A Titanic Discovery
Throughout my rather nomadic childhood, the only constant was the holidays with my grandparents on their Long Island farm, a haven furnished with old things lovingly handed down though the generations.
Like most young boys, my brother and I took great pleasure in transforming the attic of our grandparent’s home into our own realm; a secret hide a way from the adult world. It was playing among the old steamer trunks and discarded toys that made me first curious about the people who used to own them.
At the age of fourteen and having exhausted the possibilities of any new discoveries in our attic, I decided to explore the storage areas in the barns. On my first foray into the barn, one late summer's afternoon, I found dusty toys, trunks, furniture, and paintings crammed into every possible corner; everything was covered with layers of dirt and debris. The roof was missing shingles, and the darkened window, which allowed only a signal beam of light in, was in need of repair. Animals had found their way in, and have nested amongst the abandoned relics.
A particularity large Louis Vuitton trunk, dusty from countless years of neglect, caught my eye. Inside were 24 matching photo albums- bound in fire-engine red leather embossed with gold numbers, a box of diaries and other ephemera. When I took one of the albums to my grandfather that evening, he told me that it must have come out of the lost Spedden trunk. As we looked through the albums he explained, that the Speddens were relations on my grandmother's side, and then recounted the incredible story of how they had narrowly escaped from the sinking Titanic.
The next day I put the album back into the old trunk, believing I would come back to it later that week. Unfortunately, it was not until several years later, while I was on summer vacation from college, helping my grandfather sort out a lifetime of accumulation, that I happened upon the trunk again. My grandfather had decided to clean out the "junk" in the attic and storage spaces. In the confusion the Spedden trunk had been placed on the truck with things destined for the dump. Luckily, I managed to intercept it in the nick of time, and I spent the remainder of that summer carefully archiving the contents with the help ofa local museum curator. The more time I spent looking at the albums and reading the diaries, the more fascinated I became with the Speddens and their lost Edwardian world.
I learned that it was Daisy Spedden, a cousin on the Corning side of my family tree, had carefully documented her family's life through photographs and diaries. In all she had compiled 27 incredible albums detailing their trips abroad, the childhood of her only son, named Douglas, their friends and family, a veritable time capsule of the Gilded Age. To me the Speddens were fascinating, not just because they were survivors of the Titanic, but because they had documented and photographed their beautiful yet to be doomed, Belle Epoche world. My grandfather, realizing my growing fascination with the Speddens, gave me the trunk and its contents on my 21st birthday.
One of the more curious items I found in the trunk was a small booklet that Daisy Spedden penned and made for her seven-year-old son, Douglas as a Christmas present in 1913. It was cleverly written through the perspective of her son's Stieff polar bear. This true story chronicles the travel adventures of an American boy, his toy bear and his family, culminating with their narrow escape from the Titanic disaster. "Polar" the bear describes a magical Edwardian childhood --- sailing on legendary liners, watching the Panama Canal being built, riding the funicular railway in Monte Carlo, catching a brief and thrilling view of a real aeroplane flying overhead, and the exciting climb to the summit of the Eiffel Tower. When I came upon this treasure I was immediately captivated by this unusual vignette of a lost world.
The Speddens were typical members of Edwardian-American society. Daisy and Frederic devoted their lives to their son, travel and hobbies. In April 1912, after a season abroad visiting Madeira and various resorts on the Riviera, the Speddens booked passage on the Titanic. The family, along with Daisy's maid Alice Wilson and nanny Elizabeth Burns, who was rechristened by little Douglas as "Muddie Boons" because he could not quite pronounce her name, boarded the huge ship at Cherbourg. The group, including “Polar”, survived the ensuing disaster, and one of the few other things that Daisy was able to save from the sinking liner, was her diary. It is a fascinating artefact, a record of Daisy's thoughts and actions prior to and after the Titanic disaster.
Having spent so much time researching the Speddens and their period, I have grown very fond of them. Somehow it seemed appropriate to share their story, for they seem to epitomize an age. I had sent a copy of Daisy's manuscript along with copies of some of her photographs to the Titanic Historical Society, which brought it to the attention of Hugh Brewster of Madison Press Books; a Canadian publisher, who was then working with the THS to produce the successful book Titanic: An Illustrated History. Mr. Brewster agreed with me, that Daisy's manuscript had the makings of a wonderful children's book. The illustrations by Laurie McGaw for Polar The Titanic Bear are true to the original text and photographs . The book was first acquired by Little, Brown and Co., and Daisy's book, after being lost for over eighty years, is now available for all.
The Speddens always kept the memories of the Titanic to themselves, and proceeded with their lives as though nothing extraordinary had happened. They continued to travel even when faced with personal tragedy. Whilst at Winter Harbor, Maine, during the summer of 1915, Douglas, then age nine, was stuck by a delivery truck, sadly becoming the first auto fatality in the history of state of Maine. Frederic and Daisy Spedden dealt with their tragedy stoically, for they always had their faith firmly in Christian providence. They lived the remainder of their lives with close friends and family and continued to travel to familiar places that held many happy memories for them.
The trunk still contains the Spedden albums and papers as I found them and is safe and sound in my bedroom at my home, where it serves as my bedside table.
Leighton H. Coleman III | St. James, L.I