Chaos reigned late on the night of April 14, 1912, as the supposedly “unsinkable” R.M.S. Titanic began to fill with water after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Though built to hold 40 people, Lifeboat No. 1 hit the frigid waters with only 12 aboard, including five wealthy passengers and seven crewmembers. One of the passengers, Scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, later came under fire for allegedly bribing the lifeboat’s crew not to go back for other survivors. Three artifacts linked to Duff-Gordon and the other “Money Boat” passengers will go up for auction in New York City tomorrow, providing a tantalizing glimpse into one of the more controversial aspects of the famous tragedy.
Born into an aristocratic Scottish family, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon was also a celebrated athlete, having won a silver medal in fencing at the 1906 Summer Olympics. His wife, the former Lucy Wallace, was a successful fashion designer who had recently opened outposts of her business, Maison Lucile, in New York and Chicago. On April 10, 1912, Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon boarded the much-heralded luxury passenger ship Titanic in Cherbourg, France, for its maiden voyage to New York City. They traveled in first class—of course—accompanied by their private secretary, Laura Mabel Francatelli.
In the horrifying chaos that followed the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, Captain Edward J. Smith ordered passengers to begin evacuating in lifeboats, starting with the women and children. But the ship and its crew were poorly prepared for such an operation—not only were there not enough lifeboats to carry all the passengers, but many lifeboats launched with far fewer people than they were capable of holding. Tragically, only 705 people would be rescued from the Titanic in lifeboats; another 1,500 would drown, the majority of them crew members and third-class passengers.
Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon escaped aboard Lifeboat No. 1 with Francatelli, two other passengers and seven crew members. They boarded the Carpathia, which answered the Titanic’s distress call, on April 15, and arrived in New York several days later. The press immediately branded Lord Duff-Gordon a coward for ignoring the “women and children first” order to save himself (he was one of the few male first-class passengers to survive). But that wasn’t even the worst accusation hurled Sir Cosmo’s way: According to reports, he had bribed crew members on the lifeboat not to go back for other survivors.
Back in England, the Duff-Gordons were questioned by Scotland Yard and called to testify at an inquiry into the Titanic’s sinking. Though he admitted to promising the crew members £5 each, Lord Duff-Gordon said it was not a bribe but a compensation for the loss of their livelihoods aboard the doomed ship. The inquiry found him innocent of wrongdoing, but the lingering scandal sent Duff-Gordon into seclusion at his family estate in Scotland for most of the rest of his life.
Tomorrow, Lion Heart Autographs in New York City will auction off three artifacts connected with the controversial occupants of Lifeboat No.1, including a letter written by Francatelli, a ticket for the ship’s onboard Turkish baths and a crumpled menu from the last lunch served before it went down. The lifeboat’s passengers carried the ticket and menu away with them that fateful night, while the letter dates to nearly six months later.
Francatelli penned the note on stationery from New York’s Plaza Hotel on October 12, 1912, and addressed it to Abraham Lincoln Salomon, a fellow Titanic survivor living on Broadway in New York. The letter reads in part: “We do hope you have now quite recovered from the terrible experience. I am afraid our nerves are still bad, as we had such trouble and anxiety added to our already awful experience by the very unjust inquiry when we arrived in London.” It is expected to fetch some $6,000 at tomorrow’s auction; by contrast, the lunch menu is expected to go for at least $50,000.
This isn’t the first time buyers have had a chance to purchase artifacts linked to the infamous “Money Boat.” In 2012, when auction house RR Auction held an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, the kimono worn by Lady Duff-Gordon when she escaped netted the second-highest amount of the night ($75,000). A letter written by Wallace Hartley—the violinist who famously kept playing as the ship went down, sacrificing his own life to provide calm amid the chaos—fetched around $185,000. Hartley wrote the letter while aboard the Titanic and sent it to his parents during a mail stop in Ireland. Hartley’s violin, a present from his fiancée, was recovered shortly after the sinking and hidden in an attic until 2006; it sold for some $1.7 million in 2013.