Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Woebegone Museum

By Karen Campbell

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Before the release of the movie Titanic, the grave of Dublin native James Dawson was just one of 50 graves belonging to Titanic victims buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Eighty-six years after the sinking, the wake of renewed interest about the shipwreck has brought visitors to the simple black granite marker at Dawson’s grave and to others just like it. The port city of Halifax is the home to many of Titanic’s dead, and Dawson’s story, the stories of the other victims, and the city’s grim role in the tragedy have been preserved in an exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Dawson, the 227th victim pulled from the sea, is not the Jack Dawson of the movie, but don’t tell that to the teenagers who adorn his grave with flowers and notes. Visitors to Dawson’s grave know it’s not the movie character, but people seem to consider it a “meaningful coincidence,” says Don Conlin, one of the museum’s curators.

The 23-year-old Dawson worked as “trimmer” on the Titanic, bringing loads of coal to the stokers who shoveled the fuel into the ship’s massive furnaces, Conlin says. The stokers were at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy, and trimmers were below that, he says. His life was nothing like that of the fictional movie character. There has been much confusion between the two, which robs James Dawson of his identity and his role on the ship. “He deserves to be remembered. He was a real person.”

Conlin developed the Titanic exhibit for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic when the museum opened in 1981, and expanded it in time for the film’s release. “We’ve had a collection of Titanic material for a long time,” Conlin says. Originally, it was a small part of the shipwreck gallery. Even before the movie, curators decided to expand the exhibit. Since the movie, visitors have been coming to the museum nonstop, doubling normal attendance.

The museum and three cemeteries in Halifax provide rich detail about the lives of those who died and those who pulled their bodies from the North Atlantic. The victims, the recovery of the bodies, and the wooden artifacts such as a recovered deck chair or part of a staircase are the heart of the exhibit, Conlin explains. The museum’s focus is not the same as the Wonders Series Titanic exhibit. “We focus on the grim role of Halifax, not the glory of the great ship,” says Conlin.

While New York City welcomed the survivors, Halifax had the sober task of receiving the dead. Titanic’s owner White Star Lines commissioned ships to retrieve bodies from the North Atlantic – the Mackay-Bennett, dubbed “the Death Ship,” the Minia, the Montmagny, and the Algerine. A total of 328 bodies were retrieved; the badly decomposed were buried at sea. The supplies of coffins, canvas bags, and embalming fluid on board the ships were depleted.

As the bodies were pulled from the ocean, each one was given a number in the order it was retrieved. For some, this number is the body’s only identification. In addition to the number, a written description of each body was made. All personal effects were put into bags. Tattoos, clothes, and jewelry were noted and photographed. The method of numbering and cataloging bodies would be utilized again five years later when a World War I munitions ship exploded in the Halifax harbor, killing 2,000 and flattening the north end of the city, Conlin says.

Tolling church bells announced the arrival of the Mackay-Bennett. The first ship to return, it arrived in Halifax on April 30, 1912. First-class passengers were removed in coffins, second- and third-class passengers were carried in canvas bags, and crew members were carried on open stretchers. Hearses and wagons took the bodies to the Mayflower Curling Rink, which served as a temporary morgue.

Of the 209 bodies brought to Halifax, 150 were buried in three Halifax cemeteries: Fairview Cemetery, non-denominational, 121 graves; Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, Jewish, 10 graves; and Mount Olivet Cemetery, Roman Catholic, 19 graves. Many families did not have money to bring their dead home.

White Star Lines paid for a basic burial and headstone. White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay, who survived by climbing into one of the lifeboats, paid for two graves at Fairview Cemetery – probably out of guilt, Conlin says. One grave was for Ernest E. Freeman, Ismay’s personal steward, and one was for W. Harrison, Ismay’s secretary. Some of the other victims are sadly anonymous.

One identified victim buried at Fairview is Alma Paulson, a Swedish immigrant who was on her way to the United States with her four children when the ship sank. She was to meet her husband Nils in Chicago. She was easily identified by her ticket. Her youngest child, two-year- old Gosta, was one of the first bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett. With no identification, he was christened Titanic’s “Unknown Child.” He was later identified and both he and his mother are buried at Fairview. The other children were never found.

The stories of the victims are detailed in the museum’s exhibit, but the museum also features impressive artifacts from Titanic.

One of the most haunting items in the exhibit is a two-page handwritten log of Titanic’s distress messages made by a wireless operator at Cape Race, Newfoundland, 400 nautical miles from the Titanic wreck. The transcript gives one a sense of the unfolding disaster: “Signals fade and end abruptly. Finally no news.” The log notes the next morning there were 300 inquiries from news organizations. “You get [a sense of] the cultural obsession of Titanic the very next morning.” Conlin says. The wireless operator kept the log and notes thinking he would be called as a witness to give the information he had, but he was never contacted by investigating authorities.


The Maritime Museum is located at Halifax Harbour at 1675 Lower Water Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia (902) 424-7490. Open year-round, admission and hours vary according to season.


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