“A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival”
Author: Julie Hedgepeth Williams
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $21.95 (paper)
The sinking of the “Titanic” was indeed a colossal human catastrophe. Of the total of 3,360 on board (860 were crew), 1,500 were lost when the ship went down. Of the families—parents with children, couples, siblings travelling without parents—only one in four survived intact. The Caldwells, Albert, Sylvia and 10-month-old baby Alden, were one of those rare families. More than seventy families vanished entirely.
Julie Hedgepeth Williams, who teaches at Samford University, holds a Ph.D. in journalism from UA, and is the author of “Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery,” is a distant kinswoman of Albert Caldwell.
She has researched the Caldwells’ lives and tells their story objectively—not shying away from controversial issues—before, during and after their famous voyage.
Midwestern Presbyterians, Sylvia Harbaugh and Albert Caldwell both attended Park College in Parkville, Missouri. Park College had a sophisticated work-study system that enabled students of little means to get an education. The pair fell in love, graduated in 1909, got married on September 1, 1909 and set out for their new life as missionaries in Siam that same day.
Their honeymoon, so to speak, began a week later with a six-week crossing of the Pacific, arriving in Bangkok on October 16.
Sylvia suffered terribly from seasickness.
At Bangkok Christian College in Siam, Muang Thai, literally “The Land of the Free,” Thailand now, they worked hard at teaching and converting the occasional Buddhist student.
The work went well enough but Sylvia became pregnant, gave birth to Alden, and then became chronically ill with what was then called neurasthenia. This ailment by this name is unknown now. It may have been post-partum depression or perhaps fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. No one seems to know.
In any case, the Caldwells felt they needed to return home for medical reasons, at the expense of the Missions Board, after fulfilling only 16 months of what most assumed would be a lifetime contract.
The Missions Board did not feel obliged to pay for their trip. The dispute unresolved, the three Caldwells sailed from Bangkok to Naples. There Sylvia was to rest for an extended period but, because of a cholera epidemic, they left quickly and took trains across Europe, enjoying especially Florence, Venice, Lucerne and Paris.
Once in England they “luckily” got tickets on the “Titanic,” about which several people are quoted as saying: “God himself could not sink this ship.”
Well, there are few who do not know better now, thanks to the book “A Night to Remember” by Walter Lord and the movie with Leo and Kate. We know a lot about that night: for instance, the ship was travelling at full speed through dangerous waters in order to set a speed record for crossing, there had been no lifeboat drills, and the lifeboats themselves, while new, were awkward to launch.
But Williams focuses on the story of the Caldwells, thus adding a few interesting bits.
Many passengers wouldn’t believe the danger they were in and early boats went off half full.
Luckily, a stoker Albert had become acquainted with on an unofficial tour of the engine room told him, better get in!
It was women and children first, but Sylvia was too weak to hold Alden, so Albert was allowed on, but so were many other men. No cowardice was involved, and despite later accusations, no bribery. There would probably have been room for everyone, if the ship had been abandoned in an orderly way.
Williams follows her Caldwell family through the rest of their lives. Albert gave talks about their experience; Sylvia wrote about their brush with death in “Women of the Titanic Disaster” (1912).
Otherwise, the Caldwells were regular middle-class American people, not rare at all.
Alden, the baby, got sick of being asked about the “Titanic,” about which he remembered nothing.