Writer will tell story of Titanic survival

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2012

By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — What if you grew up listening to your great-uncle telling you how he survived the Titanic?
What if you then found out that once he was back in America, he and his wife and child were pursued by a Presbyterian mission board that wanted its money back?
You write a book, of course, and that’s what Julie Williams did, in “A Rare Titanic Family.”
“This is an unusual story of surviving the Titanic,” Williams says. “Most people haven’t heard this one.”
Williams will tell that story — in costume — and describe her research on Monday at 7 p.m. at Rowan Public Library.
Her great-uncle, Albert Caldwell, and his new bride, Sylvia, left America the day they got married for Siam (Thailand), to work as missionaries. “A lot of college graduates did mission work,” Williams explains. “It’s 1909, what does an educated woman do?” She accompanies her husband to some missionary field, where she can work under his auspices.
But not long after they’ve been there, Sylvia gets sick, some months after giving birth to their son. She gets what was then a common diagnosis, neurasthenia. Williams pauses in telling her story to say “They stopped using this as diagnosis in 1932. … It was sort of a catch-all for ‘I don’t really know what you have.’ ”
Whatever she did have, it’s still a mystery. She gave birth in June and was diagnosed in November. She was convinced she was dangerously ill. The doctors tell her to go to Southern Italy, where it’s cooler, and rest. The Caldwells decide they will then go home to America. For whatever reason, they were convinced they could not stay in the tropics.
One of those reasons may have been the story of the mysterious Mrs. Barrett, Williams says. “People would say, ‘Oh, she could end up like Mrs. Barrett’ and that was like a death sentence.”
Mrs. Barrett was a missionary in Laos who “went crazy. She had to be carried away by native boats and was never heard from again.”
Williams says her great uncle wrote pitiful letters to the missionary board begging to go home, but the board had to take a vote. The Caldwells had a contract for seven years of mission work. Uncle Albert had intended to be the principal of a school. “The board wanted to make sure they got their money’s worth.”
But Caldwell kept pleading; he knew the Mrs. Barrett diagnosis; he knew they’d never stay there. Williams learned, by the way, that the doctor who gave Sylvia the neurasthenia diagnosis was later fired.
The Caldwells go to Italy and find cholera in Naples. “They decide to take the first ship to America … and Albert sees a ship with an American flag … That’s the Carpathia,” the ship that rescues some of the Titanic survivors later on. Williams says the little family almost get on it, but everyone is so nervous and upset, they want something larger, something less likely to make them seasick.
The next ship they see is the Titanic, which they get on right away, because someone has canceled their trip.
“They were fleeing under difficult circumstances,” Williams explains. “The trip home is very expensive. For five months the boss of the missionaries stewed over it. He writes to New York” giving orders that a certain doctor must examine Sylvia Caldwell as soon as she gets off the ship. In fact, a private ambulance will be there for her; not her baby or her husband. “The mission board was not worried about them.”
Somewhere along the journey, the Caldwells find out about the special ambulance and that they are under surveillance. Sylvia was scheduled to give a speech once home, but she never did, “giving the excuse of nervous exhaustion after the sinking and long journey. … and she never gets on that ambulance.” All this, after they have survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Williams pitched the idea for “A Rare Titanic Family,” to her book editor. She got one summer to do the whole thing.
She knew the story of the Titanic from her great uncle Albert, who ended up divorcing Sylvia and remarrying. Williams never met Sylvia, but she has a booklet Sylvia wrote about women on the Titanic. “I used that for her voice.”
The more Williams dug, the more sources she found, which she will talk about during her presentation at the library.
Getting information from other family members was another challenge. Williams knew Caldwell’s granddaughter, but she was not interested in the Titanic. The baby on the Titanic, Aldic, had a brother Raymond but they were not close.
Albert and Sylvia’s grandson, Chuck Caldwell, never talked about it after a bad childhood experience — no one believed the story — but “he was a great help; we told each other a lot.”
Williams’ book is twice as long as she’d promised, and she could have done more with more time, but it was published in January. She has been busy every day since then, touring and teaching parttime.
On Monday night, she will come dressed as Sylvia. “I tell the story that Albert told to me, then I go into the research part, like how I found the cover photo.”
Albert lived to be 91.
Sylvia worked at State Farm Insurance and helped Albert get a job there. She became secretary to the founder, and in 1941, she married him after his wife dies, ending up living a wealthy life.
Albert didn’t have children with his second, much younger wife. She was not well and ended up in a nursing home in Greenville, N.C., where Williams was born.
Williams will tell the whole story and have a power point presentation, and it is all child friendly, as well.