There Was A Real-Life Jack On Board The Titanic, But He Was Quite Different From Leo’s Version
Try to think of who was on the Titanic before it so tragically plunged beneath the waves. Not easy, is it? All that comes to mind is Jack and Rose. Well, although Leo’s character didn’t actually exist, there was a real-life Jack aboard the ill-fated ship. And his story is just as compelling – and heartbreaking – as anything you’ve watched at a movie theater.
We’re talking about John Borland Thayer II, who was 17 at the time the Titanic set sail in 1912. Unlike the movie Jack, though, he was from a very well-to-do family. That meant he traveled in the pampered luxury of first class rather than below decks.
And while everyone was in the same boat – literally – when the ship struck an iceberg, Thayer would have had better odds of surviving than Leo’s character. In third class – where Jack was in the movie – there was a total of 710 passengers. Sadly, though, only 174 survived the sinking. In first class, by contrast, 199 escaped with their lives from a passenger list of 319. That’s a very stark difference.
In James Cameron’s movie, there’s actually a moment when Jack has to smash down a gate trapping him and the other folks in third class. But although there’s no truth to that scene – it’s entirely fictional – there was real drama aboard the stricken vessel. And Thayer was at the center of one of the most terrifying true-life tales.
In fact, Cameron may actually have been inspired by Thayer. Yes, the director did base some characters on people who really sailed on the liner. Some of the survivors wrote accounts of their grueling experiences or gave press interviews. And Thayer himself would later write a privately published book about his ordeal.
But to understand Thayer’s real-life Titanic story – as well as Dawson’s imagined one – we should take a look at the events that led up to the tragic sinking of the ship. The Titanic was actually launched in May 1911, although she wouldn’t make her disastrous maiden voyage until almost a year later.
And the Titanic was a truly magnificent vessel. At her launch, she was the largest ship in the world. The liner wasn’t just a marvel of engineering, either. She was also promoted as the last word in luxury – for the first-class passengers, at least.
Maybe Thayer was eating from the fancy menu served on April 14, 1912. That would be the last meal on ship before the Titanic hit the iceberg. The delights on offer included roast duckling, foie gras and, to round it all off, peaches in Chartreuse jelly. Delicious!
Folks in third class would obviously not have dined so well, although they were able to chow down on roast beef and fruit. That was an upgrade in itself. On many other ships, passengers of lower social standing were often expected to bring their own food. But it wasn’t all roses for the people in the Titanic’s cheapest berths. There were just two baths for all 710 of them.
Before anyone in third class could enjoy their beef, though, the Titanic had to set sail. Southampton was chosen as the departure port, and it was just a quick hop across the English Channel to the next stop: the French city of Cherbourg. The final destination, of course, was meant to be New York City.
And like Jack in the movie, Thayer got on board at Southampton. But he wasn’t alone. In his 1940 book A Survivor’s Tale, he wrote, “My father, John B. Thayer, second vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, my mother, Marian Longstreth Morris Thayer, my mother’s maid, Margaret Fleming, and I were all in one party that sailed first-class from Southampton.”
Thayer recalled, too, how excited he’d felt to be aboard the grand liner. “I occupied a stateroom adjoining that of my father and mother on the port side of C deck,” he explained. “And, needless to say, being 17 years old, I was all over the ship.” Little did he know, though, that the trip would lead to tragedy.
In hindsight, Thayer may have regretted ever stepping foot on the Titanic. He may even have wished that his family had left the ship at the port of Queenstown in Ireland – the final stop before the Atlantic crossing. Seven people actually got off at Queenstown, and we can only imagine how lucky they felt when they learned of the Titanic’s awful fate. But there’s another twist to this tale...
You see, there actually was a real passenger on the Titanic called J. Dawson! His first name was Joseph rather than Jack, though. And, sadly, he ultimately drowned after the sinking of the ship. Today, he’s remembered by a gravestone at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Canada.
Joseph was Irish and just 23 when he lost his life. He had signed up for service as a trimmer on the Titanic only a few days before her maiden voyage. That meant he had to carry coal to the firemen who fed the furnaces deep in the dark belly of the liner.
Trimmers earned their name because they had to keep the coal correctly stacked for the ship to stay in trim, or on a level. No doubt it was physically demanding and dirty work. Mind you, at the time of the sinking, Joseph was actually off duty – not that this saved him.
When Joseph was eventually pulled from the cold sea, he was simply known as Body 227. Fortunately, the National Sailors and Firemen's Union card stowed in one of his pockets soon revealed his identity. It’s likely that by the time he arrived on the liner’s deck, all of the lifeboats had already been launched. That left him with no choice but to dive into the sea – a freezing nightmare that very few survived.
This means the two J. Dawsons – the real Joseph and the fictional Jack – both met their ends in the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic. But, strangely enough, they have more than that in common. Both Joseph and Jack came from humble backgrounds. They were also close in age: Jack was supposedly born in 1892, while Joseph arrived into the world in 1894. And, of course, like Joseph, Jack ended up on the Titanic.
But there’s at least one big difference between the two J. Dawsons. In the movie, Jack is aboard the Titanic as a passenger. His story is that he’d won third-class passage in a poker game shortly before the liner set sail from Southampton. Joseph, on the other hand, was a crew member.
Given the incredible ties between the two young men, though, it’s no wonder that some folk have gotten confused. Yes, after Titanic was released in 1997, fact collided with fiction – and Joseph’s grave got a whole lot more attention.
Writing for the website Titanica Encyclopedia, journalist Senan Molony explained what had happened after Cameron’s blockbuster became a huge hit. He wrote, “A modern generation of young females pined for [Jack] the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality… The [Halifax] grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion… Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.” Yes, really!
“Admirers left photographs of [Leonardo] DiCaprio and of themselves [and] tucked cinema stubs beside the granite,” Molony continued. “[They] took photographs and clippings of grass [and] even left hotel keys.” But apparently it was just sheer coincidence that Leo’s character shared a name with a real victim of the tragedy. That’s if you believe James Cameron, anyway.
And while Joseph can’t tell us what the sinking was like to experience, another Jack can. Thayer left a detailed account of what happened, and through his vivid description of events we, too, can relive the terror of that dark Atlantic night.
At first, all was peaceful. Thayer wrote in his memoir, “It was a brilliant, starry night. There was no moon, and I have never seen the stars shine brighter. They appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds.” He added, “It was the kind of a night that made one feel glad to be alive.” How bitterly ironic.
Thayer also observed that the sea had been as calm as a “mill pond.” Then, after taking in the scene, he apparently retired to his cabin. Thayer remembered, “I stepped into my room to put on pajamas, expecting to have another delightful night’s rest like the four preceding.” But this tranquility was shattered when disaster struck just before midnight.
That was when the ship crashed into an iceberg. The impact tore six narrow gashes along the ship’s hull – enough to breach half a dozen of the watertight compartments. And the Titanic’s fate was sealed as the ocean gushed into the closed sections, rapidly unbalancing the vessel.
Thayer experienced this change in the ship for himself. He wrote, “I wound my watch — it was 11:45 p.m. – and was just about to step into bed when I seemed to sway slightly. I immediately realized that the ship had veered to port as though she had been gently pushed… Almost instantaneously, the engines stopped.”
And although he heard people running along the corridors, Thayer was completely unaware of how grave the situation was. He recalled, “I hurried into my heavy overcoat and drew on my slippers. All excited, but not thinking anything serious had occurred, I called in to my father and mother that ‘I was going up on deck to see the fun.’”
As Thayer got on to the deck – quickly joined by his father – a crowd had started to gather. Then, while speaking to a crew member, the young man learned for the first time that the ship had collided with an iceberg. It was at that point he noticed that the Titanic had begun to lean to starboard.
Thomas Andrews, Harland & Wolff’s most senior ship designer, told Thayer the terrible news. Recalling the conversation, the survivor later wrote, “Mr. Andrews told us he did not give the ship much over an hour to live. We could hardly believe it, and yet if he said so, it must be true. No one was better qualified to know.” Of course, Andrews – who ultimately drowned – was proved completely right.
Even as the lifeboats were being prepared for launch, the situation was chaotic. Thayer wrote, “No one knew his boat position, as no lifeboat drill had been held.” In any case, his mother and her maid, Margaret Fleming, made their way to the port side, where women were due to be rescued.
At this point, Thayer was also accompanied by another American, Milton Long, whose acquaintance he’d made earlier that evening. And while Thayer, Long and Thayer’s father eventually rejoined Mrs. Thayer and her maid, the two young men ultimately lost the other three in the crowd. It would be the last time Thayer would ever see his father.
The lifeboats looked frighteningly unstable to Long and Thayer, who thought capsizing was a distinct possibility. Amid the chaos, they decided not to board the last two boats on their side of the liner as they were launched. “It was really every man for himself,” Thayer recalled in his book. And as the scramble for places aboard the final lifeboats worsened, somebody fired a couple of shots into the air – only adding to the general atmosphere of anarchy.
By now, it was absolutely clear that there was only one outcome: the Titanic was going to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Thayer remembered, “It must now have been about 1:50 a.m., and, as far as we knew, the last boat had gone… I argued with Long about our chances. I wanted to jump out and catch the empty lifeboat falls.”
Long talked Thayer out of making this bold move, which would have meant plunging 60 feet into the frigid sea. But the situation was quickly becoming critical. As Thayer recounted, “It was now about 2:15 a.m. We could see the water creeping up the deck, as the ship was going down by the head at a pretty fast rate. The water was right up to the bridge. There must have been over 60 feet of it on top of the bow.”
So, only one option was left: the two men would have to jump into the sea. Thayer wrote of this pivotal moment, “We had no time to think now, only to act. We shook hands, wished each other luck. I said [to Long], ‘Go ahead, I’ll be right with you.’ I threw my overcoat off as he climbed over the rail, sliding down facing the ship.”
Then, after Thayer hit the water, fortune gave him a priceless gift: an overturned lifeboat. Along with four or five other men, he clung to this floating sanctuary. From his vantage point, he could only watch as the Titanic and its remaining crew and passengers slid beneath the waves.
That capsized lifeboat saved Thayer’s life. Long was not so lucky. And Thayer remembered with some bitterness that the lifeboats had failed to return to pick up survivors in the water. He claimed, “If they had turned back, several hundred more would have been saved. No one can explain it.”
Meanwhile, Thayer’s capsized lifeboat had become a haven for 28 survivors. Others had to be prevented from climbing aboard because of the danger the makeshift raft would sink. Thayer remembered, “We prayed and sang hymns.” It would be a long, cold night for the men grimly hanging on to that upturned boat.
But hope arrived just as dawn broke. Two of the Titanic’s lifeboats came to the aid of Thayer and his companions, and his mother and her maid were in one of them. Then, after another couple of hours, they were all safely aboard the R.M.S. Carpathia. So, unlike Joseph or the fictional Jack, Thayer had managed to survive the sinking of the Titanic. He was supremely lucky. Of the approximately 2,200 who had been aboard the liner, more than 1,500 had lost their lives.