It’s a scary confirmation of Hollywood’s power that probably the most famous of all the men thought to have sailed aboard R.M.S. Titanic is actually a fictional character. He, of course, is Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron’s 1997 movie. Truth be told, though, there was a real-life Jack aboard the ill-fated liner. And though very different, his story is just as compelling as the imagined Jack’s heart-wrenching tale.
Our real-life Jack aboard the Titanic when it set sail in 1912 was a 17-year-old American, John Borland Thayer II. Unlike Dawson, he was from an upper-class background. So he traveled in the pampered luxury of first class rather than the third-class section far below decks where Dawson was billeted.
But no matter your social standing, once the ship struck an iceberg you were aboard a vessel doomed to founder. All the same, it’s true that the casualty figures betray a certain class bias. Third class, where Jack Dawson was in the movie, had a total of 710 passengers. Only 174 survived. But in first class, where the real Jack Thayer traveled, 199 survived from a total of 319. A stark difference.
In Cameron’s movie, there’s actually an incident when Jack Dawson has to smash down a gate which has been locked, effectively trapping him and his fellow passengers in third class. But there’s no truth in that scene – it’s entirely fictional. Even so, there was real drama aboard the stricken vessel – and Jack Thayer was at the center of one of the most terrifying true-life tales.
So where did Cameron actually get his inspiration for his version of the Titanic story? Despite the fact that some episodes in the movie were fictional, the director did in fact include some characters who really sailed on the liner. Some of the survivors wrote accounts of their grueling experiences or gave press interviews, rich sources of research. And one man who later wrote a privately published book about his ordeal was Thayer.
To understand Thayer’s real-life Titanic story – as well Dawson’s imagined one – we should take a look at the events that led up to the tragic sinking of the liner. Built in the northern Irish city of Belfast at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, the vessel was launched in May 1911. But it would be almost a year later that she made her maiden – and final – voyage under the flag of the White Star Line.
The Titanic was a truly magnificent vessel. The nine-decked ship was a touch over 880 feet long and she was powered by no fewer than 159 coal furnaces which drove three massive propellers. At her launch, she was the largest ship in the world. But Titanic was not just an engineering marvel, she was also promoted as the last word in luxury. At least for the first-class passengers.
You get an idea of the cosseted luxury enjoyed by first-class passengers such as Thayer from the dinner menu served on April 14, 1912. It would be the last meal served before the fatal intervention of the iceberg. The bill of fare was available in the Café Parisien and included roast duckling, pâté de foie gras and to round it off, peaches in Chartreuse jelly.
On the other hand, third-class passengers such as the imagined Dawson would have fed on much more basic victuals although roast beef and fruit were served. In fact, the Titanic’s steerage accommodation was of a higher standard than that of many other shipping lines. Passengers of lower social standing were often expected to bring enough food to see them through their entire journey. But it wasn’t all roses for passengers in Titanic’s cheapest berths. There were just two baths for all 710 of them.
Once the Titanic was all kitted out and ready to embark on its first commercial cruise, Southampton on the south coast of England was chosen as the departure port. The final destination was meant to be New York City. The first stop on the journey was just a quick hop away across the English Channel to the French city of Cherbourg. The ship duly set sail at noon on April 10, 1912, arriving in Cherbourg in the early evening.
It was in Southampton that Thayer had joined the Titanic, as did the fictional Dawson. Thayer described boarding in his book about his experiences A Survivor’s Tale, published in 1940. He wrote “My father, John B. Thayer, second vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, my mother, Marian Longstreth Morris Thayer, my mother’s maid, Margaret Fleming, and I were all in one party that sailed first-class from Southampton.”
Thayer recalled the youthful enthusiasm he’d felt aboard the grand liner, “I occupied a stateroom adjoining that of my father and mother on the port side of C deck; and, needless to say, being 17 years old, I was all over the ship.” After her short stop in Cherbourg, the Titanic sailed off for what would be her last port of call. Although, of course, nobody on board knew it at the time.
That final stop before the Atlantic crossing was at the port of Queenstown, today called Cobh, on Ireland’s southern seaboard. After docking, the ship spent just a couple of hours at anchor, allowing 123 extra passengers to board her. Seven left the ship, and we can only imagine how they later felt about their lucky escape as events unfolded. Then Titanic embarked on the final leg of the voyage to New York. The liner’s fate awaited her in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Now, we’ve heard a good deal about the two Jacks aboard, the real Thayer and the fictional Dawson played by DiCaprio. But just to add another twist to this tale, there actually was a real-life passenger aboard the Titanic by the name of J. Dawson, although he was Joseph rather than Jack. Today this unfortunate soul, who drowned in the sinking, occupies a grave at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Canada.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of the Irish city of Dublin in 1888; he was aged just 23 when he lost his life. He seems to have enjoyed a checkered youth, working for a time as a carpenter before joining the British Army at the age of 19, serving in the Medical Corps. At some point after his time in uniform, he joined the Merchant Navy. He signed up for service working below decks as a trimmer on the Titanic a few days before she sailed on her maiden voyage in 1912.
A trimmer’s job was to carry coal to the firemen who fed the furnaces deep in the dark belly of the liner. They earned their name because they had to keep the huge piles of coal correctly stacked so that the ship would stay in trim, or on a level. No doubt it was physically demanding and dirty work. Although at the time of the sinking, Joseph Dawson was actually off duty rather than shoveling coal.
When Joseph’s lifeless body was eventually pulled from the cold sea he was simply Body 227. But the National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card stowed in one of his pockets soon revealed his identity. It’s likely that by the time he arrived on the liner’s deck all of the lifeboats had already been launched. That left no choice but to dive into the sea, a freezing nightmare which very few survived.
So the two Dawsons, the real Joseph and the fictional Jack, both met the same fate, death in the frozen waters of the Atlantic. But, strangely enough, they have more than that in common. DiCaprio’s character in the movie had something of a back story. Both Joseph and Jack came from humble backgrounds – neither was wealthy. They were close in age, Jack supposedly born in 1892 and Joseph actually in 1894. And, of course, like Joseph, Jack ended up on the Titanic.
But there are of course key differences between the two Dawsons, Jack and Joseph. In the movie, Jack was aboard the Titanic as a passenger. Whereas Joseph the trimmer was a crew member. Jack’s story was that he’d won a third-class passage in a poker game shortly before the liner set sail from Southampton.
But the two young men – real Joseph and fictitious Jack – have another rather extraordinary connection. This involved the fictional world of Cameron’s movie intruding into the real life – and death – of Joseph Dawson. Writing about Dawson’s Halifax grave in an article on the Titanica Encyclopedia website, researcher and journalist Senan Molony described this strange collision of fact and fiction.
Molony recounted what had happened after Cameron’s blockbuster film with DiCaprio’s memorable portrayal of Jack Dawson became a huge hit. He wrote, “A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality…The [Halifax] grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion…Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.”
The journalist continued, “Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys.” But, as Molony pointed out, “Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on …[board] back in April 1912.” So if we take Cameron at his word, it was a strange coincidence indeed, the affair of the two Dawsons.
But we’ll leave behind the fictional character played by DiCaprio for now and turn to the two real men aboard the Titanic, Joseph Dawson and Thayer. In fact we’ll focus on Thayer since he survived the sinking. And crucially, he left a detailed account of what happened to the ship and to him. It’s from his vivid description of events that we can get a real feel for the tragedy of that dark Atlantic night.
We left the Titanic as she sailed from the southern coast of Ireland. By late on April 14, 1912, the ship was well under way, steaming at speed across the Atlantic towards New York City. In his memoir Thayer wrote, “It was a brilliant, starry night. There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds.” He added, “It was the kind of a night that made one feel glad to be alive.”
Thayer observed that the sea was as calm as a “mill pond.” After taking in the scene, the young man retired to his cabin. He remembered, “I stepped into my room to put on pajamas expecting to have another delightful night’s rest like the four preceding.” But the tranquility was shattered when disaster struck at about 20 minutes before midnight.
That was when the ship crashed into an iceberg. The impact tore six narrow gashes along the ship’s steel hull, the longest some 30 feet. The damage might not sound that severe, but crucially it was enough to breach half a dozen of the liner’s watertight compartments. Her fate was now sealed as water gushed into the closed sections, rapidly unbalancing the vessel.
Thayer experienced this change in the ship’s state for himself. He wrote, “I wound my watch — it was 11:45 p.m. – and was just about to step into bed when I seemed to sway slightly. I immediately realized that the ship had veered to port as though she had been gently pushed… Almost instantaneously the engines stopped.”
At this point, although he heard people running along the corridors and voices, Thayer was completely unaware of the gravity of Titanic’s predicament. He recalled, “I hurried into my heavy overcoat and drew on my slippers. All excited, but not thinking anything serious had occurred, I called in to my father and mother that ‘I was going up on deck to see the fun.’”
As Thayer got on to the deck, quickly joined by his father, a crowd had started to gather. Speaking to a crew member, the young man learnt for the first time that the ship had in fact collided with an iceberg. And now he noticed that Titanic had begun to lean to starboard, the side that had taken the impact.
By a little after midnight, there were those who had begun to recognize the real danger the ship was in. Thayer ran into Thomas Andrews, Harland & Wolff’s most senior ship designer. Recalling their conversation, he wrote, “Mr. Andrews told us he did not give the ship much over an hour to live. We could hardly believe it, and yet if he said so, it must be true. No one was better qualified to know.” Of course, Andrews, one of those who later drowned, was absolutely right.
By 12:45 a.m. all was action. Distress flares were being fired, the lifeboats were being prepared for launch. But, as Thayer wrote, “No one knew his boat position, as no lifeboat drill had been held.” Meanwhile, his mother and her maid, Margaret Fleming, made their way to the port side where women were to board lifeboats. Thayer and his father went to the starboard.
Things became more chaotic. Thayer now had a companion, a fellow American, 29-year-old Milton Long whose acquaintance he’d made earlier that evening. Thayer, his father and Milton rejoined Mrs. Thayer and her maid but the two young men lost the other three in the crowd. It was the last time Thayer would ever see his father. Milton and Thayer watched on as others clambered aboard lifeboats on the ship’s starboard side.
The lifeboats looked frighteningly unstable to Milton and Thayer, who thought capsizing was a distinct possibility. Amid the chaos, they decided not to board the last two on their side of the liner as they were launched. Thayer summed up the situation as it had developed in his book, “It was really every man for himself.” As the scramble for places aboard the last lifeboats worsened, somebody fired a couple of shots into the air, adding to the general atmosphere of anarchy.
By now, it was absolutely clear that there was only one outcome to the crisis. The Titanic was going to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Thayer remembered, “It must now have been about 1:50 a.m., and, as far as we knew, the last boat had gone… I argued with Long about our chances. I wanted to jump out and catch the empty lifeboat falls.”
Milton talked Thayer out of making this bold move, which would have meant descending down the lifeboat lines some 60 feet into the frigid sea. But the situation was quickly becoming critical. As Thayer recounted, “It was now about 2:15 a.m. We could see the water creeping up the deck, as the ship was going down by the head at a pretty fast rate. The water was right up to the bridge. There must have been over 60 feet of it on top of the bow.”
Thayer and Milton’s options had rapidly diminished until only one choice was left: they would have to jump into the sea. The moment came, “We had no time to think now, only to act. We shook hands, wished each other luck. I said, ‘Go ahead, I’ll be right with you.’ I threw my overcoat off as he climbed over the rail, sliding down facing the ship.”
Thayer got clear of the vessel and then paused, supported by his life preserver, and watched as she began to disintegrate. Fortune then gave him a priceless gift – an overturned lifeboat. Along with four or five other men, he clung to this floating sanctuary. From his vantage point he watched as the Titanic slid beneath the waves with those crew and passengers who were still aboard.
That capsized lifeboat saved Thayer’s life. Milton was not so lucky – he drowned. Later, Thayer was to remember with some bitterness that the lifeboats, some only partially filled, failed to return to pick up survivors in the water. He claimed that, “If they had turned back, several hundred more would have been saved. No one can explain it.”
Meanwhile, Thayer’s capsized lifeboat had become a haven for 28 survivors, many of them stokers like the drowned Joseph Dawson. Others had to be prevented from clambering aboard because of the danger that the lifeboat would sink. Thayer remembered, “We prayed and sang hymns.” It would be a long, cold night for those men who grimly hung on to the upturned boat for dear life.
Rescue arrived just as dawn broke at about 6:30 a.m. Two of the Titanic’s lifeboats came to the aid of Thayer and his companions. His mother and her maid were in one of them. After another couple of hours they were all safely aboard the Cunard liner R.M.S. Carpathia. So, unlike Joseph Dawson or the fictional Jack Dawson, Jack Thayer had managed to survive the sinking of the Titanic. Of the approximately 2,200 who had been aboard the liner, some 1,500 had lost their lives.