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Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

How Science—and a Broken Heart—Helped Identify Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley's Lost Violin

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, as the R.M.S. Titanic was continuing its descent into the chilly, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, bandleader Wallace Hartley urged his seven musicians to continue playing.

The apocryphal version has Hartley tucking his violin under his chin and leading them in a rendition of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the ship sank. While it makes for a poignant finale, it’s more likely that Hartley played “Songe d’Automne,” a slow waltz that scored the untimely demise of more than 1500 passengers, including Hartley and all his bandmates.

When bodies began to be recovered in the days to come, authorities took inventory of any personal effects that were found. In this official registry of Hartley, a.k.a. Body 224, no mention was made of his violin, his bow, or its case. He had been in the water for 10 days. The German-crafted wooden instrument was largely believed to have been lost to the sea.

Nearly 100 years later, a UK-based auctioneer named Andrew Aldridge received a phone call from a man with a strange story to tell. Up in his late mother's attic, he told Aldridge, was a small collection of items he believed would be of interest to Titanic historians and collectors.

When Aldridge visited his caller in 2006, he was shown several items that purportedly belonged to Hartley, including sheet music and a leather valise with the musician's initials. But Aldridge’s attention was drawn to a violin: It was cracked and weathered, with only two strings remaining. A silver plate on the tailpiece read:

For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.

Aldridge felt a surge of excitement. He had facilitated the sale of several Titanic relics, but nothing had ever compared to the holy grail of the Hartley violin. If this truly belonged to the musician, it would be one of the most important discoveries from the ship in history. And if it was the violin he played as the ship went down, it would be the most valuable.

But how had the violin survived immersion? And if Hartley secured it to his body before going into the water, why wasn’t it listed among his personal effects?

It would be seven years before Aldridge had his answers.

A close-up of the engraved silver plate on the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

For decades, collectors and researchers had debated the existence of the Hartley violin. Some believed Hartley would be too panicked to bother securing his violin in its case and strapping it to himself before he was forced to go into the water; others pointed to contemporaneous news accounts of the time which mentioned Hartley’s violin had indeed been recovered during the salvage operation.

“At that point [in 2006], I think the collecting community generally believed it did not exist,” Craig Sopin, an attorney and Titanic memorabilia expert who consulted with the Aldridge & Son auction house, tells Mental Floss. “But a lot of us hoped it did.”

Four newspapers at the time reported Hartley had been found with the instrument strapped to him, but those were challenged by more conservative historians who cited the official inventory and its list of items that were returned to family members. These logs noted that Hartley had a fountain pen, money, and a cigarette case, but made no mention of the violin. “There was just no hard evidence,” Sopin says.

Hartley himself had been something of an enigma. Born in 1878 and the son of a choirmaster, the bandleader had been a bank teller before pursuing his passion for music. Hartley had been on well over 80 sea voyages before he was hired to lead the musicians on the Titanic. It’s likely he perceived the highly-coveted job as a chance to make some good money. In a letter written to his parents the day of the April 10 launch, Hartley implied that wealthy passengers might offer tips.

“It was a feather in his cap,” Sopin says. “He was fortunate at first, although not fortunate at all in the end.”

An avowed ladies' man who fancied himself a bit of an early-century hipster—he referred to himself as "Hotley" in correspondence—Hartley had seemingly abandoned his bachelorhood for Maria Robinson, the daughter of a cloth manufacturer. The two were scheduled to be married just months after Hartley’s expected return, with Hartley looking to support his wife-to-be with more bookings at sea.

While Hartley’s fate became part of a great 20th century tragedy, Robinson’s personal anguish was never heavily publicized. She wrote letters to authorities in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had jurisdiction over the wreck, requesting all of Hartley’s personal belongings be returned to her. In a diary entry dated July 1912 and uncovered during the investigation into the instrument's history, Robinson drafted a note thanking them for returning the violin. So why didn’t the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, tasked with recovering bodies, make any mention of it?

“That turned out to be the easiest hurdle to knock down,” Sopin says. “What we learned is that there were many personal items not logged but returned to family, and their inventory was just not very detailed.” Most every body had been recovered wearing a life jacket, Sopin says, and almost all went unreported.

Like the life jackets, Hartley’s valise that he kept his violin in would have been strapped to his body, opening up the possibility that the recovery team ignored items worn by the corpses. “It wasn’t something he could put in his pocket,” Sopin says, “so it may not have been considered a personal effect.”

The paper trail assembled by Sopin and other researchers provided further credence to the theory that Hartley had taken the violin with him. When Maria Robinson died in 1939, her sister Margaret was charged with handling her personal possessions. The violin was given to Major Renwick, a bandleader with the Bridlington Salvation Army who also taught music. He gave it to a student of his, a woman stationed in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She later wrote of the gift that it had suffered damage and was not playable due to having “an eventful life.”

It remained in her possession for close to 75 years. The call Aldridge received was from the music student’s son, who had been responsible for sorting his mother’s belongings following her death. (The seller, wishing anonymity, has not disclosed the family name.)

The story was reasonable, but none of it offered conclusive proof that the violin in the attic was the same violin played on the outer deck of the ship during the commotion. For that, Aldridge would turn to experts in the fields of corrosion, silver, and musical instruments to determine if the violin had been in the water the night of April 15, 1912.

The valise and straps used as a carrier for the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

“The best way to describe the research was like a jigsaw puzzle with numerous component pieces,” Aldridge tells Mental Floss. “Each one had to fit together, whether it be scientific, historical, or research.”

To date the violin to the night of the wreck, Aldridge first approached the now-defunct UK Forensic Science Services and their trace analysis expert, Michael Jones. (Citing confidentiality clauses with his former employer, a representative for Jones declined to comment for this story.) Performing a salinization test would determine whether the instrument had ever been submerged in saltwater. “If that had been negative, the investigation would have ended there,” Sopin says.

It was positive. Jones could then examine the metal portions of the violin, including the engraved tailpiece and the lock on the valise, and compare the corrosion to other metal items recovered both from Hartley and from other victims that were in the hands of private collectors. “It was not a quick process,” Aldridge says. “These are not the sorts of items that are easily obtained.”

Eventually, Jones was able to determine the deposits were consistent with those found in items definitively known to be recovered from the site. He also tried examining algae on the violin to see if it was consistent with the part of the North Atlantic where the ship struck the iceberg, Sopin says, but results were inconclusive.

Because Aldridge’s intent was to prove its provenance beyond all doubt, the authentication continued. The straps of the valise were measured and found to be 90 inches long, leaving plenty of give to tie the case around Hartley’s body. Aldridge also consulted with gemologist Richard Slater, who examined the engraved plate and found no evidence it had ever been removed or recently applied to the instrument.

Aldridge took it in for a CT scan at Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, which revealed stress fractures in the wood—the kind that may have rendered it unplayable according to Renwick's student—and a type of glue that would not have dissolved in seawater. (The heavy leather valise provided additional protection from the water.) Aldridge also consulted instrument expert Andrew Hooker, who held no opinion about the violin’s connection to the Titanic but confirmed it was made in the late 19th century and was re-varnished and rebuilt, likely owing to the damage incurred after 10 days of immersion.

“The violin was nothing special,” Hooker tells Mental Floss. “Just a cheap, factory-made German instrument.”

Of course, the instrument’s value was tied completely to where it was played, and by whom. By 2013, both Aldridge and Sopin—a notoriously skeptical collector who made for a strong litmus test—were convinced. After seven years and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, Aldridge believed he had his answer.

“I remained neutral until I didn’t,” Sopin says. “I believe the violin was on the Titanic.”

The Hartley violin, more than 100 years after being recovered at sea
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

The owner’s desire had always been to take the violin and the other Hartley items to auction. Armed with reams of supporting evidence from forensic experts, that’s exactly what Aldridge and Son did on October 19, 2013. TV satellites and media were parked outside the Devizes, Wiltshire, England facility, the site of the auction.

Behind the podium, Aldridge began the bidding at 50 pounds, or roughly $65. Bidders on the floor and via telephone quickly got down to business, taking bids from 80,000 pounds to 500,000 to 750,000. By the time Aldridge brought down the gavel a final time, the violin had sold for 1.1 million pounds, or $1.7 million. (The valise was sold separately for 20,000 pounds, or $26,000.)

As is often the case with big-ticket auction items, the buyer has no desire to be named—although it’s probably not Sopin. “I would have considered paying something,” he says, “but not $1.7 million.”

Sopin believes the buyer is male and resides in the UK. It’s also known that he allowed the violin to go on display at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as its sister location in Branson, Missouri, in 2016.

As of now, no other Titanic artifact has come close to realizing a similar sale price, a testament to the emotional impact of what would otherwise be an unremarkable instrument. In playing for terrified passengers, Hartley and his band used their talent under extreme duress to maintain a sense of order and civility, likely saving lives in the process. His funeral was reportedly attended by 30,000 to 40,000 people.

While Aldridge performed his due diligence above and beyond reasonable doubt, some historians still question why a distressed Hartley would have bothered with the violin at all. “Hartley’s mother commented on this,” Sopin says. “She thought if he felt there was any hope at all of getting off the ship, he would have taken the violin.”

Additional Sources: Auction Background [PDF].

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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