The usage of the word “titanic” accurately classified the luxury and grandeur of the White Star Line’s most famous vessel, and later the magnitude of the disaster that struck the “unsinkable ship.” UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) estimates that around 3 million shipwrecks lie in the depths of the oceans, but unlike that of a gold-laden Spanish galleon, our understanding of the RMS Titanic sinking relates to the human tragedy of the disaster. The subject of many books and James Cameron’s 1997 film, the story of Titanic continues to be told more than a century after plunging two-and-a-half miles to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The British Wreck Commissioner documented nearly every minute of activity after the ship struck the iceberg. Wireless radio operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride sent out distress signals until the wireless room flooded a mere 20 minutes before sinking. Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, was last seen in the first-class smoking room without a lifejacket, staring at a painting over a fireplace. Macy’s department store co-owner, Isador Straus, refused to leave his wife, Ida, and the two sat in a pair of deck chairs until the final moments.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known narratives associated with the sinking is that of the vessel’s postal clerks. Titanic was, in large part, a floating post office that transported more than 3,364 sacks of mail for the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail service, designating the ship as a “Royal Mail Ship” (abbreviated to RMS). A standard ocean mailbag held about 2,000 letters, and it is estimated that over 7 million letters were transported in Titanic’s holds. The postal staff was comprised of Americans Oscar Scott Woody, John March and William Gwinn, and British clerks John Smith and James Williamson.
Woody, a native of North Carolina, began his postal career serving as a clerk in the Third Division of the Railway Mail Service before transferring into the Sea Post maritime service around 1909. A position aboard a ship was a choice assignment, as mail clerks made considerable earnings of about $1,000 annually. Shortly after arriving in Plymouth, England, Woody was instructed to join the crew of Titanic. As part of the sorting process on the vessel, each clerk placed a paper “facing slip” atop an organized bundle denoting its intended destination(s) and stamped his name to enable the resolution of distribution errors. The clerks would complete the sorting process by the end of the voyage to ensure immediate mail dispatch upon arrival at the Quarantine Station in New York City.
On the night of the sinking (April 14), Woody and his fellow postal clerks were celebrating his 41st birthday in their private dining room when the vessel struck the iceberg around 11:40 pm. Immediately, the clerks rushed to move more than 200 sacks of registered mail from G to C decks. As it became apparent that the ship would completely sink, and feet of water pervaded through the registered mail room located above the bulk mail holds, Woody had the foresight to collect some of his facing slips for a future accounting of lost inventory. The 1912 Postmaster General’s Annual Report related, “About a quarter of an hour after the collision the opening or lower room in the sea post office was found to be practically filled with water and sacks in it adrift. The clerks were seen in the sorting room above, closing sacks and preparing to take on deck all the mails available. The last reports concerning their actions show that they were engaged in this work and in carrying the sacks upon the deck to the last moment.”
Titanic steward Albert Theissinger briefly assisted the clerks before retreating from the rising water. Theissinger later recalled, “I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued at their work… I saw them no more.” All five postal clerks were among the more than 1,500 victims that perished when Titanic sank.
The White Star Line chartered four ships, including the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, to aid in the subsequent surface salvage operation. The crew of the Mackay-Bennett recovered 306 bodies in total, discovering Woody’s body April 22, 1912 – exactly a week after the sinking. Captain F.H. Lardner described in his logbook the debris field at the time of the recovery: “Monday, April 22d. This day we picked up 27 bodies… Everyone had on a lifebelt and (the) bodies floated very high in the water.” The clerk was among those still wearing his cork life jacket, and the personal effects in his grey striped suit included the letter assigning Woody to Titanic, an unknown number of facing slips, pocket watch and fob, Masonic lodge card, two fountain pens, pocketknife, cuff links, gold ring, mailroom keys and $10.02 in cash and coins. Those effects were placed in a canvas bag with the inventory number (167) assigned to the remains and delivered to his widow, Leelia B. Woody, whom he had married just 18 months prior. Leelia, deeply affected by the tragedy, never remarried and was said to keep a picture of Oscar with her at all times. The majority of his personal effects now resides in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and Maryland Masonic Museum.
Heritage is humbled to offer one of Oscar Woody’s postal facing slips (est. $1,500-2,500), recovered at sea by the CS Mackay-Bennett, as part of the collection of Charles Schalebaum in the September 22 Gentleman Collector auction.
The collection also offers a rare opportunity to bid on other Titanic memorabilia including a ticket stub from the ship’s May 31, 1911 launch (est. $1,500-2,500) at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland.
Also offered is an R.M.S. Carpathia Titanic-era sailor’s hat tally (est. $800-1,200) identical to those used during the rescue.
Written By: Nathan Shults
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