Sunday, April 15, 2012

Family History: Titanic Memories

Thomas Burden at 27 years old (over ball), David Churchill's Grandfather

The job awaited him in America. He had already said his good-byes to all his mates in the local pub. Two or three young lasses quietly mourned the fact they were losing “another one” to America. Belfast didn’t hold much future for a Catholic, not in March 1912, so his decision had been made. His brother, Paddy, understood; his sister, Teresa, or Teesie as he called her, didn’t. His Da, James? He’d passed away some time ago. His Ma, Ellen, was resigned, though deeply saddened. 

As the date to sail in April crept closer, his Ma took ill. At first, he thought it was a cold, but then it got worse. He knew he’d never see her again, so after a couple of nights’ reflection, he cashed in his ticket. He would not have been able to live with himself if she passed while he travelled, or shortly after he arrived. He was still disappointed, because the ship was to be on her maiden voyage. He had even occasionally gone down to the Harland and Wolfe shipyards to watch her, and her sister ship Olympic, being built. He’d heard that even in steerage accommodations were acceptable, and the food was far better than he’d been eating recently. He would wait until his Ma was well before he booked again. In the meantime, he went to the telegraph office and sent a message to his prospective employer in Traverse City, Michigan that he would be delayed, he hoped, for no more than a month. 

So, on April 10th, the ship sailed without him. The next day, his Ma showed improvement, and by the 13th, she was well on the road to recovery. He thought nothing about the ship; all that mattered was that his Ma had recovered. On the afternoon of the 13th, he went to the ticket office and booked on a ship that was scheduled to sail in early May: the Lusitania. A good ship, he heard, just not new. He went to the pub that evening, and Mass the next day with his family. He was home and asleep early on the night of the 14th. 

He went to the telegraph office the next morning to let his American employer know when he would be arriving. The office was in an uproar with crowds of people outside. “She went down,” he heard one man say to another. “She’s gone,” said another. “Alfred was on board,” a woman behind him said before she broke into tears. He turned and asked another man outside the telegraph office what had happened. “The Titanic. She’s hit an iceberg and sunk. Over half of the passengers went with her.” Numbness hit his limbs and he felt himself wobble slightly. Another man grabbed his arm or he would have fallen. The man eased him onto a nearby stoop. “Ya all right, mate?” he asked. “I … I was supposed to be on that ship,” he said. 

Passenger Record from the Lusitania
That is Thomas Joseph Burden’s story. He is my grandfather – my mother’s father. Indeed he did have tickets in steerage on the Titanic. His mom did get sick and he cancelled his tickets and came over, finally, a month later on the Lusitania, about three years before it was sunk by a torpedo. Talk about the luck of the Irish. He never spoke much about it. All we knew was the basics: he had a job offer as a newspaper printer in Traverse City, Michigan; had tickets on the Titanic; his mother took sick so he cancelled; he came to America a month later on the Lusitania. So, what you read above is extrapolated from what little we knew. I believe the whole story, because a few years ago I dug through the Ellis Island electronic archives and indeed I did find his name in their records as an immigrant to the US on the Lusitania (see image). I was able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the Lusitania part of the story, so I have no reason to doubt the Titanic part.

What I do know is this: because my grandfather did not board that ship, there are now more than 100 people on the planet, including me, who would not be here otherwise (and you would not be reading this right now). That number will continue to grow as the generations pass. He was to travel in steerage and, although some women and children made it out of steerage, very few, if any, men did.

Needless to say, I’ve always been obsessed with the Titanic. As a movie lover, I’ve seen most of the film versions, and I have to say, apologies to Mari-Beth Slade (whose piece on the James Cameron film is here), that I loathe Titanic. All that money lavished on getting the visuals right and he wastes it on a peewee script with ridiculous characters, such as Billy Zane’s Snidely Whiplash villain (Zane was so cartoon evil that I expected him to twirl his mustache and tie Kate Winslet to the rail), and enough (willful) historical inaccuracies to, well, sink a ship. Remember above I said few if any men in steerage survived? Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack was from steerage and, even before the collision, seemed to have a free run of the ship (including into the dining halls of First Class). Something that was basically impossible since each class was locked away from each other – an apt real-life metaphor for the class divisions of the times if ever there was one.

The fact Cameron used a horrifying tragedy (it’s not overstating it to say this was the Edwardian era’s version of 9/11) to make a cheese-ball melodrama with innumerable historical inaccuracies and clich├ęd characters makes my blood boil to this day. There are two other film versions that I like, Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 A Night to Remember (discussed by Steve Vineberg here) and the TV movie from 1979 called S.O.S. Titanic which, though not as technically adept as Cameron’s version, makes very few historical errors, and understands the class structures of the time that Cameron chose to pretend did not exist beyond a superficial level.

A scene from Waking the Titanic
Fictional versions of the ship’s sinking are only one part of the picture. Every few years, there seems to be another documentary on the sinking of the mighty ‘unsinkable’ ship. I’m so familiar with the story now that most, including the recently broadcast-on-CBC Titanic: The Canadian Story, offered me few new insights into the sinking. One that did leave an impression was the profoundly sad Waking the Titanic which ran a few weeks ago on television and came out on DVD just last week. It told a tragic story of Irish immigration. A west coast Irish town called Addergoole sent 14 people on the ship to America and only 3 survived. To this day, the town commemorates the people who were lost to them, a loss that affected everybody in Addergoole in some way.

Unlike my grandfather’s story where his sudden decision to stay saved him, and 100+ of his descendants, the at-the-time very generous decision of one self-made Irish woman ended up costing several lives. Catherine McGowan had found success in America and had returned to Addergoole to bring her niece back with her to America. While in the town, she convinced twelve other family and friends to join her on the return trip to America on the Titanic. It was an act of kindness that would have opened up a world of possibilities for those who went with her. Instead, most, including her, died on the trip. When I watched it, I could not help but project an alternate reality where my grandfather had got on the ship and had perished. I watched this fine documentary with chills running up and down my spine as the film recreated the look and feel of the steerage class. Though my grandfather lived in the bustling Belfast, and not the small Addergoole, the working class Irish experience would not have been terribly different. One minute of Waking the Titanic has more truth in it about the human experience than the three-plus hours running time of James Cameron’s blotted, overrated epic.

As a tribute to my grandfather who didn’t board Titanic, and to all those who did, my original plan, hatched years ago, was to host a dinner on Saturday night on April 14th using as many of the recipes from the ship's First Class and steerage menus. I even had the perfect book, published in 1997, titled Last Meal on the Titanic. Alas, due to circumstances and, well, life, this did not come off. However, I don’t need to host a dinner to remember the luck that embraced my grandfather when he decided not to travel to America (he later moved on to Canada where he met my grandmother) on the Titanic, nor to toast the memories of those who were not so lucky. It is and always will be in my memory.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Caring saved your grandfather's life, and all the rest a yuz! Cool story. I hadn't realized the historical inaccuracy of Titantic, though the 1-dimensional characters annoyed me by the 3rd viewing. How did it win so many awards? bonkers