As loyal Amplitude readers know, the United Kingdom has a rich tradition of seafaring amputees. So when our news feed filled up last Friday with articles marking the 110th anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s sinking, we got to wondering if that epic maritime tragedy had any connections (however minor) to limb difference.
As it turns out, they weren’t hard to find. Here are a handful of amputees with direct links to the Titanic saga. We begin with:
This 24-year-old amateur wireless enthusiast was among the few people on earth who learned of Titanic’s doom in real time. A below-knee amputee living on the west coast of Wales, Moore picked up the ship’s Morse-coded distress calls on his homemade radio receiver, an exotic technology in those days that almost nobody outside the naval profession knew how to use. The first signal he received was “CQD”—short for “come quick distress.” Then: “We have struck an iceberg. Sinking.” Later: “Women and children in boats, cannot last much longer.” Finally: “SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast.” Moore frantically pedaled his bicycle (which he’d modified for use with his wooden leg) to the local police station, but the officers there laughed him out of the place. Two days later, when the RMS Carpathia steamed into New York harbor with the survivors, they and the rest of the world learned what Moore already knew.
The publicity surrounding Moore’s scoop brought him to the attention of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio and newly minted Nobel Prize winner for physics. He offered the young amateur a position with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, which in turn led to a gig outfitting British warships with wireless technology during World War I. Moore would eventually patent the Echometer, an early form of sonar. He remained a high-ranking manager at Marconi until the end of World War II.
Most of the 705 survivors of the Titanic were first-class passengers. Duquemin, a 19-year-old stonecutter from Guernsey, bucked the odds by making it out alive on a third-class ticket. He and a hometown friend leaped into the sea as the ship went down. The friend got sucked into the vortex and drowned; Duquemin managed to swim to one of the two collapsible lifeboats that actually launched (the other two were never deployed). Though badly frostbitten, he recovered well enough to serve as a US infantryman in World War I, followed by 20-plus years as a construction worker in Stamford, Connecticut.
Duquemin’s kids described him as being “tough as a 10-cent steak.” But in middle age, he began suffering from gangrenous legs, presumably a long-range consequence of the severe frostbite he incurred in the North Atlantic. At some point in the 1940s he had both legs amputated. He died in 1950, aged 57 years old. In later years, another survivor—Eva Hart, who was seven years old in 1912—recalled that Duquemin had given her his overcoat as she shivered on the deck of the stricken ship.
To our surprise, Duquemin’s story was the only one we could find in which an individual’s limb loss was specifically attributed to frostbite incurred after the Titanic’s sinking. Although many survivors had frostbitten toes, feet, and legs (including Harold Bride, the Titanic’s heroic wireless operator), we could find no reports that any of those individuals lost limbs as a result.
Antonio Persić and Giuseppe Zupičić
Both of these men were on the crew of the RMS Carpathia when it retrieved the Titanic survivors from their lifeboats. Persić was 18 years old at the time; Zupičić was 19. Shortly after the disaster, Persić went to work in a coal mine in central Pennsylvania, not far from Reading. In October 1913, about 18 months after the sinking, his right leg was crushed in a mining car accident, necessitating amputation at the knee. Co-workers appealed to one of Andrew Carnegie’s charities, hailing Persić as “a hero of the Titanic disaster,” in which Carnegie had lost numerous friends and business acquaintances. Persić eventually gained US citizenship and spent at least some of his professional life in the prosthetics manufacturing industry.
In 1921, Zupičić—working in the same coal mine where Persić lost his leg—was injured in a separate mine accident, resulting in the loss of his left arm below the elbow. Two years later he opened a grocery store, Moms & Pops, in the town of Shamokin. It endured for more than half a century and cultivated multiple generations of loyal customers who were fanatically devoted to the store’s delicious pierogis. Zupičić was the last surviving crew member of the Carpathia when he died in 1987.
J. Bruce Ismay
Although his limb loss had nothing to do with the Titanic sinking, Ismay is too central to the story for us to leave him off the list. The founder of the White Star Line, which owned and operated Titanic, he’s widely regarded as the chief villain of the disaster. At the inquest to determine the causes and circumstances of the catastrophe, Ismay came under withering fire from maritime authorities for fleeing the sinking ship in a lifeboat while leaving more than 1500 passengers and crew to perish; for skimping on Titanic’s number of lifeboats; and for allegedly insisting that ship steam at full speed in iceberg-infested waters. Ismay never offered much of a rebuttal to any of these criticisms and disappeared from public view shortly after the investigations were done, spending the rest of his life in professional and social exile.
He eventually lost his right leg as a complication of diabetes, 25 years after Titanic sank. It’s a mere footnote to Ismay’s story, but because he’s among the most well-remembered figures in the whole story, we feel compelled to include him here.
Richard Norris Williams
Williams’ tale of near-amputation doesn’t fit onto this list in the strictest sense, but we can’t resist a good story. A 21-year-old collegiate tennis star at the time of the sinking, Williams spent most of the night half-submerged in seawater as he clung to leaky Collapsible Lifeboat D. Most of the occupants had frozen to death by the time another lifeboat brought Williams aboard. When he finally reached the deck of the Carpathia, the ship’s doctor took one look at the young man’s frostbitten limbs and recommended immediate amputation to prevent life-threatening gangrene. Williams refused the operation and spent the rest of the journey to New York walking around the deck at two-hour intervals in an effort to restore circulation.
Miraculously, this regimen helped save Williams’ legs. He recovered so quickly that in the fall of 1912, mere months after his close brush with limb loss, Williams won the U.S. national championship in mixed doubles. He went on to win two U.S. national tennis titles in men’s singles and another two in doubles, along with a Wimbledon title and an Olympic gold medal. In the midst of it all, this near-amputee earned a Croix de Guerre for his service in World War I. After his athletic career ended, Williams spent 22 years as the head of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957.
We found evidence of at least two amputees who died in the Titanic disaster. One, Simon Saether, was a third-class passenger who was identified as a Synes amputee. The other, Karl Skoog, was an 11-year-old boy from Michigan who perished along with the rest of his family.
In addition, some unknown number of workmen lost limbs in the Belfast shipyards where Titanic was built. According to the trade journal The Manufacturer, “During Titanic’s construction 246 injuries were recorded, 28 of them ‘severe,’ involving severed arms by machines or legs crushed under falling pieces of steel.”