Letter from Pope to U.S. president went down with Titanic
Photo: This illustration depicts the sinking of the Titanic. (Credit: Everett Historical / CNA)
On the fateful voyage that embarked from Southampton and never made it to New York City, a passenger on the RMS Titanic named Major Archibald Willingham Butt was tasked with a special mission.
He was to carry a letter from Pope Pius X and personally deliver it to U.S. President William H. Taft.
But the 45-year-old major perished along with more than 1,500 other passengers the night of April 15, 1912, with the contents of the letter never to be known.
Born in 1865 in Augusta, Georgia, Major Butt began a career in journalism after graduating from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. He later worked as first secretary of the United States Embassy in Mexico. During the Spanish-American war, he joined the army and was later appointed in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt as his military aid. When President Taft was elected, Major Butt was kept on staff and promoted to the rank of major in 1911.
By the next year, his health began to deteriorate – some speculating this was due to him wanting to stay neutral and supportive amid tense political rivalry between Taft and Roosevelt, the latter of whom was planning a re-election campaign.
On a leave of absence, Major Butt embarked on a six-week tour of Europe in March of 1912 with his friend, artist Francis Millet. President Taft gave the major a letter to deliver to Pius X while in Rome, which he did on March 21. In return, Pius X gave him a letter to deliver to the president, according to the U.K. National Archives.
The major boarded the RMS Titanic in Southampton on April 12.
When the ship struck an iceberg in the waters of the Atlantic on the evening of April 15, he was seen in the smoking room, playing cards with Millett, the two ostensibly making no attempt to save themselves. Other sources, however, report his heroism.
According to Biography.com, The New York Times reported survivor Renee Harris as saying he helped the sailors place women and children safely into lifeboats – even threatening bodily harm to any man who tried to circumvent the process.
“Women will be attended to first or I'll break every ... bone in your body,” he told one such unfortunate gentleman, according to Harris. The major helped “frightened people so wonderfully, tenderly, and yet with such cool and manly firmness. He was a soldier to the last,” Harris reportedly said.