Master Artur Karl Olsen was born 6 February 1903 on Henry Street, Brooklyn, New York to Norwegian parents Karl Siegwart Andreas Olsen and Ragna Nilsen.
After his mother's death in 1906 his father Karl Olsen took him to Trondheim, Norway to live with the boy's grandmother, Anna Andersen. Karl Olsen returned to the USA where he was remarried in 1910 to Ester Novell (b. 1888), an American of Swedish parentage. They lived on 987 Hart Street, Brooklyn, New York where on 29 August 1911 they welcomed a son, Charles Ernest.
Artur's grandmother died in 1911 so Karl Olsen travelled back to Trondheim to take Artur back with him to New York. He and his son were originally booked on the Philadelphia but they were transferred to Titanic which they boarded at Southampton as third class passengers (he on ticket number 17368 which cost £3, 3s, 5d). Father and son probably shared a cabin with Fridtjof Madsen, a family friend with whom they had travelled from Trondheim via Newcastle.
The Syracuse Journal caught up with Arthur Olsen in April 1938 and he recalled his experiences. He related that he had been asleep at the time of the collision but his father woke him and told him to dress as quickly as possible, noting that their cabin was far below decks. Dressed and ready father and son left their cabin but found water already knee-deep in the companionways.
He recalled the sight of a woman at the foot of a stairwell; she was clutching a baby, appeared to be deeply distressed and was wailing. The spectacle upset young Artur who began to cry and it was an image that forever haunted him. His father just led him away and they fought their way to the upper decks where a young Arthur stated he saw a man who was bleeding, reportedly the result of a gunshot wound. He reported hearing more gunshots after his lifeboat had left the ship.
Finding a lifeboat Mr Olsen approached a young woman, who Artur later identified as a "Miss Jane Campbell"1, asking her to look after his young son. Before placing his son in the lifeboat Mr Olsen embraced his son, kissed him and choked:
"It may be a long time before I see you. Be a good boy, Artie."
Although the identity of the woman is uncertain she reportedly carried out that duty and not only made the young boy turn away as the ship was in her final throes but also made sure the boy was landed safely in New York. A contemporary 1912 news report stated:
Arthur Olsen, a freckled faced, red-haired, sturdy, bright-eyed little Norwegian boy, found his stepmother today after losing his father on the Titanic. He told her with a grave face, "Father is far off. He will be back next week."
But the man, Charles Olsen, for all of the boy's brave faith, will not be back. He went down with the Titanic.
When the boat struck, Olsen woke his son, who was in a child's sound sleep, and dressed him, putting on his stockings and lacing up his little shoes. Then he buttoned on a light pea jacket and led him up to the deck. There all was in confusion. Men could not go into the boats. But the children could.
So Olsen carried the boy over to one of the boats and put him in it. He leaned over and kissed him and patted him on the head.
The little chap didn't take it all in. He remembers today that the boat went down and that a minute afterward his hat was blown off. He reached after it convulsively, for he had always been trained to take good care of his things. A sailor caught his arm and quieted him.
It was bitter cold, but the women hugged him up to them to keep him and themselves warm. A sailor, Fridtjof Madsen, put his big coat over the little boy. Despite all this he was bitterly cold and cried with the exposure.
At the pier there were people aplenty to loom after the little Norwegian boy. It was not a case of finding someone who would aid him, but of the rescuers deciding who would render the aid. They bundled him into a taxi cab and the little foreigner was badly frightened. He had never been in any kind of automobile. They are not so common is the little town of Trondjhjem (sic), Norway, where he had passed all of his life. He clamoured in great fear to be taken out. But a nurse calmed him, and he sat back quivering, but reassured, while the taxi-cab sped him up to the Lis a Day Nursery at 458 West Twentieth Street.
Mrs Ester Olsen lived at 400 Suydam street, with her mother, Mrs Louise Nordell. There was a name similar to Charles Olsen on the list of saved from the Titanic, and Mrs Olsen was at the pier to meet her husband. She did not meet him. Neither did she see the freckle-faced boy. But yesterday she heard of his arrival, and today she took him home. - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 April 1912
In New York, Artur's stepmother did not know that her husband and stepson had been on board the Titanic. He was met in New York by Mrs William K. Vanderbilt, and she drove him to "Lis a day nursery" in Manhattan. On 19 April he met his stepmother Ester for the first time and she brought him home to her house on Suydam Avenue where he also had his first meeting with his half brother Charles. The acquaintance between the two brothers was to be brief as on 16 May 1912 young Charles died aged just short of nine months.
Relief funds raised after the tragedy helped to pay his "school money":
"...Arthur Olsen, a schoolboy, of 911 Avenue P, got $3,175 in a settlement made in England." - The Daily Standard Union, 18 December 1915
Ester Olsen later remarried to William Reichart (b. 1892), a salesman, and together they had a daughter Elvira (b. 1916) and a son named Donald (b. 1921). Artur lived with them on 911 Avenue, Brooklyn before striking out on his own. Ester later died in Brooklyn on 3 February 1958.
Artur became Arthur in his new homeland and from July 1922 to July 1926 served as a United States Navy seaman, surviving further calamity; he was aboard the cruiser Omaha when she lost both masts in a typhoon whilst en route to Honolulu, Hawaii. From 1927 to 1929 he served as a bell boy aboard the Leviathan and during the seamen's strike of 1934 he was beached in Seattle, Washington for two months. In October 1936, in an application for a seaman's protection certificate, his address was listed as 147 East 89th Street, New York and it was stated he was assistant steward aboard Leviathan.
In later life he held a succession of different jobs; by 1938 he was a superintendent for three apartment buildings in the Village in Manhattan and by 1942, at the time of his military draft, was working at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft and living in Hartford, Connecticut. At the time he was described as standing at 5' 8" and with red hair, brown eyes and having a ruddy complexion.
He was married to Alice Gendron but the marriage proved an unhappy match and was childless; they divorced in 1946. He resettled in St. Petersburg, Florida the following year where he worked as a house painter and his last years were spent living at 701 Avenue North.
Arthur Olsen died on 1 January 1975 aged 71 and was buried from Northeast Chapel at Royal Palms Cemetery, St. Petersburg. He left no immediate relatives.