History Lost And Found: A Letter From Titanic

Apr 14, 2012
Originally published on April 14, 2012 2:36 pm

Many famous names went down with the Titanic, like the American millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest person on the ship, and Macy's department store owner Isidor Straus.

But you may not know about one of the ship's doctors — John Edward Simpson. Aboard the Titanic, Simpson wrote a letter to his mother back home in Belfast. It was mailed from the great ship's last port of call before it made its disastrous turn across the North Atlantic.

Over the years, though, the letter fell into the hands of a collector, and the Simpson family thought it lost forever — until now.

Kate Dornan is Dr. Simpson's great-niece. She tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that the family lost track of the letter when Simpson's elderly granddaughter-in-law gave it to a Titanic expert in the Netherlands about 15 years ago.

The family presumed the letter lost until earlier this year, when it turned up in a New York auction catalog. "It was a very strange feeling to see it there," Dornan says. With a reserve price of $35,000, the letter was seemingly out of reach, but Dornan says a benefactor stepped forward to make the purchase.

The letter in question, written on Titanic letterhead and dated April 11, is relatively mundane. "Dear Mother, I traveled from Liverpool Monday by the 12 o'clock train," Dornan reads. "I find my two trunks unlocked and five or six dollars stolen out of my pocketbook. I hope none of my stamps have been stolen. Did I have my old portmanteau when I borrowed the kit bag? I think not. With fondest love, John."

Dornan calls it a casual letter from a son to a mother. "Nothing of great consequence — it wasn't the type of letter that, you know, people wrote during the war when they thought it might be their last communication. This plainly wasn't that."

But it's that very ordinariness that is so appealing, Dornan says. "You can just sense the son writing it to the mum, and probably doing it quite quickly to get it done."

While Simpson did not survive the sinking, several of those who did recall his calm demeanor that night. "There's a letter from [Charles] Lightoller, the second officer, in which he says, 'I may say I was practically the last person to see Dr. Simpson,' " Dornan says. Simpson was walking along the boat deck with several other men, all of whom Lightoller describes as "perfectly calm in the knowledge that they'd done their duty."

Another surviving officer happened to meet Simpson's sister in Australia a few months after the sinking. He had been a crewmember on one of the last lifeboats to leave the Titanic, Dornan says. "And John Simpson came and said, 'Here's something that might be of help to you,' " and handed the man his pocket flashlight.

"He knew he wasn't going to need it anymore, and just faced his end with a degree of dignity," she adds.

Simpson's last letter will go on display in the new Titanic museum in Belfast. Dornan says her relatives are all very proud of their forebear, but they're happy to let the letter go as long as it stays in Belfast. "I think we're all very happy that it's actually going to be back on home territory; it feels a wee bit like a wee bit of him coming home."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This week marks the 100th year anniversary of the day the Titanic set out on its journey to New York City. But you probably knew that. You may not know about one of the ship's doctors. John Edward Simpson, he was on board that day. A letter written by the doctor to his mother in Belfast was mailed from the last port where the Titanic called, before it made the disastrous turn and headed across the north Atlantic.

In the letter, Dr Simpson sends a few bits of news and fond wishes to his mom. He never returned but the letter survived and found its way to his mother. Over the years though, the letter fell in the hands of a collector. The Simpson family thought it lost forever until now. The letter has come full circle and will soon be on display at the new Titanic museum in Belfast.

To tell us more about the letter is Kate Dornan. She's Dr. Simpson's great-niece. She joins us from the BBC in Belfast.

Welcome to the program.

KATE DORNAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, tell me, your family had the letter - presumably it arrived from - where was it sent?

DORNAN: Well, he posted it when the Titanic stopped at Queenstown, the bottom of Ireland, it's now called. They stopped there to pick up more passengers and to send some mail ashore. So he sent it from there on the 11th of April, 1912.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you have a copy of the letter, so could you read it to us?

DORNAN: I do, indeed. Yes. It says...

(Reading) Dear Mother, I traveled from Liverpool on Monday by the 12 o'clock train and arrived on board at 10 P.M., feeling pretty tired. I'm very well neigh and I'm gradually getting settled into my new cabin, which is larger than my last. I find my two trunks unlocked and five or $6 stolen out of my pocketbook. I hope none of my stamps have been stolen. Did I have my old portmanteau when I borrowed the kit bag? I think not. With fondest love, John.

So, it's a very casual letter from a son to a mother, probably to keep her happy in a way - nothing of great consequence. It wasn't the type of letter that, you know, people wrote during the war when they thought it might be their last communication. This plainly wasn't that. He was going off on an adventure, really. And it's kind of the ordinariness of the letter that I find quite appealing, as well, because you can just sense the son writing it to the mom and probably doing it quite quickly to get it done.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now we've seen a picture of him and he was a handsome man, a kind of sad-eyed fellow with a huge and very impressive mustache.

DORNAN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Did you know very much about him?

DORNAN: Well, we're really lucky actually because we've got different reports from survivors. There's a letter from Lightoller, the second officer, in which he says: I may say I was practically the last person to speak to Dr. Simpson. And on this occasion, he was walking along the boat deck in the company of Messrs McElroy, Barker and Dr. Locklin. They were all perfectly calm in the knowledge that they'd done their duty.

And each one individually came up and we all shook hands, merely exchanging the words: Goodbye, Old Man. this occurred shortly before the end and they're not aware that he was seen by anyone after that.

Another officer on the Titanic met John Simpson's sister in Australia actually a few months later, coincidentally. And he talked about him coming up to him, and he was one of the last lifeboats leaving the Titanic and he was a crew member on. And John Simpson came and said: Here's something that might be of help to you, and gave him his pocket torch.

So, I mean he knew he wasn't going to need it anymore, and just faced his end with a degree of dignity.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the letter is going into the new Titanic museum in Belfast. Did you ever think of trying to keep it in the family?

DORNAN: No, funny enough. We've got quite a big family here and we all feel strongly about John Simpson. You know, we're all extremely proud of him. And everybody felt that actually we just wanted the letter to be in Belfast, and that the Belfast people and any visitors to Belfast would be able to see it. It's part of a living history.

I think we're all very happy that it's actually going to be back on home territory; it feels a wee bit like a wee bit of him coming home.

WERTHEIMER: Kate Dornan joined us from the BBC in Belfast. She is the great-niece of Dr. John Edward Simpson who died on the Titanic in 1912.

Kate Dornan, thank you very much.

DORNAN: Thank you very much for letting me talk about him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.