Early in the morning of Saturday, January 24, 1909, the Royal Mail Ship Republic was rammed by the S.S. Florida, a ship of the Lloyd-Italiana line, transporting earthquake refugees from Italy to the United States. The Republic was outbound from New York for the Mediterranean. The Republic later sank on Sunday, January 25, 1909, after futile attempts had been made to tow the ship to shallow water.
The accident, prior to the sinking of the RMS Titanic (also a White Star ship) was the largest maritime disaster of the time where loss of life was so minimal. Three passengers aboard the Republic and three aboard the Florida were killed in the collision. This episode is also known for its still being the largest open-sea rescue ever conducted successfully. The Republic passengers were actually transferred twice, once from the Republic to the Florida and then from the Florida to the RMS Baltic.
Captain Inman Sealby of the Republic attempted to go down with his ship. As the Republic sank beneath the waves, pressure from trapped air escaping the ship actually forced the captain to the surface and he was rescued. But the man made most famous by the whole of the Republic disaster was 26-year-old Marconi wireless operator, Jack Binns, who stayed at his post throughout the slow sinking of the Republic. He used his wireless to transmit coordinates and to vector rescue vessels to the Republic's position. His coolness under duress as well as his use of the wireless, a technology that most thought of as mysterious and eerie, made him a hero throughout the nation.
Born John Robinson "Jack" Binns in Lincolnshire, England in 1884, Binns was honored by the Marconi Company and later offered the opportunity to serve as a Marconi operator on the RMS Titanic. Binns turned down the promotion and missed the notoriety of serving on the two White Star liners that now rest on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Mr. Samuel Cupples, a St. Louis entrepreneur and philanthropist had booked passage on the Republic for himself and for his family. They had planned a great, eight month long trip through the holy land and the Mediterranean basin. Their trip lasted a bit less than three days and offered experiences that had not been anticipated but which did last a lifetime.
Articles related to the R.M.S. Republic news as it unfolded:
Scudders and Brookmires on Republic for a Cruise; Other May Be At Bottom
The first class accommodations of the RMS Republic were nearly as rich as the house the Cupples family had left behind in St. Louis. The elderly Samuel Cupples, accompanied by his daughter Amelia and three granddaughters, Gladys, Maude and Martha, and his personal physician, Dr. A.J. Wagers, occupied staterooms on the Saloon deck on the starboard side, number 33 for Mr. Cupples and numbers 15 and 17 for the Scudder women. As the Republic cruised northward, paralleling Long Island, Mr. Cupples' view from his cabin window was the seemingly limitless Atlantic.
The voyage to Italy promised comfort and luxury, especially for the first class passengers. Service was the hallmark of a White Star line vessel and the Cupples party could expect that life aboard ship would differ little from life at the 42 room mansion Mr. Cupples had built in 1888.
The Cupples party was off for a tour of the Holy Land and planned to be away for eight months. Mr. Cupples, a devout Methodist, longed to see Jerusalem but the highlight of the trip was a planned excursion through the ancient ruins of Egypt. Though hearty, Cupples was in his late 70s and this voyage promised perhaps to be the one last, grand trip before infirmities overtook desires. The trip promised to provide an opportunity for culture and learning for his granddaughters, too.
Departing from New York harbor on Friday, January 22, 1909, the Republic entered the busy sea lanes that followed the U.S. coastline northward and then veered into the North Atlantic. Captain Inman Sealby, an experienced officer of the White Star Line, expected no trouble on the voyage although vigilance was the watchword especially as one steamed away from New York.
On Saturday, early in the evening of January 23, thick fog reduced the helmsman's visibility to a minimum. At Sealby's direction, the Republic reduced speed and began sounding its fog horn.
Source - St. Louis Times
Crash Awakens Men and Women Below, Who Hasten Upon Deck to See Nose of Unidentified Boat Buried in Republic's Side
It was not quite 4 a.m. when sleeping passengers were startled awake by a tremendous crash which echoed throughout the ship. An Italian liner, the S.S. Florida had rammed the Republic in its port side, severing steam lines and rupturing the boilers. Without steam, the Republic lost propulsion and maneuverability. Battery power was soon exhausted and passengers were evacuated from all parts of the ship to the upper decks in the dark. From warm beds to cold decks, the Republics's passengers and crew stood in the cold, foggy night air dressed in whatever they could find. Mr. Cupples remembered, "From every stateroom a stream of passengers were hurrying upon the deck, all variously attired, and the major portion still swathed in their sleeping garments." Mr. Cupples was fortunate in that Dr. Wagers had found his shoes and his overcoat.
Six persons had been killed in the collision, three from each ship. Although the extent of the damage to either ship was unknown in the minutes after the accident, the lack of power for the Republic did not bode well for its passengers and crew. Captain Sealby and his crew made preparations for the transfer of passengers to the Florida since that ship still had power. In a busy sea lane without power, the Republic would soon begin to drift and the Florida, although able to hold its station, was hardly seaworthy. When the Florida finally pulled free, she left 70 feet of her bow in the Republic's side.
Uncertain passengers staved off the urge to panic during the transfer. The cool professionalism of the Republic's crew helped to maintain calm even as the lifeboats were dropped into the Atlantic still masked by the fog. Many, although excited as Cupples remembered, took heart in Captain Sealby's assurance "that there was no immediate danger and that the wireless operator was in communication with other steamers."
Source - St. Louis Times
Magic of Wireless Proved Salvation of Stricken Liner
The Republic carried a Marconi Wireless apparatus when she left the port of New York. Something of a novelty still in 1909, the Marconi Wireless could transmit and receive radio signals broadcast up to 200 miles distant. The White Star Line had installed the Marconi as a further selling point in the marketing of luxury and innovation found on its passenger liners. Daily news and communications with family and friends was possible with the wireless.
When the Florida rammed the Republic, the two ships were only 50 miles off the U.S. coast. Like the passengers, Jack Binns was thrown from his bunk by the collision. Binns, one of the Republic's Marconi operators, realized that a jarring impact at sea bode ill for his ship. Realizing that the lack of light in the ship's interior meant that the boilers were no longer providing power to the ship, Binns staggered through the dark until he came to the storage locker holding additional batteries for his wireless. He then went to his post where the only light came from the distress flares that Sealby had ordered fired at regular intervals.
C. Q. D. . . . C. Q. D. . . . Attention all stations. Distress.
Binns began broadcasting around 6:30 a.m. from the smashed wireless office on the Republic. "Republic rammed by unknown steamer 175 east of Ambrose Light. Lat. 40.7, lon. 70. No danger to lives." The signal was first picked up by the Marconi station at Siasconsett, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Immediately the Nantucket station notified other land stations and began broadcasting the Republic's plight and position to ships at sea. Operating on battery power, Binn's messages did not travel as far as the land-based wireless stations.
Binns stayed at his station for nearly 18 hours. By the time he left his post, the deck upon which the wireless office had been built was awash. In that time, Binns had vectored five other ships to the Republic's position. Most important of those ships was the inbound RMS Baltic, a sister ship of the Republic and a vessel large enough to take on the Republic's passengers and crew. The Florida had been dangerously overcrowded by the presence of the Republic's passengers and crew and it would later limp into port under the watchful eye of U.S. revenue cutters. Jack Binns' attention to his duty coupled with his tireless expertise at the wireless excited the imagination of the entire nation. For a short time, Binns was the Charles Lindbergh of his generation, a man who risked all in the service of others. He captured the imagination of a nation caught up in the wonders of technology. The House of Representatives suspended its business to recognize Binns' heroism. One congressman remarked, "Is it not an inspiration for all of us to feel that there are heroes for every emergency and that in human life no danger is so great that some 'Jack' Binns is not ready to face it?" The congressmen and all those in the galleries "vigorously applauded" the "Brave Wireless Operator of the Steamship Republic Who Stuck to His Post Till the Last." Later that year, Binns was given the honor of a ticker tape parade through lower Manhattan.
Source - Unidentified New York Paper
Samuel Cupples Will Return to His St. Louis Home at Once---He and His Daughter Lost $25,000 in Gems
Having first shared a meal with the Florida's steerage passengers, Cupples and his family were then transferred to the more comfortable RMS Baltic. The Baltic docked in New York on Sunday, January 24, 1909. They immediately took their rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria and the Cupples women "made a hasty run for the shops to replenish their sadly depleted wardrobe." They had lost an entire 8 months of clothing and jewelry. Mr. Cupples had disembarked wearing his overcoat and mourned the loss of his gold watch which he had "carried for many, many years." Still, Cupples realized that the loss of clothes, jewels, and watches meant little compared to the those whose families had lost loved ones. "We are extremely happy that we escaped with our lives," he admitted.
As for any further trips abroad, Cupples told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "The Land of the Free is Good Enough for A While." In fact, Cupples admitted that he had lost any interest in traveling abroad. Having a great ocean liner nearly sink beneath him seemed to be enough excitement for Cupples. "The quicker I get back home the better I'm suited," he noted.
Source - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Samuel Cupples Party
Samuel Cupples, retired St. Louis business man and philanthropist
Mrs. Amelia (William H.) Scudder, Mr. Cupples' widowed daughter
Miss Gladys Scudder
Miss Maude Scudder,
Miss Martha Scudder, Mr. Cupples' granddaughters
Dr. A.J. Wagers, Mr. Cupples' personal physician, all 1st class passengers aboard the R.M.S. Republic of the White Star line. The Scudders were accompanied by two maids.
Mrs. James H. Brookmire and her daughter, Miss Cornelia Brookmire also of St. Louis and friends of the family were aboard.
CQD - The Story of the First Sea Rescue by Radio as told by Jack Binns who Became a Radio Hero in the Old Days when Radio Was Wireless and a Ten-Inch Spark Coil and a Magnetic Detector Was the Ultimate in Apparatus
Radio Broadcast (April 1924): 449-55.
Triumph of the Wireless - The Story of the Wreck of the Republic Told by Captain J.B. Ranson, R.N.R., of the Rescuing Steamship Baltic
The Outlook (February 6, 1909): 294-97.
Operator Binns' Wireless Log - The log begins at 6.38 a.m., when Binns found himself on the floor of his cabin and the splintered woodwork piling in about him.
Modern Electronics (February 1909): 387-88.
Marconi Calling - Search Jack Binns, including his "Report of the S/S "R E P U B L I C" made from mental notes, as official report was not rescued from the sunken ship."
Rescue at Sea - from PBS' American Experience. The producers of Rescue at Sea borrowed the Cupples' Family scrapbook of the ramming of the Republic to use as a resource for the writing of the script for the program.