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Titanic Tales: Grace and fervour

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Colonel Gracie authored the first detailed account of the disaster before the trauma of that night took him before his book was published

Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (Jan 17th 1859 Mobile, Alabama, USA - Dec 14th 1912 New York, New York, USA)

Early life

Archibald Gracie was born in Alabama, a member of the wealthy New York state Gracie family. His ancestors had built Gracie Mansion which was to become the official residence of the mayor of New York City in 1942.

Gracie's father, Archibald Gracie Jr. had resigned his position in the US army in 1856 to go into the cotton-brokerage business in Mobile, Alabama. On the outbreak of secession, Gracie Jr. broke with his Unionist father and served in the Confederacy. He fought at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, second only to the Battle of Gettysburg for casualty numbers in the American Civil War.

Archibald Gracie IV was only 5 years old when his father died. He went on to follow in his father's footsteps in the military, graduating from West Point and becoming a Colonel. He would spend many years researching the Battle of Chickamauga and wrote The Truth about Chickamauga, published in 1911. Despite being a man of independent wealthy means, his fortune could not provide success with his family. He had four daughters, two died very young (one in an elevator accident and only one reached adulthood only to die shortly after being married.

After completing his book about Chickamauga, Gracie decided to rest and recuperate by taking a trip to Europe. He left his wife and daughter at home and sailed east on Oceanic. On that journey he befriended one of the ship's officers, Herbert Pitman, who was to be assigned the post of Third Officer on the Titanic.

On the Titanic

Gracie booked his return voyage on the ill fate Titanic, boarding at Southampton as a First Class Passenger in Cabin C-51.

Gracie, 53 years old in 1912, spent most of the journey chaperoning a variety of unaccompanied female passengers. This included the writer Mrs. Helen Churchill Candee (52), the Lamson sisters Charlotte Appleton (53), Malvina Cornell (55), Caroline Brown (59) and their distant relative Edith Evans (36). Gracie knew the sisters well, having attended St. Paul's Academy with Mrs. Appleton's husband.

"these three sisters were returning home from a sad mission abroad, where they had laid to rest the remains of a fourth sister, Lady Victor Drummond, of whose death I had read accounts in the London papers, and all the sad details connected therewith were told me by the sisters themselves. That they would have to pass through a still greater ordeal seemed impossible, and how little did I know of the responsibility I took upon myself for their safety. Accompanying them, also unprotected, was their friend, Miss Edith Evans, to whom they introduced me."

Gracie had a writers group, referred to as "our coterie" that he socialised with. A group consisting of Candee, J. Clinch Smith, Edward Kent, Edward Pomeroy Colley, Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson and Hugh Woolner. Gracie would usually dedicate himself to a physical fitness regime during his transatlantic voyages and felt he had neglected his health in favour of the socialising pleasures. On the evening of the 13th he arranged an early wake up call with his room steward Charles Cullen for the Sunday morning in order to play squash with the racquet attendant, Fredrick Wright, a session in gym with Mr. T.W. McCawley, and a swim, all before breakfast.

"I enjoyed myself as if I were on a summer palace by the seashore surrounded by every comfort. I was up early before breakfast and met the professional racquet player in a half hour's warming up preparatory for a swim in the six foot deep tank of saltwater heated to a refreshing temperature."

After the church service in the Dining Room he headed to the ship library and spent some time with Isidor and Mrs. Straus. He dined with Clinch Smith and Edward Kent and they listened to the band in the Palm Room before he retired to bed for an early start to resume his exercise sessions.

The night to remember

After around three hours sleep he was awoken by a jolt. He observed the time as 11:45pm. He opened his cabin door and saw no one and no commotion in the passageway, but he noted there was no sound of machinery along with steam escaping. He hastily got dressed and wearing a Norfolk coat he made his way to the Boat Deck.

He paced across the whole deck, both First and Second Class sections after vaulting the fence. he saw a couple arm in arm but no officers or sign of alarm. As he returned to the A Deck he saw J. Bruce Ismay with a crew member, they seemed preoccupied and did not notice him.

He then met up with Clinch Smith who then confirmed the ship had hit an iceberg and handed him a piece of ice. He then learnt the mailroom was flooding and the clerks were moving sacks of mail. The gentlemen were then joined by the Lamson sisters and Edith Evans and they noticed the tilt of the deck.

The men hurried to their staterooms, Gracie packed three large travelling bags to transfer ship. He put on a long Newmarket overcoat and returned topside. When he arrived, he discovered people donning their life jackets. Steward Cullen insisted he returned to his stateroom for his. Gracie encountered his group of ladies once again on A-Deck.

"Our hopes were buoyed with the interchange of wireless messages with passing ships one of whom was certainly coming to our rescue. To reassure the ladies of whom I had assumed special charge I showed them a bright white light of what I took to be a ship about 5 miles off."

Loading the lifeboats

Gracie escorted the Lamson group to the lifeboats, releasing them to officer Moody as crew did not allow men to approach the lifeboats. A little after midnight he met the racquet coach, Wright, in the stairway of C-Deck and joked that he had cancelled his lesson for the next morning. Wright seemed unamused, which was hardly a surprise, by this time the racquet court was already filling with water.

With Steward Cullen he gathered extra blankets to distribute to the lifeboats and then found Clinch Smith who informed him that Björnström-Steffansson and Woolner had put Mrs Candee into into Lifeboat 6, the third boat to leave.

Gracie, Woolner and other friends tried to persuade Mrs. Straus to take her place in a lifeboat, but she refused, rejoining her husband stating "We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go." . Mr and Mrs Straus went and sat together on a pair of deck chairs. Rosalie Straus was one of only four First Class ticket holding women to perish.

At this moment someone pointed out that a group of men were attempting to take Boat 2. Officer Lightoller threatened the group with his unloaded gun. Gracie and Smith assisted him in loading about 36 women and children into the boat and it was lowered under command of officer Boxhall. It was the fourteenth boat to be launched and only needed to be lowered 15 feet rather than the usual 70 feet to reach the water. Gracie had over estimated the number, the boat with a capacity of 40 left with an estimated 24 souls onboard.

Gracie and Smith continued to provide assistance to Lightoller, loading lifeboat 4. Among those loaded by Gracie was the pregnant teenage wife of John Jacob Astor, Madeleine. He reports that Lightoller attempted to remove thirteen year old John Borie Ryerson from the boat but the boy's father persuaded him to allow him to stay. Boat 4 launched under the command of Quartermaster Perkis at 1:55am.

The last moments

A few minutes later the final rockets were fired and the only remaining lifeboats were the four canvas sided collapsibles. A & B were still lashed to the roof of the officer's quarters, Gracie gave the crew his penknife to help cut the canvas covers.

Collapsible D was hooked to the mechanism where boat 2 had been and the crew formed a cordon to ensure only women and children could pass through. The boat could hold 47 but only 15 women had been loaded. Lightoller now allowed men to take spaces. This was when Gracie discovered Mrs. Brown and Miss Evans were still aboard, so escorted them to the boat. The men parted to allow the women to access the lifeboat. There seems to have been a confusion in the moment, Evans believing there was only space for one more and indicated that Mrs. Brown should take the seat, as she had children. The Boat was lowered at 2:05am. Edith Evans was another of the four First Class women to not escape the doomed ship. As the boat lowered, two men were seen jumping into the craft from the rapidly flooding A-Deck. These men were Gracie's companions, Woolner and Björnström-Steffansson. They leapt into the boat as the water surged up the A-Deck.

Gracie and Smith were still loading the Collapsibles when the bridge went under the water line at 02:15am, they started to head for the stern but met a group of men and women coming up from steerage.

"My friend Clinch Smith made the proposition that we should leave and go toward the stern. But there arose before us from the decks below a mass of humanity several lines deep converging on the Boat Deck facing us and completely blocking our passage to the stern. There were women in the crowd as well as men and these seemed to be steerage passengers who had just come up from the decks below. Even among these people there was no hysterical cry, no evidence of panic. Oh the agony of it."

Smith and Gracie were among the crowd as the ship went under. As the water came up to them Gracie leapt for the ladder to the roof of the officers mess and pulled himself up. Smith was never seen again. Gracie was sucked into the water by the sinking ship but made his way back to the surface and swam clear. He clutched to a wooden crate before spotting the overturned Collapsible B. With assistance he climbed up on it.

The Battle for Life

When Gracie arrived there were a dozen people clinging to life. Quickly around thirty men and women managed to get on the struggling vessel. Some of the men were bone dry, apparently riding the overturned vessel off the deck. Gracie, teeth chattering, hair hard with ice, asked for a cap to warm his head. He was refused and the swamped boat began to sink. Realising the risk to the boat of being swamped by the mass of swimmers around them, they paddled slowly away, ignoring the pleas of dozens of swimmers to be allowed on board. Gracie wrote

"In no instance, I am happy to say, did I hear any word of rebuke from a swimmer because of a refusal to grant assistance... [one refusal] was met with the manly voice of a powerful man... 'All right boys, good luck and God bless you'."

Lightoller took command and ordered the people to stand in a double column and to lean with the lurches of the boat. Harold Bride, the wireless operator was among the number. Lightoller spoke with him about the rescue boats and concluded the Carpathia would arrive at dawn.

A little after 03:30am a cannon was heard and as dawn broke around 4 am the Carpathia was in sight. The situation on the upturned boat was now desperate. With the Carpathia 4 miles away collecting other lifeboats. When it was a mere 400 yards away, boats 4, 10, 12 and D were lashed together after Lightoller used his whistle to gain attention. People were transferred to Boat 4, Gracie was unable to jump and crawled into boat 12. Lightoller was the last to step off the collapsible.

At 08:15am Boat 12 was the last awaiting collection. Gracie tried to revive a lifeless individual at his side. At 08:30 he was able to step onto Carpathia's gangway. His clothes were dried in the ship's baking over while he lay under a pile of blankets on a sofa in the dining room.

Recording the events

Almost immediately upon his arrival in New York Gracie started to write about his experience. His account is one of the most detailed of the evening. As a writer and amateur historian he threw himself into the work with frantic energy. He never finished proof reading the manuscript as he died on the 4th of December that same year, his spirit broken by the trauma of that night. Many survivors were at his graveside along with members of his regiment. His book The Truth About the Titanic was posthumously published in 1913. His publication branded Masabumi Hosono a stowaway on one of the lifeboats, which was to have a profound impact on the sole Japanese passenger on the ship.

Sudden death

Archibald Gracie was the third survivor to die after Maria Nackid (30 July 1912) and Eugenie Baclini (30 August 1912) preceding him. Edith Temple Gracie Adams, his last remaining child, died childless in late 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Gracie's widow was to remarry "Humberto Aguirre de Urbino" in 1924, believing him to be a wealthy Chilean count. He was in fact a fraudster. They both married expecting the other to be wealthy, only for them to both realise the other was not. She accused him of strangling her and stole money before making his escape. She eventually had the marriage annulled. She died in 1937.


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