Lecture On The Titanic Sinking Set For April 16

Published 3:15 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will be commemorated with a lecture by a Longwood University history professor who for years has studied the world's best-known shipwreck.

A talk titled “It was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” will be given Monday, April 16, at 7 p.m. in Longwood's Wygal Auditorium by Dr. Deborah Welch, professor of history. This is part of the Faculty Colloquium Series, which gives Longwood faculty an opportunity to share their recent research with the campus and community.

“The foundering of this 'unsinkable' ship symbolizes the beginning of the end of the Edwardian era and its class divisions; more first-class men survived than did third-class children,” Welch said. “At the same time, RMS Titanic, a ship born in the Progressive Era with its belief that science and technology could overcome so much, served as a catalyst for those opposed to modernity, people who feared the societal eruptions already evident in the new 20th century.

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“Politicians, clergymen, social reformers – all used this disaster to feed their variant causes, to say nothing of their ambitions. America misbehaved badly following the Titanic tragedy. I plan to provide an overview of how so many 'danced on graves' in 1912 and frankly continue to do so a century later.”

In recent times, Welch has been disappointed by behavior surrounding Titanic relics that strikes her as inappropriate – or worse.

“On April 11, an enormous auction is planned at Guernsey's of Titanic artifacts brought up from the sea,” she said. “Of course, this has been going on for decades now. Most recently, RMS Titanic Inc., which has done a lot of this salvaging of artifacts, announced a partnership with QVC. You can buy a lump of coal from the ship on ebay. I guess that's OK, but they have also brought up wedding rings – and that smacks of grave-robbing.

“An international agreement, led by the United States, has been reached to declare this gravesite to be a memorial, but in international waters, there exists little mechanism for enforcement. I realize the Titanic is not a grave in the traditional sense, but as Bob Ballard [marine and shipwreck archaeologist] has often said, 'Do you want to see belt buckles off the Arizona?' All of this is certainly a matter of debate, and I don't want to condemn anyone – I just wish they had left the wedding rings and similarly personal items alone,” she said.

“Many people have seen the photograph of a ceramic doll's head lying on the ocean floor, a sad reminder of the children on board. Even more gut-wrenching are all the shoes, countless pairs of shoes marking where the bodies came to rest. The ocean life at this depth [2.5 miles] has no taste for tanned leather; thus the shoes survive.”

Attempts to profit from the sinking of the Titanic actually began shortly after the tragedy, when politicians seeking office in the fall 1912 elections “rushed to use the Titanic for their own ends,” said Welch, adding that one candidate went so far as the claim his opponent had been the infamous man who found a place in the lifeboats by disguising himself as a woman.

Welch, a scholar of the history of American women, said the issue of women survivors was controversial in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

For example, Ida Straus, who refused to leave her husband (one of the founders of Macy's) and died with him, was extolled by many while widows who survived the tragedy were accused in newspapers of abandoning their husbands and condemned by clergymen frightened by growing divorce rates, Welch said.

Welch is incorporating the sinking of the Titanic into a book offering case studies of the roles of widows in American history. The Titanic, a luxury passenger liner on her maiden voyage, sank April 15, 1912 after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 people perished.