The Tale of Two Gunnery Alumni who Sailed Aboard Titanic

Two Gunnery alumni, Alexander Taylor Compton, Jr., Class of 1893, and Richard Beckwith, Class of 1895, who were both passengers aboard the Titanic when it sank in 1912, were featured in the autumn issue of the Titanic International Society’s quarterly journal, “Voyage,” out this month.
Compton, who was known to his contemporaries as “Compie,” went down with the ship, while Beckwith survived, and shared a chilling, detailed account of the sinking in a letter to John Chapin Brinsmade, who was then the school’s second Headmaster. While the stories of these two alumni are intertwined, and have been previously documented in school publications and Adam Korpalski’s book, “The Gunnery: 1850 to 1975, A Documentary History of Private Education in America,” among other sources, the author of the journal article asserts little was known about Compton outside of his family or the school – until now. “The only formal portrait known of Alexander is his graduation portrait from The Gunnery,” claimed Brandon Whited, who wrote the article and is also a Titanic International Society Trustee.

Paula Krimsky, former School Archivist and Associate Director of Marketing & Communications, was contacted in July by Whithed, after he had discovered a photograph of a memorial plaque in a catalog published by the Gorham Manufacturing Company in 1914. The plaque was inscribed, “In memory of Alexander Taylor Compton, Gunnery 1891, who was lost with the sinking of the S.S. Titanic, April 15th 1912, erected by his school friends.”

The catalog “contained no additional information on this memorial,” Whited wrote to Krimsky, inquiring, “Is this memorial plaque still installed somewhere on The Gunnery campus? If not, do you know if it ever was? Secondly, we would very much love to find an image of Alexander Taylor Compton, Jr. As far as we know, his image has never been seen... outside of family.”

Krimsky, who had previously been in contact with the Titanic International Society, in preparation for The Gunnery’s sesquicentennial in 2000, confirmed that the memorial, indeed, still stands on the school’s baseball field. According to the 1913 Red and Grey, it was dedicated on June 1 of that year, during Alumni Weekend. “He was a Gunnery Alumnus, much loved and respected, and was lost with the ill-fated Titanic. High tributes were paid to him by Mr. Brinsmade and his associates,” the yearbook account said.

“It’s a great story,” Krimsky said, noting that for years, the captain of the baseball team laid flowers at the monument in April. For some time, the school also carried on the tradition of reading aloud Beckwith’s extensive letter of Compton’s last hours to students.

“I would read that at school meetings on the anniversary of the sinking,” confirmed Tom Hollinger P’04, who, along with previous headmasters, also sought to bring back the service at Compton’s memorial in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he was Director of Alumni & Development.

Krimsky shared with Whithed photographs of the memorial service, including one taken in 2012, thus coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, along with scanned images of Compton and Beckwith, who played on the same baseball team at Gunnery, and a copy of the letter from Beckwith – all of which are housed in the Paula and George Krimsky ’60 Archives and Special Collections.

Beckwith wrote to Brinsmade within weeks of the tragedy and recounted that a week before Titanic sailed, he ran into Compton by chance in Paris. “He told me that he and his family had just decided to go on the Titanic,” said Beckwith, who went on to London and boarded the ship on April 10, 1912, in Southampton, England, while the Comptons boarded at Cherbourg, France. They had just four days together on board before the ship went down.

“Compie and I were together almost constantly, and on the night we were wrecked, we had been sitting together in the smoke room for more than an hour when, about 11:35 I suggested that we go below before the lights went out and we parted in the corridor,” Beckwith wrote. “I was just going into the lavatory when I felt a sort of scraping jar on the starboard side, just as if we had barely touched a piece of floating wreckage, and the ship staggered the least bit but not enough to unbalance me or to cause me the least apprehension.

“I went to my stateroom and told Mrs. Beckwith that there was no cause for alarm, but just then someone in our corridor, who chanced to have been looking out of a porthole, reported that we had struck an iceberg and he had seen it go by, so I told Mrs. B. that I would go on deck and see it for myself, which I did, and remained there fully fifteen minutes, talking with about a dozen men who had likewise come up.”

Soon after, a room steward whispered to him that the mailroom, located two decks below his stateroom, “was flooded and that the mails and baggage were all gone.” Though he “firmly believed there was not the slightest danger,” Beckwith took the stairs down one level and confirmed that the water appeared to be 10-feet deep. Word was passed that he and his wife, Sallie, and step-daughter, Helen Newsom, should put on life jackets and move to the upper deck. “This we did at once without hurry or confusion,” he noted.

On deck, they found fewer than 30 people had gathered, but among them were Compton, his mother, Mary Eliza, and sister, Sara Rebecca. The two men spoke briefly. “I still believed that the ship was unsinkable, but that it was necessary to take every precaution,” Beckwith wrote. “Just then they began to fill the first boat on our side, and I said to Alex that this was a final precaution, but that we would be back on board again in an hour.”

The first lifeboat was launched, and as a second was being prepared, Beckwith’s wife insisted that they take their places. “I turned and motioned for Compie to follow. He nodded his head and I saw him take his mother’s arm and, with his sister, start after us. That is the last time I saw him, alive or dead. I cannot understand what happened nor why they were not all saved in our boat.”

Afterward, Beckwith learned there were just 44 passengers in the lifeboat, which he said could have easily accommodated 50 or more. J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, held the boat for up to three minutes, calling at least twice for more passengers before it was lowered into the sea. “There positively was not a passenger, man or woman, in sight when the final order to lower away was given, and I was certain the Comptons were in the boat,” Beckwith wrote.

His letter was published in its entirety in this month’s journal article, which also includes photographs of Beckwith and Compton from the school archives, and a reference to the resolution adopted by The Gunnery Alumni Association following Compton’s death. The alumni recalled Compton as one of their own and grieved his loss, “holding in affectionate remembrance the lovable qualities of his character, his loyalty to The Gunnery and his devotion to his friends.”

The resolution continued, “we further record our admiration for and pride in this Gunnery boy whose consideration for others resulted in the sacrifice of his own life.”

“It is truly moving just how greatly the loss of Alexander Compton, Jr. was felt by his school,” Whited observed in the article. “It seems a safe assumption that ‘dear Compie’ never will be forgotten by The Gunnery.”

Read the full article in “Voyage” here.
From the Autumn 2019 issue of Voyage, the quarterly journal of Titanic International Society, Inc., Midland Park, New Jersey. © 2019 Brandon Whited and Titanic International Society, Inc., and republished by their permission.

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.