Titanic and Maryland

March 23, 1998|By Andrew Ratner

THE front page of April 15, 1912, is considered the most embarrassing moment in the 85 years of the former Baltimore Evening Sun.

It read: "All Titanic Passengers Are Safe; Transferred in Lifeboats at Sea."

The banner headline is always good for a chuckle from folks who have the benefit of eight decades of hindsight. That's especially true now that everyone older than the age of 8 has seen the movie "Titanic," which will receive lots of attention at tonight's Academy Awards.

The movie has introduced many Americans, most notably teen-agers, to that disaster, and to their ancestors of that era.

Celluloid history

The history lesson need not end there. A review of the morning and evening Sun from the weeks after the sinking -- no doubt true of any major paper of the day -- also paints a vivid portrait of the accident, the initial cover-up and the global mourning and hand-wringing that followed.

Start with the infamous headline. It was no goof. The Evening Sun's deadline simply arrived well before the White Star Line's initial assurances were found to be false. News gaps then lasted hours, not seconds.

"At 7: 30 o'clock [p.m.] came the first startling change," read The Sun the next morning, April 16. "This was a brief 'flash' sent out by the Associated Press. It read: 'Titanic sunk at 2: 30 this morning.' A few moments later came another 'flash,' which read: '1,525 lives lost on Titanic; 675 saved.'

"When this was put on The Sun bulletin boards, it seemed to spread like lightning to every part of the city. People on passing street cars carried the information into every section of the city. In a short time, the telephone lines of The Sun's information department were clogged with messages asking about the report that lives had been lost."

The fierce, enterprising nature of that day's journalism was evident from The Sun's hiring of a tugboat to rush to interview the survivors before they reached shore.

As for the tone of yesteryear's coverage, it could be as grandiose as the 15-story ship itself: "Titanic, superb in her strength and beauty, but inadequately equipped for the saving of human lives, struck the iceberg that closed her brief career in the gloom and bitter cold of last Sunday night."

The Evening Sun's headline was not the only early reporting to capsize. An early editorial in The Sun heaped premature praise on the crew and passengers for their chivalry: "There were famous men aboard, men of immense power. Life was very dear to them. Yet they, too, stood aside while the boats were filled with women and children."

Maryland had its share of local ties to the Titanic's sinking.

The former Lucille Polk of the 2900 block of St. Paul St., a debutante who married a wealthy Philadelphian, was rescued with her family. Howard B. Case, son-in-law of the president of then-Towson National Bank, was feted as a hero for helping board women and children on the life boats.

And an officer in the firm that owned the Titanic was married to Laura Merryman, of a well-known Maryland family.

Coincidentally, the Titanic's sinking fell on the 70th anniversary of one of the worst maritime disasters in Maryland, the 1842 explosion of the steamer Medora on her maiden run that killed 26 people.

Andrew Ratner is director of suburban editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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