For 75 years, the sinking of the RMS Titanic went down in history as the worst maritime disaster humanity has ever seen during peacetime. And while the 1997 blockbuster movie made even those with little interest in history aware of the tragedy that befell the vessel and an estimated 1,500 passengers on the night of April 14, 1912, its somber reputation long preceded that film.
Naturally, the days immediately following the disaster were a time of mourning. But as time went on, the tragedy was the subject of morbid fascination, and this curiosity only grew when the wreckage was finally discovered in 1985. For this reason, a letter passed down through generations became a powerful reminder of what the disaster cost the world when it was made public almost a century later.
A sterling reputation
By the time it was ready to embark on its maiden voyage, the hype had circulated about the Titanic as not only the largest ship of its time and an advanced and luxurious way to travel but as a literally indestructible vessel.
BBC quoted then-White Star Line vice president Phillip Franklin as saying, “There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable, and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.“
The last stop
Before it set off for New York City, the Titanic made one last European stop in Cobh, Ireland (known as Queenstown at the time).
According to Reuters, 123 passengers would board the vessel from this port, and only 44 of them would survive the voyage.
A promising young man
Among these new passengers was 19-year-old Jonathan Burke from Glanmire in Cork County. Before he boarded the ship, his mother had given him a small bottle of holy water, likely as a spiritual safeguard.
According to the BBC, Burke had planned to travel to the United States so he could visit his sisters, who had moved to Boston a year prior.
Burke didn’t travel alone
Nora Hegarty, Burke’s 18-year-old first cousin, accompanied him on the journey.
According to Reuters, both were third-class passengers traveling among poor Irish emigrants seeking a better life in the United States.
A surviving witness
Among these emigrants was Eugene Daly, who the Cobh Heritage Centre described as standing out by playing “Erins Lament” on his bagpipes as a farewell to his homeland.
According to Irish Central, Daly had one of the more graphic accounts of the disaster among his fellow survivors because of his proximity to the point where the Titanic made its fateful impact with an iceberg.
A rude awakening
Daly was asleep by the time the danger started on that grim Sunday night, but that quickly changed.
According to Irish Central, he said, “A crash woke me up. It nearly threw me from my bed. I got up and went to the door. I put on my trousers and shoes.”
At first, he was told there was no danger and that he could return to his room.
But Daly, his cousin Maggie Daly, and a female companion named Bertha Mulvihill disbelieved this due to the continuing commotion.
Panic takes hold
Daly recalled having to fight a man for a lifebelt that he eventually surrendered to Maggie Daly. By then, the scene inside the ship was even noisier, and water began to fill the areas below deck.
This led the trio to try and find a departing lifeboat, but Daly’s troubles didn’t end once they succeeded. He said, “Maggie and Bertha got in, and I got in. The officer called me to go back, but I got in. Life was sweet to me, and I wanted to save myself.”
Women and children first
Unfortunately for Daly, the ship’s officers standing by were unwilling to accept this reasoning and removed him from the lifeboat by force. After seeing his friends depart, Daly ran off to find another lifeboat.
But not only did he face the same policy at the second lifeboat he found, but the officers were even more serious about it. As he put it, “There was a terrible crowd standing about. The officer in charge pointed a revolver and waved his hand and said that if any man tried to get in, he would shoot him on the spot.”
Sadly, it was not long before Daly witnessed the consequences two men faced when they tested the officer’s resolve.
As Daly recounted, ” I saw him shoot them. I saw them lying thereafter, they were shot. One seemed to be dead. The other was trying to pull himself up at the side of the deck, but he could not.”
The chaos continues
Daly said the officer met a similar fate, and while he heard the third gunshot was self-inflicted, he could not confirm this.
Daly soon saw no other lifeboats and felt the water rushing up to his knees.
A desperate jump
Faced with this situation, Daly jumped overboard. He recalled seeing others who had the same frantic idea. But he saw an opportunity when he landed in the Atlantic’s freezing waters.
Daly said, “When I struck the water, I swam for the boat that had been washed over. When I got to her, she was upside down. I helped myself up on her.”
An unforgettable sight
Daly described about 15 others climbing onto the overturned boat with him. Despite the load, he was able to keep his footing on the boat as he stood.
He said, “As I stood on the craft, I saw the ship go down. Her stern went up, and she gradually sunk down forward. Her stern stuck up high.”
A close call
As Daly saw the Titanic slowly sink, he noticed how the ship’s stern was swinging to and fro. As it towered over him, he worried it would fall on the capsized lifeboat.
They were lucky. He said, “There was no suction at all that we felt. Our craft was not drawn in at all.”
According to Irish Central, the boat Daly and the others were clinging to was once strapped to the roof of the officers’ quarters. But when the sea started to ravage the Titanic, it was blown off the ship.
But before any further misfortune could visit the small craft, the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene to rescue the Titanic‘s survivors.
Safe and sound at last
Irish Central further reported that a doctor named Frank Blackmarr happened to be aboard the Carpathia at the time and witnessed Daly’s unconscious body being brought aboard.
After Daly was revived with stimulants and given a hot drink, Blackmarr wrote down his account of what had happened.
Not everyone was so lucky
Although it is unclear what exactly happened to Jonathan Burke and Nora Hegarty, it is sadly indisputable that neither shared Daly’s fate.
Whether they were still on the Titanic or had jumped aboard like Daly, both drowned before the Carpathia arrived.
One of Burke’s nieces, Mary Woods, told the Irish Independent it had taken days before Burke and Hegarty’s families were even made aware of what had happened.
She said, “Jeremiah’s mother was at a removal several days later when a person came up to her and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ It was only then that she found out what had happened.”
A broken heart
Woods further recounted the devastating effect this news had on Burke’s mother when she did finally learn of his fate.
Woods said, “She died of a broken heart within the year.”
A small miracle
The BBC reported that a year after the tragedy occurred, a small bottle was discovered on the shores of Dunkettle.
And even before the contents were examined, this was considered an incredible find because it washed ashore only a few miles from Burke’s family home.
His identity was confirmed
The small bottle contained a brief message; even before anyone read it, it was clear that Burke had written it.
Not only was the bottle a match for the small vial of holy water his mother had given right before he boarded the Titanic, but Woods told the Irish Independent that one of his bootlaces was tied to the bottle.
A final message
For Burke’s grieving family, this miraculous appearance served as a final farewell from him. And whether he meant to or not, that’s exactly what the young man had written.
As the note read, “From Titanic, goodbye all, Burke of Glanmire, Cork.”
A grisly theory
For many who heard this story, it was hard not to assume that Burke threw the small bottle overboard as the Titanic was actually sinking.
After all, the brevity of the message would suggest that he didn’t have much time to write it before he sent it on its way.
The whole truth
However, the contents of the message itself make it unlikely that it was written in the heat of such a horrifying moment.
Putting aside the astronomical chances of the bottle reaching Ireland when the ship was so close to the United States during the disaster, this narrative contradicts the message’s actual text.
An unfortunate coincidence
As the Irish newspaper The Journal outlined, Burke, dated his note before he actually wrote his message.
And the date he logged was April 10, 1912. Given that this was a whole four days before the Titanic started sinking, it’s more likely that this message came from beyond the grave through an unfortunate coincidence rather than a result of Burke’s somber final thoughts.
A treasured memento
Nonetheless, the fact that Burke’s note was able to find its way home from any point in that fateful journey is incredible, especially so soon after the disaster occurred.
So naturally, Burke’s family kept the message close to them, and it was passed down for decades.
A generous donation
Indeed, Burke’s final message stayed closely guarded among his surviving relatives for nearly a century.
However, Woods saw fit to change that in 2011 and donated the note to the Cobh Heritage Centre.
The new home
Ever since Woods and her family parted with this heirloom, it has joined the Cobh Heritage Centre’s Titanic exhibit, the bottle it came in, and Burke’s photograph.
There it remains alongside the photographs and military honors of Father Frank Browne, one of the only people to capture the Titanic on camera.
A somber ceremony
Burke’s message joined the Heritage Centre’s collection just months before the institution held a ceremony in remembrance of the tragedy’s victims on April 11, 2012.
According to Reuters, the event was held in anticipation of the disaster’s 100th anniversary, and Irish President Michael D. Higgins led the proceedings.
The families pay their respects
About 1,500 people attended this ceremony, with some watching from the roof of the nearby Commodore Hotel. Among the gathered residents were relatives of the Titanic‘s victims.
One of them was Hegarty’s grand-niece Helen Murphy, who said, “It’s a very poignant story and also so tragic. Here they were boarding one of the finest vessels ever built, and it came to such a sorry end.”