They Missed the Boat by Greg Daugherty (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2012)
The sinking of the Titanic claimed some 1,500 lives, among them a gallery of early 20th-century A-list celebrities. Captains of industry John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim both went down with the ship, as did Macy’s co-owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, who refused to leave his side. The popular American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle, the American painter and sculptor Francis Millet, and Maj. Archibald Butt, friend and aide to then-President William Howard Taft, were lost as well.
But for all the boldface names among the Titanic’s victims, many more might have been aboard, but for the vagaries of fate. Among them were:
The novelist, then 40, considered returning from his first European holiday aboard the Titanic; an English publisher talked him out of the plan, persuading the writer that taking another ship would be less expensive. Dreiser was at sea aboard the liner Kroonland when he heard the news. He recalled his reaction the following year in his memoir, A Traveler at Forty: “To think of a ship as immenseas the Titanic, new and bright, sinking in endless fathoms of water. And the two thousand passengers routed like rats from their berths only to float helplessly in miles of water, praying and crying!”
The Italian inventor, wireless telegraphy pioneer and winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics was offered free passage on Titanic but had taken the Lusitania three days earlier. As his daughter Degna later explained, he had paperwork to do and preferred the public stenographer aboard that vessel. Although Marconi was later grilled by a Senate committee over allegations that his company’s wireless operators had withheld news from the public in order to sell information to the New York Times, he emerged from the disaster as one of its heroes, his invention credited with saving more than 700 lives. Three years later, Marconi would narrowly escape another famous maritime disaster. He was on board the Lusitania in April 1915 on the voyage immediately before it was sunk by a German U-boat in May.
Milton Snavely Hershey
The man behind the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, Hershey’s Kisses, Hershey’s Syrup, and the Pennsylvania city that bears his name had spent the winter in France and planned to sail home on the Titanic. The Hershey Community Archives has in its collection a $300 check Hershey wrote to the White Star Line in December 1911, believed to be a 10 percent deposit toward his stateroom, according to archivist Tammy L. Hamilton. Fortunately for Hershey, business back home apparently intervened, and he and his wife instead caught a ship that was sailing earlier, the German liner Amerika. The Amerika would earn its own footnote in the disaster, as one of several ships to send the Titanic warnings of ice in its path.
J. Perpont Morgan
The legendary 74-year-old financier, nicknamed the “Napoleon of Wall Street,” had helped create General Electric and U.S. Steel and was credited with almost singlehandedly saving the U.S. banking system during the Panic of 1907. Among his varied business interests was the International Mercantile Marine, the shipping combine that controlled Britain’s White Star Line, owner of the Titanic. Morgan attended the ship’s launching in 1911 and had a personal suite on board with his own private promenade deck and a bath equipped with specially designed cigar holders. He was reportedly booked on the maiden voyage but instead remained at the French resort of Aix to enjoy his morning massages and sulfur baths. “Monetary losses amount to nothing in life,” he told a visiting New York Times reporter days after the sinking. “It is the loss of life that counts. It is that frightful death.”
Henry Clay Frick
The Pittsburgh steel baron was a business associate of fellow non-passenger J.P. Morgan. He canceled his passage on the Titanic when his wife sprained her ankle and had to be hospitalized in Italy.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
The 34-year-old multimillionaire sportsman, an heir to the Vanderbilt shipping and railroad empire, was returning from a trip to Europe and canceled his passage on the Titanic so late that some early newspaper accounts listed him as being on board. Vanderbilt lived on to become one the most celebrated casualties of the Lusitania sinking three years later.
John R. Mott
Though perhaps less well known today than the others on our list, Mott was an influential evangelist and longtime YMCA official, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. He and a colleague were supposedly offered free passage on the Titanic by a White Star Line official interested in their work but declined and instead took the more humble liner Lapland. According to a biography by C. Howard Hopkins, when they reached New York and heard about the disaster, “It is said that the two men looked at each other and one voiced their common thought: ‘The Good Lord must have more work for us to do.’ ”
Legions more who “just missed” the ship.
Many families on both sides of the Atlantic have stories of relatives who might have been aboard the Titanic but, fortunately for future generations, missed the boat. Though only a small percentage of such tales may have much basis in reality, they are part of a long tradition. In fact, within days of the disaster, newspapers were already remarking on the phenomenon. “ ‘JUST MISSED IT’ CLUB FORMED WITH 6,904 MEMBERS,” Michigan’s Sault Ste. Marie Evening News headlined an April 20, 1912 story, five days after the sinking. Later it quoted one Percival Slathersome, a presumably fictional artist, as saying, “I count it lucky that I didn’t have the price to go abroad this year. If all of us who ‘just missed it’ had got aboard the Titanic she would have sunk at the Liverpool dock from the overload.” By the time Ohio’s Lima Daily News weighed in, on April 26, the club seems to have grown considerably. “Up to the present time the count shows that just 118,337 people escaped death because they missed the Titanic or changed their minds a moment before sailing time,” the newspaper observed.
Famous Passengers Booked for the Ship’s Next Voyage
The Titanic’s return trip to England was scheduled to begin on April 20. Among the more famous names who had apparently booked passage:
• Henry Adams, descendant of two presidents and author of “The Education of Henry Adams.”
• John Alden Dix, then governor of New York.(above)
• J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line. A survivor of the Titanic disaster, Ismay was portrayed as a villain in many accounts in part for the ship’s shortage of lifeboats and for getting himself safely into one.
• Guglielmo Marconi. Having skipped the maiden voyage, Marconi had apparently made arrangements to take the second.
• Frank Seiberling, founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
Other would-be passengers had booked even further ahead. For example, J.C. Penney, founder of the department store chain that still bears his name, was set to sail on the Titanic’s next crossing from England to the United States.