He saw everyone’s future but his own.
March 8, 2016
THERE ARE THOSE who believed that William Thomas Stead could see into the future. He had a direct line to the spirit world, or so they said. Even he admitted that he had regular conversations with the dead.
Stead had been brilliantly precocious as a child, reading Latin as easily as English by the time he was six years old. He became a newspaper editor, taking over the reins of the Darlington Northern Echo at the age of twenty-two, he said, because “it would be a glorious opportunity to attack the devil.”
When to stepped in to lead the Pall Mall Gazette in London, he ushered in a bold new age of newspaper reporting, dubbed as The New Journalism. He was innovative. His words were thought provoking. He introduced the personal interview to the pages of his newspaper. His articles became a force in politics. He tracked down scandals. His newspaper could elect a politician or leave him in ruin, and Stead became a master of both.
He invented the art of investigative journalism, deciding that it was often better to create news events than merely report on them. He went undercover and launched a crusade against child prostitution, even purchasing the thirteen-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep, in a series of vicious, hard-hitting articles entitled: The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon.
It was tabloid journalism at its best. England was shocked. Its innocence was lost. But England would never be satisfied with any other kind of reporting again. Yellow was the perfect color for journalism. England liked a good scandal and would pay good money to read all of the sordid details, especially when Stead wrote The Truth About Russia and If Christ Came to Chicago.
He knew where the dirt lay and owned the shovel to dig it up. Politicians read his articles first, and if their names weren’t mentioned, they knew it was going to be a good day. They had a lease on life, at least for twenty-four hour.
Yet the rumors persisted that William Thomas Stead was led by one driving force. He had the uncanny ability to look into the future. He knew what would happen the day after tomorrow and beyond. Perhaps that explained why he was so fearless.
No one could fight a man who already knew the outcome of the fight.
Stead did involve himself in the strange and curious world of psychics and so-called fortune tellers, founding a quarterly spiritualist publication called Borderland and spending a great deal of his time in psychical research. In particular, he said he was able to communicate with his assistant editor, who wrote under the pseudonym of “Miss X,” through the use of telepathy and automatic writing.
Other journalists and reporters had their private sources. So did William Thomas Stead. He talked to the spirit world and said his contact on the other side of death was Julia Ames, an American temperance reformer and journalist. He met her only once before her death. He spoke with her daily.
Perhaps the idea for the short story came from the spirit world. Perhaps Stead simply conjured it up from his own imagination. More probably, he told the story to prove an editorial point. He was good at that.
He published an article headlined How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor. The vessel had collided with another ship and began to slowly sink into the cold abyss of the sea.
As Stead wrote: She came slowly into us again, and I heard her bows crashing, for she had dashed clean against the bulks of the stokehole. One shrill scream came shuddering up from the cabin – only one – then a murmur, then a hoarse burst of yelling; then a man came up and cried, “Oh, my God!” and then, in a wild, remorseless, ferocious crowd, the steerage men trampled up, struggling, tearing each other’s clothes, cursing, praying. Some of the women battered and screamed as they tried to force the bolts of their door; then the whole crowd broke clear, and soon they were clinging to the men, praying, jabbering with notes of horrible pathos all kinds of incoherences. I ran aft and saw the barque waver, lurch, and then sink.
So many searched for lifeboats and could not find one.
So many died in the angry wash of the Atlantic.
Stead’s point was clear. His note at the end of the story said: This is exactly what might take place and what will take place if the liners are sent to sea short of boats.
A short time later, he wrote From the Old World to the New. Stead told of a ship that collided with an iceberg. Many died. Many were rescued by the Majestic and a sea captain named Edward Smith. Just a fable it was, a tale born out of some corner in his brain. No one thought he could have been a premonition.
Twenty-six years later, William Thomas Stead boarded a ship in Southampton bound for America. He had been invited, at the personal request of William Howard Taft, to participate in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall.
His cabin was first class. It had cost someone more than four thousand dollars. Stead was sailing with the other upper class socialites who believed that the Titanic was the newest, most prestigious, and safest vessel on the seas. He did not anticipate an iceberg waiting in the darkness. He should have. Stead had once written about such a fate.
He was asleep when he felt the jar. He immediately knew something was wrong. He had no idea what had happened or that the ship was going down. Men in first class didn’t drown, for God’s sakes. Men in first class surely had some holy dispensation.
He stepped out onto the deck and realized immediately that the ship would not survive the night. So many would search for lifeboats and not be able to find one. So many would die in the angry wash of the Atlantic. The Titanic had been sent to sea short of boats. He had warned them all, but no one listened.
Stead glimpsed the ship’s captain, a man named Edward Smith. Stead should have recognized it. It was so ironic, he thought. It was the name of the captain who had rescued so many survivors in the story he had written so long ago. Aboard the Titanic, Edward Smith would never know how many were rescued.
The end was near, and William Thomas Stead knew it.
He calmly walked into the first class smoking room, opened a book, sat down, and began to read. He was still reading when the waters washed him away.
He must have remembered the sounds swirling around him. The steerage men trampled up, struggling, tearing each other’s clothes, cursing, praying. Some of the women battered and screamed as they tried to force the bolts of their door; then the whole crowd broke clear, and soon they were clinging to the men, praying, jabbering with notes of horrible pathos all kinds of incoherences. I ran aft and saw the barque waver, lurch, and then sink.
The sounds, the words he wrote had tormented him for years.
There are those who say William Thomas Stead could look into the future. Maybe he could. He had simply forgotten to look into his own.