Today’s episode tells the story of three of the ten Spaniards who were on Titanic. It’s a curious tale of luxury, recklessness, deceit, courage, love, tragedy and even a touch of greed, quite possibly. Take a listen and let us know what you think. Hope you enjoy it.
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on?”
– Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
Victor did not survive the sinking. He probably knew that he was doomed because purportedly his last words to his young bride were “May you have a happy life.” Yeap, that sure sounds to me as if he saw his near future as certainly looking bleak.
He was last seen, if we are to believe the Countess of Rothes’ words, on his knees with a group of fellow believers, and saying a “Hail Mary” under the guidance of a priest. There would be no divine intervention to pluck him from his fate, but that’s usually the case.
So, in some horrid form or fashion, be it by drowning or freezing, he ceased. Just plain ceased. His mother could not believe it when she saw his name on the list of missing passengers. If you recall, she was under the impression that he had been in Paris all that time. Plus, she had proof. At least, that she thought so. She said, “That can’t be. I just received a postcard from him fromParis. Look.”
I sometimes wonder what ever happened to the butler as a result of following orders. No one seems to mention a thing.
Here’s where things get interesting again. Very interesting, indeed. María Josefa and her personal maid, Fermina, stayed in the Plaza Hotel in New York City where they would have to wait for the next boat to come in with the dead bodies. Fermina went down to the dock to identify her employer, but his corpse was not among those there. Like so many, it had been lost at sea. Time went by and with no luck of their recovering Victor’s body a new and very different issue arose. According to Spanish Law of the time, a person would be considered missing for up to twenty years unless irrefutable physical proof of his death could be produced. This complicated matters greatly for María, as it meant should couldn’t remarry or receive the inheritance awaiting her as a widow until she was 43. Money was less of an issue for her I am sure as belonged to one of the richest families in Spain, but still, it was money.
There are a number of versions of what happened next, but the one that has taken hold as the most accurate tells that the family actually bought a dead body in order to prove he was deceased. That body had been found floating in the Atlantic near where the Titanic had gone down, and was taken to Halifax where a representative of the family deemed it to be that of Victor. No death certificate has ever been produced nor can a tomb with his name on it be located at the cemetery for victims of the Titanic. Not a trace. But it was good enough.
Eventually both women returned to Madrid, where both they tried to start anew. Fermina would eventually return to her sewing business and lived for many years on Calle de Regueros in the center of Madrid. She would die in 1968, some say 1969, in Madrid, some say Uclés, Cuenca. But that is actually where she was born.
María Josefa married again and had several children. All the same, and despite the tale about buying a body, they say she was terribly in love with her husband Victor and never separated herself from the picture she had of him. She passed away in 1972.
There is a new book out called Los Diez del Titanic, which recounts the fate of all the Spaniards on the ocean liner that night, and I may just have to get a copy and learn more. We cannot forget the others, but the story about Victor, María Josefa (Pepita) and Fermina is by far the most famous, and perhaps the one that best embodies so many aspects of the sinking of the Titanic, which has become by far one of the most famous tragedies in the history of mankind, not because it was one of the worst tragedies of mankind but because it was a tragedy that so tightly and succinctly depicted the nature of mankind and its destiny.
So I pose the question to you: Which side are you on?
On the night of April 14th, Victor and María Josefa attended a dinner hosted by Captain and then retired. Not long afterwards, the Titanic coasted into the iceberg.
At the time of the collision, María Josefa was asleep in bed, but her husband was still awake and Fermina was in another cabin sewing a corset.
Both María Josefa and Fermina were startled and they insisted he take a look. He went up on deck and noticed everything that the sea was calm but that the crew was scrambling to assess the damage. At first, most were still convinced that nothing too serious would happen, but apparently Victor was not convinced. When it became apparent that the vessel was not going to stay afloat for much longer, the passengers put on their life vests and panic set in.
Since they were 1st Class travelers they naturally were given priority to abandon ship. Though they had left all of their belongings behind, Victor ran back at María’s request to fetch a pearl necklace and then returned. It was announced that only women and children should board the lifeboats, a decision that sent María into near hysterics, as she could not fathom leaving her husband behind. One version notes that Victor had actually boarded with them and then given up his place so that a woman with her child could get in, but that contrasts from other more reliable sources, such as the ones provided for by the survivors themselves. María Josefa refused to go. They literally had to tear her off Victor and put her in Lifeboat 8. Fermina, who had become separated from them, managed to arrive just as they were lowering the boat. They literally dumped her in from above.
Also on Lifeboat 8 was a well-known English noblewoman known as the Countess of Rothes. She is depicted in the film Titanic as a caring woman with a strong will. Not only did she perform many tasks on the boat like row and hold the rudder, she also managed to keep spirits up in the face of utter despair. In her account of the events, she mentions with pain the ceaseless sobbing of María Josefa as she called out over and over for her husband. She handed over her place at the tiller to another in order to go over to the young bride and comfort her. She was an extraordinary woman. Here is how she told it.
Hours later, they were picked up by the Carpathia.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. There was a twist…
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is just around the corner, and I since I trust I won’t be around to write about it for the 200th anniversary, I guess it’s my turn to add a thought or two. I promise not to give my opinion of that numbskull idea of sending a ship to trace the voyage step-by-step for the modest price of $9000 per ticket. The lengths people will go to prove humans haven’t changed much since then.
What I will do is tell you what relationship there was between the ill-fated ocean-liner and Spain. Ten passengers from this country were on board, of which, it seems three did not make it out alive, and of that trio, only one death was “confirmed”.
That individual, and the two who accompanied him, happen to be who we will focus our attention on because the story alone would have made for another movie.
It started about a year and half before when a young couple got married and began its honeymoon. The groom was a Madrid man named Víctor Peñasco y Castellana, nephew of King Alphonse XII and heir to one of the largest fortunes in Spain. His wife, María Josefa Pérez de Soto y Vallejo, also fro Madrid, was herself to come into a mighty a legacy of similar size and depth. To say that theirs was the union of two enormous estates does not even hint at the extent of their affluence. They weren’t just well-off, they were filthy rich. Billionaires of their time.
The wedding was celebrated on December 10, 2010, and was followed by what was customary among the immensely wealthy back then. Endless travel amid shamelessly lavish living.
By the time they boarded the Titanic in April 2012, they were still honeymooning. Yes, that’s fourteen months later, you read right. During that time they had toured much of Europe’s most select towns and resorts. They were the jet set of the age and their lifestyles rivaled the most opulent you can find today. The trip thus far had cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000€.
As the story goes, they learned of the trip while dining at Maxim’s in Paris and decided that they simply had to be a part of it. One person who was not so keen on the idea as Victor’s mother. In fact, she was dead against the idea, pun, I guess intended, and she flat out forbade them to take the boat.
To get arouund the obstacle, the couple came up with a mischievous plan to deceive mom. They wrote several postcards and had their butler stay behind in Paris and send one off every day so that his mother would believe they were still in Paris. Victor and María Josefa (affectionately called “Pepita”), in the meantime, would board the Titanic with her personal maid, a seamstress originally from Cuenca named Fermina Oliva Ocaña. Once in New York, they would be able to let their parents in on the ruse. It would be a bit of harmless fun. Antics for the rich and carefree.