Heroism is a word often associated with the Titanic’s sinking. The selfless actions of a few individuals during a period of two hours and forty minutes on a cold April night in 1912 is still the stuff of legend more than one hundred years later. The names of Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, William Murdoch, Isidor and Ida Straus, Jack Phillips and Margaret Brown are among a few of the names that are synonymous with the best of human nature in times of adversity. In 1912, the selflessness of a group of young men travelling as second class passengers was widely lauded in the wake of the disaster and the aura that surrounded them then is still acutely felt today. The sacrifice of the ship’s musicians in playing their instruments as the ship sank in order to calm the passengers by giving an impression of normality is now firmly the stuff of Titanic legend.
The lead musician, Wallace Henry Hartley, is often cited as being one of the most prominent heroes of the Titanic story for leading the bandsmen in their playing as the ship sank, continuing despite the desperate situation unfolding around him and his players. His choice of his favourite hymn, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ to be the last tune they played that night is an enduring image of the great tragedy that befell the great ship and is known by millions around the world.
33 year old Wallace Hartley's body was recovered ten days after the sinking
Aware of this on becoming interested in the story of the Titanic as child in the 1980s, I could never have imagined I would see the sale of the actual violin that was played by Wallace Hartley on the night the ship sank. Yet, in 2013, even after all the hype of the centenary commemorations, I heard the claim that the violin still existed and was in the possession of the Titanic specialist auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Son. I didn’t form an opinion as to the violin’s authenticity and retained an open mind. I later saw the violin on display at the Henry Aldridge sale in Devizes on 20 April. I had just returned from holiday in New York and had the privilege of meeting renowned Titanic historians Jack Eaton and Charlie Haas. They had expressed their opinions about the violin to me including their scepticism about the ability of a fragile object like a violin to survive the trauma of the sinking. It was only when the sale of the violin was imminent in October that I learned of the extensive and lengthy investigation Alan and Andrew Aldridge had undertaken to prove the violin’s authenticity beyond reasonable doubt by reading the fascinating summary that they had included in the catalogue for the sale. I was also fascinated by the debate that had been raging within the Titanic community in the months between my meeting with Jack and Charlie and the time of the sale. I endeavoured to find out more to help me draw my own conclusions as to the violin’s authenticity.
Wallace Hartley with a band in 1902
It became clear that the violin had first come to light in 2006 when the vendor approached Alan and Andrew Aldridge with a view to selling the violin on the basis it was not only Wallace Hartley’s but the actual one he had played upon the listing decks. It would have been clear to anyone who knew of the instrument’s existence that proving the vendor’s claim was not going to be a minor task. One of the most difficult aspects of the established history of the instrument, if genuine, was Wallace Hartley’s body had been recovered by the Mackay-Bennett on 25 April, ten full days after the sinking and the possessions on his body were documented by the coroner as was standard practice with all bodies recovered.
There was no record by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett in their solemn task of recovering and identifying bodies of any valise containing a violin and sheet music connected to Hartley’s or any other body. This fact in itself made building a circumstantial case to prove how the violin had gone from the possession of Wallace Hartley aboard the Titanic to the vendor in England in 2006 a formidable task. The first step taken was to undertake archival research with the assistance of a newspaper archive specialist, Vivian Burgess. Four newspapers (one in Halifax, Canada where the recovered bodies were taken ashore and three in England which were papers local to places associated with Hartley in Colne, Dewsbury and Leeds) had reported in early May that his body had been recovered with his “music case” but did not give details as to its character or contents. There was no reference to this case in any of the items documented by the Mackay-Bennett crew but the reference to it by four newspapers on two continents over several days indicates that there was strong independent evidence there was at least one object found with Hartley’s body that had not been documented by the Mackay-Bennett.
There was evidence from Wallace Hartley fiancée, Maria Robinson’s diary entry of 16 July 1912 in which appeared the draft of a note giving her “heartfelt thanks to all those concerned in the return of my late fiancé’s violin” and was directed to the provincial secretary of Halifax. This was a remarkable document which, if not a forgery, would provide near conclusive evidence that a violin had indeed been returned with Wallace’s personal effects to his family in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The circumstance that the provincial secretary’s name was wrong in the note indicated that there was no deliberate attempt to forge the diary page. Further corroboration was found following the publication of the 1911 British census in 2011 which showed that a person Maria had mentioned by name and address on the same diary page as the note referring to the violin did indeed live at the address indicated by her.
Maria Robinson, Wallace Hartley's fiancé mentioned the violin in her diary
Following the death of Hartley’s fiancée in 1939, it is apparent that her sister, who as executor of her estate, passed the valise and its contents to the local Salvation Army bandmaster who in turn gifted it to a member of his band who was a violin teacher. A letter between the teacher and one of her pupils dating from 1940 or 1941 stated that the violin was “virtually unplayable no doubt due to its eventful life”. The letter also referenced that it had been given to the Salvation Army bandmaster following the death of Hartley’s fiancée who was named in the letter. Again this letter has been verified as genuine by showing the recipient and sender were living at the addresses specified in 1940. The vendor of the violin is the son of the pupil the music teacher was corresponding with at the start of the second world war.
In summary at this stage, a clear circumstantial case has been established which, supported by documentary evidence and reasonable inference, proves on the balance of probabilities that:
- Wallace Hartley’s body was recovered with a “music case”
- Some months later, Wallace Hartley’s fiancée Maria Robinson felt compelled to write a note in her diary to thank “all those concerned with the return of my fiancé’s violin”
- Upon Maria Robinson’s death, a case containing sheet music and a damaged violin was found at her home and passed through the possession of a few members of the community where she was living and eventually ended up in the possession of the vendor’s family.
The balance of probabilities is the lower standard of proof that is used in the legal systems of most democratic countries and is usually all that is required to establish the provenance of an item that is being put up for auction. Realising however the strength of doubt that would exist over this violin’s authenticity, Alan and Andrew Aldridge decided to undertake further investigative work that would establish further evidence that would prove authenticity to the higher legal standard of proof of beyond reasonable doubt.
In doing this, Alan and Andrew approached some of the UK’s foremost experts in the fields of forensic science, instrument manufacture and even medical science. They consulted nine experts in total. Among the most significant evidence was offered by Michael Jones, a leading employee of the United Kingdom’s Forensic Science service and recognised expert in trace analysis. He has been an expert witness for the prosecution in several criminal court cases where the threshold of proof is beyond reasonable doubt. He concluded on examining the violin that corrosion to its metal parts was consistent with emersion in seawater and was also consistent with the condition of metal objects recovered with other Titanic victims including Oscar Woody and Carl Asplund.
Andrew Hooker was the former head of musical instruments at Sotheby’s auction house in London which is a world renowned source of high value items. He identified the violin as a German, factory manufactured instrument produced between 1880 and 1900 and was in the mid-price range for instruments available at that time. His opinion stated that it was an instrument of a type that would have been suitable for a musician of Wallace Hartley’s musical purposes and would be in keeping with his financial means and status as a musician who had to spend long periods away from home earning a living playing aboard ships.
The violin enters the CT scanner
The violin was also taken for CT scan at a hospital near the auctioneers base in Wiltshire. The CT scan revealed that the violin’s shell had two hairline cracks leading down from its F holes consistent with it have been subjected to some trauma and it being unplayable as mentioned in the 1940 letter. The CT scan also revealed the glue used to hold it together and it is expected that this glue would not melt in conditions of freezing cold such as those that Wallace Hartley’s body was recovered from.
Examination of the valise showed it to have 90 inch long straps, to have the initials “WHH” stencilled onto and on similar forensic examination of its buckle and other metal parts revealed similar corrosion deposits caused by exposure to salt water. The 90 inch long straps would have enabled someone to strap it to their body and inside, there was a compartment which would have fitted the violin and would have offered it some protection in the water.
At this point, it is fair to summarise that the above investigation added the following strands:
4. Forensic analysis with specialist equipment proves that the violin has been immersed in salt water causing corrosion of its metal parts that is consistent with corrosion found on other metal objects recovered from Titanic victims.
5. The violin is of a period that pre-dates the Titanic’s sinking and is of a type that would been associated with a musician of Wallace Hartley’s financial means and status at that time.
6. The violin is held together by a glue that would not come apart in the conditions it is thought it was exposed to between the Titanic’s sinking and the recovery of Wallace Hartley’s body.
7. It was also evident that the violin was kept within a leather valise with the letters of Wallace Hartley’s initials “WHH” stencilled onto it and showing similar corrosion deposits as the violin. The valise would have likely protected the violin from the worst extremes of the conditions Wallace Hartley’s body was exposed to in the water.
The silver plaque or 'fish-plate'
There is one other strand of evidence relating to a silver plaque ('fish-plate') bearing a personal inscription that I believe is both compelling and conclusive. The plaque is attached to the tailpiece of the violin and bears the inscription “For Wallace On The Occasion of Our Engagement from Maria”. This bears the Christian names of Wallace Hartley and his fiancée Maria Robinson. It has been found to have hallmarks dating from 1910 which is the year the couple became engaged and forensic analysis has shown that it has not been recently attached to the violin. Richard Slater of Gem-A, the British Gemmological Association was of the opinion the 'fish-plate' is of the period and has not been removed at any stage in its existence from the violin. Dr Allison Crossley of Oxford University’s Materials Characteristion service was of a similar opinion. Andrew Hooker stated it would not have affected the sound of the violin due to its weight and cites Nigel Kennedy and Yehoudi Menuhin as world famous violinists of recent times who have had similar plaques attached to the tailpieces of their instruments.
A detail of the violin's fishplate at 600x magnification
We can therefore add an eighth strand of circumstantial evidence that was uncovered by the investigation:
8. A plaque bearing a personal inscription that is idiosyncratic to Wallace Hartley’s relationship status at the time of his death is attached to the violin. Forensic and gemmological analysis shows it is of the period of shortly before the Titanic’s sinking and has not been removed from the violin since it was originally attached.
I’ve heard it said that for centuries, lawyers in court have described circumstantial evidence as being like a rope. While one strand of that rope may break under the burden of doubt, if several strands are woven together, the rope becomes stronger and stronger to the point that any doubt cannot make it break. As it is this analogy that is often cited when testing evidence in British Courts, I decided to ask the opinion of a practising barrister. I was offered the opinion of one of more than ten years’ experience in prosecuting and defending cases and is currently designated to prosecute complex cases tried in the Crown Court. He wished to remain anonymous but was happy to advise me of his professional opinion on the basis of a superficial look at the evidence and from a standpoint that is wholly independent of either side in the debate. After showing him a summary of the evidence compiled by the Aldridges’ investigation and a summary of notable doubts that have been raised by members of the Titanic community since March 2013, he commented:
“While I am no expert on the sinking of the Titanic, the different strands of evidence presented here appear, prima facie, to corroborate one another and all point to the same conclusion that the violin is the genuine and authentic article it is alleged to be. I have considered the points of doubt raised and taken individually and as a whole they do not appear to sufficiently offset the weight of evidence supporting the notion that it is authentic. On that basis, I would conclude that the evidence presented does meet the standard of beyond reasonable doubt and is quite compelling”.
For completeness, the doubts I summarised as being:
- It is unlikely the violin would have survived the trauma of the sinking intact
- The addition of the silver plaque to the tailpiece would have adversely affected the sound of the instrument
- Wallace Hartley would have been pre-occupied with saving his own life rather than his instrument,
- It is implausible that the crew of the Mackay Bennett would have made no record whatsoever of the valise and its contents if it had been recovered by them
- The handwriting in the Robinson Diary of the note of thanks is in capitals and is easy to fabricate
- There is no other mention of a violin in any documentation before 1940 apart from the diary note.
In my own assessment of the doubts, I make the following observations. In relation to the authenticity of the diary page, which I regard as being the strongest piece of documentary evidence, it certainly has been proven to be genuine because of the verified address that appears on the same page. The forgery required would have been so elaborate as to be implausible. In regard to the events of 15 April 1912; from what I know of Wallace Hartley, he was a religious man, a devout Methodist, and would have known he was going to die in the sinking. The evidence produced by the Aldridges’ suggests his violin was not merely a means of making a living, it was an object of deep sentimental value to Wallace Hartley that was a gift from his future wife. In my opinion, it is quite plausible that he would have wanted to preserve his violin in the last moments of his life. On other doubts raised: evidence has been produced as a result of the investigation i.e., the violin was protected in the valise; a light object on a violin tailpiece has no effect on its sound; the Mackay-Bennett crew did recover objects that were not placed in the canvas bags allocated to each body and finally Wallace Hartley’s mother was reported as saying after the disaster that her son “would die clasping his violin. He was passionately attached to his instrument”.
Notwithstanding the doubts, many were satisfied enough that the violin was indeed “the holy grail” of the Titanic story and the date for its sale to the highest bidder was set for 19 October. I was lucky enough to attend the sale with my wife and brother-in-law who also joined me in the trip to Devizes to witness history. I will provide an account of the sale in part 2.
Coming soon Auctioning the Wallace Hartley Titanic Violin.