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].

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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