Written by Jeffrey A. Marks
On the written page, Jacques Futrelle could devise the most ingenious of “impossible escapes.” On the tragic night of April 14, 1912, however, the celebrated author of “The Problem of Cell 13,” refused his only chance to escape the sinking Titanic.
“There was not the slightest thought of danger in the minds of those who sat around the tables in the luxurious dining saloon of the Titanic. It was a brilliant crowd. Jewels flashed from the gowns of the women, how fondly they wore their latest Parisian gowns! It was the first time many of them had an opportunity to display their newly acquired finery.”
—Mrs. Jacques [May] Futrelle, all quotes are from The Boston Post, April 21/22, 1912
The sinking of the HMS Titanic during its maiden voyage on the night of April 14, 1912 seemed to usher in the end of an age of unprecedented peace, prosperity and progress. When the “unsinkable” ship was lost so were more than 1,500 lives, including some of the richest and most powerful figures in America.
By now, everyone in the country has heard of James Cameron’s 1997 movie of the same name. Yet despite the overall historical accuracy of the movie, one of the ill-fated ship’s notable passengers wasn’t mentioned: the mystery writer and journalist Jacques Futrelle.
“The last I saw of my husband,” his wife, May, wrote, “he was standing beside [the American financier and multimillionaire] Colonel [John Jacob] Astor. He had a cigarette in his mouth. As I watched, he lit a match and held it in his cupped hands before his face. By its light I could see his eyes roam anxiously over the water. Then he dropped his head toward his hands and lighted his cigarette… I know those hands never trembled.”
Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912) was an admirer of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and accordingly created his own intellectual detective, Dr. F. S. X. Van Dusen. Better known as “The Thinking Machine,” Futrelle’s sleuth appeared in over forty short stories from 1905 to 1912.
Jacques Futrelle was born in 1875 in Pike County, Georgia. He started writing early, taking a job at the Atlanta Journal by the age of 18. Within a year, he had moved to Boston to take a new position although he grew homesick and returned quickly to Atlanta and the Journal. Shortly after his return in 1895, he married Lily May Peel, who went by the name May. The couple then moved to New York so that Jacques could take a job as the telegraph editor at the Hearst paper, The New York Herald. The Futrelles lived at 71 Irving Place in the lovely Gramercy Park area of the city; his neighbors included Edith Wharton and O. Henry. In 1897, their first child Virginia was born, followed in 1899 by John.
In addition to penning feature stories and articles at the Herald, Futrelle started writing detective short stories. This fiction writing appealed to his creativity as well as his love of the mystery genre, particulary the Sherlock Holmes stories.
During the next year, the long hours and stress of covering the Spanish American war took a physical and mental toll on young Jacques, and eventually left him exhausted and too ill to work. His sister loaned him a home in Scituate, Massachusetts, where he and May lived until he recuperated.
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