John Jacob Astor’s Fatal Mistake

Voyage

Titanic passenger John Jacob Astor’s exchange with Second Officer Lightoller at the loading of lifeboat four has been repeated in many books. Colonel Archibald Gracie wrote in his book, Truth about the Titanic, that he and Astor helped the pregnant Madeleine Astor, “over the four-feet high rail of the ship through the frame. Her husband held her left arm as we carefully passed her to Lightoller, who seated her in the boat… Leaning out over the rail he asked permission of Lightoller to protect his wife.” 

JJ Astor and Madeleine      JJ Astor
Left: John Jacob Astor with Madeleine Astor, Right: J.J. Astor
(Photos courtesy of Randy Bryan Bigham)

Lightoller, who was rigid in his view that it would be women passengers and children only, replied, “No, sir, no men are allowed in these boats until women are loaded first.” Astor then enquired about the number of the lifeboat. The officer would claim, “I assumed that I was asked to give the number of the lifeboat as the passenger intended, for some unknown cause, to make a complaint about me.” However, Gracie clarified that Astor wanted that info in case he was saved and to help find her afterwards. John Jacob Astor was one of the 1,496 (the most up-to-date number) lost in the sinking, but he could have been a survivor had he stepped into lifeboat seven when given the opportunity. Fellow passengers in the area of the boat took note of the Astor’s presence and refusal to board. Unlike most passengers, Astor even received an early warning from Captain Smith. Here are their memories.

Isaac FrauenthalIsaac Frauenthal

Presently, I saw the Captain appear, apparently from the bridge, and several men approached him. One of these was Col. Astor and I heard him say to Capt. Smith: “Captain, my wife is not in good health. She has gone to bed and I don’t want to get her up unless it is absolutely necessary. What is the situation?”
Capt. Smith replied quietly, “Col. Astor you had better get your wife up at once. I fear we may have to take to the boats.” — The Globe Democrat,  19 April 1912

 

Spencer SilverthorneSpencer Silverthorne

It was while on our way to the deck the last time I saw Col. and Mrs. Astor. They were alone in the ship’s gymnasium, sitting together on a ‘horse’. Col. Astor was smoking a cigarette and tying a life preserver around his bride. He already had one on and I think she arranged the fastenings on him just as we came in. They did not seem to take the situation seriously, as in fact, none of us did, and acted to me as if they thought it was a joke. I did not see either of them come on deck. — St. Louis Post Dispatch, 21 April 1912

 

Eleanor CassebeerEleanor Cassebeer

Some minutes later Mr. Anderson and I were finally outside, on the starboard side, near the boats. It was so cold outside that we had to take shelter into the gymnastics room. Mrs. Astor, the wife of the millionaire, was already there and was so tired that she constantly had to put her head to her husband’s chest in order not to fall asleep and fall to the floor. I was admiring the different machines in the room when an officer blew his whistle on deck. So we got back outside to listen to orders. — Death of a Purser by Frankie McElroy

 

Lily PotterLily Potter

I saw Colonel and Mrs. Astor at the rail as we rowed away, and they declined to be taken off claiming it was safer on the big liner than in the cockle-shells amid the floating ice. They simply would not believe there was any danger. — New York Tribune, 20 April 1912

 

Helen BishopHelen Bishop

John Jacob Astor was standing at the foot of the stairway as I started on deck for the second time. He told us to put on our life belts and we did so. Before our boat was lowered into the water, Mr. and Mrs. Astor were on the deck. She didn’t want to go, saying she thought we were all silly, that the Titanic couldn’t sink. Because the Astor’s stateroom was close to ours, we had considerable to do with them on the voyage and I disliked to leave them on deck. — The Herald Press 22 April 1912

 

William SloperWilliam Sloper

Colonel Astor was directly behind me, with Mrs. Astor, and he suddenly drew back and pulled his wife back with him. Someone spoke to him, but I did not overhear what was said. At any rate, they did not follow us into the boat. — The Hartford Times 19 April 1912 (On Board RMS Titanic by George Behe)

 

Dorothy GibsonDorothy Gibson

Mr. and Mrs. Astor were standing near us, but were called away by some message.  — The New York Dramatic Mirror, 1 May 1912

 

Fred SewardFred Seward

We at first hung back, and Colonel Astor, who was standing in the group with his wife, drew back and said he did not yet regard it as inevitable that his wife should be placed on board a frail boat. — The Berkshire Evening Eagle, 23 April 1912

 

Anna WarrenAnna Warren

The only people we remembered seeing, except a young woman by the name of Miss Ostby, who became separated from her father and was with us, were Mr. Astor, his wife and servants who were standing near one of the boats being cleared preparatory to being lowered. The Astors did not get into this boat. They all went back inside. — The Morning Oregonian, 27 April 1912  

Some accounts in the newspapers that are attributed to Madeleine Astor claim that she wasn’t sufficiently dressed while standing on deck and that her husband insisted she have warmer clothes. It is unclear what made them cross over to the port side and go to “A” deck to wait for a boat where he’d be denied entry.

Had they entered lifeboat seven when given the chance, history would be very different. 

Related Biographies:

John Jacob Astor
Madeleine Talmage Astor

Acknowledgements

Michael Poirier, Titanic International Society Trustee
This article first appeared in Voyage 110, winter 2020

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Citation

Encyclopedia Titanica (2021) John Jacob Astor’s Fatal Mistake (Voyage, ref: #437, published 13 April 2021, generated 4th May 2021 11:05:15 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/john-jacob-astors-fatal-mistake.html