If newspaper articles had routinely carried reporters’ bylines 100 years ago, there would be no question now about who got one of the biggest scoops of the early 20th century, the April 18, 1912, interview with the surviving telegraph operator from the Titanic.
It was published the morning after survivors of the disaster arrived in New York aboard the Carpathia, the ship that had rescued them in the Atlantic Ocean. The account, a high point of The New York Times’s coverage of one of the defining events of the years before World War I, was important enough to rate a byline — unusual in those days.
But the article was written in the first person. So the byline was that of the telegraph operator, Harold Bride — not that of the reporter who had taken down Bride’s words.
Who was the reporter?
Meyer Berger’s 1951 book “The Story of The New York Times,” told how the managing editor, Carr V. Van Anda, had mobilized his staff to question survivors when the Carpathia arrived.
Berger said Van Anda had sent most of his reporters toward the pier but ordered one to go uptown, to where Guglielmo Marconi was having dinner with John Bottomley, the general manager of Marconi’s operations in the United States. Berger said that Marconi, Bottomley and the reporter then went to the pier together — and that Marconi and the reporter managed to board the ship even though a police officer had bellowed “no reporters” at them. The officer, who took Bottomley to be the reporter, shoved him into the crowd.
“The Trust,” a 1999 book about The Times by Susan Tifft and Alex S. Jones, contains a long note about the interview with the wireless operator that largely matched Berger’s account. Only the reporter’s name was different. Berger identified him as Jim Speers. “The Trust” said he was Isaac Russell.
Kenneth L. Cannon II, a lawyer from Salt Lake City who has done biographical research on Russell, wrote to The Times of the Titanic disaster identified the reporter as Speers. Mr. Cannon included what he said was the only description of Russell’s feat published around the time of the Titanic disaster, a column called “Salt Lakers in Gotham” that had appeared in a Utah newspaper.
University of Utah/J Willard Marriott Library, via Special Collections Department
“Salt Lakers in Gotham” said that Russell had “produced the most thrilling story of the disaster yet given.” It also described how Russell, who was born in Salt Lake City, had been mistaken for Marconi’s right-hand man.
So who was Jim Speers, and why did Berger, himself a peerless reporter with a reputation for accuracy in details, credit him?
There is no evidence that a Jim Speers worked at The Times, but The Times had a reporter who was apparently known as Lem Speers. By the 1920s, when reporters’ names began appearing over their articles, his byline was L.C. Speers.
Is it possible that Berger, writing his book almost four decades after the Titanic disaster, had access to notes about the night the Carpathia came in — perhaps an informal, handwritten account in which “Lem” could have looked like “Jim”? Was Speers one of the four Times reporters who had been given passes onto the pier where the Carpathia docked? Did Speers play some other role in getting the interview into print? Was he, say, a rewrite man who polished what Russell handed in?
If so, the evidence is elusive. When Speers died in 1946 at age 70, his obituary in The Times said he had reported from London, Mexico City and South America. It also said he had covered the Teapot Dome scandal, among other stories, during his years in The Times’s Washington bureau. But it made no mention of the Titanic.
For his part, Russell seems not to have mentioned the Bride interview until 1917, in an article in The Evening Mail, where he worked after he left The Times (Van Anda dismissed him in 1915 over an article that had to do with Theodore Roosevelt). Mr. Cannon sent a copy of the Mail article, along with a longer and more detailed account in a manuscript that Russell wrote later still, after he had moved to Chicago, where he died in 1927.
In the manuscript, he described his frustration on realizing that the assignments had been given out for “this most important of nights” and that he had been overlooked. He called it “a stinging blow” and said he had “never before been so humiliated.” (He did not explain why the editors might have sidelined him.)
The New York Times
“In a blue mood,” he wrote in the manuscript, “I started from the office to buy a” — he typed “pair of shoes” but crossed that out and wrote “dinner.”
He wrote that Van Anda stopped him on the way out and sent him to Bottomley’s house (Russell repeatedly spelled the Marconi manager’s name “Bottomely.”) Van Anda wanted a letter saying the Marconi wireless operators on the Carpathia had permission to talk to Times reporters. Van Anda wanted the letter delivered to one of the Times reporters who had a pass to the pier.
Russell said he rushed off on this “humble errand.”
In the article in The Mail, Russell said that Marconi appeared at the door while Bottomley was going over the letter. Marconi asked, “Do you think your newspaper could get me a pass?”
Russell said he called The Times. “An assistant managing editor answered: ‘Our passes are all used up,’” Russell wrote.
But Russell told Marconi a different story: “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will have your pass for you.’”
At the pier, after Russell had given the letter to colleagues at The Times’s command post in a nearby hotel, the police were standing guard. “‘We are three,’ I had said,” Russell wrote in the manuscript, “‘Marconi, his chief engineer and myself, a reporter off duty.’’
“But I had placed my reporter’s police card in the engineer’s hat to help him along as he sought to follow us,” Russell wrote. “In his confusion, the guard grabbed the engineer and threw him back while Marconi and I were more lifted than shoved” onto the deck of the Carpathia.
Together they found Bride. And when Marconi and Russell left the ship, they went to The Times, where Russell pounded out the article. He said he cried as he wrote.
As for Marconi, “the Nabobs of The Times had him by now and were rushing him off for a midnight dinner,” Russell declared in the manuscript. “I turned back to my typewriter. They say literature is truth touched by emotion. I have written steadily for 20 years or more. If ever I wrote literature, that was the night.”
Library of Congress, via Associated Press