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Widener Family History

The Archives Collection of Widener Family History Includes:

  • Catalog of the Widener Family Art Collection
  • Photographs
  • Biographical Information    


The Titanic Disaster and the Widener Family

by David King, Reference Librarian at the Widener University School of Law, Delaware



When the Titanic sank 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland on the night of April 14, 1912, she took with her more than 1,500 passengers and crew. Among those who perished were the young Philadelphia book collector, Harry Elkins Widener, and his millionaire industrialist father, George. It is said that the young Widener, on the verge of stepping into a lifeboat, raced back to his cabin to retrieve a rare 1598 edition of Bacon's Essays which he had purchased in London. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived the disaster and memorialized her son by donating $3.5 million to his alma mater, Harvard University, to establish the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. In his short life, Harry Elkins Widener amassed a remarkable collection of literary rare books and manuscripts. Today that collection, including the books he purchased on his last trip to Europe and had sent home on another ship, is housed in the famous library endowed in his name.


A case is made by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas in their book Titanic-Triumph and Tragedy that the Widener family patriarch, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, was part-owner of the Titanic. The Titanic was the flagship of the White Star Line which was owned by International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The White Star Line's position within the IMM was quite complicated. White Star was owned by Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. All Oceanic Steam Navigation shares, except six shares individually held, were owned by the International navigation company, which in turn was controlled by Fidelity Trust Company of Philadelphia, a holding company. All the International Navigation company's stock was actually owned by IMM, whose president was J. Bruce Ismay, and among whose officers were five "voting trustees": Ismay, Charles Steele, William J. Pirrie, J.P. Morgan, and P.A.B. Widener.


Among the many myths surrounding the Titanic is that the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, was drunk when the ship rammed the iceberg. Smith had in fact attended a dinner party a few hours before the crash -- hosted by the Widener family -- where alcohol was undoubtedly served, but there is no evidence that the captain had anything to drink.


Related Digital Collections

Visit the U.S. Timeline Exhibit to view pictures of George, Harry and Eleanor Widener.