by Elijah Jones
Where will you be when Midnight strikes? John Jacob Astor IV was on Titanic.
John Jacob Astor was the richest man on the Titanic. His wife Madeleine was five months pregnant.
In addition to being wealthy, Astor was both an author and an inventor. He had written a science fiction novel called "A Journey in Other Worlds" about life on Saturn and Jupiter. After graduating from Harvard, he had patented a number of inventions, including an improved turbine engine, a bicycle brake and a contraption that produced gas from peat moss.
During the Spanish-American War, Astor served as a lieutenant colonel, having financed his own Army battalion. In addition, he had permitted the United States government to use his personal yacht, Nourmahal, as it saw fit. In 1899 he portrayed himself in the movie "Col. John Jacob Astor, Staff and Veterans of the Spanish-American War." The previous year, he had appeared in the film "President McKinley's Inspection of Camp Wikoff."
Author. Inventor. Soldier. Entrepreneur. Actor. This was John Jacob Astor.
In 1909, Astor had divorced his first wife, Ava, with whom he’d had two children, a son and a daughter. Two years later, he married his mistress, Madeleine Talmadge Force, a marriage that had scandalized New York’s high society. Madeleine was younger than Astor's son, Vincent.
On Wednesday, April 10, 1912, about 5:30 p.m., RMS Titanic arrived in Cherbourg, France. By 8:30 p.m., it had departed for Queenstown, where the last photograph of Titanic was taken before it headed to New York. The Astors were on board. They occupied cabins C-62 and C-64.
Titanic left Queenstown on its maiden transatlantic crossing on Thursday, April 11, at 1:30 p.m. The ship's hull was made of "battleship quality" plates of steel -- some as large as 36 feet long and 6 feet wide, weighing more than four tons. It had a double-bottom and sixteen watertight compartments. Three million rivets held it together; 55,000 horsepower made it move -- at times more than 22 knots. Travelling swiftly towards its destination –- and to its destiny.
* * *
Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m. Titanic received an ice warning via wireless radio. At 1:40 p.m. it received another. By 7:30 p.m., after the Sun had set, the temperature was falling, but the sea was calm and the night, clear. The men in Titanic’s crow’s nest were instructed to keep a lookout for ice.
A third ice report was received. It identified a large ice field, 78 miles long in Titanic's path. This message is never delivered.
At 10:55 p.m., the ship Californian is stopped in ice. It sends out warnings to all ships in the area. Titanic’s radioman, busy trying to send out messages from its passengers to the outside world, rebukes his counterpart on the Californian:
"Keep out! Shut up! You're jamming my signal. I'm working Cape Race"
At 11:35 p.m. Californian's wireless operator turns off his radio equipment and goes to bed.
11:40 p.m. The lookout in Titanic's crow’s nest sees a large iceberg and clangs his bell three times to signal that there is something directly in front of Titanic. The lookout reaches for the telephone:
"Is there someone there?"
"Yes," is the reply, followed by "What do you see?"
"Iceberg, right ahead!"
Orders ring out:
"Full Speed Astern."
Titanic tries to veer, but the 46,000-ton ocean liner is slow to respond. The iceberg bumps, grinds and scrapes along the starboard side for a distance of 300 feet. Seawater rushes into five forward compartments. It is 11:42 p.m.
11:55 p.m. Captain Edward J. Smith, who had planned to retire after this voyage, is getting reports from around the ship. He now knows the seriousness of the situation: Titanic is sinking; the lives of more than 2,200 people are in peril.
Midnight is approaching.
* * *
John Jacob Astor leaves his suite to investigate what is going on. He returns and tells his wife that the ship has struck ice. Though the two don life vests, Astor assures his wife that the damage does not appear serious. They go to the ship’s gymnasium.
Soon, he and Madeleine are told to leave Titanic.
"We are safer here than in that little boat," Astor tells his wife. Why trade the liner's solid decks and strong hull for what appears to be a tiny sea-going craft of little consequence?
He will later change his mind. But by then, only women and children will be permitted to escape.
It is past Midnight
After Madeleine boards Lifeboat Number 4, Astor tosses her his gloves. He lights a cigarette. As the tiny craft is lowered down to the sea, Kitty, the Astors' pet Airedale Terrier, frantically paces back and forth on Titanic’s deck. Madeleine will remember this image vividly until the day she dies.
2 a.m. The ship’s band is playing the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee." It is the final musical piece that they will play together.
* * *
John Jacob Astor's soot-stained body was recovered from the sea on Monday, April 22. Some speculate that he’d been struck by one of the ship's smokestacks. He was wearing a blue suit with a brown flannel shirt. His belt buckle was gold; his boots brown, with red rubber soles. His personal effects included a gold watch, gold cuff links, and a diamond ring with three stones. He had more than $2,500 on his person.
In his obituary, the New York Herald observed that Astor "exhibited at best but the ingenious powers of a self-invented money-making machine." He is buried at Trinity Cemetery in New York.
Astor's teen-age wife survived the disaster. The baby she carried, John Jacob Astor V, was born August 14. Madeleine later died in Palm Beach, Florida, at age 47. This was the same age John Jacob Astor IV was at his death.
* * *
John Jacob Astor the Fourth was a wealthy man. An author, inventor, soldier, entrepreneur and actor. But in the dark cold sea, off the coast of Newfoundland, he met his end. Where will you be the day your last Midnight strikes? How many warnings will your ship of life get to change its course? The Bible says in Hebrews chapter 9 and verse 27 that "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." But the Bible also says, in Romans chapter 10, verse 13, that, "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Will you call upon Him today -- before your Midnight comes?