How Science—and a Broken Heart—Helped Identify Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley's Lost Violin
In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, as the R.M.S. Titanic was continuing its descent into the chilly, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, bandleader Wallace Hartley urged his seven musicians to continue playing.
The apocryphal version has Hartley tucking his violin under his chin and leading them in a rendition of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the ship sank. While it makes for a poignant finale, it's more likely that Hartley played "Songe d'Automne," a slow waltz that scored the untimely demise of more than 1500 passengers, including Hartley and all his bandmates.
When bodies began to be recovered in the days to come, authorities took inventory of any personal effects that were found. In this official registry of Hartley, a.k.a. Body 224, no mention was made of his violin, his bow, or its case. He had been in the water for 10 days. The German-crafted wooden instrument was largely believed to have been lost to the sea.
Nearly 100 years later, a UK-based auctioneer named Andrew Aldridge received a phone call from a man with a strange story to tell. Up in his late mother's attic, he told Aldridge, was a small collection of items he believed would be of interest to Titanic historians and collectors.
When Aldridge visited his caller in 2006, he was shown several items that purportedly belonged to Hartley, including sheet music and a leather valise with the musician's initials. But Aldridge's attention was drawn to a violin: It was cracked and weathered, with only two strings remaining. A silver plate on the tailpiece read:
For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.
Aldridge felt a surge of excitement. He had facilitated the sale of several Titanic relics, but nothing had ever compared to the holy grail of the Hartley violin. If this truly belonged to the musician, it would be one of the most important discoveries from the ship in history. And if it was the violin he played as the ship went down, it would be the most valuable.
But how had the violin survived immersion? And if Hartley secured it to his body before going into the water, why wasn't it listed among his personal effects?
It would be seven years before Aldridge had his answers.
For decades, collectors and researchers had debated the existence of the Hartley violin. Some believed Hartley would be too panicked to bother securing his violin in its case and strapping it to himself before he was forced to go into the water; others pointed to contemporaneous news accounts which mentioned Hartley's violin had indeed been recovered during the salvage operation.
"At that point [in 2006], I think the collecting community generally believed it did not exist," Craig Sopin, an attorney and Titanic memorabilia expert who consulted with the Aldridge & Son auction house, tells Mental Floss. "But a lot of us hoped it did."
Four newspapers at the time reported Hartley had been found with the instrument strapped to him, but those were challenged by more conservative historians who cited the official inventory and its list of items that were returned to family members. These logs noted that Hartley had a fountain pen, money, and a cigarette case, but made no mention of the violin. "There was just no hard evidence," Sopin says.
Hartley himself had been something of an enigma. Born in 1878 as the son of a choirmaster, the bandleader had been a bank teller before pursuing his passion for music. Hartley had been on well over 80 sea voyages before he was hired to lead the musicians on the Titanic. It's likely he perceived the highly coveted job as a chance to make some good money. In a letter written to his parents the day of the April 10 launch, Hartley implied that wealthy passengers might offer tips.
"It was a feather in his cap," Sopin says. "He was fortunate at first, although not fortunate at all in the end."
An avowed ladies' man who fancied himself a bit of an early-century hipster—he referred to himself as "Hotley" in correspondence—Hartley had seemingly abandoned his bachelorhood for Maria Robinson, the daughter of a cloth manufacturer. The two were scheduled to be married just months after Hartley's expected return, with Hartley looking to support his wife-to-be with more bookings at sea.
While Hartley's fate became part of a great 20th century tragedy, Robinson's personal anguish was never heavily publicized. She wrote letters to authorities in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had jurisdiction over the wreck, requesting all of Hartley's personal belongings be returned to her. In a diary entry dated July 1912 and uncovered during the investigation into the instrument's history, Robinson drafted a note thanking them for returning the violin. So why didn't the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, tasked with recovering bodies, make any mention of it?
"That turned out to be the easiest hurdle to knock down," Sopin says. "What we learned is that there were many personal items not logged but returned to family, and their inventory was just not very detailed." Almost every body had been recovered wearing a life jacket, Sopin says, and almost all went unreported.
Like the life jackets, Hartley's valise that he kept his violin in would have been strapped to his body, opening up the possibility that the recovery team ignored items worn by the corpses. "It wasn't something he could put in his pocket," Sopin says, "so it may not have been considered a personal effect."
The paper trail assembled by Sopin and other researchers provided further credence to the theory that Hartley had taken the violin with him. When Maria Robinson died in 1939, her sister Margaret was charged with handling her personal possessions. The violin was given to Major Renwick, a bandleader with the Bridlington Salvation Army who also taught music. He gave it to a student of his, a woman stationed in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She later wrote of the gift that it had suffered damage and was not playable due to having "an eventful life."
It remained in her possession for close to 75 years. The call Aldridge received was from the music student's son, who had been responsible for sorting his mother's belongings following her death. (The seller, wishing anonymity, has not disclosed the family name.)
The story was reasonable, but none of it offered conclusive proof that the violin in the attic was the same violin played on the outer deck of the ship during the commotion. For that, Aldridge would turn to experts in the fields of corrosion, silver, and musical instruments to determine if the violin had been in the water the night of April 15, 1912.
"The best way to describe the research was like a jigsaw puzzle with numerous component pieces," Aldridge tells Mental Floss. "Each one had to fit together, whether it be scientific, historical, or research."
To date the violin to the night of the wreck, Aldridge first approached the now-defunct UK Forensic Science Services and their trace analysis expert, Michael Jones. (Citing confidentiality clauses with his former employer, a representative for Jones declined to comment for this story.) Performing a salinization test would determine whether the instrument had ever been submerged in saltwater. "If that had been negative, the investigation would have ended there," Sopin says.
It was positive. Jones could then examine the metal portions of the violin, including the engraved tailpiece and the lock on the valise, and compare the corrosion to other metal items recovered both from Hartley and from other victims that were in the hands of private collectors. "It was not a quick process," Aldridge says. "These are not the sorts of items that are easily obtained."
Eventually, Jones was able to determine the deposits were consistent with those found in items definitively known to be recovered from the site. He also tried examining algae on the violin to see if it was consistent with the part of the North Atlantic where the ship struck the iceberg, Sopin says, but results were inconclusive.
Because Aldridge's intent was to prove its provenance beyond all doubt, the authentication continued. The straps of the valise were measured and found to be 90 inches long, leaving plenty of give to tie the case around Hartley’s body. Aldridge also consulted with gemologist Richard Slater, who examined the engraved plate and found no evidence it had ever been removed or recently applied to the instrument.
Aldridge took it in for a CT scan at Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, which revealed stress fractures in the wood—the kind that may have rendered it unplayable according to Renwick's student—and a type of glue that would not have dissolved in seawater. (The heavy leather valise provided additional protection from the water.) Aldridge also consulted instrument expert Andrew Hooker, who held no opinion about the violin's connection to the Titanic but confirmed it was made in the late 19th century and was re-varnished and rebuilt, likely owing to the damage incurred after 10 days of immersion.
"The violin was nothing special," Hooker tells Mental Floss. "Just a cheap, factory-made German instrument."
Of course, the instrument's value was tied completely to where it was played, and by whom. By 2013, both Aldridge and Sopin—a notoriously skeptical collector who made for a strong litmus test—were convinced. After seven years and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, Aldridge believed he had his answer.
"I remained neutral until I didn't," Sopin says. "I believe the violin was on the Titanic."
The owner's desire had always been to take the violin and the other Hartley items to auction. Armed with reams of supporting evidence from forensic experts, that's exactly what Aldridge and Son did on October 19, 2013. TV satellites and media were parked outside the Devizes, Wiltshire, England facility, the site of the auction.
Behind the podium, Aldridge began the bidding at 50 pounds, or roughly $65. Bidders on the floor and via telephone quickly got down to business, taking bids from 80,000 pounds to 500,000 to 750,000. By the time Aldridge brought down the gavel a final time, the violin had sold for 1.1 million pounds, or $1.7 million. (The valise was sold separately for 20,000 pounds, or $26,000.)
As is often the case with big-ticket auction items, the buyer has no desire to be named—although it's probably not Sopin. "I would have considered paying something," he says, "but not $1.7 million."
Sopin believes the buyer is male and resides in the UK. It's also known that he allowed the violin to go on display at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as its sister location in Branson, Missouri, in 2016.
As of now, no other Titanic artifact has come close to realizing a similar sale price, a testament to the emotional impact of what would otherwise be an unremarkable instrument. In playing for terrified passengers, Hartley and his band used their talent under extreme duress to maintain a sense of order and civility, likely saving lives in the process. His funeral was reportedly attended by 30,000 to 40,000 people.
While Aldridge performed his due diligence above and beyond reasonable doubt, some historians still question why a distressed Hartley would have bothered with the violin at all. "Hartley's mother commented on this," Sopin says. "She thought if he felt there was any hope at all of getting off the ship, he would have taken the violin."
Additional Sources: Auction Background [PDF].