by Chris Aikman
Like an iceberg appearing ahead in the dark sea, the centennial of the sinking of the RMS Titanic has rapidly approached, stunned us, leaving us in a state of emotion and confusion. All of which serves to illustrate how our fascination with the tragedy only continues to grow. In that century since April 15, 1912, over a thousand books have appeared about the Titanic disaster; in this year of 2012 several dozen more are coming into print.
Of all the one-day events in history, the Titanic story was for many decades the third most-written about happening, surpassed only by the crucifixion of Jesus and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. To this we can now add the events of September 11, 2001, which is just now surpassing the Titanic in the number of books written, moving the Titanic story to fourth place. As for most of us alive in the time of the JFK assasination, and of 9/11, people of an earlier generation remembered vividly when they first heard the news of the Titanic sinking. My mother was at home in the kitchen of the parsonage where she lived in Sherbrooke, Quebec when her parents told her of the tragedy. They knew three of their in-laws had been on board, but no one knew if they had survived. My mother was eight years old at the time. Though she often mentioned it in her later life, it meant very little to me as a child. Now I wish I could ask and find out more! But here is what we can know today.
Of the over 2200 passengers and crew, some 1500 vanished into the cold waters of the north Atlantic in the dark early hours of April 15, 1912, and most of their stories vanished with them. Early accounts of the event made great fanfare over those passengers of great wealth and prominence, especially American and British passengers. But some 130 of the passengers were Canadians or Canada-bound, and their stories received little attention until Alan Hustak published "Titanic - The Canadian Story" in 1998. His book is filled with fascinating accounts of many families, and many of the details he recorded relating to my family are included here, combined with the memories of my mother and uncle who did record some details in their memoirs.
For the 1500 lost, their suffering ended in the piercing hypothermia that overcame them within minutes in the below-zero saline waters. For the 732 survivors, we might think their struggle was encapsulated in the so-memorable theme song "My Heart Will Go On", sung by Celine Dion in the James Cameron movie. Doubtless, all of them must have tried to "go on". But for some of them this was made impossible by survivor's guilt, the sheer fact that they had survived where so many others had perished.
For other survivors, the cruel reality was that their hearts were eaten away by loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of a world that vanished with them, With the Great War that soon followed, that world would never return. So it was for my great uncle Frederick, his wife Suzette, her brother and his fiancée. Theirs is a tale of love and loss, passion and prejudice, desire and diamonds, ambition and addiction. Their tragedy did not end with the central event of April 15, 1912, when the broken hulk of the giant ship slipped to the bottom of the North Atlantic, but instead played out in the decades of suffering that followed, in ways barely recorded.
The Douglas Family
My connection to the Titanic came through my great uncle, Frederick Charles Douglas (1876-1949). In the 1897 photo below, he is the dashing young fellow (at age 20) in white at the centre rear of the picture. The matriarch of the Douglas clan is my great-grandmother, Mary Kyle Douglas (Mrs. Alexander Douglas, 1840 - 1924), in the centre of the photo dressed in black. Surrounding her in the photo are her three daughters, each seated near their spouses, plus her three sons who are the young lads in the back row, plus her eight grandchildren. In my great-grandmother's arms is my newborn uncle, Douglas Read; immediately behind them are my grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. George Ellery Read. My mother, Gwendolen Read, would not make her appearance until six years after this photo was taken. At the right of the photo holding a paddle is my great uncle,Robert Stanley Weir, who wrote the English lyrics for "O Canada". The location is Cedarhurst, Judge Weir's summer home by Lake Memphremagog in Quebec.
It was my uncle (the babe in arms in the photo) who later recorded most of what I know about Fred Douglas. Frederick was the apple of his mother's eye. He was very popular with the younger kids; he was always full of jokes. He had a pleasant manner, and although not tall, looked quite distinguished. As a young Montreal physician, his career in medicine began with great promise when he opened his practice at 51 Park Avenue in 1906. In 1907, into his office came an athletic young man named Quigg Baxter, a neighbour who lived a few doors away from the Douglas family home on rue Ste. Famille. Quigg had suffered a severe eye injury from a hockey stick. While nurturing this injury, the good Dr. Douglas became more aware the patient's beautiful sister, Suzette Baxter, and the result was romance. My grandfather, Rev. George Read (right of centre in the above photo with dark jacket and moustache), married the couple on January 15, 1908, an event recorded in his hand in his pastoral diary, at the bride's home, 33 St. Famille Street in Montreal. It was then a district where most of the wealthy people in Canada lived, and the bride came from a very wealthy family, by all appearances.
The Baxter Family
Suzette's father, James "Diamond" Baxter had come from humble roots, and a checkered background. One of eleven children of Irish immigrants who settled in Ontario, he came to Montreal as a jeweller. The wealthy elite of the city had a great appetite for diamonds and jewels, and Jim knew where diamonds came from (probably Antwerp at that time). In 1882, his third marriage was to Helene Lanaudiere-Chaput, a young belle half his age who was a direct descendent of the Canadian heroine of two centuries earlier,Madeleine de Vercheres . The couple's two children, Helene Suzette (Suzette Baxter Douglas), and Quigg would speak English to their father and French to their mother, and so grew up perfectly bilingual.
By the close of the century, James Baxter was known as a philanthropist and the most powerful private financier in Canada. He built the Baxter Block on St. Laurent boulevard, considered to be the first shopping mall in Canada. But as the century turned, so did his fortunes. He was investigated for currency exchange irregularities, and in 1900 he was convicted and jailed for bank fraud. He died soon after his release from prison in January 1905.
Perhaps his disgrace and demise had left his widow isolated in the plutocratic circles of anglophone Montreal. Or perhaps it was that he had left a stash of his fortune in vaults in France or Belgium. But for whichever reason, his widow Helene eventually found it advantageous to escape from Montreal each autumn to enjoy the more accepting social scene in Paris or Brussels during the winter, and to return to Montreal with a fresh supply of jewelry in the spring. After all, in the days before income tax, government revenue came mostly from import duties and excise taxes, which provided a strong incentive to move wealth around as personal jewelry rather than cash or bulky imports.
Although the newlyweds, Frederick and Suzette, lived in their families' homes on rue Ste. Famille from 1908 to 1913, something different happened in the winter of 1911-12. That was when Suzette journeyed to Paris to join her mother and brother who had wintered there. The three would return to Montreal via New York on a fine new ship sailing in April. It was called the Titanic.
The departure of the Titanic on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912 from Southampton was not without incident. Indeed, there were at least three ill omens. The port of Southampton was filled with big ships idled by a coal strike. As the Titanic pulled away from the jetty, the backdraft of its gigantic hull in the water was so strong that it snapped the six lines holding another liner, the "New York", which was tied up nearby. The New York swung almost within a meter of colliding with the Titanic until tugboats eventually returned the smaller ship dockside. There were also reports of a smoldering fire deep in a coal bin in the Titanic's belly, one the firemen on board could only control but not extinguish.
In any case, the departure was delayed by more than an hour by the the New York incident, so that night was falling by the time the giant ship had crossed the English Channel to take on French passengers off Cherbourg. Among the passengers ferried out into the darkness by tender to board the waiting Titanic were Mrs, Baxter, Mrs. Douglas, and Quigg Baxter. There was also a mysterious fourth member of their party - was it Quigg's financee? In the first book published in 1912 about the sinking, recorded among the names of those lost are " Baxter, Mr. and Mrs. Quigg". Recorded among the names of those saved was a "Mme. De Villiers". They both referred to the same person, who was neither Mme. De Villiers nor Mrs. Quigg Baxter. Her real name was Berthe Mayné. She was a cabaret singer from Brussels and Paris, where her passionate and secret affair with Quigg had recently started. To other passengers they must have given the appearances of being on a honeymoon. It is not certain, but entirely possible, that they were engaged to be married. But at the time, none of this was known to Quigg's sister and mother.
In his book, Alan Hustak notes: " If Hollywood producer James Cameron had wanted to create a real-life shipboard romance when he made his epic 1998 blockbuster, Titanic, the affair between twenty-four-year-old Quigg Baxter and a Belgian courtesan, Berthe Antoine Mayné, had the makings of a quintessential love story." Indeed all the elements of passion, class and wealth, wisdom and sacrifice that Jack and Rose displayed as hero and heroine of the movie could be found in Quigg, Bethe and Suzette. Their qualities and experiences were simply redistributed from three to two persons in the movie version.
Mrs. Helene Baxter had reserved two adjoining staterooms, B58 and B60, for the voyage. Only two suites on the vessel surpassed them in cost and elegance, the so called "parlour suites" that featured three adjoining rooms, including a large sitting room, huge closets, and a private promenade balcony. The portside parlour suite next to the Baxter suite had been intended for American financier J.P. Morgan, but when business detained him in England and kept him from sailing, the suite was occupied instead by Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line. Berthe Mayne's stateroom, C90, was discretely located one deck below.
Most of the surviving photographs of the staterooms were actually of not of the Titanic, but of its sister ship, the Olympic. But the photos below are of the actual Baxter suite on the Titanic, from room B58 looking into B60, and (probably) within room B60.
Their first full day at sea, April 11, dawned just off Land's End, Cornwall. By noon, the Titanic dropped anchor in Cobh Harbour (then called Queenstown), where the Irish passengers were taken aboard. The last photos of the entire ship were taken as she sailed out of the harbour and away into the North Atlantic.
On the morning of April 12, Titanic's wireless received the first of at least nine telegraphed warnings about a broad swath of icebergs and sea ice at a specific location lying directly in her path two and a half days sailing ahead. Except for a minor adjustment of her course a few leagues to the south, none of these warnings appeared to have exercised any effect on the officers, crew, or even Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line. The last of these warnings came in 45 minutes before the fatal encounter on April 14, but was cut off brusquely by the Titanic's exhausted wireless operator.
On the open sea, Helene Baxter became seasick, and barely ventured from her stateroom.
The Fateful Night
At supper that evening Suzette Baxter, like the fictional Rose of the Titanic movie, appeared with her finest jewelry. She wore a diamond and silver tiara. Is that tiara still on the floor of the Atlantic?
At the moment of collision with the iceberg, Helene Baxter was in bed with nausea, and son Quigg was with her. When the engines stopped turning, she sent Quigg out to see why the ship had stopped in mid-ocean. When he stepped outside just before midnight to investigate, he saw Captain Smith talking to Bruce Ismay outside Ismay's cabin next door. "There's been an accident Baxter, but it is all right," Smith told him. As Smith hurried away to the bridge, Ismay told him to get his mother and sister into the lifeboats. Baxter carried his mother up the grand staircase to lifeboat 6. "Quigg didn't seem at all disturbed," his sister later told The Montreal Standard, "While he didn't relish being parted from us, he bade me farewell bravely."
An awkward moment occured when Quigg returned with Berthe Mayné, introduced her to his mother and sister, and asked that they take good care of her. Up to that moment, Berthe apparently had been an unknown stranger to one or both of them. As Quigg put his mother into the lifeboat, he handed her a sterling silver flask of brandy, and she began to complain about his drinking. He cut her short: "Etes vous bien maman?" (Are you okay, mother?) he asked. "Au revoir, bon espoir vous-autres." (Goodbye, keep your spirits up everyone.) Berthe Mayné didn't want to get into the boat without him, but Molly Brown convinced her to do so. He waved to them as lifeboat #6, capacity 65 people was lowered onto the sea on the port side with 25 persons aboard. The events that were to follow on lifeboat 6 are detailed in Lanny Boutin's book (see references below), and were to become emblematic of the whole tragedy.
Later, Suzette would recount to a reporter from the Toronto Telegram the horrifying sequence. "We could hear revolver shots all over, and the confusion was terrible. The last I saw of my brother Quigg Baxter, he was standing on deck fastening a life preserver around him. I was in a lifeboat then with my mother. Looking back from the lifeboats we saw the lights of one of the lower decks disappear under the water."
The dawning hours of April 15 found the 12 lifeboats and 4 collapsibles scattered among a sea littered with icebergs, ice chunks and flotsom - human and material. Lifeboat #6 was the last to be emptied by the rescuing steamer Carpathia. Berthe when rescued was wearing a motoring coat, nightgown and slippers, testimony of the haste with which they had boarded the lifeboat. The first thing Suzette did aboard the Carpathia was to send a telegram to her husband Dr. Douglas in Montreal: "SAFE ABOARD THE CARPATHIA. HAVE YOU HEAR FROM QUIGG?"
Fred Douglas and Suzette's half-brother James Baxter were there on pier 56 in New York when the 705 dazed survivors walked down the gangplank of the Carpathia to a damp New York night on April 18. A crowd of 30,000 spectactors was nearby.
Fred Douglas (centre left) meets his wife Suzette (centre right) on their arrival in New York.
Suzette's half-brother James is holding a suitcase. The press were told that survivor Berthe Mayne (in hood) was a countess on a world tour, and that they had just happened to meet aboard the Titanic. The latter part of that statement was indeed true in the experience of Suzette and her mother.
AftermathHelene Baxter returned to Montreal in a state of shock from the loss of her son, not to mention of her fortune, a shock from which she never recovered. She died in her apartment on June 19, 1923 and is buried in the Baxter plot in Notre Dame de Neiges cemetery in Montreal. Suzette Douglas also returned to Montreal, with her husband Dr. Douglas, but to an altered world. The shock of it all spread a pall over their marriage. Three years later, on April 8, 1915, their marriage was dissolved by an act of parliament, which is what was required to obtain divorce in that era. From the perspective of my family, as she drifted away from our family circle, the only thing that remained was a little skiff called "Suzette" at the lake cottage, to remain as an iconic memory of her, my great aunt I never knew. Some years later she contracted a mild case of polio and needed a leg brace to get around. In 1933, Suzette remarried to a Montreal engineer, Edwin Cole Richardson. Eventually they moved to his home town of Redlands, California, to a house at 715 West Clark Street. There, according to her nephew, she lived, surrounded by "mothballs and memories," until her death on 31 December 1954. Berthe Mayne traveled to Montreal with the Baxter family where she stayed for several months before returning to Europe. Back in Paris, she resumed her career under the stage name of Bella Vielly. She never married, but eventually settled into a grand house in Berchem-Ste-Agathe, a suburb of Brussels, with a younger lover. Her stories of having been on the Titanic with a young Canadian millionaire were never taken seriously by members of her family. After all, passenger lists for the infamous voyage had no record of a Berthe Mayne. But after her death on 11 October 1962, the truth of her story was found by her nephew among her box of personal letters and photos. Among them, a photo of Quigg, and scenes of her crossing the Saguenay River by ferry in the weeks that she had spent in Canada. As for her might-have-been-sister-in-law Suzette, Berthe's closing years had much in common with the James Cameron fictional character of Rose. Quigg Baxter was never seen again. His body, if recovered, was never identified. Between April 21 and 26, 306 floating bodies were collected from the cold Atlantic waters by the salvage ship Mackay-Bennett, chartered out of Halifax. Later, a second salvage ship, the Minia returned May 6 with 15 more bodies. Some of these were in an advanced state of decomposition. Some carried their worldly wealth in their pockets; one had diamonds sewn into the fabric of his coat. Might one of these have been Quigg? More likely his was one of the approximately 1200 bodies that were never recovered. Many of those recovered were buried in three cemeteries in Halifax; others had been given burial at sea. Many of those recovered remain nameless to this day. Even the number who actually perished is uncertain by several dozen.
What became of Dr. Frederick Douglas? Some accounts claim he became an alcoholic and disappeared from medical practice. The actual family record is somewhat darker than that. But to understand this, we must look back to the days when he had just completed his medical training at McGill, before his marriage to Suzette. For a time, the young physician had worked as a ship's doctor. Once on a long sea crossing, he developed acute appendicitis. Unable to operate on himself, and with no one else to do so, he took opiates to suppress the pain. Eventually, surgery was possible, although he had had to wear a truss for many years. In those days, tinture of opium (laudanum) was standard medical fare to control pain - even Queen Victoria used it. And indeed, even today opiates are widely used to control pain. But with the loss of his marriage, his life began to seriously unravel as he descended into addiction. My uncle recalled the years before and after 1921 when Dr. Douglas abandoned his medical practice at 51 Park Avenue. For a while, the good doctor seemed to carry on okay. Even after losing his hospital privileges, he tried to carry on helping children at a clinic in a poor section of Montreal. My uncle recalls his uncle Fred treating a young "darky" boy who was suffering so badly from rickets that his leg bones were flexible enough to be bent in any direction. But in time, the tormented doctor was committed to an institution for some years. "His limbs were shrunken, he became unkempt, and it was almost impossible to think he was the dapper doctor I used to know." Eventually he was released, and spent his last decades wandering around at his sister's farm in rural Quebec. My own sister recalls seeing him there in his last years. He died in 1949 and is buried in Applegrove Cemetary.
The earliest books and accounts of the disaster, those published before the Great War, are full of stories of how the noble people in first class were so brave and good and the rabble in third were behaving very badly. Sort of the opposite of how stories are told now. At least we are now honest enough to acknowledge that the bounds of suffering and loss are not restricted by social class or wealth.
The plethora of Titanic books and online sources contain many strange stories of premonitions of what befell on that night of April 14-15, 1912. Among the strangest coincidences are two books that fortold the event with eerie accuracy. In 1892, spiritualist William T. Stead wrote a novel From the Old World to the New in which a ship strikes an iceberg and sinks in the north Atlantic, but survivors are rescued by a ship whose Captain is E.J. Smith. In real life, Stead actually was a passenger aboard the Titanic who, like its captain, Edward John Smith, drowned at sea. In the 1898 novel Futility: the Wreck of the Titan, Morgan Robertson fortells the story and fate of the Titanic in almost perfect detail, even down to the name of the ship.
The personal, societal and technical ramifications of the Titanic story are enduring a degree that gives us pause to ask why they remain so. Indeed, April 15, 1912 stands as a geodetic marker in the collapse of the age of confidence, and presages the age of chaos in war that followed. Reading of the premontions and aftermath may evoke some comparisons with the present age. To what degree are we providing lifeboats, rearranging deck chairs, ignoring the tip of the iceberg in today's world?
This singular fact remains. Although meticulous detail was invested in luxury aboard the ship, something else was forgotten. Even setting aside the breathtaking stupidity of the ignored ice warmings, the Titanic sank for one simple reason: someone had misplaced the binoculars needed for the lookout. So as we survey this present world, so exquisitely fashioned by the titanic synthesis of civilization and technology, yet captained by leaders of great hubris, let's remember to ask this simple question: “who has the binoculars?”
The magnitude of the disaster, of course, was set by the lack of lifeboats - and there could have been a thousand more lives lost had a full passenger complement been aboard. Spaceship Earth has no lifeboats - this is the only vessel we have into the future.
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