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History Lost And Found: A Letter From Titanic

Many famous names went down with the Titanic, like the American millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest person on the ship, and Macy's department store owner Isidor Straus.

But you may not know about one of the ship's doctors — John Edward Simpson. Aboard the Titanic, Simpson wrote a letter to his mother back home in Belfast. It was mailed from the great ship's last port of call before it made its disastrous turn across the North Atlantic.

Over the years, though, the letter fell into the hands of a collector, and the Simpson family thought it lost forever — until now.

Kate Dornan is Dr. Simpson's great-niece. She tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that the family lost track of the letter when Simpson's elderly granddaughter-in-law gave it to a Titanic expert in the Netherlands about 15 years ago.

The family presumed the letter lost until earlier this year, when it turned up in a New York auction catalog. "It was a very strange feeling to see it there," Dornan says. With a reserve price of $35,000, the letter was seemingly out of reach, but Dornan says a benefactor stepped forward to make the purchase.

The letter in question, written on Titanic letterhead and dated April 11, is relatively mundane. "Dear Mother, I traveled from Liverpool Monday by the 12 o'clock train," Dornan reads. "I find my two trunks unlocked and five or six dollars stolen out of my pocketbook. I hope none of my stamps have been stolen. Did I have my old portmanteau when I borrowed the kit bag? I think not. With fondest love, John."

Dornan calls it a casual letter from a son to a mother. "Nothing of great consequence — it wasn't the type of letter that, you know, people wrote during the war when they thought it might be their last communication. This plainly wasn't that."

But it's that very ordinariness that is so appealing, Dornan says. "You can just sense the son writing it to the mum, and probably doing it quite quickly to get it done."

While Simpson did not survive the sinking, several of those who did recall his calm demeanor that night. "There's a letter from [Charles] Lightoller, the second officer, in which he says, 'I may say I was practically the last person to see Dr. Simpson,' " Dornan says. Simpson was walking along the boat deck with several other men, all of whom Lightoller describes as "perfectly calm in the knowledge that they'd done their duty."

Another surviving officer happened to meet Simpson's sister in Australia a few months after the sinking. He had been a crewmember on one of the last lifeboats to leave the Titanic, Dornan says. "And John Simpson came and said, 'Here's something that might be of help to you,' " and handed the man his pocket flashlight.

"He knew he wasn't going to need it anymore, and just faced his end with a degree of dignity," she adds.

Simpson's last letter will go on display in the new Titanic museum in Belfast. Dornan says her relatives are all very proud of their forebear, but they're happy to let the letter go as long as it stays in Belfast. "I think we're all very happy that it's actually going to be back on home territory; it feels a wee bit like a wee bit of him coming home."

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