On April 15, 1912, the Titanic slammed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, sending 1,517 souls into the cold deep. Since that dark night, the legend of the Titanic has only grown, propelled by the glamour of the ship and its first-class passengers, complicated by the immigrant dreams of its steerage travelers, and recharged by a certain 1997 movie that 18 years later remains the second-highest-grossing film of all time.
Visitors to Ancestry can search Titanic’s records and passenger lists for connections to the doomed voyage on the site’s Titanic collection. Here are eight amazing stories you won’t find in those records — stories of eight lucky individuals who changed their plans to sail on the Titanic, thanks to a frugal editor, a nosy sister-in-law, an ill spouse, or even a coin toss.
1. Theodore Dreiser: Dreiser became one of the leading novelists of the early 20th century by writing about how money and wealth were changing America. Ironically, it would be money that kept Dreiser off the Titanic’s first and only voyage. The author of 1900’s Sister Carrie, Dreiser had just spent four months traveling through Europe to write travel pieces and collect material for his memoir, 1913’s A Traveler at Forty.
Dreiser, who had grown up poor in Indiana, was eager to experience the opulence of the Titanic, but his English publisher convinced him to take a cheaper berth on another ship, which set sail from Dover two days before the Titanic sank. News of the Titanic‘s doom made it to Dreiser’s ship, which would take another week to reach New York.
In his memoir, Dreiser recorded the reaction to the news: “To think of a ship as immense as the Titanic, new and bright, sinking in endless fathoms of water. And the two thousand passengers routed like rats from their berths only to float helplessly in miles of water, praying and crying!”
2. Baron Moritz von Bethmann: Early in James Cameron’s megahit film Titanic, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins a spot aboard the ill-fated steamer by winning a card game. A similar turn of chance kept a man of much higher means off the doomed ship.
In 1912, Baron Moritz von Bethmann, scion of a famous German banking family, was traveling the world with two friends. After arriving in Chicago, he told local newspapers three days after the Titanic’s sinking that he and his traveling companions had considered taking the Titanic but didn’t want to wait for it to sail. Bethmann and his friends settled their disagreement on which ship to take by flipping a coin. That coin toss landed them on an earlier ship and permitted Bethmann to join his family’s Frankfurt bank a year later.
3. Guglielmo Marconi: After the Titanic hit an iceberg, sealing its fate, the ship’s radio operator still managed to dispatch SOS messages using equipment invented by Italian Guglielmo Marconi. Those messages led other ships to pick up the lucky passengers who had made it into the Titanic’s lifeboats.
Marconi nearly was one of the passengers whose life depended on his wireless telegraph equipment. Marconi had been offered free passage on Titanic but had taken the Lusitania three days earlier. Marconi chose that ship because he had paperwork to do and preferred the telegraph operator aboard that vessel. Although Marconi was saved by sailing on the Lusitania in 1912, his luck with that ship faltered three years later. Marconi was sailing aboard the Lusitania again in 1915 when a German submarine torpedoed it, killing 1,198. Although Marconi survived, the sinking of the Lusitania helped propel the United States into World War I.
4. George Washington Vanderbilt II: Much of the Titanic’s allure stems from its luxurious accommodations and from the wealth of the first-class passengers entitled to enjoy them. Jacob Astor, for example, famously died on board the Titanic, his status as one of the world’s richest men unable to keep him afloat. Had George Washington Vanderbilt not followed the advice of family members, he, and not Astor, might have been the wealthiest person to die on the Titanic.
Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the Vanderbilt family railroad and industrial fortune. Although Vanderbilt and his wife had booked passage on the Titanic, someone in their family (reportedly his wife’s well-traveled sister) warned them about the unexpected trials that might emerge during a maiden voyage. They cancelled their trip on April 9, a week before the Titanic sank. Remaining on board, however, were the Vanderbilts’ luggage and their servant, Edwin Wheeler, who died as a second-class passenger.
Although the Vanderbilt family escaped maritime doom in 1912, their luck would soon change. Alfred G. Vanderbilt, George’s nephew (whom some newspaper reports at the time claimed was on board the Titanic), died on the Lusitania in 1915, on the same voyage that Marconi survived.
5. Henry Clay Frick, J. P. Morgan, and Horace Harding: Since the ship’s sinking, and particularly since the film Titanic, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, which built the Titanic, has had a reputation as a coward, a man who abandoned ship with more than 1,500 passengers still aboard and jumped onto a lifeboat despite cries of “women and children first.” Had a trio of industrialists, however, not each given up the premier suite on board, that berth would never have gone to Ismay.
In February 1912, Henry Clay Frick, the Pittsburgh steel magnate, booked the suite but cancelled after his wife sprained her ankle. J. P. Morgan, the 19th- and early-20th-century banking titan whose holding company actually owned the White Star Line, took over the booking but cancelled when business interests lengthened his stay abroad. The booking was then assumed by Horace Harding, a New York financier, but he and his wife were able to get an earlier sailing date aboard a Cunard ship, the Mauretania. Only then did Ismay take over the suite.
6. Edgar Selwyn: Selwyn was a Broadway and Hollywood producer who founded Goldwyn Pictures in 1916 (which eventually became part of MGM Studios) and in 1918 co-founded and built the Selwyn Theater, which remains on Broadway today (although it has since been renamed). In 1931, he directed acting legend Helen Hayes in her Oscar-winning performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet.
Selwyn would have accomplished none of those things if he hadn’t chosen to stay in England to review an early draft of a friend’s novel. Because the draft wasn’t ready for Selwyn to review until April 19, 1912, Selwyn cancelled his April 10 Titanic departure that he had planned with another Broadway producer, Henry Harris, and his wife, Irene Harris. Henry perished, but Irene survived by boarding a lifeboat.
7. Rev. J. Stuart Holden: The vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Portman Square, London, had booked passage with his wife on the Titanic to speak at the Christian Conservation Congress, a six-day religious meeting at Carnegie Hall scheduled for April 20, 1912.
Before they sailed, however, Rev. Holden’s wife fell ill. On April 9, one day before sailing, Rev. Holden returned his ticket to stay by his wife’s side. He kept the ticket envelope and later framed it with an inscription from the book of Psalms giving thanks for his good luck: “Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.”
Two other European speakers who had been invited to speak at the meeting also cancelled their Titanic tickets: Archbishop Thomas J. Madden, of Liverpool, and the Rev. J. S. Wardell Stafford, Fraternal Delegate of the Wesleyan Church of Great Britain to the six-day evangelical rally. A fourth attendee, however, British editor William Thomas Stead, stuck to his plans and died at sea.
8. Norah Callaghan and Annie Jordan: With all the glitz that sailed and sank with the Titanic, it’s easy to forget that for hundreds more, the ship represented a means to leave behind grinding poverty and make a new start in the United States. The village of Addergoole in County Mayo, Ireland, embodies that dream.
In 1912, Addergoole was a village of 3,400 still struggling to recover from the Great Famine of the 19th century that sent 1 million emigrants out of the Emerald Isle. Fourteen Addergoole villagers boarded the Titanic at its last port of call in Queenstown, Ireland. Eleven of the villagers died, and three managed to survive on lifeboats.
Two villagers, however, had even better luck. Norah Callaghan and Annie Jordan had tickets to board the Titanic but did not. Jordan developed a rash that kept her from traveling, and records from another White Star ship, the Celtic, show Callaghan boarding that ship on April 12, 1912, just one day after the Titanic left Queenstown.
—Sandie Angulo Chen