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When the ship went down: Minnesota’s Titanic connection

The local cast of characters included a small group of the city’s social elite, but it also included a shadowy scoundrel with a string of aliases.

RMS Titanic at the docks of Southampton in April 1912.

It was a disaster that never should have happened.

“OCEAN LINER, TITANIC, LARGEST BOAT IN THE WORLD STRIKES ICEBERG: LIVES OF 2,330 ABOARD ARE ENDANGERED,” the Minneapolis Journal shouted out to its readers on Monday, April 15, 1912.  The day before, at 11:40 p.m., the collision occurred as the luxurious ship was steaming through the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City.

For weeks on end, the Titanic tragedy, with its story of heroes, victims and villains, filled the pages of newspapers all across the country. In Minneapolis, the story was a local one, since this city had its own cast of characters in the compelling national drama. The local cast included a small group of the city’s social elite, but it also included a shadowy scoundrel with a string of aliases. Decades later, in a 2007 article, a local historian described 35 passengers with Minnesota connections.

In its April 15 account of the Titanic disaster, the Journal noted that the ship’s passengers included two socially prominent couples: Mr. and Mrs. Walter D. Douglas and Mr. and Mrs. John Pillsbury Snyder. 

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Walter Douglas, at 50 one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen, had recently built a palatial estate at Lake Minnetonka. He and his wife, Malhala, had been on a European shopping trip to furnish their new home. Snyder and his wife, Nelle, then in their early 20s, had been honeymooning abroad after their wedding in January.

Three rescued

The next day, on Tuesday, the 16th,  the Journal reported that Malhala Douglas and the Snyders had been rescued, but Walter Douglas was not on the list of passengers aboard the Carpathia, the ship bringing the survivors back to New York City.

By Wednesday, Douglas’ friends back in Minnesota were facing the grim prospect that he may have perished when the ship sank into the North Atlantic. But some of his business associates believed that he might still be alive.

“This looks bad, but we still have some hope,” noted George F. Piper, a close personal friend of Douglas, “the list (of survivors) shows a number of mistakes and there may be a mistake about Mr. Douglas.”

But Piper’s hopes were dashed when word reached Minneapolis on Thursday that Douglas had, in fact, been a victim of the Titanic disaster.

Walter Douglas

University of Minnesota Wilson LibraryWalter Douglas

Douglas had died a hero, the paper told its readers. “Like other men of wealth … Mr. Douglas met his fate stoically. He went down with the ship after he had taken an active hand in helping the crew of the doomed vessel place women and children in the lifeboats,” the paper reported.

According to one of the survivors, Douglas was offered a seat on one of the last lifeboats to leave the Titanic, but he declined, saying that he wouldn’t “be a man if I took a seat while there were still woman left on the ship.” 

Douglas was hailed for his courage by his friends and admirers back in Minnesota. “Walter Douglas could not have died any other way. He was heroism itself ..  I would have been surprised and shocked if Walter Douglas conducted himself in any other way than he did on the sinking of the Titanic,” declared Piper.

When the Carpathia docked in New York, Malhala Douglas was met by her son, Edwin. She was too distraught to comment on the tragedy that took her husband’s life, but Edwin Douglas wired a friend back home, saying, “I thank God father died like a man.”

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Snyder gave full account

Another of the Minnesota survivors was composed when he disembarked from the rescue ship. The youthful John Snyder “showed no trace of the ordeal he had gone through,” according to the Journal. Snyder apologized for his appearance to a group of friends who met him at the dock, saying that his rough tweed suit and gray jersey were the only clothes he had been able to take with him when he and  his wife escaped from the Titanic.

Snyder carried with him an impeccable social pedigree. His paternal grandfather, Simon Peter Snyder, had been a well-to-do real-estate developer, while his maternal grandfather, John Sargent Pillsbury, was a member of the prominent milling family and a former Minnesota governor.

The young newlywed was more than willing to give a full account of his rescue to a group of waiting reporters. “At first no one  seemed to realize that there was any serious danger,”  he explained. “There was not a great crash, not even a heavy jar when the ship struck the iceberg.”

John Pillsbury Snyder

University of Minnesota Wilson LibraryJohn Pillsbury Snyder

Snyder and his wife left their stateroom and went out to the deck, where they found a few fellow passengers milling around. “Presently, one of the stewards came along, and I asked him if the ship had hit anything,” Snyder recalled. “We just grazed an iceberg,’ he replied calmly. ‘I don’t think it amounts to anything; you had better go back to bed; there is no danger.”

“Just then, a passenger came downstairs and knocked on the door of a nearby cabin. I heard him tell his friend to come out because something serious might have happened,” Snyder went on to report. Then, the young Minnesotan and his wife decided that they needed to get dressed and go back up to the main deck. When they got there, a steamship official was telling the gathering passengers to go back to their state rooms to put on their lifebelts. John and Nelle did as they were told and went back up to the main deck.

“When we got there, we found (the crew) swinging down the lifeboats. By now it had been about 40 minutes since the ship had hit the iceberg. Next we heard someone saying ‘get into the lifeboats as quick as you can.’

Reluctance to get into the boats

“The people were reluctant to get into the boats at first. Those in the front stepped back. Some of them looked over the side of the vessel into the darkness of night and were loath to thrust themselves into the frail looking boats.

“When the crowd in front turned aside, my wife and I were left at the front. The next thing we knew we were assisted into the lifeboats. … Twenty six passengers were crowded into our boat with three of the crew to row …

“The sailors pulled leisurely away from the steamship so that the next lifeboat to be lowered would not come down upon us.  The first boats were lowered without confusion and in perfect order. There was no weeping or wailing in our boat.

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Minneapolis Journal Titanic headline
University of Minnesota Wilson LibraryThe headline on page one of the April 15 edition of the Minneapolis Journal.

“After pulling away 150 to 200 yards, our boat rested. The weather was calm and the sea was smooth and the stars were reflected in the water. In the distance you could see the outline of the iceberg the Titanic had struck.  To us, the mountain of ice looked like a great big sail. While our lifeboat rested, others came up to join as, until there was a fleet of a half dozen.

“In the distance, we could not see persons on the ship in the darkness, but we could see lights in three rows of portholes. We first knew the steamship was sinking when we saw one row of porthole lights disappear, leaving but two, then one row, then none. … Then, we watched the green light go down and we realized there was nothing between us and a watery grave but the frail boats into which we were crowded.”

A night bobbing in the Atlantic

After spending a harrowing night in the life boat, bobbing up and down in the frigid North Atlantic, the young Minneapolis couple and their fellow passengers were finally rescued by the Carpathia at 5:30 in the morning.

Like many other survivors, Snyder was highly critical of the Titanic and its owners for failing to provide enough lifeboats. “There were 14 large lifeboats, four collapsible lifeboats and two rafts which held only 700 people crowed together, less than a third of the number on board. There is no question that there were not enough lifeboats. If there had been,  everyone would have been saved,” he said.

Harry Silberberg

University of Minnesota Wilson LibraryHarry Silberberg

The Titanic survivor and his wife  returned to Minnesota where they would settle comfortably into a spacious home on the shores of the Lake Minnetonka and raise three children.  John Snyder  embarked on a successful business career and served one term in the Minnesota House of Representatives in the 1920s.   An avid golfer,  he died at the age of 71 in 1959 while suffering a massive heart attack during a round of golf at the Woodhill Country Club.  Nelle survived him by nearly 25 years, passing away in 1983 at the age of 94.

Unless he was an avid card player and an easy mark, John Snyder would never have crossed paths with a shadowy swindler with Minnesota ties  who may have been using the name John Silverton at the time of the Titanic disaster. Silverton, whose real name was Harry Silberberg, was widely reported to have died on the ship when it sank in 1912.

In a story reprinted in April of that year, the Minneapolis Journal said Silberberg, a “master rogue,” was part of the group of notorious card sharks aboard the Titanic “who had redeemed themselves in the end.”  According to the Journal, these men, including Silberberg, “had defied the laws of nations and lived by their wits, stepped aside when the lives of women and children were at stake in the Titanic disaster and died like heroes.”

Later accounts cast doubts about Silberberg’s demise aboard the doomed ship in 1912,  but the report of his death, “confirmed by sources in Chicago and New York,” according to the Journal, was front page news in Minneapolis at the time of the Titanic disaster.

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‘Ocean gambler’

The paper reported that Silberberg  was “a renown ocean gambler, the master of the game of baccarat, the favorite game at Monte Carlo and on the big liners. He with other great gamblers are said to have gone to Southampton and boarded the Titanic for no other purpose than to clean up a small fortune from the millionaire passengers.”

In 1903, using the name  J.J. DeBralls, Silberberg had appeared in Minneapolis, where he opened a school of hypnotism in the Lincoln Building on Nicollet Avenue and rented rooms for himself at the city’s prestigious West Hotel.  While posing as DeBralls,  he swindled $250 from a young woman named Clarice Heubner,  whom he had enticed into serving as his assistant.

Minneapolitans aboard Titanic article

University of Minnesota Wilson LibraryMinneapolis Journal article on local residents aboard the Titanic.

During his brief time in Minneapolis,  the handsome and suave  Silberberg led a double life. To Clarice Heubner, he was  J.J. Debralls, but to another young woman, Bonnie Hinkle, he was J.J. Carlisle,  the nephew of John G. Carlisle, a New York millionaire and former secretary of the Treasury.  After a whirlwind  courtship,  Hinkle married Silberberg — but soon divorced him, when she discovered that he was an impostor.

Meanwhile, Clarice Heubner brought charges again Silberberg and had him jailed, with his bail set at $3,500. Claiming that he was ill,  Silberberg had the bail reduced to $1,000. When a relative wired the funds to the Hennepin County Court, he was released. Then, the dashing impostor promptly skipped town and was never seen here again. 

With his string of aliases, Silberberg would never have added his real name to the Titanic’s passenger list. In 1912,  the Journal and other local papers gave prominent coverage to the first-class passengers on that list — people like the Douglases and the Snyders. But there were others with Minnesota ties, both in first class and in the lower-class accommodations.  Many of their stories would not be told until a local historian, Christopher Welter, provided a comprehensive account of the Minnesota passengers in his 2007 article for Minnesota History, “Voices Upon the Sea,  Minnesota’s Titanic Passengers.” 

Welter listed  35 passengers aboard the Titanic who were Minnesota residents or who had some connections to this state.

Of the group of 35, eight, including Malhala Douglas and John and Nelle Snyder, were first-class passengers who survived, while five,  including Walter Douglas, were passengers of the same class who were victims of the disaster.  For those who traveled second or third class, the survival rate was considerably lower. Of that group,  eight  survived and 14 died when the Titanic sank.

Locals mirrored passenger list

In many ways, these travelers with Minnesota ties were typical of the 2,300 passengers who set sail from Southampton on the world’s largest ocean liner on April 10, 1912.

Welter wrote, “From affluent indulgences to hardscrabble realities, from keen perception to dumb luck, from courageous selflessness to selfish character, this coterie mirrored the Titanic’s legendary story practically point for point.”