The sinking of RMS Titanic is one of the most devastating maritime events in history, tragically claiming the lives of over 1,500 people. While we will never know the exact details of each and every passenger and crew journey onboard the ship, we are lucky enough to learn facts about some of the people aboard the ship from survivors’ accounts of that fateful night.
One of the most interesting stories of that ill-fated night is the friendship that emerged aboard RMS Titanic between 17-year-old John “Jack” Borland Thayer Jr. and 29-year-old Milton Clyde Long.
Milton Long hailed from Springfield, Massachusetts, and was travelling alone as a first class passenger aboard the ship, boarding at Southampton, England. Jack, who was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, was travelling with his parents, Marion and John Borland Thayer as first class passengers, and joined RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France.
Milton and Jack first met over after-dinner coffee, with Milton forming a friendship with the Thayer family during the rest of the journey – and this chance meeting would result in the two men sharing one of the biggest events in each other’s lives.
When RMS Titanic hit an iceberg at 11.40pm on 14th April 1912, John Thayer Sr. was asleep, whilst Jack and his mother were preparing for bed. It was at this moment that Jack noticed a breeze through his half-open porthole stop. He felt no shake from the ship off the ship and did not lose his balance; however, he put on his overcoat and told his parents that he was “going out to see the fun”.
Jack headed to A Deck on the port side of the ship but noticed nothing unusual, and so he walked towards the bow, where he noticed ice on the forward well deck. Now aware something was amiss, he returned to his stateroom to tell his parents, who went to the starboard side of A Deck. John Thayer Sr. noticed small pieces of ice on the ship, even though Jack could not see anything. They all, however, couldn’t help but notice that the vessel had developed a list to port, and so returned to their cabin to get dressed.
Jack put on a tweed suit and vest, as well as another mohair vest underneath to stay warm. They also placed on life jackets with overcoats placed over the top, and returned to the deck. The family remained together until women and children only were ordered to board boats. Jack and John said their goodbyes to Marion and their maid, Miss Margaret Fleming, at the top of the grand staircase on A Deck, who queued for a lifeboat on the port side of the ship.
Under the belief Marion would step aboard a lifeboat to safety, John and Jack went to the starboard side to catch another lifeboat. They were soon surprised to learn from Chief Second Steward George Dodd that Marion was still aboard RMS Titanic. John and Jack were quickly reunited with Marion and attempted to find her a lifeboat; however, Jack was either lost in the crowd or had become distracted when talking to his new friend Milton Long.
Jack and Milton searched for his parents for a while, until realising they had probably escaped the sinking ship on a lifeboat, and so he accompanied Milton on the starboard side of RMS Titanic. John helped his wife into lifeboat 4; however, John Borland Thayer Sr. was last seen looking “pale and determined” and sadly went down with the ship. His body, if recovered, was never identified.
Jack and Milton discussed whether they should attempt to get into into a lifeboat, but were deterred by the sheer size of the crowd queuing up for one. Instead, they stood by the empty davits of a lifeboat that had recently left the ship, and watched a star through the falls of the davit, attempting to measure the rate at which the ship was sinking.
Jack noticed one man, who was later identified as Charles Joughin, drinking from a bottle of Gordon’s Gin, and reportedly said: “If ever I get out of this, there is one man I’ll never see again”. However, Charles Joughin was one of the first survivors Jack did meet, as the alcohol in his system is believed to have kept Charles Joughin’s body warm in the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic ocean.
As the ship started to rapidly descend into the water, Jack thought about jumping into the water, like so many people at the stern had started to do. However, Milton persuaded Jack against the idea, aware that the best way to survive was to stay on the ship as long as possible. However, it soon came time for the men to jump, and so they said their goodbyes to each other before they jumped over the rail.
Long reportedly put his legs over the rail, held on for a minute and said to Jack, “you are coming boy, aren’t you?” to which Jack replied, “Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute”. Long then made a jump down the long side of the ship. Sadly, Jack never seen his friend, Milton Long, again.
Jack jumped soon after Milton, feet first, resulting in him landing well clear of the ship, so he wasn’t sucked down under with the ship. He later commented that he felt he was pushed away from the ship with some force.
Fellow first class passenger, Algernon Barkworth, recalled his time with Jack Thayer in the water, “I did not know the Thayer family well, but I had met young Thayer, a clear-cut chap, and his father on the trip. The lad and I struggled in the water for several hours endeavouring to hold afloat by grabbing to the sides and end of an overturned lifeboat. Now and again we lost our grip and fell back into the water. I did not recognise younger Thayer in the darkness, as we struggled for our lives, but I did recall having met him before when we were picked up by a lifeboat. We were saved by the merest chance, because the survivors on a lifeboat that rescued us hesitated doing so, it seemed, fearing perhaps that additional burdens would swamp the frail craft”.
Jack was picked up by lifeboat 12, which was commanded by able seamen, Frederick Charles Clench and John Thomas Poingdestre. Jack was so distracted trying to get into the lifeboat that he failed to notice his mother who was nearby in lifeboat 4, and who was so numb with the cold that she did not notice her son.
It was at 8.30am that the survivors in Lifeboat 12 were rescued by RMS Carpathia, where Jack was finally reunited with his mother. Onboard the ship, she asked him, “where’s Daddy? and so he replied “I don’t know, mother”.
Many of the passengers on RMS Carpathia were praised for their generosity to Titanic survivors, and Jack was fortunate enough to be lent pyjamas and a bunk. Jack therefore went to bed after a drop of brand, which was his first shot of hard liquor.
Life After the Event
Marion and Jack returned to Haverford, Pennsylvania, once they arrived in New York, taking the Thayer’s private train carriage from Jersey City, New Jersey. Jack Thayer graduated from the University of Pennsylania and went into the banking industry.
He married Lois Cassatt, with the couple becoming the proud parents of two sons: Edward C. Thayer and John B. Thayer IV.
Jack produced a pamphlet from his Titanic experiences in 1940, which may have been an attempt to exorcise some of the memories of the fateful night. Both of his sons joined the services in World War II, and it is believed the death of his son, Edward, resulted in Jack committing suicide by a stab wound on 18th September 1945.