Anyone who knows anything about the Titanic disaster believes that there was a certain protocol for those who boarded the scarce lifeboats onboard the ill-fated ship — or was there?
Actually, the “women or children only” rule was in effect only on the port side of the ship; “women and children first” was the rule on the starboard side. Furthermore, a 14-year-old girl in first class was considered a child; a 14-year-old girl in third class was considered an adult. These variations in protocol are important in understanding the sad case of William Thompson Sloper, a 28-year-old stockbroker from New Britain who survived the sinking.
Son of Andrew Jackson Sloper, a New Britain bank president, William had spent three months in Europe on both business and pleasure. He had originally booked his return passage on the Mauretania, but smitten by a young woman named Alice Fortune, Sloper lingered a bit longer in England and re-booked on the Titanic.
Sloper was playing bridge with several people when the ship struck the iceberg. Dorothy Gibson, a well-known actress and one of his bridge partners, decided it was prudent to get onboard a lifeboat. She urged Sloper to join her in Lifeboat 7. At first Sloper hesitated, but she eventually convinced him to get onboard.
The pair boarded the lifeboat on the starboard side where the “women and children first” rule was in effect. Thus, after loading as many women and children as were willing to go, there was still plenty of room on the lifeboat, so Sloper easily found a seat. He took it. Lifeboat 7 — the first to leave the foundering ship — was less than half full.
In 1949, Sloper wrote what was ostensibly a biography of his father: "The Life and Times of Andrew Jackson Sloper"; however, the book became more of a reflection about his time on the Titanic than anything else. His lifeboat had drifted away from the Titanic, but he witnessed its sinking and wrote:
"Two hours after our lifeboat was launched, the sailors estimated that we had drifted more than two miles from where the Titanic was sinking. The ship remained until 2 or 3 minutes before she sank as brilliantly lighted as she was directly after the accident occurred and all the lights had been turned on. Then suddenly (like the house lights in a brilliantly lighted theatre just before the curtain goes up) all the lights dipped simultaneously to a pale glow. A moment or two later everyone watching in the lifeboats saw silhouetted against the starlit sky the stern of the ship rise perpendicularly into the air from about midship. Then with a prolonged rush and a roar like the ten thousand tons of coal sliding down a metal chute several hundred feet long, the great ship went down out of sight and disappeared beneath the surface of the ocean. Then a great cry arose on the air from the surface of the calm sea where the ship had been."
Soon, the Carpathia appeared at the disaster site and began to pick up survivors. Sloper writes:
"It took us an hour to awkwardly row our boat to the side of the Carpathia. During the hour we had been rowing the sun came out of the ocean like a ball of fire. Its rays reflected on the numerous icebergs sticking up out of the sea around us. As we came alongside the Carpathia and our turn came to disembark, it didn't take long for the 29 people in our boat to be assisted up the stairway which had been lowered down the outside of the ship."
The lifeboat could have held 65 people; only 29 prudent enough to recognize the danger were onboard. Many others, thinking that the Titanic was unsinkable, remained onboard and died.
The Carpathia arrived in New York on April 19. A swarm of reporters greeted the shaken survivors. Sloper, like many other survivors, was in no mood to be interviewed and retreated to a hotel to recuperate. He had decided that the only member of the press that he would talk to about his experience would be a close friend of his, Jack Vance, who was an editor of the New Britain Herald.
Angry at Sloper’s refusal to talk to the press, a New York Herald reporter ran a story stating that Sloper had behaved like a coward and had disguised himself as a woman in order to get access to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, Sloper heeded the advice of his father and did not immediately challenge the veracity of the story. Lacking a public challenge, the story was widely believed, and Sloper had to spend much of the rest of his life refuting the false allegation. It haunted him.
William T. Sloper also holds another sailing distinction: He is the only known Titanic survivor to have also sailed on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. He did so in 1926 with his wife. Moreover, the Olympic happened to be sailing in the vicinity of the site of the Titanic disaster on its voyage to New York and actually paused over the site for a brief ceremony.
In 1937, four years after his father died, William T. Sloper started the William T. Sloper Trust For Andrew J. Sloper Musical Fund. The fund still exists today and is administered by Bank of America. This fund’s mission is stated as follows at the bank’s website:
"The Andrew J. Sloper Musical Fund was established in 1937 to "bring excellent and cultural music to New Britain, such as symphony orchestras, smaller orchestras, choral societies, bands, and musicians, either vocal or instrumental. The Sloper Musical Fund specifically serves the people of New Britain, Connecticut."
Thanks to the efforts of historians such as Walter Lord in his classic book on the story of the Titanic called "A Night To Remember" (1955), time has begun to redress the wrongs done to the reputation of William T. Sloper. Sloper wisely chose to heed the urgings of actress Dorothy Gibson and board Lifeboat 7 on the Titanic. He paid a price for refusing to talk to the press in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and irresponsible journalism unfairly branded him a coward.
He certainly was not a coward. It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to witness his vindication — he died in May 1955, six months before Lord's book was published.
Notes, Sources, and Links
1. "Titanic: The Demographics of the Passengers" by J. Henderson of Ithaca College is the best available breakdown of facts concerning the passengers.