Woman Who Died Here Was Titanic Survivor
BY FAYE M. DASEN
One hundred years ago today, more than 1,500 people died as the White Star’s RMS Titanic, called by some “unsinkable,” hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.
With only 20 lifeboats, many of which were nowhere near filled to capacity, there was no way of saving everyone. Most of those who escaped the sinking ship froze to death in the water, which was 28 degrees F.
Passengers who did survive included Mrs. Alexander Taylor Compton Sr. (Mary Eliza Ingersoll Compton) and her daughter, Sara Rebecca Compton.
Why would this interest readers of The Pilot?
Mary Compton, who at 64 was one of the two oldest survivors of the disaster, died here in Southern Pines, according to an obituary published in the Lakewood (N.J.) Citizen on Dec. 12, 1930.
The obituary reads, in part:
“Mrs. Mary E. Compton, a former resident of Lakewood, died on Thursday, Dec. 4, at her winter home in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Mrs. Compton spent many of her winters there.
“Mrs. Compton is survived by her daughter, Miss Sara, who lived here with her for several seasons.
“Mrs. Compton is the widow of the late Alexander Taylor Compton and was one of the survivors of the Titanic disaster in April of 1912. Her daughter and her only son were likewise on the ill-fated ship. The son left his place in one of the lifeboats to permit a woman passenger to be saved. The last the mother and sister ever saw of him was when he stood upon the deck of that great ship just before she was engulfed by the waves. His body was never found.”
Who Were the Comptons?
Mary Eliza Ingersoll Compton was born Aug. 17, 1847. Her husband, Alexander Taylor Compton Sr., who died in 1902, was a lawyer who practiced in New York and New Jersey. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy.
There is little information about the personal lives of the Comptons other than they were financially comfortable, enough to travel quite frequently.
In 1912, Mary Compton and her 39-year-old daughter, Sara Compton, had been abroad for a year. Son Alexander, 37, a bachelor and a large stockholder in several resort-type hotels, had joined them in November 1911.
Surely the Comptons were excited about returning to the U.S. on Titanic’s maiden voyage.
Titanic set off on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, around noon on Wednesday, April 10, 1912.
The Comptons boarded the ship in Cherbourg, France, around 6:30 p.m. that day.
The Cherbourg harbor was not deep enough for the ship to dock, so passengers had to take a tender out to the ship. Among the other 271 people boarding at that time were Col. John Jacob Astor and his wife, Madeline; Benjamin Guggenheim, a wealthy U.S. businessman; and Margaret “Molly” Brown, whose husband had made his fortune in mining.
Titanic then steamed up to Queenstown, Ireland (now Cobh), arriving there at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, April 11. Two hours later, the ship was headed out to sea for its journey to New York City.
The Comptons’ ticket number was No. 17756, and the cost of 83 pounds, 3 shillings 2 pence covered three first class cabins on E deck, also known as the Upper Deck, on the starboard side.
Mary was assigned to cabin E-45, and Sara occupied cabin E-49. These cabins had a connecting door. Alexander Compton was given cabin E-52.
First class cabins were decorated in different styles and periods from Queen Anne to Modern Dutch, so one can imagine that they were nicely appointed.
Although they did not have private bathrooms, as did the more expensive suites, they boasted electric heaters, a four-foot-wide brass bed, wicker armchairs, horsehair sofas, marble washstands and ceiling fans — and there were bathrooms across the hall
All of the first class accommodations were situated amidship to limit the swaying or roughness of the water.
The Comptons dined in the first class dining room on deck D, which ran the entire width of the ship.
According to the book “Death of a Purser: Hugh McElroy,” on the night of Sunday, April 14, Chief Purser McElroy, who was the only officer other than Captain Smith who regularly dined with the passengers, had spent an evening in the first class restaurant dining with some of his many passenger friends, including the Compton party.
It can be surmised that after enjoying dinner, Alexander Compton might have joined friends in the smoking room, and perhaps his mother and sister, after a stroll around the deck, might have retired to their cabins.
The Fatal Collision
At approximately 11:40 p.m. ship’s time, the lookout spotted an iceberg and notified the bridge. Titanic turned, and while missing a head-on collision, scraped its starboard side against the ice, opening up a 300-foot gash and flooding five water-tight compartments.
Because their cabins were on the starboard side amidship, it’s likely that the Comptons felt the vibration caused by the collision.
At some point, if they hadn’t already dressed and gone above to find out what was happening, a steward would have rousted them out, telling them to don their life jackets. This would have been around 12:25 a.m.
When the Comptons arrived on deck, they went to the port side of the ship, where Mary and Sara boarded boat 14, which was in the charge of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe.
The lifeboat had a maximum capacity of 65, and was carrying 60 when it was launched at 1:30 a.m. At that time, women and children only were being allowed to board.
According to an article in the Asbury Park (N.J.) Evening Press of April 19, 1912, Mary Compton wanted to remain with her son, but Alexander reassured her, saying, “Don’t be foolish, Mother. You and Sister go ahead. I’ll look out for myself.”
Sara Compton, in a letter to fellow survivor Col. Archibald Gracie, described her experiences, which he shared in his book, “The Truth About Titanic,” published in 1913.
Sara Compton found herself in the stern of the lifeboat and in a good position to observe Fifth Officer Lowe’s actions.
“Just before the boat was lowered, a man jumped in,” she said in her letter. “He was immediately hauled out. Mr. Lowe then pulled his revolver and said, ‘If anyone else tries that this is what he will get.’ He then fired his revolver in the air.
“Mr. Lowe’s manly bearing,” she continued, “gave us all confidence. As I look back now, he seems to me to personify the best traditions of the British sailor.”
Lowe insisted on having the mast of the lifeboat put up.
“He crawled forward and in a few moments, the mast was raised and ready,” Sara told Gracie. “He said this was necessary, as no doubt with dawn there would be a breeze.”
Lowe wanted to remain close by the Titanic to have a chance to help someone after she sank.
“Some of the women protested,” Sara wrote. “He replied, ‘I don’t like to leave her, but if you feel that way about it, we will pull away a little distance.’”
The Ship Sinks
By 2 a.m., the water was only 10 feet below the Promenade Deck, and at 2:17 a.m. the bow of the great liner went under, with an incredible noise. Two minutes later, the broken-off stern section filled with water and slowly slipped under.
In an article in the Asbury Park Evening Press, published April 20, 1912, Mary Compton talked about that night:
“When we waved goodbye to my son,” Mary said, “we did not realize the great danger, but thought we were only being sent out in the boats as a precautionary measure. When Captain Smith handed us life preservers, he said cheerily: ‘They will keep you warm if you do not have to use them.’ Then the crew began clearing the boats and putting the women into them.
“There was a moan of agony and anguish from those in our boat when the Titanic sank, and we insisted that the officer head back for the place where the Titanic had disappeared. We found one man with a life preserver on him struggling in the cold water, and for a moment I thought that he was my son.”
Alexander Compton’s body was never recovered. He was memorialized on the family monument in Newark, N.J.
Waiting for the Carpathia
Fifth Officer Lowe gathered boats 4, 10, 12 and Engelhardt collapsible D, figuring that tying them together would make it easier for a rescue ship to find them.
He then transferred some of his passengers to the other boats so that he could take No. 14 back to search for survivors. He was able to rescue a couple of people from the water, and all of those on collapsible A, which was about to go under.
Sara Compton was among those transferred to D, although she makes no mention of whether her mother was also transferred.
“I now found myself,” she said, “in the stern of a collapsible boat. In spite of Mr. Lowe’s warning, the four small boats began to separate, each going its own way. Soon it seemed as though our boat was the only one on the sea.
“We went through a great deal of wreckage. The men who were supposed to be rowing — one was a fireman — made no effort to keep away from it. They were all the time looking toward the horizon.”
At daylight, they spotted the RMS Carpathia, and shortly after that, Office Lowe, sailing toward them.
“As he had predicted, quite a strong breeze had sprung up,” Sara Compton said in her letter to Gracie. “We caught the rope, which he threw us from the stern of his boat. Someone in ours succeeded in catching it, and we were taken in tow to the Carpathia.”
Arriving in Port
By 8:50 a.m., the Carpathia was on its way to New York with 705 Titanic survivors.
With the assistance of Titanic’s junior wireless operator, Harold Bride, who was washed off the deck as Titanic sank, the Carpathia’s wireless operators began sending messages for the passengers, who wanted to let family and friends know they were safe.
One marconigram, which was part of a recent auction, was addressed to Laurel House, Lakewood, N.J. (Alexander Compton had many business interests there), its message reading: “Mrs. Compton and Miss Compton on Carpathia.”
Another marconigram was sent to someone named Wells, at 150 Nassau St. in New York City. It stated simply: “Mrs. Compton and daughter on Mpa.” (Mpa was the call sign for Carpathia.)
The Carpathia, with its rag-tag group of survivors, docked in New York on April 18, 1912.
Mary and Sara Compton were likely met at the dock by friends and family members.
After her mother’s death, Sara, who never married, spent much of her retirement near the New Jersey coastline. She eventually moved to Miami, where she died June 16, 1952. Her ashes were interred in the family plot in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in Newark, N.J., where her parents are buried.
Neither mother nor daughter ever spoke about their experiences on Titanic for publication again.
Sources for information for this story were articles by the Newark Evening News (Tuesday, April 16, 1912); the Asbury Park (N.J.) Evening Press (April 19, 1912, April 20, 1912); www.encyclopedia-titanica. org; www.henry-aldridge. co.uk; www.titanicinquiry. org; markpadfield.com/marconicalling/museum/html; ochistory.org/The_RMS_Titanic.php
More like this story