Widener Family and the RMS Titanic

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This image has been recreated in movies, in art, in minds, and for some as eye witnesses to the event.

While Millvina Dean is the last survivor of the disaster (age 97, and 2 months old while on the ship) the stories and the impact it had on trans-Atlantic ship safety still are felt today.

This is the sinking of the RMS Titanic. This maritime disaster is one of the most tragic events of the past 100 years. The story has been retold many ways, and several families from all walks of life and society were effected. Including the Widener Family.

Peter Widener’s oldest son George D. Widener, Elanor Elkins Widener, and Harry E. Widener were all aboard the ship along with two servants. The family was traveling through France and was making their return on the ship for her maiden voyage.

The Widener Family were investors in the White Star Line who built the RMS Titanic. There was a New York Times Article published on April 17, 1912 (two days after the tragedy) that mentions Peter Widener and Joseph Widener, and the fact that there was “still hope” that family members were still alive.

The only members to survive were Elanor and her servant. George, Harry, and their male servant would go down with the ship, and their bodies were never recovered.

The cabins they occupied were C-80 thru C-82. This deck was for the elite members of society. You can see a first class cabin layout here. The Widener’s boarded the ship at Cherboug in France, and then before heading out to sea they made one stop in Queenstown in Ireland. The ship could not come near the harbor due to its size. It had to be anchored and passengers brought to her by smaller boats.

On the night the ship sank the Widener family held a lavish party for the richest guests on the ship. This party is said to the be the one depicted in the movie Titanic (obviously embellished for the love story). Among the guests were Captain Edward J. Smith and a man named William Ernest Carter. It is believed that Carter was the last man to see Harry Widener alive on deck. If you click on Carter’s name you will see his story, and the fact that he and his entire family did survive the whole ordeal on the ship.

William Carter was one of the men to arrive on the RMS Carpathia before the life boat Harry’s mother and servant arrived on. It is said that Carter’s son was given a woman’s hat and placed on the life boat wearing it so people would not detect he was a male. The amenities on the Titanic made little room for life boats so there was not enough aboard to save all the women and children, much less any of the men. Carter did live until a ripe old age and died in 1940 in Florida. He is buried right near the Widener Family plot in the same cemetery.

Carter told Harry he should get on one of the life boats, but Harry said to him, “I think I’ll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance.” This romanticizes Harry’s death. The alternate (and more likely) story is that Harry remembered as he was about to board the life boat that he had left a copy of his newly acquired book Bacon’s Essais (circa 1598) in his room and had to go get it. Harry’s love of books would have prompted him to run back to get it so it would not be lost to the sea. That love cost him his life that night.

Harry and George’s body were never found. Several Titanic Memorials were erected as a result of the disaster. There is a mass grave in Canada, a memorial dedicated to the men who died in Washington, D.C., and a lighthouse shaped memorial in Manhatten, NY.

Elanor Widener knowing her son’s love of books decided to donate $2,000,000 to Harvard for the construction of a new library. The library was designed by Horace Trumbauer who designed several buildings in Philadelphia, and the Widener Families mansions Lynnewood Hall (post on that tomorrow). The Widener Library dedicated at the 1915 Commencement Ceremony now houses 3.2 million volumes and acquires 60,000 volumes per year.

The Harry Widener Memorial Room had special English Oak carved panels carved in in England and brought over panel by panel to finish the room. This room houses Harry’s 3,500 volume rare book collection. This collection includes copies of the first folio of Shakespeare and the Widener Family Bible. The bible is a Gutenberg Bible (not donated until 1944 by the family) printed between 1450 and 1455. It is one of the earliest examples of movable type printing.

Elanor also required that the library could never be changes once built. “Not a brick, stone, or piece of mortar shall be changed,” was her words at the time of the $2,000,000 gift. When the school created a walkway between the Widener Library and the new Houghton Library the architects had to connect them using a window opening.

Harry Widener has Harvard University and The Hill School legends attached to him as well. It is said that at both schools the requirement that students must pass a swim test was a stipulation of Elanor’s large contributions in Harry’s name. It has not been confirmed by either school. The Harvard University requirements that all freshman students must pass a swim test is a left over from the Navy’s influence over some academic requirements of the school.

It is also rumored that having ice cream available for dessert at The Hill School daily is because Harry became so fond of the dessert before is was made popular at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and always ate it after his meals. This can not be confirmed either.

The Widener Family and their impact on history is amazing. In tragedy the family just became more philanthropic.