Frontier Psychiatrist

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

Posted on: December 30, 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.]


For those in Titanic‘s lifeboats, the hours passed slowly in a freezing daze. The starry sky was vast and brilliant but, in the absence of a moon, provided almost no light. The shivering tenants of boats five and seven strained their eyes to the horizon. Occasionally someone would spot a mast light, only to discover that it was just a flashlight in another lifeboat. Less than an hour after Titanic disappeared, a soft glow appeared on the horizon. In their disoriented state, some thought it was the coming dawn. It seemed too early for that, but surely stranger things had happened in the North Atlantic. As the glow increased, however, they realized that what they were witnessing was the ethereal spectacle of the Northern Lights, a cruel reminder on such a night of God’s awesome power both to wreak destruction and create beauty.

Carpathia reached the spot where Titanic should have been just before 4:00 AM, but found only calm ocean. One by one, the crew soon spotted orphaned crafts scattered among the ice floes and bergs. Over the next four hours they gathered the ragged harvest. Lifeboats five and seven, still lashed together, being among the nearest, reached Carpathia within half an hour. They pulled alongside and the women climbed rope ladders to the deck. Next, children and the injured, including erstwhile landing pad Mrs. Stengel, were hoisted up in rope slings. Finally, Behr and Beckwith scrambled up the side with the other men, followed by Pitman and the other Titanic crew. Once all were aboard, the survivors were led to the first class dining saloon and plied with hot coffee and food. Here they warmed themselves and gave silent thanks for the solid deck once again under their feet.

The next day, a group of seven first class passengers, including Behr and Denver socialite Margaret “Molly” Brown (later of “unsinkable Molly Brown” fame), formed a survivors’ committee. Here, Behr’s talent for organization and fundraising came to the fore. He collected donations for a general fund, which would be distributed to the most destitute steerage passengers; he collected names of survivors and lost relatives to be radioed to New York; he struggled to find clothing, blankets, and sleeping quarters for steerage passengers, many of whom spoke little English.

As he compiled lists of names, an outline of the devastation emerged for the first time: of 2,228 passengers and crew, only 705 reached Carpathia. Two thirds had perished. A disproportionate share of the survivors were females traveling first class. Some 94 percent of first cabin women and children survived, but only 31 percent of the first cabin men. The survival rates dropped precipitously with each descending tier. In steerage, only one in seven male passengers remained.

The work, on top of the enormous emotional strain of the disaster, left Behr drained and unusually vulnerable. As he slept fully clothed on a table in the smoking room one night, an enormous crash jerked him awake. Terrified, he rushed outside in search of Helen, only to find that Carpathia was merely passing through a heavy thunderstorm. Behr breathed a sigh of relief and went back to sleep.

Karl Howell Behr

In the course of his committee work, Behr had daily contact with Captain Rostron, and the young athlete’s vigorous reliability must have drawn the older seaman (as it would later attract a long string of influential sponsors, including Teddy Roosevelt), for one night, he approached Behr to ask his advice. He, Rostron, had received mountains of frenzied requests from the papers. Should he allow press interviews with survivors on their arrival at the New York docks? Behr thought not and Rostron deferred to his judgment. When Carpathia finally approached New York at dusk on 18 April, passengers were encouraged to ignore the shouted megaphone pleas of reporter-filled boats that shadowed them all the way down the harbor to the docks.

As Behr and his party marched wearily down the gangway, he heard his name being shouted. He followed the sound to his brother Herman and sisters Margaret and Gertrude, who then led him to his father. The old man sat wrapped in blankets with a tear-stained face that “appeared to have shrunk to half its size.” Years later, Karl would remark on how feeble his “vigorous father” seemed at that moment, unable to rise to greet his son. If less visible, the scars of the Titanic tragedy would affect Karl in profound ways too. Not least of these would be his need to prove himself heroic and worthy of his pedigree as a gentleman.

Most gentlemen of the first class cabin did what was expected of them. They went down with the ship. Even John Jacob Astor, a millionaire playboy more often described as effete or parasitical than heroic, achieved a measure of manly immortality as he was seen by a survivor standing erect and “with a military salute” taking his place on the doomed deck. Tales abounded of Colonel Archibald Butt, confidante of Teddy Roosevelt, wielding a pistol (in some tellings, a lead pipe) to drive back unruly hordes from steerage so the hallowed rule of “women and children first” could be followed. Women and children of the first cabin, that is. Callous class distinctions notwithstanding, Colonel Butt’s heroics made their breathless way into the pantheon of acts of True Gentlemen aboard the ill-fated vessel.

Karl Behr’s name would not appear on this proud roster. Nor would that of White Star Director Ismay, whose willingness to take a seat in a lifeboat when so many women and children perished became his albatross, dragging him to an obscure, unhappy decline. In fact, amid the international eulogizing of fallen heroes, those few men who boarded lifeboats could not avoid feeling the subject of both private and public suspicion. How was it that they survived when so many sacrificed for the Victorian values of “women and children first?” Their friends and family were of course overjoyed to see them. It was only after the moving scenes of reunion on the docks in New York had faded that doubts began to spread, ivy-like, over survivors’ memories. There was nothing shameful about being lucky, yet many of the male survivors sensed the pale shadow of reproach.

Behr, though, was determined to resume his charmed existence. New possibilities and new struggles awaited: a wife, a Great War, and a great cause. His step may have lost some of its buoyancy, but for better or worse, his luck had held.

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.

Django Haskins, Dumbed Down

The Old Ceremony, Blood and Oil

The Old Ceremony, Reservations


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

Folks back then may have judged the male survivors harshly, but it makes sense to have people aboard who could row, for who knows how long. They had no idea that a ship was coming as fast as it could to save them. Truly a tragic event.

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