A sinking ship

A photo of the Senate subcommittee that investigated the <i>Titanic</i> sinking appeared on front pages across the nation. Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Francis Newlands appears here with a numeral 3 under his head.

A photo of the Senate subcommittee that investigated the Titanic sinking appeared on front pages across the nation. Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Francis Newlands appears here with a numeral 3 under his head.

Sparks Heritage Museum is playing a 22-minute multimedia program, Night of the Titanic, from 1 to 4 p.m. each Saturday in April.

The 1912 sinking of H.M.S. Titanic means more to us than it did to the generation that experienced it. After the sensation of the event and the initial news coverage and investigations died out, it faded from view.

No Hollywood movie was made about it until 1953. When Walter Lord was researching his 1956 book A Night to Remember, he discovered, “From 1913 to 1955, not a single book was published on the subject.” It was Lord’s book, in fact, that brought the Titanic into prominence after decades of obscurity.

A few years ago, when the James Cameron movie was released, I spent several days researching Nevada links to the sinking. No journalist can read the 1912 news coverage of the disaster without feeling a little unclean. Journalism blew the story badly, rushing into print with rumors, slanders, lies and plain fiction. I suspect that’s one reason why the public lost interest in the story—the news coverage was so bad and was shown by investigations to be so inaccurate that the public began to disbelieve everything they read about Titanic.

The lies lived on, though. In the 1950s, Lord himself was taken in by some of them and 30 years later, he published a second book—The Night Lives On—correcting all the errors he made in the first book, along with errors made by others.

Since the wreck’s discovery, the interest has accelerated, producing book after book, T-shirts, art, posters, ship models, and on and on.

It all shows little sign of abating, and the myths keep multiplying. The movie Titanic is routinely referred to as the second-highest grossing movie of all time, after Cameron’s Avatar. But that’s in 1997 dollars. When adjusted for inflation, Titanic falls back into sixth place.

We have invested the tale with all kinds of portentous meaning.

Surprisingly, local history has been left relatively untouched, though many communities have links to the sinking of which they are unaware.

The husband and the senator

The White Star liner hit the iceberg at about 20 minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912. Soon a cacophony of information was swapped by wireless among Titanic, other ships and land-based stations. The news spread rapidly across the nation.

Former Hamburg, Germany, resident Paul Schabert had been waiting out the Reno residency period for a divorce. His wife was coming to the United States on the Titanic. He departed Reno about the same time the ship left England to meet the ship so final details for the divorce could be worked out.

In the District of Columbia, U.S. Sen. William Alden Smith, a Michigan Republican, grasped the importance of the news of the sinking and quickly arranged creation of a special Senate investigating subcommittee. He chaired the panel, and Nevada’s Francis Newlands, a Democrat, was named vice chair. The two men caught a train for New York.

In Reno, people gathered outside the offices of the Nevada State Journal to read bulletins as they arrived. “As the fearful details of the disaster were revealed, they turned away in horror,” the newspaper reported. At the Grand Theatre, bulletins were projected onto a screen before a subdued audience.

Across the nation, newspapers were in a feverish search for someone to blame, based on almost no reliable information. They demonized everyone from women passengers who failed to remain by their husbands’ sides as the ship went down to White Star Line executive Bruce Ismay, who had the gall to survive the sinking. Part of the reason for the Smith/Newlands trip to New York was to make sure Ismay did not sail back to England until he testified in the Senate probe.

Accompanying the senators to New York was a party that included cabinet member Charles Nagel, U.S. Steamship inspection service inspector general George Uhler (who educated the senators on the way) and senate employees to serve subpoenas.

In New York at the Cunard Pier, Smith and Newlands boarded the rescue ship Carpathia, which was disembarking survivors of the Titanic. The senators met with Ismay, who had no objection to testifying. Hearings in the investigation began the next day at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Newlands, a progressive and bigot whose ethics were uncertain, had served in Congress since 1893. While in D.C., he was apparently not overburdened by his duties. With Nevada Sen. William Stewart, he spent time helping establish the whites-only community of Chevy Chase in Maryland.

Newlands missed most of the 18 days of hearings, and on the days he showed up, he seldom spoke. When he did speak, his lack of interest in the proceedings meant that his questions were pretty pedestrian, certainly nothing like Smith’s more penetrating probes.

Even when Guglielmo Marconi testified on the confusion of unregulated wireless traffic, Newlands had no questions. When Ismay testified on day 11, Newlands asked some questions about the structure of the ship.

Newlands’ was forced to be more active and vocal on day seven—April 25—when the committee broke up into smaller bodies with each of the six senators taking testimony from several witnesses. Newlands questioned four witnesses.

His inactivity cost Newlands some political mileage, because at least one Reno newspaper was filling long columns with transcripts of the hearings, in which he rarely appeared. The hearings ended on May 25, and the committee later issued a report.

As for Paul Schabert, the husband who was on his way to New York to meet with his wife, there was a happy ending amid disaster. Her first name was never given in newspaper reports, but ship records say it was Emma. She was a first class passenger—she stayed in cabin C28—and got into lifeboat number 11.

She was taken on board the Carpathia. When it arrived in New York, Paul Schabert was there to greet his wife.

In the florid prose of the day’s newspapers, “However, the thrilling story of the wreck and the escape of Mrs. Schabert so wrought upon things that when her husband met her after her terrible experience the divorce idea was dropped, and they are now reunited and living in Cincinnati, Ohio.”