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Putting a face on a century-old disaster

February 8, 2012
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We’re coming up on a significant milestone this year. April 14-15, 2012, will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and I’m quite curious to see how that event will be marked and memorialized by the public at large. Memory, and the practices (both bodily actions and actions utilizing material culture) through which we commemorate the past are particular research interests of mine. I’m also interested in the history and archaeology of what is called the “contemporary past,” meaning things that occurred within the past century through the lifetimes of currently living people. The Titanic disaster was certainly significant when it occurred and soon after (witness this 1929 performance by Gospel Blues legend Blind Willie Johnson of a song about the Titanic), and we in the present seem to “get” that (i.e., the success of the James Cameron film, and the launching point of the series “Downton Abbey,” to name a few examples). I can’t help but see, in the ways that we will or will not mark the anniversary, a foreshadowing of what might occur as we approach milestones of significant events that occurred during my own lifetime.

So I was interested to read, over at the Pieces of History blog of Prologue Magazine, this long post by William B. Roka, a volunteer at the National Archives in New York City. He presents an interesting document, and his discussion opens the door on several issues worth thinking about as we come to terms with this particular event, and the ones that are to come in the future. Read below the cut for more.

Roka writes a shift in his perspective as he was reading through documents relating to court claims following the Titanic sinking. At first, he says, he was disappointed in how mundane they all appeared. Gradually he came to realize that, as he writes, “each one had a story to tell.”

I’d suggest that feeling is common to anyone who spends much time looking into archives of any sort. What comes through in Roka’s post is a sense of that thrill when you realize that yes, you’re looking at something that’s quite interesting, that’s important, that yes, has a story to tell.

Roka highlights one particular document: a death claim filed by the widow of a postal worker who was aboard the ship when it sank. Florence Gwinn was seeking $50,000 from the White Star Line, in addition to compensation for the meticulously listed personal effects of her late husband, William L. Gwinn: a gold scarf pin, gold cuff links, gold tie clasp, gold watch, 71st Regiment Veteran Pin, two suits of clothes, a uniform, suitcase, and bag. Total amount for these lost personal effects: $193.50.

I was drawn to that “71st Regiment Veteran Pin,” so I did a little simple searching online. The 71st Infantry Regiment (N.Y.) was made up of volunteers from New York State, and during the Spanish-American War, it participated in the Battle of Santiago. The letter from Florence Gwinn says she lives in Brooklyn, NY, so that makes sense. And wonder upon wonders, a Google search turned up this page, which appears to contain a picture of Gwinn’s headstone (it notes the regiment, his rank, and that he “died at his post, SS. Titanic, April 15, 1912) as well as a portrait of the man.

That’s all pretty remarkable, and it raises a coupe of issues. First might be a very simple one, but worth repeating: You never know what you’ll find until you start looking. It’s vitally important that we spend time (and yes, money) to fund real, primary research, both historical and archaeological. You might say, “who cares about some widow’s claim from a century ago?” In this case, I’d reply that learning how people in the past dealt with tragedy has value because people today experience something very similar to what Florence Gwinn went through each time there’s a disaster, natural or otherwise. Moreover, there’s a touching and tragic human story in the death of William L. Gwinn, a worker whose job put him unexpectedly in harm’s way.

It’s so easy to lose the fact that every statistic in history has actual people behind it. We’re often fortunate to be able to access documents and material culture that can begin to flesh out the people behind the numbers. Doing so, as Roka notes, has a way of making history very real and personal to those of us in the present. That’s another example of how history is more than just past events, it’s a force that impacts us in the present.

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