Skip to Main Content
Bookmark and Share

Titanic's Mail

by James H. Bruns

Volume 1, Issue 1
January–March 1992

America's history is in the mail. This is no idle boast. From its beginnings, the post office helped make American history, and its growth parallels the history of the United States itself. This is true of major events, as well as many of the fascinating footnotes of our history.

This April marks the 80th anniversary of the loss of the R.M.S. Titanic, the world's most famous mail ship. (The abbreviation stood for "Royal Mail Ship.") On April 14, 1912, the ship went down with more than 1,500 lives, including clerks of the Sea Post Service.

Aboard the Titanic was a Sea Post Office with a crew of five clerks. Two of the clerks, Jago Smith and J. B. Williamson, were English. The others, John S. March, William L. Gwinn and Oscar S. Woody, were Americans employed by the United States Post Office Department. On any ocean crossing, the receiving and sending countries would each assign clerks to the shipboard office. On the Titanic, the majority of the clerks were American because the ship was sailing to America, and American clerks were used to sort mail coming into the States.

American sea post clerks basically earned about $1,000 a year in 1912. They also ate their meals free with the passengers and were allotted an allowance for their board while awaiting the return of their ship.

For several hours before sailing, the Titanic clerks carried out the routine task of checking all of the mail sacks and storing those that did not need to be opened during the voyage. As soon as the liner set sail on April 10, they would have begun making distributions, much like the crew of a railway mail train would do.

The postal crew aboard the Titanic worked well together, especially in those last hours of April 14. From available information, within minutes after the collision, the mail storage room, which was located well below the ship's water line, began flooding, sending some of the mail sacks adrift. Frantically, the clerks brought as many sacks as possible up to the sorting room in preparation for moving the mailbags onto the deck for possible recovery by a rescue ship. According to the Postmaster General's 1912 Annual Report: "The last reports concerning their actions show that they were engaged in this work . . . to the last moment."

The entire ship's cargo was lost, including 3,423 sacks of mail. The mailbags contained over 7 million pieces of mail, including an estimated 1.6 registered letters and packages. Within weeks of the sinking, postal officials began feeling the effects of the loss. About $150,000 in postal money orders had gone to the bottom of the sea. These would have to somehow be processed. Four days after the sinking, Third Assistant Postmaster General James J. Britt advised local postmasters: 
Among the millions of pieces of mail matter carried on the lost Titanic, there were doubtless thousands of dollars' worth of international money orders, together with descriptive lists of such orders. It is assumed that may of the remitters of those orders will communicate with the payees in this country concerning them, and that these payees, in turn, will take up the matter through their respective postmasters.

It is the earnest desire of the department that in all such cases postmasters give careful attention to the inquiries made and promptly report the facts to the Third Assistant Postmaster General (Division of Money Orders), to the end that every effort may be made to insure early payments to the intended beneficiaries.

One of the first to be reimbursed for a lost money order was Miss Ethel Clarke, a maid who worked for President William Howard Taft's family. Her lost money order was for seven pounds. Based upon an examination of available postal records, a replacement U.S. money order was issued to her from postal service headquarters for $35.

Armchair quarterbacks also wasted little time creating hindsightful scenarios, quickly second-guessing the events of that tragic night. At one point the fanciful logic of the what-ifers focus don using the mailbags as a means of rescue. Although the details of such plans never were fully worked out, some harebrained thinkers reasoned that the mailbags could have been used in place of missing lifeboats. If they had been oil-soaked, the mailbags could possibly have floated. Contemporary calculations suggested that three bags were sufficient to buoy the average passenger; and, if strung together, all of the bags could have created a floating island capable of saving everyone. Another scheme called for the mailbags to be used as a gigantic signal fire which could have directed the S.S. Carpathia to the rescue site. A third idea was to use the bags for warmth. It was suggested that burning mailbags might have been used to heat coffee or soup or make survivors comfortable until help arrived. No one was capable of suggesting how the mailbags could be burned aboard the lifeboats, where there were no fireplaces.

The leader of the U.S. team that originally located the Titanic, Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, initially explored the site in a three-man submersible craft. In the months before their second Titanic expedition, Ballard and other representatives from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute met with representatives of the Smithsonian Institution to discuss whether artifacts should be raised from the Titanic. The ship rests in international waters and therefore is subject to salvage. However, because the wreck site is the final resting place of 1,523 people, the Smithsonian had already opted to accept the "sanctuary principle," a position which at this point precludes it from accepting or exhibiting any artifacts raised from the wreckage. This is in keeping with the wishes of survivors and relatives who expressed hope that the site would be preserved undisturbed as a memorial to those who perished. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute also honors this view. This position is similar to legislation presented before Congress which would prohibit the importation of Titanic relics, presumably including those proposed for use in exhibitions for profit.

The Titanic's mail might be one exception to the proposed importation ban. Based on historic precedence, should any of the mail sacks be salvaged and any of the mail addressed to Americans, the U.S. Postal Service could attempt to recover that mail. According to Charles Braun, Assistant General Counsel, Special Projects Division at Headquarters, "The question has never come up before, but I'm sure the Postal Service would try to deliver readable mail if it came into our hands. If the names and addresses were found to be legible, all recovered mail would be delivered to the designated recipient whenever possible. The major problem for us is that the ship sank outside of our territorial jurisdiction, and because the Titanic was a British ship, any insurance of the mail would have been handled through the British Post Office."

Although no mail has been found, the likelihood that some of the ship's letter mail might have survived was recently raised because of the recovery of a leather, medical-style valise from the vast debris field surrounding the stern section of the remains of the wreckage. The leather bag contained jewels and other valuables, including an unknown quantity of reportedly intact bank notes. This indicates that other paper objects such as letters, might possibly have survived after 75 years in the dark and chilly waters of the North Atlantic.