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“A Costly Thing, Studded With Diamonds”: John Jacob Astor IV

"A Costly Thing, Studded With Diamonds": Colonel John Jacob Astor IV

John Jacob Astor--who went by Jack--is one of Titanic's most famous passengers because he was The Richest Man On the Ship, although it's been my experience that less people realize he did in fact die in the sinking.

Wildly wealthy, John Jacob Astor and his second wife--who was 19 to his 47--were returning from their honeymoon abroad in Egypt and France, which they were ending early because of her unexpected pregnancy. The Astors boarded Titanic in Cherbourg, France, with Mrs. Astor's maid and nurse, Col. Astor's valet, and the Astors' dog, an Airedale named Kitty.

John Jacob Astor IV, circa 1909.


Many of the American elites had recently come to disdain the Astors because of Jack's hasty remarriage to such a young girl. One of the few who didn't pass judgment, however, was fellow First-Class passenger Molly Brown, who had traveled with the happy couple in Europe, and coincidentally also needed to abbreviate her travels and head home on Titanic.

The Washington Times, dated August 3, 1911.


Astor was a Harvard alum; he was a very intelligent man, and considered eccentric by some. In addition to the real-estate that comprised his fortune, he also tried his hand at writing science fiction in the 1890s; he published a novel exploring life on other planets in the faraway year of 2000, called "A Journey in Other Worlds".

He was also fascinated by technological advancements, and was known to invent certain things to make life's little tasks easier--a bicycle brake--and things to make the world better--a better turbine engine. He was also fond of motor cars.

Astor in his motor car, circa 1903. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Astor served in the US Army during the Spanish-American War and offered his yacht for commission by the US Navy. His service was not entirely appreciated by the American public; his minimal involvement in combat was rewarded with an honorary promotion to colonel. It was his chosen form of address for the rest of his life.

Astor in military uniform.


Astor roused his wife immediately after the collision, assuring her the damage was "not serious." While waiting on deck for a lifeboat, the young Mrs. Astor offered her shawl to a third-class passenger, to keep her child warm.

Now concerned with the cold while waiting on deck, the Astors went into the gymnasium, taking seats on the mechanical horses. It was during this time that Titanic's First-Class Barber Augustus Weikman found Jack and fellow millionaire George Widener watching some other men have a go at the punching bags.

The Colonel was also reportedly witnessed in the gymnasium slicing open a life-jacket with a pen knife to show his nervous wife the contents therein.

Madeleine Force Astor circa 1915. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, courtesy of Library of Congress.


It was Second Officer Charles Lightoller who refused Jack a seat in Lifeboat 4, even though Astor indicated his wife was "in a delicate condition."

Jack took the refusal gracefully, asking what lifeboat number it was in order to find her later. And then, stepping back, The Colonel lit a cigarette with another doomed man.

Conflicting reports persist of Colonel Astor stepping aside, or otherwise giving up his seat to children and selflessly assisting other women into lifeboats. This imagined heroism is a common theme with notable men who died on Titanic; they are, however, often unsubstantiated.

The Astors with their beloved Airedale Terrier, named Kitty.


Mrs. Astor's maid and nurse both survived.

John Jacob Astor IV, as well as his valet Victor Robins, both perished.

John Jacob Astor's body was recovered by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett on April 22, 1912, one of just over three hundred. The condition of his corpse remains a source of speculation, as it would likely indicate his precise cause of death: hypothermia, drowning, or--as rumor has dictated--the brute injury of being crushed by a falling funnel.

However he met his end, Titanic's wealthiest victim was labeled as follows.


CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with "A.V."; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; "J.J.A." on back of collar.

EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.


While a great deal of attention was paid to his dazzling effects, there is no mention of damage to Astor's body.

In fact, Mackay-Bennett crewmember Gerald Ross reported the following in his interview with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, further demonstrating that, contrary to popular belief, it would appear that John Jacob Astor had not, in fact, been crushed.

I saw the recovery of Col. Astor’s body. Like the others it was floating buoyed by a lifebelt. Both arms extended upwards. The face was swollen, one jaw was injured. His body was clothed in a business suit and tan shoes. His watch, a costly thing, studded with diamonds, was dangling from his pocket. It had stopped at 3:20. Practically all the other watches on bodies we recovered had stopped at 2:10. His watch chain was of platinum and so were the settings of the rings he wore.

Colonel Astor's fame and societal prominence invited much in the way of tall tales and un-truths that persist even today.

For instance, it's been rumored that Astor himself let all the passenger dogs loose from their kennels, although how he would have managed to go from the boat deck to F-deck and back again--all while in the company of his panicked wife and prominent friends--remains to be reasoned out.

And then there's the myth that he was idle at the bar when Titanic struck the iceberg and decided to quip, "I asked for more ice, but this is ridiculous."

By all accounts, John Jacob Astor IV wasn't one for humor.


New York American dated April 16, 1912.


Madeleine Astor gave birth to a son in August of 1912. Named after his late father, he was nicknamed "Jakey". He was often called the "Titanic Baby" by the press.

Jakey died in 1992.



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Dogs on Titanic

Dogs on Titanic

Animals weren't scarce on Titanic.

Aside from Jenny the Ship Cat, whose premonitory departure at Southampton with her litter has already been outlined, there were also a number of fancy-breed French roosters and hens, a canary that is oft-misreported as going down with the ship, and countless rats, as on every ship in the history of humanity.

And of course, there were about a dozen dogs.

Dogs were only permitted if they belonged to first-class passengers, but there were no size restrictions. They included two Pomeranians, a Pekinese named Sun-Yat-Sen owned by the Harper family (as in, Harper Collins Publishers), and a toy dog named Freu Freu that was "too pretty [to stay in the kennels]" and belonged to Helen Bishop.

Larger dogs included Ann Isham's Great Dane or St. Bernard (my research leads me to believe the latter), John Jacob Astor's Airedale, Kitty.

The Carter family brought two dogs on board: their unnamed King Charles Spaniel, and their own Airedale Terrier. The latter belonged to their young son Billy.

And the most valuable canine passenger was an all-black French Bulldog named Gamin de Pycombe, who was a recent purchase of Robert Daniel's that cost the obscene equivalent of almost $14,000 today.

First-Class passenger Robert W. Daniel. courtesy of N.A.R.A.


As fun as Gamin's name is, best-named Titanic dogs go to Harry Anderson's chow-chow, named Chow-Chow, and a Fox Terrier aptly named Dog. Captain Smith's Russian Foxhound, Ben, spent only one night on board, then was taken back home by Smith's daughter before Titanic set sail.

Captain E.J. Smith and his wolfhound Ben. Published in contemporary accounts.

PUBLIC DOMAIN (taken & published prior to 1923)

The dogs were kenneled on F Deck and looked after by the ship's carpenter. They were exercised and taken out for bathroom breaks daily. There were even enough purebreds on board that Titanic's schedule for Monday, April 15, 1912, actually called for a mini-dog show in the morning.

We all know what happened instead.

Of the 12 dogs confirmed to have been on board, 3 survived: the two Pomeranians and Sun-Yat-Sen the Pekinese, who were all smuggled or otherwise permitted on the lifeboats because they were so small

A Pomeranian circa 1915. Of the three dogs saved from Titanic, two were Pomeranians.


Little Freu Freu, clearly sensing dismay, pulled desperately on Helen Bishop's dress as she left for the boat deck. Helen reluctantly left Freu Freu behind in her room, feeling that to insist on saving her dog when people could die was indecent. She said it broke her heart.

The larger dogs clearly could not be secreted to safety, but that was only one reason for their demise. Recall that the dogs were locked in their kennels below deck.

This changed, however, when a still-unknown Samaritan made their way down to F Deck despite the rising water and freed the dogs, undoubtedly trying to give them a fair shot at survival, or at least a less inhumane end.

Rumors still circulate that their savior was John Jacob Astor himself; this is unverifiable, though one can guess at its origins.

Jack Astor and his wife were both extremely protective of Kitty, especially since she had been lost as they traveled the Nile on their honeymoon in Egypt. Luckily, Kitty was discovered on another American family's passing boat and returned to the Astors, who offered a sizeable reward.

Kitty apparently was most often found in sleeping in the Astors' suites instead of in the Titanic's kennels, and Astor walked her on deck every day. When Astor lifted his pregnant wife through a window and into a lifeboat, it's reported that she begged him to go find Kitty.

Some witnesses say it's the last they saw of John Jacob Astor.

The Astors with their Airedale Terrier, Kitty. Jack Astor and Kitty would both die in the sinking.


Astor is also associated with the Carter family's unnamed Airedale, who belonged to their 11-year-old son, Billy.

Billy absolutely adored his dog. He had him on a leash while waiting for a lifeboat, but the dog was refused a spot on the lifeboat. Billy, in tears, was reassured by Astor that his dog would be well taken care of, no matter what.

Billy declined to speak much of the sinking even as an adult, being so traumatized with guilt over leaving his dog behind. The most he did say was that he last saw him sitting, still leashed, beside the preternaturally calm John Jacob Astor.

The Carters filed a $100 claim for their Spaniel, $200 for their Airedale, and $5,000 for their Renault car in Titanic's cargo hold... Yes, that's the Sexy Time Handprint Car in the 1997 movie.

As the ship sank, all the dogs left on board were seen running in a frantic herd up and down the sloping deck. Mrs. Astor said this is when she last saw Kitty, pacing back and forth. Frou Frou died locked in Bishop's room; no one knows how long Chow-Chow and Dog survived.

But this was not the last sighting of Titanic's dogs.

First-Class passenger and world-famous tennis player Richard Norris Williams was struggling to keep his head above the freezing water in the moments after Titanic submerged.

Breaking the surface, he came face to face with the last thing he would have expected in the middle of the nighttime ocean: Gamin de Pycombe the Extraordinarily Expensive French Bulldog, paddling for his own life in the swarm.

French Bulldog (not Gamin) circa 1915.


Gamin, was said to having been heard crying when the chaos began by Edith Russell, whose cabin neighbored Daniels'.

Edith went inside and pet the dog and put him to bed. He was fed a treat and "was very obedient and sat there and looked at me sweetly as I closed the door. I did not know then that we were in any great danger or else I would have taken him with me."

Gamin was presumably let loose from the room shortly thereafter, given Williams' encounter.

The last sighting of any of Titanic's doomed dogs was of that reportedly belonging to First-Class passenger Ann Isham.

Ms. Isham's dog is most commonly reported to have been a Great Dane, but I'm still looking for the primary source of this information; I believe that it comes from a widely circulated photo of three dogs on a ship deck (including a Dane) that is meant to represent the Titanic dogs. But don't be fooled; this photo does not portray any of Titanic's dogs. In fact, it was not taken on Titanic at all.

Photo erroneously cited as being of dogs on board Titanic.


What is rumored is that Ann Isham, a First-Class woman, supposedly refused to take her seat in a lifeboat if she could not take her dearest dog with her.

Days later, the German ship SS Bremen sailed past Titanic's wreck site. Bremen passenger Johanna Stunke wrote that as the ship passed, everyone observed in horrified silence.

Looking down over the rail we distinctly saw a number of bodies so clearly that we could make out what they were wearing, and whether they were men or women.

We saw one woman in her nightdress, with a baby clasped closely to her breast. Several of the women passengers screamed, and left the rail in a fainting condition.

There was another woman, fully dressed, with her arms tight around the body of a shaggy dog that looked like a St. Bernard. The bodies of three men in a group, all clinging to one steamer chair floated close by, and just beyond them were a dozen bodies of men, all in life-preservers, clinging together, as though in the last desperate struggle for life.

© Excerpt from "Lost Voices of the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History" by Nick Barratt, St. Martin's Press. 2010.

It makes sense if the dead woman was, in fact, Ann Isham. There is, however, is no way to verify it, or to find out to whom the shaggy dog belonged. Ann Isham, for note, was one of only four First-Class women to die in the sinking.

The final Titanic dog never existed to begin with, even though many people still think he did. This made-up hero dog was a black Newfoundland named Rigel belonging to First Officer William Murdoch.

Newfoundland, circa 1915.


Rigel supposedly rescued and aided victims throughout the night, and even barked to prevent the Carpathia from running exhausted survivors over.

This story, while heartwarming and novel--a Newfie in the ice-cold Atlantic rescuing people as Newfies are bred to do, how convenient--was first published as told by a Carpathia crewman named Jonas Briggs. But a) there is no record of a Newfie on Titanic, b) Murdoch's widow insisted he never owned a dog, and c) there is no record of a Jonas Briggs on Carpathia.

Moreover, Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, who was in the first lifeboat to be picked up Carpathia, made no mention of Rigel, which one would think he would had something so extraordinary occurred.

So, as awesome as Rigel was, he was only that awesome because he was imagined that way. But this has not stopped the story from circulating, even today.

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