JACKSONVILLE'S TITANIC HERO
DR. ROBERT J. BATEMAN:
From the book Strangers On The Earth (Bluefish Books, 2006)
It was previously published in People Whose Faith Got Them Into Trouble (IVP, 1990)
John W. Cowart
The sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, spread grief across the nation as at least 1,502 people died in the shipwreck, but few cities were stricken as hard as Jacksonville.
Only one Floridian died aboard the liner when she sank -- the Rev. Robert J. Bateman.
He was Jacksonville's most popular public figure.
"Dr. Bateman was the most useful man in Jacksonville... His death is a public calamity," said one contemporary newspaper
A letter from a local prostitute had lead the minister to be on board the Titanic.
"He stood ever ready to save fallen women -- to secure homes for them and rescue them from lives of misery and degradation," said one newspaper of his work.
Dr. Bateman was a physician who had laid aside his medical practice to become a minister among destitute, downtrodden people.
He found plenty of them in Jacksonville during the first decade of this century.
As a major rail terminus and a wide-open port, Jacksonville attracted the broken dregs of humanity as well as citizens of great prosperity.
Mobs of sailors mingled with railroad workers, turpentine men, hobos, bankers and tourists in front of lavish resort hotels.
The city's reputation as a health resort lured tuberculosis patients from all over the country -- but when they arrived and had spent their savings, they often slept in the streets.
Most of Jacksonville had burned in the Great Fire of 1901, and a flurry of building activity had attracted hundreds of men seeking jobs. But in a few years, when construction lagged, they were thrown out of work.
The city's lumber mills sawed millions of board feet yearly. Over 500 steamers docked in Jacksonville annually, and nearly a hundred trains stopped each week.
Resting on landscaped sidings, railroad cars outfitted as lavish rolling palaces served as vacation homes for wealthy northerners passing through the city. Yet in the nearby commercial rail yards, hordes of single men and sometimes whole families of poor people slept beneath parked boxcars.
The Florida Ostrich Farm drew tourists from all over to see Oliver W. Oliver, the world's fastest bird, race competitors. Dixieland Park, the Disneyworld of its day, opened in 1907.
Opera and theatrical performances made the city a showplace. Jacksonville's cosmopolitan atmosphere attracted Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; the Indian fighter considered Jacksonville as winter quarters for the troop.
The dockyards swarmed with work. Smugglers traded in tons of contraband. Lavishly appointed excursion boats plied the river.
Traffic filled city streets as long ox teams dragged towering wagon loads of timber to the docks. Streetcars carried passengers to thronged hotels. And parking for both motorcars and horse teams began to create a problem. In 1908, the city witnessed a bizarre traffic accident involving a camel, a horse and a bicycle!
The stores along Bay Street, the main thoroughfare of the city, catered to every human necessity -- or whim. Hawkers offered live alligators, poached plumage from exotic birds, shark teeth carved into whistles, woven palmetto hats and umbrellas.
Shanty towns surrounded the core of Jacksonville and vice of every description flourished.
In dusty barns and makeshift arenas, crowds of sweating men gambled away their pay on prizefights, rat fights, cock fights, dog fights, and contests between dogs and a chained bear.
Crowds pressed to the storefront windows of tattoo parlors to watch the artists emblazon sailors with dragons, eagles, skulls and naked women.
Liquor flowed so free that temperance crusader Carrie Nation raided Jacksonville's Falstaff Saloon in 1908.
And rows of open brothels lined the streets of LaVilla, the section of the city known as the Jacksonville Tenderloin.
A few women worked in them by choice. Others were there because lack of education and economic circumstances forced them. Some women reportedly had been kidnapped and sold as slaves to the brothels.
Robert Bateman chose to work in LaVilla.
Born in Bristol, England, on October 14, 1860, Bateman came to this country after earning a medical degree in London. As a Christian physician, he became interested in urban rescue mission work.
In his evangelistic work among the down and outs, Bateman used a presentation with the innovative Magic Latern, a gas-burning slide-show forerunner of motion picture film. His forte was a presentation entitled The Passion Play, perhaps a forerunner of The Passion of The Christ!
In 1901 Bateman labored in Baltimore where he once conducted a service in which only three boys came forward to receive Christ.
Yet one of those boys was E. Stanley Jones, who became one of America’s most effective and famous Methodist missionaries and author of many books about Christ in India.
In his autobiography, A Song Of Ascents, Jones describes Bateman:
“Through his rough exterior I saw there was reality within. He was a converted alcoholic, on fire with God’s love and I said to myself, I want what he has!… I accepted him for what he was – a devoted, diamond-in-the-rough winner of souls”
Bateman came to Jacksonville to establish the Central City Mission (on left in photo) in 1904.
Bateman's mission combated poverty and evil in the heart of LaVilla.
One newspaper called Bateman "The man who distributes more human sunshine than any other in Jacksonville".
Another said, "If Jesus Christ had been in Jacksonville, He would have been seen often at the Central City Mission".
One monthly report showed, Bateman's mission served 1,284 meals to hungry people. He took in 836 homeless men for the night. He found jobs for 182 men. He sent food baskets to 12 families. He helped "five wayward girls" escape the brothels. He found homes for four orphan boys. And he took care of three babies which desperate mothers had abandoned on the steps of the mission.
Boar’s tusk, bottles & ox shoe from excavation at mission site
Bateman wrote a poem about LaVilla:
Foul Tenderloin, least wholesome spot in town,
Where vice and greed full many a man brings down...
Vile hovels of licentiousness and lees,
Haunts of base youth from which virtue flees;
How many hide behind your gaudy screen,
Where hollow happiness befouls each scene?
The dancers there, filled from the foaming cup,
Attempting each to hold the other up...
These are your "charms" dank section;
Spots like these, that on the morning after fail to please..
Bateman tried to care for the people no one else cared about.
"The object of this work," he wrote, "Is to visit the sick, visit the jail, visit the workhouse, feed the poor, clothe the needy, hold nightly meetings, provide a home for fallen girls, an employment bureau, free reading room, visit the hospitals, the distribution of religious literature, encourage temperance, help restore lost relatives, and send the wanderer home."
To do all this Bateman built the mission building himself.
One day as he worked in the hot sun laying the bricks, someone asked him if a preacher couldn't find a softer job in a nicer section of town.
"I had rather have my mission than the best church in America," he said.
While Bateman worked with the most destitute members of Jacksonville society, he also mingled with the highest social elements of the city and the nation.
In 1908, Jacksonville's mayor appointed Bateman to attend the National Conference of Charities in Richmond, Va. He met with delegates from the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Society and the National Conference of Jewish Charities to plan effective relief work for all elements of society.
President Theodore Roosevelt invited Bateman to the White House to discuss the work.
Bateman attacked Jacksonville's problems with sin, poverty, vice and drunkenness in several ways innovative for the day: He worked with the Broad Street Merchant's Association (a forerunner of the present-day Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce) to attract wholesome businesses and shoppers into LaVilla.
One of their efforts involved sponsoring a street carnival in front of the mission. The promotion featured "Paduano's Royal Italian Concert Band; Princes Olga, the daintiest, smallest woman in public life; Thompkin's Wild West Show, 10 human freaks -- and one giant octopus."
Bateman was a member of the Jacksonville Ministers' Alliance and he involved members of mainline churches in helping the poor.
Another of his efforts which involved rich and poor alike -- involved firewood.
At the turn of the century, most people in Jacksonville heated their homes with fire wood. Most food was cooked on wood stoves.
The city needed a lot of firewood.
Bateman employed out-of- work men in the mission's woodlot. The men chopped and split firewood. Then they loaded it on horse-drawn wagons and delivered it to poor people free. Wealthy people bought their wood from the mission.
Mission clients split & delivered firewood.
"There is not a sweat drop that falls from the brow of honest labor but is a jewel richer in the eyes of Heaven than all the flashing baubles in the coronets of dukes," Bateman said.
Before long, just about everyone in Jacksonville -- rich and poor alike -- knew Dr. Bateman.
His work made him the most popular man in the city.
"He went about doing good," said one newspaper. "He gathered in the sin-scarred brood, the poor, broken ones, penniless, homeless, helpless, hungry and in rags. He housed the homeless. He fed the hungry. He clothed the naked. He helped the helpless to help themselves."
A letter from a prostitute inspired him to do even more:
Dear Dr. Bateman,
I hear you are going to start a home for us girls. I want to come to it... I can't do anything that is worth anything to anybody. I have tried to leave here but nobody will give me work... This place is terrible and I know lots of girls will come. For God's sake do something quick.
--- From a Certain House on Davis Street
Bateman felt compelled to help.
In Bristol, England, where Bateman had been born, a man named George Muller had established a home for over 3,000 orphans. This orphanage functioned without any fund raising activity -- except prayer.
Bateman wanted to organize a hospital and "home for fallen women" as part of Central City Mission's work. He planed to pattern his work after the Bristol orphanage.
He traveled to England to learn more of Muller's work.
A newspaper called his trip, "A tour of investigation to the hotbeds of iniquity in London, England".
Another reported, "Dr. Bateman has been making a tour of study and observation in England for the purpose of familiarizing himself with the best methods of lifting fallen humanity".
While studying fallen humanity in the hotbeds, Dr. Bateman conducted revival services in English churches.
When he preached in Bristol, he usually closed the services with his favorite hymn, "Nearer My God To Thee".
His preaching was so popular that upon his departure. a band playing that same hymn, escorted him and Mrs. Ada Ball, his sister-in-law, to the train which took them to the Titanic.
"Crowds stood in front of the house...They cheered him when he came out and great big men broke down and sobbed like little children when he said good-by," Mrs. Ball said.
The Titanic was the heaviest moving object made by man when she was launched. The world's largest and most luxurious ship was 882.5 feet long with a gross tonnage of 46,328 tons.
On this, her maiden voyage, the Titanic carried 2,207 people.
Enjoying first class accommodations were the cream of American and Continental society. First class passengers were estimated to be collectively worth over $500,000,000.
Regal suits on the Titanic cost $4,350 each and included a private promenade deck.
Bateman and Mrs. Ball traveled second class.
The pastor amused his sister-in-law by comparing features of the Titanic to features of Jacksonville around the Central City Mission.
"I was always afraid of the water; Robert was jolly and comforted me. 'We are going up old Broad Street,' he would say as he walked with me on the decks...
"That's the subway and there is the viaduct in Jacksonville,' he would say pointing at the bridge...
"I have never seen anyone more happy than Robert was ... He sang to himself any time he was not preaching," Mrs. Ball said.
All Titanic passengers traveled in comfort, luxury -- and security.
"With her numerous watertight compartments she is absolutely unsinkable and it makes no difference what she hit," said P.A. Franklin, highest US official of the White Star Line.
"God, Himself, could not sink this ship," boasted one deckhand.
After she was rescued, Mrs. Ball told what happened aboard the Titanic:
On Sunday, April 14, 1912, she said, Dr. Bateman conducted the only religious service held aboard the doomed liner.
He concluded the service by calling passengers to turn to Christ. The closing hymn was "Nearer My God To Thee", Mrs Ball said.
One survivor said that Dr. Bateman was, “The most popular man on the Titanic”.
That same night, at 11:45 p.m., an iceberg grazed the side of the Titanic. The ice peeled a 300-foot strip from the steel hull.
"For some time we had been seeing icebergs of various sizes floating in the ocean. Despite this fact, the ship was running at a tremendous rate of speed," Mrs. Ball said.
One passenger said the sound of the metal being stripped from the ship's side sounded no louder than a piece of cloth being torn. Mrs. Ball's roommate said, "It was a tremendous shock that made me think the boilers had blown up."
Mrs. Ball was asleep when the ship struck. Her roommate woke her. "I laughed at her and told her there was nothing wrong and went back to sleep," Mrs. Ball said.
Bateman pounded on the door to the women's cabin.
There was no time to dress. Mrs. Ball ventured onto the boat deck in her nightgown. Feeling the Artic cold, she wanted to go back to the cabin for warm clothes. Bateman held her back, he took off his overcoat and draped it around her shoulders.
Mrs. Ball later told reporters:
"The boat was at that time listed away over to starboard and sinking in front so that we could hardly walk...
"I will never forget Robert as he stood on the deck with me... 'The boat is slanting,' I told him.
"'Yes,' he answered, 'We have struck terribly hard.'
"Well,,' I said, 'If there's any danger, I am ready,
"'Thank God, so am I,' he said."
The Titanic carried lifeboats sufficient for less than half the number of people on board. Hundreds of people, not sure where to go or what to do, milled around on the decks.
As Bateman escorted the women to one of the boats, he said, " Don't be nervous, Annie. This will test our faith. I must stay and let the women go. If we never meet again on this earth, we will meet again in Heaven".
"As the boat lowered Robert stepped to the railing and threw me his silk handkerchief. 'Put that around your throat,' he said. 'You'll catch cold.' Just imagine thinking of such a little thing in a time like that," she said.
"Survivors were literally thrown from the top deck into the boats as they were being swung from the davits and lowered to the black water below," she said.
Confusion and turmoil ruled in the lifeboat.
"I found a baby in my possession without the least idea whom it belonged to. I never did find out... Our boat had more children in it than any of the others." said Mrs. Ball's roommate.
After he saw the women safely off the sinking ship, Bateman "Collected about 50 men on the stern of the ship and told them that they should prepare for death. And he led them in praying the Lord's Prayer," said a surviving passenger.
Edward A. Mueller, curator of the Jacksonville Maritime Museum, said, “Dr. Bateman and another man were also purported to have opened some of the steerage passageway doors to allow those mostly unfortunate and ill-fated passengers to escape”.
Mueller tells of teenager Jamilia Yarred and her brother Elias who traveled as third-class passengers aboard the Titanic. They survived the wreck and, oddly enough, in later life they became Jacksonville residents.
Elias said, “An old man saw us and climbed up the ladder to get me. He carried me safely down the shaky ladder and put me in a crowded lifeboat. Then he wend back up and got Jamilia. She was heavy and hard to manage but he got her into the lifeboat just as it was pulling away from the sinking ship”.
Jamilia thought she was one of the last passengers on the last boat. She only remembered standing on the deck… panic stricken… while water started to engulfed the deck. Some old man then put her aboard the lifeboat. “Of course,” Mueller said, “No one know if this was Bateman, but it is characteristic”.
Mrs. Ball's life boat remained near the Titanic. She believed that Bateman persuaded the band to play "Nearer My God to Thee" in the Titanic's last moments.
"Before we had been in the boat very long we saw the Titanic go down... The stars were bright and we could see the lights of the ship. The band was on the stern and went down playing. We could hear the screams of those on board and crys of 'Save Us' but of course we could do nothing," she said.
As the bow of the ship filled with water, the stern rose higher and higher till the Titanic stood nearly perpendicular to the icy Atlantic. The lights of the ship remained on, even in the bow already submerged, giving a rosy submarine glow. Those in the lifeboats could see men clinging to handholds "like clusters of bees on a tree."
Then the ship slid under.
"The ship struck head-on and appeared to collapse in half just before it went down," Mrs. Ball said.
"When she sank there was silence. A moment later the cries and supplications of 1,500 dying men rose in melancholy chorus over the spot where she went down."
Hundreds of men struggled in the freezing water.
"It was heart-rending and piteous to hear the awful cries and moans just as the ship was sinking. Lights remained until within three or four minutes before the ship sank but gradually disappeared from view as the ship went down and left a black space and shadow of a huge iceberg," she said.
"I saw one of the lifeboats with thirty or forty, tip over as it was being lowered and all were thrown into the water to drown. Many swam in different directions. We could only see those nearest our boat. I saw at least 200 bodies in the water."
She also said that she saw a man in another lifeboat shooting at swimmers to keep them away.
Col. Archibald Gracie later told what it was like in the water:
"Again and again I prayed for deliverance although I felt sure that the end had come... I reached the surface after a time that seemed unending. There was nothing in sight save the ice and a large field of wreckage. There were dying men and women all about me...
"One of the Titanic's funnels separated and fell apart near me scattering the bodies in the water...
"A great crate-like block of wood floated within my grasp and I grabbed it," he said.
Gracie eventually found a lifeboat which was floating upside down in the water. He joined 20 men standing on the upturned bottom.
"Presently the raft became so full that it seemed she would sink if more came aboard and the crew for self-preservation, had to refuse to permit others to climb aboard. This was at once the most pathetic and the most horrible scene of all. The piteous cries of those around us still ring in my ears...
"Through all that wild night there was not a moment that our prayers did not arise above the waters. Men who seemed to have forgotten long ago how to address their Creator recalled prayers of their childhood and murmured them. We said the Lord's Prayer again and again together...
"And so we passed the night with the waves washing over us and the raft buried deep in the water under our feet ... We stood in columns two deep, back to back, balancing ourselves, fearful to move lest the delicate balance should be disturbed and all of us thrown into the water. We were standing and content to stand and pray... The slipping of one man would have meant the death probably of us all," Gracie said.
The women in the life boats did not fare much better.
Mrs. Ball and her companions spent seven hours in the lifeboat which had sprung a plank when it hit the water. They bailed all night to keep from being swamped and they burned handkerchiefs and strips of clothing for warmth and light.
The first rescue ship arrived at dawn.
Of the 2,207 aboard the Titanic, only 705 survived.
Some men had fought for a place in a lifeboat; Robert Bateman had died to give room to others.
After treatment at Sydenham Hospital in New York, Mrs. Ball came to Jacksonville to stay with her sister, Mrs. Bateman.
Ten days after the disaster, the widow received a letter from her dead husband. Bateman had written on shipboard and mailed the letter in Ireland when the Titanic had stopped for more passengers.
"I feel that my trip has not been in vain," his letter said. "God has singularly blessed me. We had a glorious revival... It was the Time of My Life."
His nephew received a letter mailed at the same time.
"Tom, if this ship goes to the bottom, I shall not be there, I shall be up yonder. Think of it!" Bateman had written.
When the family pried open Bateman's locked roll-top desk, they found that he had set his affairs in order and that he had written a poem on a black-bordered card and left it on top of his papers:
Do you shudder as you picture
All the horrors of that hour?
Ah! But Jesus was beside me
To sustain me by His power.
And He came Himself to meet me
In that way so hard to tread
And with Jesus' arm to cling to
Could I have one doubt or dread?
Several weeks later, the cable ship McKay Bennet found Bateman's body floating in the ocean. In his watch case was a photograph of George Muller.
The recovered body was taken to Nova Scotia.
Memorial services for Dr. Bateman were held in London and Bristol but city officials from Baltimore and Memphis telegraphed officials in Nova Scotia to ship the body to them.
"Conflicting telegrams were being received from so many different places that the officials of the White Star Line were at a loss to know where to send the body," reported the May 6, 1912, Metropolis newspaper.
Mrs. Bateman had to appeal to a federal judge and the mayor of Jacksonville before she could have her husband's body shipped home for burial in Jacksonville's Evergreen Cemetery.
The funeral service at First Baptist Church was the largest in Jacksonville's history at that time.
Mourners, some in rags, some in best-dress finery, lined the route of the funeral procession. Rich and poor hugged each other and wept.
The minister delivering the eulogy said, "I somehow felt from the first that Dr. Bateman would be among the lost ... Knowing Dr. Bateman as I knew him, I believed he would do just what he did in a crisis like that -- help others to safety and take his chances among the last.
"How beautifully characteristic of the man.
"With the courtesy of a gentleman and the spirit of Him who laid down his life for others, he stepped aside for the women and children and took his place with those marked for certain death.
"It was so like him.
"He died as he lived -- serving others with a triumphant faith in God."
-- END --
Click here for a Bateman/Titanic photo gallery link.
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