The survivors were alive but coping with the trauma of the event they had just witnessed. They were chilled or had frostbite. Some collapsed from exhaustion and stress. The gravity of the loss slowly descended upon them and yet there was still the hope that others had survived and would be found by another steamer. It took a whole day for survivors to pick up their pens and write letters to loved ones in an attempt to describe their experiences.
The purpose of this post was to compile first-person accounts of Titanic survivors who mentioned that the band had played Nearer, My God, To Thee as the final number the night Titanic sank, with a focus on the earliest recorded memories written on board Carpathia. The best source for survivor accounts written on Carpathia is George Behe’s book On Board RMS Titanic, Memories of the Maiden Voyage.
It was on April 16 that the first written accounts appeared, personal letters written by survivors to loved ones. I searched the accounts as printed in Behe’s book for mention of the hymn, but most mention only that music was heard and that the band played to the last.
Alice Leader. April 16, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“I shall never forget the sight of that beautiful boat as she went down, the orchestra playing to the last, the lights burning until they were extinguished by the waves.”
Edwina Troutt. April 16, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“The band was playing until the last.”
Emma Schabert. April 18, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“As we went down to our life boats the orchestra was playing in the drawing room. The men who played knew they must sink any minute. That was real heroism.”
William Sloper. April 18, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“Some of the rescued people who were the last to leave the ship told me that when they left the orchestra was playing in the “Lounge,” and that it was brave but ghastly to hear them.”
Laura Cribb. April 18, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“We were so fascinated by the sights on the Titanic, however, that we could not keep our eyes off her until the last lights went out and the final notes of the band were drowned in the hiss and roar that came with the final plunge of the great ship as she sank bow first.”
Marie Young, Titanic survivor. April 18, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“Her wireless call rent the sky, rockets blazed, illuminating the huge iceberg on the starboard side, and her cannon boomed again and again for succour. The incredible sound of music reached us, and with disappearing lights, the roar of explosions and the wail of 1600 agonizing souls, was mingled the heroic music played by what trembling hands God only knows.”
Only one letter written on the Carpathia mentioned Nearer, My God, To Thee by name, and it was written by Second Class passenger Kate Buss. Interestingly, she, herself, had not heard the hymn. She wrote that it was being said that the hymn had been heard.
Kate Buss. April 16, 1912, on board Carpathia:
“Everything has gone, every single thing but my life.
“The musicians were such nice men. I asked one night for a ‘cello solo, and got it at once. Mr. N[orman] told me on Sunday night that the last thing they played was at his request, and I hear that they were playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Buss penned these words on April 16, one day after the event. It is known that Carlos Hurd, a reporter who was a passenger on board Carpathia through all this, was mingling with survivors collecting first-person accounts. By Buss’s letter it can be surmised that she overheard (or took part in) a conversation between Hurd and several passengers in which the hymn was discussed.
However, in her letter Buss confused the final number from the band’s regular evening performance (the unknown, unnamed piece Norman requested) with the final number the band played before the ship sank (said to have been the hymn). How is this certain? Norman and Buss had parted ways when she entered the lifeboat and he remained on the ship. They would never have had the chance to speak about Titanic's last number from the April 15th performance. She lived, he perished.
It is quite surprising that more evidence in favor of the hymn did not surface from letters written on Carpathia. One wonders how extensively the hymn was discussed between survivors en route to New York. There is something strange about the discrepancy between the first writings and the later press reports; the lack of evidence from the earliest recorded memories and the frequent mention in the later press coverage which emerged after Carlos Hurd's first newspaper report of the hymn on April 18, 1912.
If the band truly had played Nearer, My God, To Thee and the music had had an impact on the listeners in lifeboats, wouldn't the hymn have surfaced in more writings on Carpathia?
If any readers have additional letters written on Carpathia which mention the band, the music or even Nearer, My God, To Thee specifically, you are invited to share.
Titanic’s final number: Three Note Theory
Sunday Night Part II How accurate are passenger accounts?
Titanic and the Science of Memory
Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee