Frontier Psychiatrist

The First Class Passenger – Nonfiction by Django Haskins (Best of FP 2010)

Posted on: December 30, 2010

[Today on Literary Frontier, we continue with an excerpt from a biography of Karl Howell Behr and his adventures aboard the RMS Titanic. Author Django Haskins is a singer, guitarist, and prolific songwriter. He’s also Behr’s great-grandson. If you missed last week’s installment, here’s Part One.]


As the lifeboat creaked its way down the edge of the great liner, first class passenger Dr. H.W. Frauenthal seized his last chance to join his wife. With two lifebelts wrapped around his portly figure, the doctor and his brother leapt onto the small craft, knocking unconscious Mrs. Annie May Stengel in the process.  Even with this dramatic addition, the boat only carried about 35 passengers (all first class), including more than a dozen men, plus five crew members, well short of its total capacity of 65.

As the sailors above passed the ropes through the pulley blocks, Behr and his companions descended a jerky 75 feet, past glowing portholes displaying warm scenes of cabins, smoking rooms, and dining saloons now as remote as intricate grade school panoramas.

Once afloat, Behr and Beckwith took turns at an oar, under the direction of third officer Hebert J. Pitman. Several hundred yards away from the ship, they paused. It became clear as they stood just above the black, preternaturally calm water that Titanic was listing severely to starboard. Even more troubling, the lines of lighted portholes no longer ran parallel to the water. Rather, Behr could see that some of the lower cabins in the bow had already disappeared below the water line. This simple geometric anomaly told the unthinkable truth: Titanic was going to sink.

Karl Howell Behr

Behr and his companions watched in horror as the great liner’s stern lifted out of the water. The lights in the upended cabins shone a moment, then went out, and the entire vessel disappeared. Hundreds of people who had moments before crowded her decks were suddenly thrust into the freezing ocean. A great, mottled cry emerged from the formerly still waters.

On board lifeboat number five, Pitman consulted his watch and announced the time: 2:20 AM, just over an hour since the lifeboat had been launched. He then ordered the men to row toward the agonized sounds of men and women quickly and surely freezing to death. They slowly began rowing, but several female passengers protested furiously. It was too dangerous. There was not room. The swimmers would swamp the lifeboat, and everyone would drown.

These moments held one of the most crucial tests of Behr’s young life, and yet, as far as we know, he said nothing. What kind of moral wrestling match gripped his mind? Picking up swimmers would have been a risk, but surely one that the dozen men in the lifeboat could have managed. Still, no one on dry land can fully imagine the terror and indecision which must have struck young Behr as he listened to the debate flying around him, hands on an oar, mutely awaiting orders. All around, the dark ocean vibrated with unearthly moans, and the only safe haven was in this small boat, where he and his beloved stood. Was it worth risking their lives to save just a few more? Faced with issues like these, even the most decisive and principled of men would have struggled. Behr remained silent.

Pitman, an experienced sailor, knew that they could hold twenty more, but he capitulated to his female charges and gave the order to cease rowing. And so the passengers waited as the cries died down and hundreds of souls sank slowly into the dark waters of the North Atlantic.   It was a decision that Pitman would always regret. Later Behr primly maintained that, though it was hard to think of it, “I believe [Pitman] was wise in doing so.”

Helen quietly remarked that the boat was leaking. Behr groped in the dark for the stop-cock, but found it firmly in place. The problem turned out to be wood of the boat itself; having been hastily built with green lumber it had contracted, creating small gaps at the seams. The water slowly but steadily reached their ankles. Behr folded blankets and set them on the boat’s bottom underneath Helen. Between turns at the oar, he rubbed her stocking feet to keep them from freezing.

During one of these breaks from rowing, a handsome, middle-aged gentleman in evening clothes discreetly nudged Behr and opened his hand to reveal a small nickel-plated revolver. “Should the worst come to the worst,” he said, “you can use this revolver for your wife, after my wife and I have finished with it.” His voice betrayed no panic, simply quiet, dignified resignation. Behr thanked him and returned his attention to Helen’s feet. Amidst the surreal events of the evening, this small scene seemed almost routine. This was merely the expected behavior of a gentleman.

Another lifeboat, number seven, came alongside, and Pitman directed the two boats to be lashed together. Number seven had more available space so several passengers were passed from number five to even out the loads. Pitman hoped that the larger profile offered by two boats would help them attract the attention of any approaching liners. Once the ropes were secure, there was little left for the drifting passengers to do but to avoid the dark icebergs that hulked around them and to try to stay warm. But for how long? Nobody on either boat knew whether Titanic’s wireless operators had been able to contact a rescue ship.

In fact, they had contacted several, with mixed results.

The steamer Californian was on its way to Boston from Liverpool when it was forced to stop in an ice field. The ship lay only ten miles from Titanic. But through a series of missed signals, they were unaware of the drama unfolding nearby. Officers on Californian observed numerous flares as they streamed through the dark skies, but since their wireless operator was sleeping (it was quite late), they had no way of identifying the ship and even thought the lights might be shooting stars. Just in case, they tried several times to signal Titanic with Morse lamps, but when they received no reply, no other action was taken.

Olympic was Titanic‘s sister ship, built in the same docks with nearly identical design. She heard the wireless distress calls starting at 12:45am, and immediately began firing her boilers to rush to the rescue. But she was 500 miles away, so she had no realistic chance of reaching Titanic in time.

Captain Arthur Henry Rostron of Carpathia had just gone to bed when, at half-past twelve, young wireless operator Harold Cottam and first officer H.V. Dean burst into his stateroom. Annoyed at the sudden intrusion, the captain sharply demanded their purpose. Cottam said he had just received a distress call from Titanic saying the ship had struck an iceberg and was sinking. Rostron hastily pulled on his clothes and hurried to the chart room, where he calculated the ships’ relative positions: they were 58 miles apart. With Californian lolling unaware in an ice field only ten miles from Titanic, Carpathia had become the last, best hope for rescue.

Rostron ordered all possible speed toward Titanic, and immediately began assembling coffee, soup, and blankets. He ordered all three of the ship’s doctors to stand by to treat survivors. Meanwhile the crew prepared Carpathia’s lifeboats for lowering.

Django Haskins is an author and songwriter living in Durham, NC. His eighth album, Tender Age, recorded with his band, The Old Ceremony, drops September 2010. In addition to The First Class Passenger, he is now working on a touring memoir that explores the history of five cities where he performs. He studied literature and Chinese at Yale.

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1 Response to "The First Class Passenger – Nonfiction by Django Haskins (Best of FP 2010)"

[…] [Today on Literary Frontier, our third and final excerpt from a biography of Karl Howell Behr, survivor of the RMS Titanic. Author Django Haskins is a singer, guitarist, and prolific songwriter. He's also Behr's great-grandson. In case you missed them, check out Part One and Part Two.] […]

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