How do you continue on with life after experiencing tragedy?
For many, the human experience can often be driven by this question. Such was the private life of Robert Williams Daniel.
Daniel was born in Richmond, Virginia on Sept. 11, 1884. He was descended from a wealthy Virginia family, his great-grandfather had served on the U.S. Supreme Court and his great-great grandfather (Edmund Randolph) was the first attorney general of the United States.
By the age of 27, Daniel had become a prestigious Philadelphia banker and traveled to London, likely on business. He paid for passage back home and boarded a passenger liner en route to New York City: the RMS Titanic.
Daniel’s acquaintances included Col. J. J. Astor IV (the ship’s wealthiest passenger) and fellow 27-year old Walter M. Clark, the son of a California railroad executive. Time spent on the vessel was probably similar to that of other 1st-class passengers: casual conversation in the exclusive lounge or smoke room inevitably centered around business, lavish meals on the Wisteria-styled dinnerware, and daily strolls with his French bulldog along the promenade.
But the extravagant journey was interrupted on the night of April 14, when the Titanic scraped alongside an iceberg causing the ship to founder. Daniel suddenly found himself among the 3,000 passengers and crew whose uncertain fate tested the conduct of all.
Amid the chaos on deck, he reportedly came within short-distance to 1st Officer William Murdoch when he shot himself in the head. Reports of whether or not Murdoch committed suicide are misleading, but Daniel was positive and adamant that he did. “There were several shots fired,” he added. “I saw one man discharge a revolver several times to frighten others away from a lifeboat and then got into it himself.”
Leaning against the railing, he also found Astor and Clark talking for one last time. He begged them to jump overboard in the hope of being picked up by one of the lifeboats.
“They refused to leave the ship,” he said. “And I left them standing there. What happened after that I hardly know myself. I had not taken time to dress and wore only a bathrobe. Under this I had slipped a life preserver.”
By this time, all the lifeboats had drifted away. Daniel recalled that the ship wasn’t noticeably sinking, but that the water began to rise quickly and he needed to take action. “Finally, I jumped in and I was struggling about among the ice cakes, fighting for my life, when I was rescued.” Historian Nelson Lankford attributes some of Daniel’s survival based on his aquatic athleticism while a student at the University of Virginia. He had defied incredible odds.
Only 57 of the 118 passengers with 1st-class tickets survived. Daniel was also among the smaller 13 survivors pulled from the icy waters of the Atlantic too. Five days after his rescue, he managed to furnish this story to the sleep-deprived but desperately optimistic Vincent Astor (J. J. Astor’s son) while recovering at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. According to his granddaughter, he never spoke about the sinking again.
In public life Daniel excelled. He continued to broker stock in cotton, manage banks as an executive and later served as a state senator, retiring-well on a renovated plantation along the James River. Privately, however, he struggled between three divorces, alleged bad luck, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress associated with the Titanic sinking most of his life.
Robert W. Daniel died on Dec. 20, 1940 and was buried in Richmond alongside his family.
Nothing on his mausoleum mentions the incident and local newspapers were not privy to his private thoughts. But even 100-years later, Richmond can boast yet another witness to one of the greatest events in world history.
- Unmentioned is a companion story given by 2d Officer Charles Lightoller in The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters. He recalls:
George D. Widener and Harry Elkins Widener were among those who jumped at the last minute. So did Robert Williams Daniel. The three of them went down together. Daniel struck out, lashing the water with his arms until he had made a point far distant from the sinking monster of the sea. Later he was picked up by one of the passing life-boats.
Of the three men, Daniel was the sole survivor.
- Sources are unclear as to which lifeboat rescued Daniel but my research strongly indicates Lifeboat No. 4. In the Times article, he notes that the officer who was attempting to disperse the foreign passengers by firing a revolver was on that boat. This was likely 5th Officer Harold Lowe, who had transferred from Lifeboat No. 14 to No. 4, attempting to recover any survivors in the ship’s wake. The New York Herald also recalled that he was pulled into the lifeboat containing Mrs. Smith (No. 6) and Mrs. John Jacob Astor (No. 4). Smith can probably be misidentified considering the wives of the men Daniel last saw were also in the same boat, that being, Mrs. Madaleine Astor, Virginia Clark, Marian Thayer, and Eleanor Widener.
- In coverage by WTVR-CBS 6, Dr. Lankford cites family lore as believing that Daniel was “picked up with.. no clothes.” Sinking of the Titanic (pg. 37) reaffirms the story and a reporter at the Carpathia’s pier later noted that he was wearing “a raincoat, a soft white collar, but was without tie.”
- “MRS. ASTOR IS ILL, BUT NOT CRITICALLY; Alarming Reports as to Her Condition Formally Denied by Secretary,” The New York Times (New York), April 20, 1912.
- The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters, ed. Logan Marshall (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008), 45.
- CBS-6. “Wealthy Richmonder was one of the most remarkable and mysterious Titanic survivors.” WTVR.