Mail clerks earned stamp of loyalty

Exhibition: At the Postal Museum, artifacts of workers aboard the Titanic reflect their dedication to duty to try to deliver the mail.

October 15, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Elgin watch with the fine gold case and the delicate hands stopped at precisely 1: 27 a.m. on April 15, 1912, when the icy sea finally claimed John Starr March and a little more than an hour before the RMS Titanic finally slipped forever into the North Atlantic.

March was one of the tiny band of sea post clerks who served aboard the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic. They remained more than faithful to that grand old postal tradition of braving snow, rain, heat and gloom: they went down with the ship.

Five mail clerks were among the 1,500 passengers and crew members who perished when the Titanic struck the iceberg about 11: 40 p.m. April 14, 1912.

Because the ship and the mail were heading for the United States there were three American sea post men, March, Oscar Scott Woody and William Logan Gwinn, and two British, James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith.

Their story is told in "Posted Aboard the R.M.S. Titanic," the new exhibition now at the National Postal Museum, an august edifice across First Street from Union Station in Washington.

"Sea post clerks and railway mail clerks were the cream of the crop," says James Bruns, the bearded, suspendered and energetic director of the museum. "They were like the Marine Corps of the Postal Service."

Bruns headed the curatorial team that put together the show, which oddly had its germ in a request from the Australia Post for an exhibit with a maritime theme.

March's watch is the hallmark of the Postal Museum show. A greatly enlarged picture of the watch greets you as you enter.

"I think it's really symbolic when you see a cherished item, a gold watch," Bruns says. "He had it on him the night that he died. He died in the service, trying to save the mail. It's just so poignant to see this thing."

The mailroom of the Titanic was at the waterline near the bow, just about where the iceberg slashed a long gash into the side of the "unsinkable" liner.

When the collision shook the ship, the sea clerks were in the stern of the ship celebrating Oscar Woody's 44th birthday, which would have been April 15.

"They ran to the mailroom," Bruns says. "By the time they got there, the room was ankle deep with water."

They performed a postal triage to drag the registered mail bags to the deck.

"Nobody knows for sure exactly what happened inside the mailroom of the Titanic," Bruns says. "Did they, as some surmise, die inside the ship? Among the first to die? These are questions that may never be answered.

"But based on what we know, they were there until the very last minute, working in water up to their waist, trying to save the registered mail bags."

There's one in the show, a red-and-white drawstring sack bigger than an army duffel bag. Of the 6 million to 9 million pieces of mail in 3,364 bags, the 1.6 million registered items had the postal service's highest priority. And the mail clerk was -- and is -- personally responsible for the registered mail he signed for.

Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, in his report for the year 1912, which is in the exhibition, said: "the last reports concerning [the clerks'] actions show that they were engaged in their work and carrying the sacks up on deck to the last moment."

But Bruns says no mail inside the ship on the 15th has been found. And none has been found in the ship's sea bottom debris field.

The insistent buzz of the Marconi wireless signals that carried the Titanic distress calls through the dark night as the ship lurched into the ocean pulses eerily through the exhibit as you read the words describing the last minutes of these mostly unheralded mail clerks.

The bodies of March and Woody were recovered, but Gwinn and two British clerks were never found. March was buried in Newark, N.J. Woody was returned to the sea.

The Smithsonian Institution, of which the Postal Museum is part, observes the "sanctuary" principle, which means no objects dredged up from the debris field could be accepted. The shipwreck site is regarded as "the resting place for 1,500 men, women and children," Bruns says.

"In their memory we will leave that site undisturbed. Everything we have that is in this exhibit was on the surface 90 years ago. Unfortunately some of the objects were on the bodies of two sea post clerks on the surface 90 years ago. But that did not disturb the wreck site."

In one of those odd twists of history, many of the effects of Oscar Woody, including the canvas bag in which they were sent to his wife, Leila, ended up at the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Maryland in Cockeysville. Woody, a Virginian, was a devoted Mason -- his 1912 dues card is in the exhibit -- and his wife bequeathed his effects to the Maryland Grand Lodge.

Matthew Bennett, the Towson stamp dealers, sold the effects at a New York auction in November 1998, about the time the video of James Cameron's blockbuster "Titanic" came out.

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