“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it’s eyes and awake, but woke it with a start – keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.” -John B. Thayer III, 1940
John B. “Jack” Thayer III seemed to have everything a successful Philadelphian could want. He was the son of the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and educated at the Haverford School and the University of Pennsylvania. He was married to Lois Buchanan Cassatt, granddaughter of Pennsy’s president Alexander Cassatt, the mastermind of New York’s Penn Station. After graduating from college in 1916, Thayer served his country with distinction in World War I, and then worked in a series of investment jobs until he became partner in the investment firm of Yarnall & Company. In addition to serving his alma mater as its financial vice president, he also belonged to numerous clubs and societies.
Dr. Thomas Sovereign Gates, president of the University, called him a “loyal and trusted servant.”
Yet even as America celebrated victory over the Axis in that joyous summer of 1945, a dark cloud seemed to be enveloping the 50-year-old banker. His beloved mother Marian had died the previous April. His 22-year-old son Edward had been shot down over the Pacific a year before that.
And then there was the ever-present ghost of his father John B. Thayer Jr., whose legacy as railroad executive and sportsman was memorialized on a plaque in Penn’s Houston Hall.
Jack Thayer had spent the past three decades searching for peace. And he found none.
On September 19, 1945, Thayer drove from his elegant home in Grays Lane in Haverford to the intersection of 48th and Parkside Avenue, parked his car, took out several wrapped blades, and slit his wrists. Then his throat.
His body was not discovered for another forty hours.
John B. “Jack” Thayer III left behind a book he had printed privately a few years earlier and inscribed to his friends and family.
On the early morning of April 15, 1912, 17-year-old Jack Thayer and his friend Milton Long found themselves stranded on the sloping decks of the RMS Titanic. Two hours after the ship’s collision with the iceberg, the Titanic was down by the bow and listing heavily to port. There had been no general alarm or sirens.
The Titanic’s giant engines had stopped shortly after 11:40pm. “The sudden quiet was startling and disturbing,” Thayer recalled. “Like the subdued quiet in a sleeping car, at a stop, after a continuous run.”
Then came the roar of escaping steam from the ship’s 29 boilers, and an occassional white rocket bursting in the night sky.
The two young men found themselves blocked from entering the lifeboats: “No more boys,” barked Second Officer Charles Lightoller. In the distance, they saw flickering oil lamps coming from the 18 lifeboats that had made it off the ship. Jack’s mother Marian was in one of them. The freezing cold Atlantic rose ever closer to the boat deck. Lights from submerged portholes glowed green for a while in the black water before shorting out. Atop the officers’ quarters, a group of men struggled to free two collapsible liferafts lashed to the deck. There was no hope of hooking them onto the davits and lowering them properly: they would have be floated off as the ship went down.
“Mr. Moon-Man, Turn off the Light,” a popular song from Jack Thayer’s childhood that was almost certainly part of the Titanic band’s repertoire. From the 1979 film SOS Titanic.
A few minutes after 2:05am, first class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, who had helped women and children into the lifeboats for the past hour, was surprised to see a “mass of humanity” come up from below, “several lines deep converging on the Boat Deck facing us and completely blocking our passage to the stern. There were women in the crowd as well as men and these seemed to be steerage passengers who had just come up from the decks below. Even among these people there was no hysterical cry, no evidence of panic. Oh the agony of it.”
First and second class passengers had access to lifeboats from their deck spaces. But not steerage — they had been kept below until now. Except for those lucky enough to find their way through a maze of barriers and corridors to the boat deck level.
Gracie also noticed John B. Thayer Jr. chatting on deck with his fellow Philadelphia millionaire George D. Widener, whose wife Eleanor had also left in a boat. Only a few hours earlier, the Widener and Thayer families had hosted a celebratory dinner in Titanic’s captain Edward J. Smith honor in the ship’s 120-seat a la carte restaurant on B-deck. Gracie remembered that the elder Thayer looked “pale and determined.”
Jack Thayer lost his father in the milling crowd, which after realizing all the boats were gone, began to surge with panic.
At around 2:10am, the liner’s bow took a rapid plunge downward, as seawater burst through cargo hatches, doors, and windows.
“It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead,” he recalled of being stuck on the sinking ship, “mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.
Milton Long got ready to slide down the side of the ship by using one of the dangling lifeboat ropes. “You are coming, boy, aren’t you?” Long said.
“Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Thayer responded above the din.
Long slid down the rope. Thayer jumped. “I never saw him again.”
Thrashing around in freezing water, Thayer could see the ship in full profile as it sank deeper into the Atlantic.
“The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare,” he recalled, “and stood out of the night as though she were on fire…. The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds.”
The Titanic’s electric lights flickered out, came on again with red glow, and then went out for the last time.
Then he saw something even more terrifying: the ship breaking in half. “Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and bow or buckle upwards,” he recalled. “The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet. The suction of it drew me down and down struggling and swimming, practically spent.”
The water began to numb his limbs, and he looked desperately for something that could support him. Everything was too small: deck chairs, crates, broken pieces of paneling. He then banged his head on something big. It was one of the two collapsible lifeboats, overturned, with about a dozen men scrambling to stay balanced on its wood-planked bottom. With his last bit of strength, he swam for the boat and hauled himself on top.
He couldn’t just lie there. To keep the boat from sinking, the men had to stand up, leaning to the right and left at the command of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the same man who had said no more boys were allowed to board lifeboats. Also onboard was Colonel Archibald Gracie. As cold and frightened as he was, Jack did not turn his eyes away from the spectacle. “We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard,” he wrote later, “clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle.”
When the water closed over the Titanic’s stern–at 2:20am, April 15, 1912–Thayer heard a noise that rang in his ears for the rest of his life.
The sound of hundreds of people struggling in the icy water reminded him eerily of the sound of singing locusts on a summer night at the Thayer family estate on the Main Line. “The partially filled lifeboats standing by, only a few hundred yards away, never came back,” he wrote angrily. “Why on earth they did not come back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?”
Among those voices that cried out in rage and desperation in that mid-Atlantic night were those belonging to his father John Borland Thayer Jr., as well as his friend Milton Long. Over the next thirty minutes, the cries gradually grew fainter and fainter, until there was only the sound of water lapping against the sides of the collapsible boat.
At around 6:30am, the first pink light of dawn shone across the flat calm ocean. Icebergs glittered all around. One of the partially-filled lifeboats drew up alongside the overturned collapsible. One by one, the men who had survived those awful few hours atop the boat scrambled aboard. Most of the 20 or so of his boatmates were crew members. Thayer, the pampered scion of one of Philadelphia’s richest families, realized how little those distinctions mattered atop Collapsible B. “They surely were a grimy, wiry, dishevelled, hard-looking lot,” he wrote of the men who had shoveled coal into the steamship’s boilers, seven decks below the paneled salons and suites of first class. “Under the surface they were brave human beings, with generous and charitable hearts.”
With the dawn came another sight: the smoking funnel of the small Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, whose master Arthur Rostron had steamed full-speed through the icefield after his wireless operator had picked up Titanic’s radio distress call. She came a few hours too late to save everyone from the Titanic, but soon enough to pick up the 705 people who had made it into lifeboats.
“Even through my numbness I began to realize that I was saved,” Thayer wrote in his book, “that I would live.”
Archibald Gracie, Titanic: A Survivor’s Story (Stroud, UK, 2011), p.30.
“John B. Thayer 3d Found Dead in Car,” The New York Times, September 22, 1945.
“John Borland Thayer,” Encyclopedia Titanica, http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/john-borland-thayer.html, accessed April 14, 2016.
“Forgotten Journal Reveals How Man Survived 1912 Disaster,” The New York Post, April 8, 2012. http://nypost.com/2012/04/08/forgotten-journal-reveals-how-man-survived-1912-disaster/