“If you were performing on an ocean liner and suddenly the ship hit an iceberg and began to sink, would you keep playing? As many know, that’s the story of what the musicians on the Titanic did just over 101 years ago, on April 15, 1912.
“The eight musicians, led by bandmaster and violinist Wallace Hartley, died playing their instruments, according to Titanic survivors who heard ragtime and other upbeat music being played until nearly the end.
“A little over a year after the Titanic sank, members of the original New York City musicians’ local performed a benefit concert for the families of the musicians. The union also commissioned a bronze tablet to commemorate them.
“The tablet was unveiled at a ceremony where eight union musicians played, using the same instrumentation as the Titanic band. The concert closed with the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” which some believe to be the last piece that the Titanic musicians played before the ship went down.
“But where did the Titanic musicians’ memorial plaque end up? Three years ago, Allegro received an inquiry from the Titanic International Society asking about the whereabouts of the plaque.
“It was the first we’d ever heard of it. But we had it all along.” -Mikael Elsila
This is the story of a bronze plaque that was twice rescued from the scrapyard. It has to do first and foremost with the Titanic and its brave musicians. But it also reminds us of the very origins of Local 802. There’s lots of luck here, too. It begins with the tragic events of April 15, 1912…
When news came that the Titanic had foundered in the North Atlantic with the loss of more than 1,500, it was probably inevitable that the heroic deaths of Titanic bandmaster Wallace Hartley and his seven colleagues would touch the hearts of their musical brethren in New York. By Saturday, April 27, 1912 – a mere 12 days after the Titanic met its demise – the Musical Mutual Protective Union (MMPU), Local 310, then the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Musicians, had appointed a committee chaired by its president, William J. Kerngood, to organize a concert to aid the bandsmen’s families. Victor Herbert and John Phillip Sousa were among the committee’s members. Additionally, the union apparently asked its 5,000 members to contribute what they could to the cause.
The concert, featuring the talents of more than 500 musicians, duly took place on Sunday, June 2, 1912 at New York’s Moulin Rouge Theatre (later renamed the New York Theatre), donated for that purpose by its owner, theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. As they entered their box seats, the captain and some of crew of the Carpathia – the ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors – received prolonged applause, while about 100 additional Carpathia crew members took their seats below. Seven New York City-based bands played selections ranging from the grand march from Aida to the Leonore Overture and the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. The evening, which raised $1,500, concluded with a poignant rendering of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” the hymn famously played by the Titanic musicians as they went down with the ship.
On May 19, 1912, the musicians’ union offered a Sunday evening concert for members at their New York headquarters – the Yorkville Casino – to further aid the bandsmen’s next of kin, raising another $1,800. Meanwhile, the MMPU had begun to plan a more permanent remembrance of the heroism of Titanic’s orchestra in the form of a bronze tablet. The chosen design was that of German-born Albert Weinert, a 49-year-old sculptor at the zenith of his career. Among his earlier commissions had been the William McKinley Memorial in Toledo, Ohio, the Haymarket Martyrs’ Memorial in Chicago, and, at Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress, the Court of Neptune Fountain and extensive Reading Room interior decorations.
Likely during the summer of 1912, the union’s board of directors authorized production of the bronze plaque by the Jno. Williams Foundry of West 27th Street in Manhattan. The highly regarded Williams firm had cast works by Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, among other notable American sculptors. Foundry workers carefully etched and sculpted the mold (possibly under Weinert’s direct supervision). Several test castings in a base metal may have been made before production of the final plaque began. Amid hellish heat inside the foundry building, workers began melting copper and tin, then mixed them to form bronze, and carefully poured the molten metal into the mold. On the plaque’s reverse side, mounting posts were imbedded or attached at each corner while the plaque’s metal was still liquid. The assemblage was allowed to cool and solidify. Then Williams’ skilled bronze smiths separated the plaque from its mold and carefully polished and perfected the tablet’s bas-relief front surface.
The completed plaque measured two feet tall by three feet wide by about a quarter-inch thick and weighed nearly 70 pounds. The first view of the finished product was a stand-alone photograph in the October 1912 issue of the Quarterly Bulletin of the American Institute of Architects, which credited the sculptor and foundry, but offered no further information.
While the bustle of America’s largest city paused on a Sunday, November 3, 1912, the musicians’ union officers, board of trustees, the Titanic Musicians Memorial committee and union members gathered at 11 a.m. at 210 East 86th Street in Manhattan, the MMPU’s Yorkville Casino headquarters. Associated Press reporters were invited to attend, and stories recording the plaque’s dedication soon appeared in newspapers throughout the United States.
In a simple ceremony in the building’s lobby, the tablet was formally dedicated. Draped in American and British flags, it was unveiled by union president William Kerngood, who said, “Language fails in attempting a tribute to the conduct of these heroes, just as it failed in the tumult and the panic when they died. The call of the Lord was as sudden for them as for the others, but they found a selection appropriate to that supreme moment and did their duty as they saw it. May we and all musicians prove as worthy of Music as they did, and may these men rest in peace.” Under union member Nic Briglio’s direction, an eight-member orchestra with instruments identical to those on board the Titanic played “Nearer, My God to Thee,” which was followed by a solitary trumpeter playing “Taps.”
Those present then pressed forward to view sculptor Albert Weinert’s artistry. His design featured a female figure representing music, casting a laurel wreath upon the ocean, its placid surface interrupted by an iceberg. Below were the words, “A Tribute to the Bandsmen of the Titanic. When the Order was ‘Each Man for Himself,’ These Heroes Remained on Board and Played Till the Last.” The words were followed by an image of the two opening bars of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” (the “Bethany” or “American” version), followed by the eight musicians’ names: “Wallace Hartley, Bandmaster; George Krins, Roger Bricoux, W. T. Brailey, J. Wesley Woodward, P. C. Taylor, J. F. P. Clarke, John L Hume.” To the right of the union’s raised seal, the text concluded, “Erected by the M.M.P.U. 1912”; the sculptor’s name “A. Weinert” modestly appeared in the plaque’s outer framing.
The dedication ceremony concluded, the crowd quietly dispersed.
The plaque remained in its place of prominence even as a sizable addition to the building was constructed from 1916 to 1919 on adjacent East 85th Street in Manhattan. The Musical Mutual Protective Union’s Local 310 lost its charter in 1921 after a dispute with the parent union and soon was dissolved, to be replaced by Local 802.
Over the next 54 years, thousands of visitors – union members and those attending functions booked at the hall – passed by this enduring tribute to Titanic’s gallant musicians. No photographs of the plaque in situ are presently known to exist.
By 1966, the Upper East Side of Manhattan was undergoing a building boom, and the East 86th Street portion of the building, now owned by the Ornstein family of real estate developers, was demolished and replaced by a high-rise, multipurpose building; the East 85th Street addition remained, its engraved “Musical Mutual Protective Union” fascia still present in 2013. It is now a movie theater. It is not known who rescued the tablet when its longtime home was torn down, but it found its way to the Roseland Ballroom at 229 West 52nd Street, then Local 802’s headquarters. The building’s then-owner Louis Brecker said, “Cheek-to-cheek dancing, that’s what this place is all about,” but according to Wikipedia, “Brecker sold the building in 1981. Under new owners the Roseland began regularly scheduled ‘disco nights,’ which gave rise to a period when it was considered a dangerous venue and neighborhood menace,” with several murders taking place there. And apparently it was here, for more than 35 years, that the Titanic musicians’ plaque remained. Local 802 left Roseland for its new quarters in 1982, apparently leaving the plaque behind.
Titanic International Society’s historian John P. Eaton, a lifelong music aficionado, has maintained a long-term respect for and interest in Titanic’s musicians. His capacious files included a rather blurry photocopied image of the plaque he’d found years ago in a musicians’ journal at the New York Public Library; the image found its way into the first (1986) edition of the book he co-authored with Charles Haas, Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, with a caption noting the plaque’s “current whereabouts are not known,” a notation sadly repeated in the second (1994) edition. In 2010, as work on the third edition of this book began, Haas suggested that Eaton contact Local 802 to inquire whether the union knew the plaque’s location. Eaton received a response from Mikael Elsila, the editor of the union’s magazine Allegro, who interviewed Eaton by telephone about the missing memorial. In April 2010, Allegro ran a story that said, in part, “The search is on for a missing plaque that commemorates the musicians. It’s just possible that an Allegro reader has some clues of where it might be,” and it urged union members to get in touch with Elsila if they “had ever heard of this tablet or even seen it.” And there, response to Jack’s inquiry ended, without success. Until now.
Upon graduation from high school in central Pennsylvania, Douglas Turner served in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. He relocated to Naples, Florida in 1989, and now, at age 45, is a sergeant in the Collier County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department, a 23-year veteran specializing in criminal investigations. It’s a tough job with long hours and high stress. In his off-duty hours, Doug and his wife enjoy visiting local antique dealers and scrap yards, looking for unusual items.
On Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, Turner visited one of their favorite local scrap yards, meandering through a veritable jumble of discarded items awaiting resale or disposal. On the floor, leaning against a basket filled with insulated wire about to be melted down, was a flat metallic object covered with dust, grease, some corrosion and verdigris. Turner thought the item “kind of peculiar.” After going home and giving the matter some thought, its reference to Titanic intriguing him, he returned on Wednesday, Jan. 30, and inquired of the yard’s owner about its origins and the asking price. The owner, a friend of Turner’s, said someone had brought it in with another plaque, a Local 802 war memorial. The scrap yard owner was asking “a ridiculous price” for the pair, according to Turner, just $2 per pound, the going price for bronze, mentioning he had purchased it from someone from New York for $1.61 a pound. Turner happily paid the asking price for both the Titanic and war memorial plaques, totaling, with sales tax, just over $300, which certainly did not reflect any historical value. When he pointed out one plaque’s Titanic reference, the yard’s owner remarked, “I knew I should have thrown it into the basket to melt it down!” and said that within days, that would have been the fate of the plaque and the wire in the basket. During its five-day presence at the scrapyard, hundreds of people had passed it by without giving the historic piece much notice.
As a law enforcement officer, Turner realized he had a special obligation to check further into the plaques’ origins. He found no reports that either had been stolen. Eventually, he learned how they had made their 1,100-mile journey to Florida.
Under new ownership, the Roseland Ballroom underwent renovations in 2012. Early in that year, a Roseland employee told “Percy,” a construction worker in his early 40s, that the two plaques should be removed from the premises, and, so far as she was concerned, he could “take ’em and sell ’em for scrap.” Percy took the tablets and kept them at his home for nearly a year.
A Peruvian by birth and a U.S. resident for more than 20 years, Percy’s English was imperfect, perhaps explaining why several New York City antique dealers, when contacted, offered him as little as $10 for both plaques. It would have been easy for Percy to have ridded himself of them for such a pittance, but he did not do so.
Percy and his wife moved to Florida in early January 2013, bringing the plaques with them. The trip to the Sunshine State having left them nearly penniless, he sold the plaques to the scrap yard for $100.
After making his purchase, Doug Turner wanted to know more, and online had found the Allegro article in which Jack Eaton had inquired about the Titanic musicians’ plaque’s whereabouts. Turner contacted the musicians’ union in New York City and was given historian Eaton’s contact information.
On Jan. 31, 2013, Titanic International Society’s president Charles Haas spoke by telephone with Doug Turner at his Florida home. He mentioned that at some time in the past, likely when the plaques were removed from the MMPU’s Yorkville Casino, the mounting studs on the Titanic plaque’s reverse side had been broken off, and someone had drilled holes in each corner to permit its remounting, but otherwise it was in good condition.
Within minutes, Haas knew the plaque was in very good hands. Turner had gently wiped the plaque’s surfaces with a damp cloth to remove dirt and grime, and was seeking our advice about valuation, insurance, conservation and ongoing care. Haas offered several suggestions, then put Turner in touch with Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge & Son Auctions in the UK, a respected firm specializing in Titanic items. Upon receiving details and photos of the plaque, Aldridge provided a valuation that permitted Turner to obtain insurance coverage and advised conservation (rather than restoration), explaining that the plaque’s present imperfections are part-and-parcel of the piece’s history. Despite its considerable value and its uniqueness, Turner does not wish to sell this historic piece. Instead, he wants very much to exhibit it publicly. Titanic International Society has assisted Turner in finding suitable venues for its public display.
On Aug. 15, 2013, in a ceremony recalling the original dedication in 1912, Turner and Haas unveiled the plaque at “Titanic: The Experience,” Premier Exhibitions, Inc.’s Titanic artifact exhibition in Orlando, Florida, where it will remain on display for at least six months. The plaque is the highlight of an exhibition room detailing the human cost of Titanic’s loss.
More than a century ago, the heroism of Titanic’s bandsmen prompted their musical colleagues ashore to create a lasting tribute to those men and their final moments. History saw fit to abbreviate the plaque’s role in reminding us of their deeds. But now, with its providential, last-minute reprieves from the smelter and its re-emergence in the hands of a history-conscious sheriff’s officer, it can resume its rightful place as one of America’s most significant Titanic memorials.
The author sincerely thanks John P. Eaton, TIS historian; Robert Bracken, TIS treasurer; Mikael Elsila, editor of Allegro, Local 802’s journal; Rachel Yood, Collections Assistant at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University; Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge & Son Auctioneers; Alexandra Klingelhofer, Vice President for Collections, Premier Exhibitions, Inc.; and especially Sgt. Douglas Turner, for their assistance with this story.
Additional information about Titanic International Society may be obtained from the Society’s Web site, www.TitanicInternationalSociety.org, or by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Titanic International Society, Inc., Post Office Box 416, Midland Park, NJ 07432-0416.
Charles Haas is president of the Titanic International Society. This story is ©2013 Charles A. Haas. All rights reserved. Published by the author’s permission. No portion of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing from the author.