All that remains of Elin Braf is a doll. Like tens of thousands of other Swedes, Elin had left her home in search of a better life in America. But 20-year-old Elin had the misfortune of travelling on the Titanic. On April 15, 1912, she was one of the 1,500 passengers who lost their lives on the “unsinkable” ocean liner.
“There were two horrific events in 1912”, notes John Maxtone-Graham, author of the new book Titanic Tragedy. “The Titanic and the death of Captain Scott, the polar explorer.” A hundred years later, it still fascinates: Would the accident have happened if the Titanic had struck the iceberg front on? Did rich people keep third-class passengers out of lifeboats? “Titanic,” the 1997 blockbuster, has been released in 3-D. Anniversary exhibits have already been seen by 25 million people. Cruise companies are organizing trips to the fatal spot in the Atlantic. On the day of the accident, 86 countries will broadcast a British Titanic special.
“There are so many elements that make the Titanic compelling,” says Maxtone-Graham. “It was one of the world’s three biggest ships, but had only 16 lifeboats. The disorganized embarking on the lifeboats. The many heroic moments, like when a woman in a lifeboat gave a man in the water her scarf so she could tow him, and how he survived but she died of hypothermia. And the fact that the musicians bravely played until they drowned.” Several doctoral theses have been devoted to the question of what, exactly, the band played during the Titanic’s final hours.
But the fascination is a recent phenomenon.
“The Titanic was pretty much forgotten until the 1950s,” says Karen Kamuda, vice president of the Titanic Historical Society. “Until the ship was discovered in 1985, not many people were interested, and most of those who were, came to us. The fascination with the Titanic isn’t bad, but misinformation keeps being repeated. The truth is that the Titanic didn’t have fewer lifeboats than other ships its size, and it wasn’t trying to break the speed record.”
Braf, on her way to joining her sisters in Chicago, had bought the doll for her niece. Carrying the doll, she boarded a lifeboat — but then realized that she had left her purse behind. Since the crew had told the passengers that everything was under control, Elin calmly made her way back to her third-class cabin. She drowned.