Titanic deaths: A priest, an adulterer and the President of Haiti’s nephew

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, April 13th, 2012

“Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down…I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”

Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, nephew to the President of Haiti, was the only black passenger aboard the Titanic. His wife and two children survived, he did not.

These were the final words of Benjamin Guggenheim, son of a mining magnate, who on April 15, along with 1,513 other souls, went down with the RMS Titanic in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. They were ironic last words, as Guggenheim was aboard the ship with his mistress.

In honor of the sinking’s centennial there has been a flood of Titanic news, from TV programs focused on the ship’s construction to galleries displaying long lost memorabilia. To commemorate the great disaster Digital Dying dug up a few of the more interesting Titanic deaths.

Benjamin Guggenheim inherited a fortune from his father but lost much of it on poor investments. His wife, Florette Seligman, was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. The couple produced three daughters but Guggenheim spent much of his time in Paris, ostensibly on business. He boarded the Titanic with his mistress, Léontine Aubart, a French singer known as Ninette. Accompanying the couple was Ninette’s maid, Guggenheim’s chauffeur and his valet, Victor Giglio. Just after midnight Ninette woke Guggenheim with news the ship had hit an iceberg. He was incredulous. “Never mind, icebergs!” Guggenheim exclaimed. Nonetheless, he put on a lifebelt and heavy sweater then helped Ninette and her maid on deck and onto a lifeboat. Him and Giglio, realizing the situation was much worse than they had imagined, returned to their cabin, changed into eveningwear and headed for the grand staircase. It’s here that the pair was last seen, sipping brandy and smoking cigars. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” said Guggenheim.

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Father Thomas Byles, one of two Roman Catholic priests aboard the Titanic, was headed to New York City for his brother’s wedding. On the morning of April 14 Byles said mass for second and third class passengers, his sermon was on the danger of spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation. He was reciting hymns on the upper deck when the ship struck the iceberg. Byles helped third class passengers get onto lifeboats, twice refusing a spot for himself. As the ship sank, he heard confessions and gave absolution to passengers trapped on the stern. Byles has been portrayed in a number of Titanic films, there is also an entire website dedicated to him. It features photos, newspaper obituaries and numerous letters, including one he sent a friend shortly after boarding the ship. “Everything so far has gone very well,” he wrote, “except that I have somewhere managed to lose my umbrella.” Later in the letter he details the ship’s layout then gives a portentous description of their passage down the English Channel: “I do not much like the throbbing of the screws, but that is the only motion we feel.”

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Of the roughly 1,340 passengers aboard the Titanic there was only one black man, a Haitian named Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche. At age 15 Laroche had been sent to France to study engineering. After graduating he married a French woman named Juliette Lafargue but was unable to find engineering work because of his skin color. Eventually, Laroche decided to bring his wife and their two kids back to Haiti, where his uncle, Cincinnatus Leconte, the president of the country, had arranged a job for him as a math teacher. His wife was pregnant with their third child when they stepped aboard the Titanic in Cherbourg, France. The family had initially been booked on the ocean liner La France, but upon learning it was against the ship’s policy for children to dine with their parents exchanged their tickets for a second class passage on the doomed Titanic.

Shortly after the ship struck the iceberg Laroche woke his wife and stuffed all their valuables in his pockets. The couple carried their sleeping daughters on deck. Laroche’s wife and the girls escaped in a lifeboat, he went down with the ship. His wife never made it to Haiti. Instead she returned to France, where she gave birth to their son, which she named Joseph, in honor of his father. Laroche’s last living daughter, Louise Laroche, died in January 1998 at the age of 87. She was one of eight remaining Titanic survivors. The last one, Millvina Dean, died in May 2009.

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