Today is the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. We wrote earlier here about our obsession with this disaster. A few months ago, while researching my ancestry, I came across information that will only fuel the obsession. In my family tree, I came across a line of Thayers. As I have done right along in my research when I hit a familiar surname, I began to look to see if my Thayers had anything to do with famous Thayers I’d known about. There’s Thayer Street in Providence, named after Simeon Thayer, local hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars. (Yes, related).
And of course Jack Thayer. This was a shot in the dark, as I knew he was from a wealthy Philadelphia family. But the roots of his family too wend their way back to the earliest days of Colonial Massachusetts. His Thayers are indeed my Thayers. I know his name so well because he was one of the best-known of the 710 Titanic survivors. He had published a pamphlet of his account of the event in 1940, and Walter Lord had made his story one of the main threads of his incredible book A Night to Remember.
Beyond this, of the dozens or scores of survivor’s stories, his was one I could relate to most. Thayer was a 17 year old boy at the time of the disaster, returning from a vacation to Europe with his parents. His father was one of the chief executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad. I couldn’t relate to the wealth or the trip to Europe. But being a 17 year old boy, that I could relate to. I was probably around that age when I first began exploring this event. And so you look at it through his eyes. What would I do? How would I behave? Such an interesting age. Technically a child, he was turned away from a lifeboat for being a “man”. But really he was just a kid in his pajamas. Literally — he was in his pajamas.
Thayer ended up being one of the last to get off, deliberating jumping off the stern with a buddy when the ship was in its final throes. The friend was never seen again, nor was Thayer’s father, but Thayer himself got lucky. He was pulled out of the water onto an overturned collapsible and later put onto a proper lifeboat. He saw the ship break in half; his account of the final moments would become part of the basis of James Cameron’s realization for his movie (the “breaking in two” theory had always been a subject of controversy). Thayer said the combined screams of the 1,500 people dying in the water sounded like locusts on a summer night. Hours later he was reunited with his mother.
Now of course, I am Thayer’s father’s age, and ask myself different questions when I go over the narrative in my head. Jack Thayer took his own life at this age (his dad’s age) following the decease of his mother and the death of his own son in World War Two. Though it had been three decades since the disaster it must have seemed like he’d never be free of the memory of it, or of death. (He’d also served in combat in World War One). Survivor’s guilt. How can he not have had survivor’s guilt? The fact of Thayer’s suicide has always touched me, too. He seems to have been a thoughtful and sensitive man.