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“In Discouraging Games of Chance”: The First-Class Smoking Room

"In Discouraging Games of Chance": The First-Class Smoking Room

Titanic’s First-Class Smoking Room was a Georgian-style masterwork: all wooden paneling in luscious dark mahogany, every breadth of which was ornately hand-carved and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The ceiling was molded with elaborate plaster medallions, and the floors were tiled in an alternating pattern of blue and red. This color scheme has been confirmed via tiles that have been salvaged from the wreck site.

It was designed with an old-school gentleman’s club in mind, because it was exclusively available to men in possession of a first-class ticket. In the warmth of Titanic’s only coal-burning fireplace, Very Important Men could imbibe, gossip, gamble, read—and smoke, of course.

Starboard view of the fireplace in the First-Class Smoking Room on board R.M.S. Olympic, Titanic's elder sister, circa 1912. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


From their seats in the upholstered, round club chairs—Titanicophiles speculate this furniture may have been green leather (because Olympic’s were), but more probably burgundy (to better suit the décor)—these fancy men sat around square tables with raised edges, lest drink spillage ruin their evening wear.

And all around, in every periphery and all through the day and evening, large stained-glass windows glowed. These windows, set in impedimented niches, were backlit by electrical lighting.

Alternate view the First-Class Smoking Room on board R.M.S. Olympic, Titanic's elder sister, circa 1911. Taken by William Herman Rau for Harland & Wolff, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


A drink and good cigar could be ordered in the Smoking Room from a steward working the bar, which according to deck plans, was adjacent to the Smoking Room, behind the white-marble fireplace. The bar closed at half-past 11 p.m., and the Smoking Room itself shuttered at midnight.

A specially commissioned work by Norman Wilkinson called “Plymouth Harbor” was hung above the fireplace, although it’s often been mis-reported that the painting was Wilkinson’s “Approach to the New World,” which was actually housed on the Olympic.

In 1996, Wilkinson’s son created a faithful reproduction of “Plymouth Harbor,” presumably from his father’s notes and/or sketches.

And if the menfolk fancied a change of scenery, a revolving door to the right of the fireplace led into the smoking section of the Verandah Café, also called the Palm Court: a sunlit room with ivy trellises, potted ferns, and wicker furniture, where they could meet their wives or mistresses to take refreshment.

The Palm Court on the R.M.S. Olympic.


The First-Class Smoking Room was also the setting of one of Titanic’s most famous, though misreported, farewells: that of Chief Shipbuilder Thomas Andrews.

Generally speaking, it was a frequently occupied space, by both groups and individual men.  Spencer Silverthorne, for instance, attested to reading in the Smoking Room when Titanic struck the iceberg.

But the Smoking Room was a popular place for more nefarious reasons than reading: it was the haunt of some hardcore card-sharps.

This wasn’t a Titanic-specific phenomenon. In fact, transatlantic liners were plagued with professional gamblers. Bearing this in mind, the following warning was issued alongside Titanic’s passenger manifest.


The attention of the Managers has been called to the fact that certain persons, believed to be Professional Gamblers, are in the habit of travelling to and fro in Atlantic Steamships.

In bringing this to the knowledge of Travelers the Managers, while not wishing in the slightest degree to interfere with the freedom of action of Patrons of the White Star Line, desire to invite their assistance in discouraging Games of Chance, as being likely to afford these individuals special opportunities for taking unfair advantage of others.

The warning was not without merit. Titanic had at least three confirmed conmen on board, all of whom survived. They included Charles Romaine—C. Rolmane on this particular voyage, thanks—who, according the Chicago Tribune on April 19, 1912, was enjoying a highball in the Smoking Room when Titanic struck the iceberg.

I had been standing on the deck. I had become chilled and went inside for a warming drink before going to bed. Suddenly there came the shock, and my first thought was that we had struck a larger cake of ice than usual.

The boat suddenly tilted, so sharply that my highball slid from the table. Then came a cry: ‘We’re sinking,’ and the lights grew dimmer and dimmer and finally went out.

Charles is believed to have survived in Lifeboat 9.

There was also George Brereton, who boarded under the alias “George Brayton” and was staking out his next target in the Smoking Room when the collision happened.

The other confirmed card-sharp on board was Harry “Kid” Homer, who boarded Titanic as a first-class passenger under the alias “E. Haven”. Harry was a pretty notorious criminal by 1912, starting with an arrest in New York back in 1901 “as a dangerous and suspicious character,” when he “was given twenty-four hours to leave that city.”

Later that same year, Harry was arrested in Cincinnati. Then arrested in 1905 in Cleveland, and 1906 in Arkansas. Then in 1908, he appeared in New Orleans.

Per the Time Democrat issued November 24, 1908, “Homer is said to have had his picture in the local rogue's gallery, and has been arrested in various cities in connection with wire-tapping, pocket-picking and other alleged crooked work” at which point Harry insisted that “he had stopped off [in New Orleans] only a few hours while en route to San Antonio, Texas.”

Harry, damn.

Anyway. Harry never divulged details about how he survived the sinking, other than his occupancy in Lifeboat 15.

On May 11, 1912, The Witney Gazette published an article stating that Harry, another conman by the name of Doc Owens, and a third unnamed man were playing cards in the Smoking Room when the collision occurred; thereafter, Doc Owens called on a steward that he’s previously bribed to keep hush about their identities.

[Doc then snuck him] a roll of bank notes, got him to furnish women’s clothing and hats. Dressed in these clothes, the three men hurried to the deck and leaped into a lifeboat filled with women just as it was being lowered.

Afterwards they stripped themselves of the women’s clothes, which they threw overboard. The boat they were in was filled with immigrant women and children, and did not have enough men to work the oars. Accordingly, their assistance was welcomed.

Despite the inclination to vilify petty criminals, this report is contested. Specifically, The New York Times reported on April 18, 1912, that Doc Owens’s presence in the city had been confirmed and that he was not a passenger. According to this same report, neither were other conmen Jimmie Bell and Ernest “Peaches” Jefferys.

Except that Ernest Jefferys was not a criminal at all. And he had, in fact, been on Titanic.

He was socializing with his brother Clifford and brother-in-law Peter when Titanic struck the iceberg, and had died in the sinking. His sister survived, and threatened to sue the Times for their error.

Another criminal, Jay Yates, was reported as having gone down with the Titanic… because he was attempting to fake his own death, being wanted by the police for stealing two grand in postal money orders.

Yates reportedly hired a woman to pose as a survivor and deliver his heartfelt goodbye note to a newspaper office with the following note, as per the Chicago Inter Ocean on April 21, 1912, which reported that  “Jay Yates, gambler, confidence man and fugitive from justice” had gone down with the ship.

You will find note that was handed to me as I was leaving the Titanic.
Am stranger to this man, but think he was a card player. He helped me
Aboard a lifeboat and I saw him help others. Before we were lowered I saw
Him jump into the sea. If picked up, I did not recognize him on the Carpathia.
I do not think he was registered on the ship under his right name.

Jay Yates was arrested in June of 1912 in Baltimore, MD.

The First-Class Smoking Room was decimated in the sinking, being aft of the break and susceptible to complete destruction as the stern spun toward the ocean floor.

Although there are photos of the First-Class Smoking Room on the nearly identical RMS Olympic, no photos of Titanic's Smoking Room are known to exist.

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