Accidents Bad Behavior

Why Surviving the Titanic Wasn’t Always A Good Thing: Part I

Lucile Polk Carter in a sepia photo wearing a pretty dress and her hair in a bun.

Lucile Polk Carter

In 1914, just two years after the Titanic disaster, Lucile Polk Carter divorced her husband William E. Carter for essentially surviving the sinking too. If that seems a little cold-hearted…well, let’s start at the beginning:

William E. Carter was the grandson of a coal baron (who was so rich on anthracite that his bedroom furniture is now displayed in the Pennsylvania Museum of Art). He had inherited all of his vast wealth and had little time for the mines. He preferred to fox hunt and play polo. The ultimate country sportsman and a gentleman. Lucile was from the esteemed Baltimore family that had produced the U.S. President James K. Polk. Together they ran in the highest of social circles.

A sketch of Lucile from the newspapers when she was turning 18 years old.

Lucile’s society coming out/debutant portrait which appeared in the newspapers as she came of age to enter high society for marriage.

William E. Carter shadowy portrait.

William E. Carter’s passport photo, 1911, source.

Lucile and William had a son and daughter in 1898 and 1900 both named after them: Lucile and William, Jr. For the past few years the family had lived in Europe and summering back home in America at their Pennsylvania mansion Gwenda (which I tried to find record of but could only find one piece of information and one picture of it). It was on one of these trips when they purchased their first class tickets on the RMS Titanic.

William brought along his personal servant, chauffeur, the family’s maid, his polo ponies, and his new 25-horsepower French Renault which was carefully disassembled and packed in a crate for the journey. It was shown assembled in the movie Titanic so Jack and Rose could steam up the windows.

The Carters were not alone on their journey. Some of their best friends had also purchased tickets including George D. Widener*, the heir to the largest fortune in Philadelphia. On the night of the 14th the Carters attended an exclusive dinner party in honor of the ship’s captain, Edward Smith. “No one had any thought of danger,” Carter said in an interview five days later.

*His part of the story coming next week to keep this post from being overly long 😉 .

Ornate stained glass and wood paneled smoking room of the Titanic complete with electric lights and leather lounge chairs.

The first class smoking room on the Titanic, where William was when the ship collided with an iceberg.

The men were still relaxing in the smoking room at 11:40 p.m. when the ship struck an iceberg. William left for his family’s cabins to tell them to wakeup and dress warmly so that he could bring them to the lifeboat stations. In their divorce papers, Lucile had a different story. She explained that William came to their stateroom, said: “Get up and dress yourself and the children,” and she didn’t see him again until the next morning on the rescue ship the Carpathia.

A first class cabin on the Titanic. A four poster bed with curtains, a chaise lounge and elaborate wooden chairs and tables.

A first class cabin on the Titanic.

Room For Two More

When the ship first struck the iceberg, the rooms were still dry and brightly lit. Many people preferred to stay there than wait around outside their cabins where it was now freezing cold and dark. The ship was, after all, supposed to be unsinkable. While Lucile and the children had dressed, they, like many others did not heed the crew’s urgent warnings. When Lucile and the children finally did leave the ship in Lifeboat no. 4 it was 1:55 a.m. The ship would sink soon after at 2:20 a.m.

William was on another side of the ship. Lifeboat no. 4 with his wife was on the port side and the crew were loading it with the rule of “women and children first.” All of the men had been ordered to the starboard side.

A possibly apocryphal legend is that Jacob Astor put a woman’s hat on William Jr.’s head after the lifeboat said they would not take anymore boys. At the time William Jr. was 13, while his sister was 10-years old. The story could never be confirmed because William Jr. refused to ever speak about the Titanic, at least publicly. Jacob Astor was there escorting his pregnant wife to the no. 4 lifeboat with the Wideners, so it’s possible.

A lifeboat filled with people after the Titanic sank.

This is actually Lifeboat no. 6 but it would have been identical to no. 4 which Lucile and her children were in.

By 2 a.m. all of the regular lifeboats were gone. William watched the crew load women into two of the only four collapsible lifeboats left on the ship (collapsible because they were canvas with wooden bottoms). Panic had officially set in and a crowd of men attempted to push their way into Collapsible C. Two dining room stewards jumped in from a deck above. They were promptly thrown out and the boat was loaded with women and children until there were no more in the vicinity. As the boat was released William and J. Bruce Ismay* jumped in.

*Ismay was the managing director of the White Star Line and the man who ignored the ice warnings from his captain.

In 1912, male gallantry and courage were highly valued. To not display them was considered shameful. Only 18% of adult male passengers survived the sinking of the Titanic compared to 72% of female passengers. Once home, widows were comforted as the public admired their men’s valor.

Men who survived for “legitimate” reasons did not suffer stigma either, like tennis champion R. Norris Williams of Wayne, Pennsylvania who was washed overboard near a lifeboat and pulled in (he has an interesting story too, you can read it here).

The collapsable lifeboat filled with people. It has soft canvas sides.

This is Collapsible D, not C which William was on, but it is identical. Because of its collapsible sides the boat was partially filled with icy water by the time it reached the rescue ship. After Collapsible C was filled with women and children William, Ismay and other men filled up the remaining spots as the boat was lowered into the ocean at 2 a.m. Forty-four people were on board in total and they used their hands as oars to push away from the large ship now about to go under. It was the last starboard side boat to be launched but the first one to reach the Carpathia.

The Perils of Surviving

And so amongst the chaos, William E. Carter survived. And not only did he survive but he was rescued by the Carpathia before his wife and children. When Lifeboat no. 4 was brought alongside the rescue ship with Lucile and the children, William was safely aboard and watching the scene. Leaning over the railing and spotting his wife, he yelled to her: “I’ve had a jolly good breakfast,” and, “I wasn’t sure you would make it.”

It’s not recorded in their divorce papers but this may have been the moment Lucile decided to throw William over, figuratively.

To add more shame to his rescue, the servants which William was responsible for, all perished. Lucile on the other hand had remained calm and bravely taken a leadership role in her lifeboat as one of the rowers. At a time when women were considered feeble and silly this was enough to print Lucile’s name in the newspapers as a heroine.

Filled with mostly women and children, Lifeboat no. 4 rowed back to the scene just after the sinking to pick up more survivors. It was the only boat to immediately do so. They rescued six more men who had worked aboard the ship, although two later died from the effects of exposure. By the time they were picked up by the Carpathia they had 60 people in the 40-occupancy ship.

Older couple, Rosalie and her husband.

Rosalie Blun Straus, one of only four first class women to go down with the ship.

A Comparison

Many of the men whom William had suppered with that night went down with the ship, refusing to take up spots on the lifeboats.

Even Edith Evans, a 36-year old first class female passenger, gave up her place on Collapsible Boat D for another woman who was traveling without her children. Edith was one of only four women in first class to die in the sinking. (Rosalie Ida Blun {wife of the co-owner of Macy’s}, was another first class victim after she refused to leave her husband and he refused to leave when there were women, children and younger people still aboard. Instead they made sure their new maid was safely put on a lifeboat and went down with the ship arm-in-arm).

Millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet went back to their room and dressed in evening clothes. He reportedly told a steward: “We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen. There is grave doubt that the men will get off. I am willing to remain and play the man’s game if there are not enough boats for more than the women and children. No women shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.” They were last seen in deck chairs in the foyer of the grand staircase smoking cigars and drinking brandy.

The Carters country summer home and mansion.

The only picture of the Carter family home, Gwenda, I could find. The home was (is?) located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, source.

Returning Home

William E. Carter, on the other hand, was labeled a coward. The newspapers reported that the Carters were “the only Philadelphia family on the Titanic to be rescued without the loss of a member, [they] show few effects of their experience.” Lucile stuck around for 18 more months before finally filing for a divorce, a deeply scandalous decision but one that was softened because of her husband’s poor reputation, no doubt helped by a mysterious leak to the press.

The divorce papers, sealed by the court, somehow leaked to the press where they caused more scandal and sensation as the circumstances of William’s survival were made public. His reputation was thoroughly tarnished. Lucile married four months after the divorce to George Brook, a fellow American she met in Europe. At the start of WWI the British urged all foreigners to return home and so they sailed back to the U.S. on the Olympia, the Titanic’s sister ship. Coincidentally two years later George and Lucile had a daughter themselves, named Elizabeth, born on the 14th of April. As far as I could research, Betty is still alive and just turned 100!

William never remarried and lived his life out at Gwenda Farm where neighbors whispered his nickname “Titanic Bill” with disdain. He died in 1940 at the age of 64.

Lucile carries a dog and wears a dress and hat as she walks the polo grounds after her second marriage.

Lucile, on the right, after her second marriage.

In His Own Words

While William’s actions were less than gallant that night, I’ll leave you with his own words about his experience during the disaster when he gave an interview to the Washington Times several days after being rescued:

Much shaken by his experience and his face showing lines of suffering, Mr. Carter declared in a voice filled with emotion that the sinking of the Titanic, with its attending night of terror, seemed like a horrible nightmare that had left its indelible stamp in the human brain.

“Terrible, terrible,” he said, pressing his hand in weariness against his forehead. “No pen can ever depict and no tongue can ever describe adequately the terrors of our experience. Everywhere was a cold, hopeless despair and grief in its most hellish forms. Some were dumb with horror; others beat their breasts like things crazed; and a few laughed hysterically and insanely.

“As the Titanic sped along in a clear, starlight night no one had any thought of danger.

“Then came a terrible crash; people were tossed and rolled about; women screamed with terror, and strong men turned pale with fear. There was a mad rush for the boats. Men grabbed life buoys for their loved ones and adjusted them with trembling fingers. Half-naked people rushed up the companionways to the decks.

“The coolness of Captain Smith and the other ship’s officers was little short of wonderful. In a few minutes they had succeeded in calming almost everybody, and many of the first class passengers stood with them in bringing order. They quieted the fears of the passengers with the assurance that there was no great danger, and that the big ship could not sink.

“At one time a number of them made a rush for the boats, and officers fired shots, killing four or fire [sic] Italians.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11