A Titanic Tale

John Jacob Astor IV (photo from 1909)
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

John Jacob Astor IV

The wee hours of Saturday, April 14 and Sunday, April 15, 2012, marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic.

The ship was bound for New York with a notable member of the Trinity community on board: John Jacob Astor IV, great-grandson of the famous millionaire John Jacob Astor.

Astor, a former Trinity vestryman, perished in the sinking of the Titanic. His second wife, 18 year old Madeleine Force Astor, then five months pregnant, escaped in a lifeboat.

Newspaper clipping; Madeleine Astor survives the Titanic
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

The actions of the Astors as the Titanic sank were widely reported, and likely exaggerated, in the days following the tragedy. Accounts say that after the iceberg struck they sat on mechanical horses in the ship’s gymnasium, wearing life vests, and that only at the very last minute did Mrs. Astor and her maid get on a lifeboat. John Jacob Astor IV is said to have gallantly, chivalrously, heroically stepped aside and allowed women and children onto the lifeboat, though he wanted to accompany his wife. Mrs. Astor was “compelled to handle an oar” and bail freezing water out of the lifeboat as they rowed frantically away from the sinking ship, all of which she did with strength and courage, only to suffer a complete nervous collapse once rescued.

John Jacob Astor IV’s body was recovered and identified several days after the sinking. His son Vincent took a train to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to claim the body. Astor’s funeral was held on May 4 at the Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck before a special train brought his body and mourners to Trinity Church Cemetery at 153rd Street. Trinity’s rector, Dr. Manning, read from First Corinthians during the funeral service and gave the Episcopal burial service at the Astor family vault. Astor was laid to rest near his father and namesake great-grandfather.

John Jacob Astor Funeral in May 1912
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

The funeral of John Jacob Astor IV

Trinity Church held two general memorial services for the Titanic passengers, one on Sunday, April 21st and one on Tuesday, April 23rd. The government of Britain was represented at the services by various ambassadors and consuls. Dr. Manning preached on a passage from the book of John: “Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

The Rev. Dr. William Manning, Trinity Rector
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

Dr. Manning

“We can also give thanks,” Manning said, “for the heroism, the calmness, the recognition of duty, the devotion which made women choose rather to stay with their loved ones than seek safety in the boats, the quiet sacrifice of themselves made by the stronger for the sake of the weaker…In such moments as this we catch a vision of the real greatness, the divine possibilities, of human nature.”

John Jacob Astor V was born on August 14, 1912, four months to the day after his father’s death. He inherited a portion of his father’s fortune on his 21st birthday, and died in Miami Beach in 1992. He was laid to rest in Trinity Cemetery, in an above ground vault he purchased in 1939.  His wife Sue Astor is buried there, as well as his dog, Buddy, in an infant size casket. His mother, Madeleine Talmadge Force Astor Fiermonte Dick (she remarried twice after Astor's death) and maternal grandmother Katherine Talmadge Force are also buried there.

An Earlier Scandal

The Titanic was not the Astors first brush with the press; as the heir to a family fortune, John Jacob Astor IV had long been a favorite subject of the media. And in 1911, just months before the Titanic disaster, a scandal erupted in the house of Astor that involved Trinity Church.

Trinity had a long association with the Astor family, dating to 1804 when John Jacob Astor took over Vice President Aaron Burr’s 99-year ground lease on the Richmond Hill estate—property owned by Trinity Church. From 1804 until 1866, the Astor family earned millions in real estate by subleasing Trinity’s land.

The Astors were prominent members of the Episcopal community throughout the nineteenth century. Some belonged to Trinity Parish, while others worshipped at chapels and churches around the region. John Jacob IV’s grandfather and father were vestrymen at Trinity Church. The family donated the Astor cross, reredos, and bronze doors in Trinity Church.

Trinity Church Wall Street Reredos
Photo from Trinity Church Wall Street

The raredos

John Jacob Astor IV was born in 1864. In 1891, he married Ava Lowle Willing, a member of Philadelphia society, with whom he had two children: William Vincent, born 1891, and Ava Alice, born 1902. He was a member of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck, New York, near his estate. He served as a Trinity vestryman in 1901 and 1902. Parish archives shed no light on why he only served one term, nor the circumstances under which he departed.

Interestingly, in 1894, Astor authored A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future, a work of science fiction about life in the year 2000 and journeys to Saturn and Jupiter. Astor was remarkably prescient—his vision of 2000 A.D. included expanded vaccination, a worldwide telephone network, and humans harnessing solar and wind power. He did, however, write that the oft-predicted “great war” never came to pass. Astor also held several patents, including one for a “pneumatic device for renovating macadam roads.”

In 1909, Astor’s wife filed for divorce, scandalizing New York society. At the time, divorces were hard to obtain, and the Astors’ divorce papers were sealed.

Less than two years later, in 1911, Astor’s engagement to a Miss Madeleine Force, debutante, was announced. Astor was 47; Force was just 18 and a recent graduate of Miss Spence’s School. At the time, Episcopal Church doctrine was firmly against remarriage, and one Rev. George Chalmers Richmond, rector of St. John’s Church in Philadelphia, preached “a sermon on the Astor-Force engagement which combined good canon law with railing invective against the principals.”

Madeleine Force Astor
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

Madeleine Force Astor

The press jumped on Richmond’s sermon, seeking comment from Episcopal clergy far and wide, most of whom declined to speak with reporters. But the Rev. William Wilkinson, a special outdoor preacher attached to Trinity Church and popularly known as “The Bishop of Wall Street,” took the bait. He condemned Richmond as a “defamer of a great family, famous for its attachment to the Church!”

The Rev. William Wilkinson
From the Archives of Trinity Church Wall Street

Wilkinson preaching 

The press-hungry Richmond seized on Wilkinson’s comments and issued retort in the form of an attack on Trinity Parish:

“I have read what Father Wilkinson has said about myself, and am not all surprised…He is in the employ of Trinity Church, and is not his own master…Trinity Parish for years has been a hang-back to the work of social reform in New York City…The Church, being a rich Corporation, which it is, is in a league with what we call Capitalism...”

Richmond went on to imply that Astor was a current vestryman (he was not, and had not been for nearly a decade) and that Trinity’s rector at the time, Dr. Manning, was negligent in allowing an immoral Astor authority in the parish.

Manning responded forcefully, reiterating the Church’s official position against remarriage and assuring the public that the clergy of Trinity Parish would, under no circumstances, condone the remarriage of divorced persons.

Additionally, Trinity Parish was very active in social reform and providing financial and spiritual assistance to downtown residents during this era.

Richmond was defrocked several years later as a result of an unrelated incident.

Astor married Madeleine Force in a very small ceremony in September, 1911. The bride and groom had much difficulty locating a clergyman of any faith willing to perform a remarriage, at one point settling on the Rev. Edwin Straight, a Free Baptist minister-turned-carpenter. (“What Col. Astor’s arrangement with the clerical carpenter was is not known,” the New York Times reported.) In the end the more respectable Rev. Dr. Joseph Lambert, pastor of the Elwood Temple Congregational Church of Providence, Rhode Island, married them.

Lambert resigned his position less than two months later amid controversy over his decision to officiate Astor’s wedding. He left ministry and entered business.