On what historians would later say was probably the final afternoon of the Edwardian Era, Baltimoreans were shocked by the news that the "unsinkable" Titanic, bound for New York on its maiden voyage, had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic during the night of April 14, 1912.
They were comforted the next day by an Evening Sun story and headline that read: ALL TITANIC PASSENGERS ARE SAFE; TRANSFERRED IN LIFEBOATS AT SEA.
The next morning, April 16, the reality of the awful tragedy began to spread.
GIANT TITANIC GOES DOWN; 1,500 PERISH; 675 SAVED, Carpathia En Route For New York With The Rescued, Who Are Mostly Women And Children. GREATEST OF SEA DISASTERS. Huge Ship Struck Iceberg At 10.25 Sunday Night. She Sank At 2.20 O'clock Monday Morning, Long Before The Vessels Hurrying To Her Rescue Reached The Spot, read the headlines of The Sun's extra edition.
"New York, April 15 -- In the darkness of night and in water two miles deep the Titanic, newest of the White Star fleet and greatest of all ocean steamships, sank to the bottom of the sea at 2: 20 this morning," reported The Sun.
"Mrs. William E. Carter, the only person on board from Baltimore, is believed to have been saved," said the newspaper.
As shock turned to numbness and the public's insatiable appetite for Titanic news increased, reporters were sent to 2902 St. Paul St., the home of W. Steward Polk, father of Lucille Polk Carter.
"It is usual in such cases," Mr. Polk told The Sun, "that the first-class passengers are given the preference. If the dispatches are true that the women and children were taken off first, then Mrs. Carter must be among that number."
The stylish Mrs. Carter was a Baltimore debutante of impeccable social pedigree that linked her with President James Polk and the Peale family of painters.
A popular member of Philadelphia society, she was described as a stylish woman with an "hourglass figure and Gibson Girl hair."
Her 1896 Baltimore marriage to William Ernest Carter, the scion of an old Philadelphia industrial family, was described in The Sun as being "one of the social events of the season."
Mr. Carter's major avocation in life, in addition to the relentless pursuit of pleasure, was playing polo for the Bryn Mawr Benedicts.
He had traveled to Europe with his wife, two children, governess, valet and polo ponies a year earlier and now was returning to New York aboard the Titanic with another addition, a new French Renault automobile.
Standing with other prominent Philadelphians, Carter watched the lifeboats pull away from the doomed liner.
"One after the other they dropped rapidly into the sea: No. 6 at 12: 55 No. 3 at 1: 00 No. 8 at 1: 10. Watching them go, first-class passenger William Carter advised Harry Widener to try for a boat," wrote Baltimore-born author Walter Lord in "A Night to Remember."
"Widener shook his head. 'I think I'll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance.' " He later perished in the sinking.
The Carters, separated, eventually made it into the lifeboats and were reunited the next morning on the deck of the Cunarder Carpathia that had raced to the Titanic's aid.
Arriving in New York, Mrs. Carter told a reporter, "I kissed my husband goodbye and as he stood on deck I went down the side to a lifeboat. There were no seamen there. It was life or death. I took an oar and started to row."
She rowed through the night wearing on her blouse a diamond horseshoe stickpin. The rest of her jewels went to the bottom with the ship.
NTC Mr. Carter had escaped in Collapsible C with J. Bruce Ismay, the only other male passenger in the lifeboat.
Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, whose conduct was highly controversial, was later driven from the company and died in exile in 1937.
It came as no surprise that Carter quickly became his great defender, as his own behavior came into question.
"There were raised eyebrows about [Carter], too, and speculation increased when Mrs. Carter sued for divorce in January 1914. Every effort was made to keep the details secret, but it was rumored that the Titanic played a part in the case," wrote Walter Lord in "The Night Lives On."
In 1915, someone -- no one knows who -- released her testimony. The grounds for the suit were "cruel and barbarous treatment and indignities to the person."
"When the Titanic struck, my husband came to me and said, 'Get up and dress yourself and the children.' I never saw him again until I arrived on the Carpathia at 8 o'clock the next morning, when I saw him leaning on the rail. All he said was that he had had a jolly good breakfast, and that he thought I wouldn't make it," she said.
Carter defended his actions and said that he had entered the boat to help with the rowing.
"A shadow of doubt hovers over this version, since the British Inquiry established that Collapsible C left the Titanic some 15 minutes before Mrs. Carter and the children went in Boat 4," wrote Lord.
"In early 1914, she divorced her husband and shocked Society yet again when later that same year she secretly married another prominent Philadelphian, George Brooke. Was the divorce caused by a secret affair or the shame of being married to a man who had escaped from the sinking?" ask authors Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley in the recently published "Last Dinner on the Titanic."
Thereafter, she lived an uneventful life, dying in 1934. Carter died in 1940.
"I think it played a role in the dissolution of the marriage," said Lord from his home in New York recently.
"What a rotten guy he was. Can you imagine anyone saying, 'Never thought you'd make it'?"
Lord, who perhaps can be credited with starting the Titanic craze in 1955 with the publication of "A Night to Remember," became fascinated with the ship when he traveled aboard the Olympic, the Titanic's sister ship, in 1926.
"It cast a spell over me that has never left," Lord said.
Lecturing in Baltimore in 1957, Lord told The Sun, "There is no telling how a man will act, because under stress we're all equal. It was always that way, at Pearl Harbor, the Johnstown Flood and when the Titanic sank. I don't know what it is that makes human beings behave so differently, but it fills me with awe."
Pub Date: 4/13/97