A new book to be published this week, The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic by Steve Turner, claims that the violin which band leader Wallace Hartley played as the Titanic sank in April 1912 survived, and may be offered for sale at the time of next year's centenary.
The fate of Hartley's violin has been a mystery. All eight members of the band perished in the disaster, but the bodies of Hartley and two others were found by a search crew and taken to Nova Scotia, Canada.
Newspapers reported that Hartley was found with his violin strapped to his chest. However, when the effects were itemized in Nova Scotia there was no mention of it. The assumption has long been that the instrument was spirited away by someone involved in collecting the corpses.
During research Turner came across photographs purporting to show the violin, leather case, a diary, and sheets of music. “Someone with a knowledge of the Titanic had been sent them by a collector who was trying to authenticate the story behind these effects,” says Turner.
Among the evidence the 1912 diary contains the draft of a letter to authorities in Nova Scotia, by Hartley’s fiancé Maria, which reads; “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiancé's violin. May I also take this opportunity to express my appreciation to you personally for your gracious intervention on my behalf.” The most convincing thing about the violin, which was in a brown leather case with the initials W. H. H stamped on it, was the inscription, “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.”
“The Titanic band became a symbol of self sacrifice and unflappable dignity,” says Turner. “Their playing of 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' became legendary and since the films in the 1950s and 1990s the bravery of the musicians has become even more well known. Other than retrieving the bow of the ship this must be the most symbolic artefact of the Titanic likely to be found.
If scientific tests yield a positive result it will also be the most expensive. According to Turner the instrument is currently being handled by an auctioneer in Britain. “Everyone concerned has been sworn to secrecy. Other than admitting that the violin exists and that the photos were genuine they won't be giving out any more information until the day the announcement is made.”