details about the doomed ocean liner for a book I plan to write about the sinking.

I also enjoy genealogy research, and, pondered “what if’s”, at the prospect of any of my ancestors having voyaged on the Titanic to America.

My pedigree that I was aware of stemmed from European working-class roots, and I assumed any of my progenitors would have certainly crossed via second, or even more likely, third class.

Yet along the way, I learned recently, I do have a connection to the Titanic, from an ancestor traveling home to the United States from Europe aboard the ship; a connection beyond my wildest imagination.

And in addition to learn of an amazing degree of separation to the Titanic that another Newton couple I have already known for years, holds of their own, which is connected to mine.

A Writer And Titanic Researcher Delves Into Her Titanic Genealogy and Learns of “The Widener Connection”

Just before Christmas 2011 I performed a Google search on my great-great grandfather’s name, and, found him on someone’s online family tree. I emailed the genealogist and asked how my ancestor ended up there, and, learned this genealogist is my distant cousin himself. Our roots cross in the Chester County, PA area; a part of my pedigree I learned about six years ago. This lineage dates back to colonial times, with one ancestor coming from England and purchasing 500 original acres in the State of Pennsylvania directly from William Penn.

My newly found cousin and I compared notes, and then he began rattling off some of his ancestors. He mentioned his cousin having survived the Titanic, as well as relations to such famous names as Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln.

Yet, the Titanic survivor piqued my curiosity the most.

Not only was I informed I am related to a survivor, but also to two who perished.

My cousin told me we are cousins of Eleanor Elkins Widener, one of the survivors of the sinking.

My heart skipped a beat, and then emotionally swelled, as I digested this news nugget.

I recognized Eleanor Elkins Widener’s name immediately from my inquest, scrawled throughout my notebook from various sources I had investigated, and tears formed in my eyes.

As a genealogist, until the Widener connection, I found no proof of any associations to Titanic.

And once I did, I never envisioned the possibility of being related to one of the wealthiest families on the ship.

I am probably even more aware than most of the magnitude of the terror endured on April 15, 1912 when the Titanic slipped into its frigid tomb, taking with it more than 1,500 of the 2,200 innocent souls on board.

There have been many nights after my research, I have tossed and turned after reading the chilling first-hand survivor accounts of the shrill screams of people struggling for their lives, the crash of dishes ringing through the night air on the ship heard from distant lifeboat passengers, and, the overall chaos in the still and glacial surroundings.

Cousin Eleanor Elkins Widener became part of an exclusive group, even surpassing that of the status of her net $50 million financial worth; she joined the less than 711 survivors, totaling only one-third of the passengers and crew, who survived the nightmarish ordeal.

Learning of the Widener liaison has brought everything full-circle as a researcher, and, added an electric current to the heartbeat of my project: a quest for presenting an accurate account about the Titanic’s sinking, honoring her victims, and chronicling the aftermath.

Especially in honor of my cousin, Eleanor, and in remembrance of two cherished men in her life who both perished in the sinking, husband George, and above all my cousin Harry. Once I learned our relation, and mutual interests both Harry and I hold in common from book collecting to stage performance, his memory has found a special place in my heart.

Modern Day Degree of Separation –Titanic Survivor Descendants in Newton, And The Connection Between Them

The afternoon before the Titanic sunk, Captain Smith received a message from the White Star Baltic indicating a Greek Liner reported a “large quantity of field ice”. Smith found the ship’s owner and President of Internation Mercantile Marine (IMM), Bruce Ismay, socializing with George and Eleanor Widener, and handed him the message, which Bruce stuffed into his pocket. That night, the Wideners’ hosted the dinner party for Captain Smith in the ala carte restaurant, which, despite Bruce’s business connection to the Widener family, was snubbed from the intimate party, yet, he still dined there as well.

Bruce Ismay and the Wideners had their own small degree of separation in between them. P.A.B. Widener, George Widener' father, owned a share of the Titanic, as a board member of Fidelity Trust Company, the bank controlling IMM, which controlled White Star Line.

Bruce Ismay, like Eleanor, received preferential treatment when he was rescued and boarded the Carpathia.

Bruce Ismay, on the other hand, was taken to stay in the physician’s quarters. Jack Thayer, who was only 17 at the time, was permitted to visit Bruce. Bruce had casually shown Jack and his parents John and Marian the ice warning the afternoon before the sinking. Following the crash, young Jack Thayer spotted ice on the deck, returned with his parents to their cabin for warmer clothing, and until they placed his mother in a lifeboat. His father stayed behind with George and Harry Widener, and another friend, Charles William. Jack ended up surviving by standing atop of Collapsible B with other men, before being retrieved by Lifeboat 12.

Bruce Ismay who has often been demonized, and referred to as “Coward of The Titanic” by the press, was in a catatonic heap when Jack visited him aboard the Carpathia. He wore pajamas, and was shaking, and staring straight ahead, tranquilized by opiates. Jack noted how his hair, which was dark and streaked with grey before the sinking, was now completely white.

“I have never seen a man so completely wrecked,” Jack recalled. “Nothing I could do or say brought any response.”

To many, Bruce Ismay was the man who “jumped ship”, some stating he even wore a woman’s hat to get into a lifeboat. The Washington Herald reported Ismay initially refused to jump in to the boat, but was encouraged by others, some reports even indicating he was ordered by some of the ship’s commanding officers.

Films, books, and documentaries often portray Ismay as evil, yet, his obituary at his death (he died in 1937, strangely the same year and only a couple of months following my cousin, Eleanor), portrays him as a person with a sensitive, shy, and giving nature.

Ironically, a family I see often in Newton because our children attend school together is related to Bruce Ismay; Matt and Tami Birk. This connection between our two families is an interesting synchronicity, considering we have known each other for years, the Birks were one of the first families I met when my children and I moved to Newton, and, our ancestors spent time together on the Titanic.

Matt Birk learned of his relation to Bruce Ismay, he said, when he was a young man, and visited his great-aunt, Mildred Adams. She proudly brought out a book about Titanic, and showed it to Matt, showing him photos of Bruce Ismay, her great-uncle.

Like the author of this article, Matt Birk is uncertain how his lineage traces exactly to Bruce Ismay, but is in the process of researching. As he grew older, and the popularity of the Titanic increased due to the film release in 1997, and subsequent memorabilia exhibits, Matt’s interest increased. At this point, his great-aunt had passed away, and he learned from his father the book, and also letters of Ismay’s his great-aunt held, were lost, and may have been sold, when her estate was reconciled.

“I wish I could find something that made the connection,” Matt said. “Personally, I think it’s amazing to have such a connection to the Titanic. I wish I knew more about our lineage.

Matt said because of the notoriety of his ancestor, when he has done Internet searches on Bruce Ismay, “there is so much garbage out there.”

Yet, he plans to continue his quest, and regrets his great-aunt’s Titanic book is no longer in the family.

“That would have been one of those things I would have loved to have had,” Matt concluded.

Death Did Not Discriminate

For both the Birk Family, and me, we are each related to ancestors who were part of high society for that era: while Bruce Ismay hailed from England (married to an American from New York), my relatives were Americans aboard the Titanic.

They were one of Philadelphia’s royal families who led the high life during an opulent time in American History, teeming in the fineries of old world wealth that even today many of us could only dream about.

Darlings of the media giants of their era, The New York Times satisfied the curiosity of readers by publishing news pieces such as George’s purchase of a $750,000 pearl and gem necklace for Eleanor’s 1909 Christmas gift, and about their daughter Eleanor’s debutante ball with over 1,800 guests from society’s upper echelon.

The family oozed privilege, which the press gobbled up as their fodder, and in turn cranked out in-depth, and borderline gossipy reports. Eager followers read about Eleanor’s father-in-law P.A.B. Widener’s five-month stay in Europe to pursue relief from his rheumatism. He safely returned stateside on White Star’s Adriatic (a sister ship of the Titanic) with son Joseph, grandson Harry, and three original Van Dyke Paintings in tow. Before heading to his own private yacht, the Times reported how the Widener patriarch accepted a subpoena for a lawsuit against his company for a 1907 traction collision.

Although first-class passengers were given more of an advantage over the second and third-class in terms of survival of the Titanic tragedy, privilege did not necessarily matter. According to an Ithaca College study (click here for full results), for example, more second-class children survived (all of them), than first and third classes (though the most children on the ship were in third class). Though third-class men outnumbered second-class, their survival percentages were higher, 13 percent versus 8 percent. The totals of first-class men and third-class women on board were fairly equal (171 first-class male passengers and 179 third-class female passengers), yet the survival rate of third-class women outranked those of the men, 49 percent to 34 percent (with only 17 percent of the male servants on board with the passengers surviving).

In sum, death was not choosy on April 15, 1912, and, no matter one’s distinct social class, all passengers suffered losses of loved ones that even riches could never replace.

Finery On The High Seas

“Just a few lines to tell you that I am about to make a quick trip to England. We sail on Wednesday at 1 a.m. on the Mauretania and return on April 10th on the maiden voyage of the Titanic,” Harry Elkins Widener wrote to his friend Luther Livingston on Mar. 10, 1912. Luther was an expert on rare books and librarian at Harvard University, where Harry had graduated from in the Class of 1907.

Harry told Luther about his brief trip, and, how he planned to spend the time in London. As a well-known bibliophile, Harry said he planned to mingle with fellow book collectors, search the dealers, and even look for bargains.

“I hope that when I get home in April you will be around again for I have certainly missed you during my trips to New York,” Harry continued in his correspondence to Luther.

Eleanor, husband George, and 27-year-old son Harry, boarded Titanic in Cherbourg after a stay at the London and Paris Ritz Hotel. George’s servant, Edwin Keeping, and Eleanor’s servant Emily Geiger accompanied them, all on ticket number 113503, with the group occupying cabins C-80-82 (Eleanor and George in C80, Harry in C82, and the servants in separate quarters in first class). Harry, an avid collector of rare books, toted a second edition of Bacon’s Essays of 1598 on board from England.

Family Torn Apart By Disaster

The trip was smooth and enjoyable for the Widener Family until the night of the sinking.

Harry and father George kept busy in the evenings, enjoying time with the other gentlemen of the ship, for discussions, and cordials in the First Class Smoking Room.

And Eleanor or “Nellie” as she was known to friends, coordinated the exclusive final dinner party for Captain Smith in the ala carte restaurant.

Only a few hours later, George took his protesting wife to Lifeboat 4 after an hour’s wait and her desire to stand by George. He told Eleanor to save herself, handing her his wedding band (which she kept with her, along with her famed pearls), and kissing her goodbye.

Harry embraced his mother, and helped to escort her on to the lifeboat. Harry informed his mother of the status of his 1598 Bacon’s Essays.

“Mother, I have placed the volume in my pocket,” he said. “Little ‘Bacon’ goes with me.”

Bryn Mawr, PA resident William Carter, who had also been in attendance at the party that night and loaded his family into the same lifeboat (including his son, who ended up sporting a woman’s hat in order to be make his way on), located Harry, and encouraged him to seek a lifeboat.  Carter ended up in Collapsible C.

“I think I’ll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance,” Harry replied.

My cousin Harry took that chance, and it cost him his life.

Some witnessed George and Harry on deck with the likes of other millionaires John Jacob Astor, Major Archie Butt, and John B. Thayer.

Second Officer Charles Lightoller by some accounts reported he saw Harry and George jump from the ship in the final moments.

Harry’s body was never recovered, while his father George was reportedly found and identified. George Widener’s body was so badly battered from the sea, it was one of a number of them which ended up being given a burial at sea sendoff.

Eleanor’s Aftermath

Eleanor survived the arduous lifeboat trip from the Titanic to the rescuing Carpathia.

She was one of the passengers who received preferential treatment, and was whisked away, along with Marian Thayer and Madeline Astor (John Jacob Astor’s pregnant young bride), to Captain Rostron’s private quarters, where the three ladies stayed for the duration of the trip.

Once the Carpathia arrived in New York, Eleanor was whisked away by father-in-law P.A.B. Widener by private train, and later, left for Philadelphia from Jersey City.

Not only did P.A.B. Widener suffer health issues after his emergency trip to retrieve his distraught daughter-in-law, but following her return home, Eleanor suffered from constant colds, with physicians in attendance around-the-clock. She was in denial about George’s death especially, which friends thought was best at the time due to her fragile state. Her illness prevented Eleanor from attending a luncheon following the tragedy, and in honor of Captain Rostron, at the home of Madeline Astor, and, Captain Rostron instead visited Eleanor.

During the U.S. Senate Titanic Disaster Hearings, Eleanor signed an affidavit indicating Captain Smith did not drink any alcohol that evening at her dinner party, since some of the accusations pointed in the direction of the Captain having been inebriated.

Only two weeks after George’s and Harry’s deaths, daughter Eleanor’s wedding proceeded as scheduled.

In her grief, Eleanor earmarked $2 million to Harvard University for the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. George D. Widener, Jr., Harry’s brother, broke ground, and Eleanor was there for the laying of the cornerstone.

In 1915, the library was officially dedicated (click here to read an article about the library from Harvard University and click here to learn about the library itself, where Harry’s rare books are now housed. 

It was at the dedication of the library, where Eleanor met explorer Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, whom she later married. The two traveled worldwide, including in the Amazon, with her maid Amalie Gieger still accompanying her.

My cousin Eleanor died in Paris at age 69 in 1937, leaving behind $27 million from her father’s estate to children George and Eleanor, and, an estimated $50 million to Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice (reverting to her children after his death).

100 Years Later – “The Italian Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic brought about maritime reform, including shipbuilding code (ensuring the lifeboat to passenger ratio is equal), wireless communications, and special procedures for navigation through ice fields.

However, human error was one of the main factors, which contributed to the sinking of the Titanic.

And even 100 years later, human error, in spite of technology, can still prevail.

Take the case in January 2012 off of the coast of Italy of the Costa Concordia, which struck a coral reef, and the captain of the vessel left the ship.

This ship was coined “The Italian Titanic” the moment the story hit the news.

Of course, 100 years ago, the news reached the people differently, and, those aboard the Titanic who survived were the ones to provide insight into what happened on that April 15, 1912 night.

Amazingly, from the example of the Costa Concordia, we have learned some things have not changed over the last century.

Some aboard the Titanic reported how the crew initially informed them there were no issues, they would be able to return to their cabins soon.

In our world of instant communication, video footage from passengers picked up audio with the crew of the Costa Concordia announcing to passengers over the loudspeaker return to their cabins, and, there were no issues.

For a myriad of reasons, from missing binoculars to ignored ice warnings, the Titanic struck an iceberg.

The Costa Concordia sustained a gash in its hull, because its captain was traveling too close to shore, with the ship striking a coral reef and grounding. The captain abandoned ship, and remains under investigation for it, while as of Mar. 26, 30 were reported officially dead, with two of the 4,000 passengers still reported missing. The ship is expected to take 10 to 12 additional months for removal by a salvage company.

Passengers were frenzied, struggling for their lives, fashioning ropes to exit the ship, as dishes crashed away, while 100 years ago, passengers on the Titanic experienced similarly.

Even with 100 years, and superior technology, the coincidences are eerie, and one thing remains: the resiliency of the human spirit, as well as the stories that develop from a horrific tragedy.

And perhaps one hundred years from now, someone will write about his or her ancestor’s harrowing ordeal aboard the modern-day Titanic.

Editors Note: Jennifer Jean Miller, the Managing Editor of The Alternative Press, Newton News Online, has been researching to write a book about the Titanic. She can be reached with any questions or feedback about this story at:, or (862) 354-1675.

Jennifer Jean Miller gives her thanks, and grateful acknowledgements to Tami and Matthew Birk of Newton for their contributions to this story, and, the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

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