John Edward Hart: Dubious Hero

Was Hart really a hero?

Titanica!

Section One

In Walter Lord's seminal A Night to Remember (1955), and the host of other books and films on the Titanic that have followed in its wake, only a few figures have emerged as heroes who provided aid to women and children of the third class in gaining access to lifeboats. There is the anonymous crewman who gave up his life-belt to Minnie Coutts and directed her two young sons to safety (Lynch and Marshall, 1992; Butler, 1998: 104). There is also Jim Farrell, who is portrayed (in a fictionalized version) in the Broadway play, Titanic, who upon coming upon three women passengers (fellow countrymen from Ireland) being detained by a crewman at a gate leading up to the upper decks, forcefully intervened on their behalf; as Lord dramatically tells it, "'Great God, man,' he [Farrell] roared, 'Open the gate and let the girls through!' It was a superb demonstration of sheer voice-power. To the girls' astonishment the sailor meekly complied" (Lord, 1955: 67).

However, when it comes both to the number of women and children purportedly saved, and the sustained effort to rescue women and children of the third class, the most heroic figure of these is Steward John Edward Hart. As Lord writes: "all in all, he [Hart] brought up some 55 women and children-nearly half the total number saved (1986: 86)." Lord (1955: 65-6) and Butler (1998: 104-5) rehearse Hart's heroism at some length in support of the larger contention that there was no policy to restrict third class access to the lifeboats on the part of the ship's authorities, because, indeed, there was no concerted policy by the authorities of any kind toward the third class.[1] Butler writes, along these lines:

Hart's efforts underscored the fact that, despite later accusations to the contrary, there really was no deliberate policy of discrimination against [the] Third Class. What there was, and what may have been all the more insidious by being purely unintentional was that simply no policy of procedure for looking after the Third Class passengers existed. Instead they were left to shift for themselves, not because they were being purposely ignored, but rather because they had simply been overlooked (1998: 105).

Butler seems to be implying here that an heroic individual like Hart came forward to save women and children of the third class, because there was no organized effort to do so. In this way Hart is brought into the larger discussion of why more third class women and children weren't rescued that night. But was Hart really a hero? Was he responsible for saving about one-half of the third class women and children who survived the Titanic?

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Contributor

David Gleicher

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