In 1865, April 14 (Good Friday that year) saw the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the following morning after being removed to Peterson's Rooming House across the street. It was just five days since the Civil War had ended. Booth, part of a failed coup by Southerners to thwart the North's victory, was quickly hunted down by Union Soldiers and killed in a Maryland barn. Floodgates of grief over Lincoln's death opened throughout the shocked nation, already devastated by four years of bloody conflict and loss.
America's efforts to memorialize the Union's martyred hero are chronicled in Martha Hodes' fascinating narrative, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press), a must-read for anyone interested in the 16th president's unique place in history or in funerary culture.
Fast forward 47 years to the day of Lincoln's killing -- on April 14, 1912 --the Belfast-built RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on its way from Southampton, England, to New York City. The supposedly unsinkable ship, the pride of the White Star Line, was four days into its maiden voyage and carrying more than 2,200 people when it struck an iceberg and went down about 400 miles off of Newfoundland, Canada. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perished.
Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, published in 1955, remains the definitive classic account of the Titanic's sinking. Lord, author of several works of history including Day of Infamy about the attack on Pearl Harbor, interviewed more than 60 Titanic survivors to recreate the moments leading up to the fateful event. In fact, James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, largely follows the text's narrative.
From an introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of the book published in 2005 by St. Martin's Press:
"From first to last, A Night to Remember is about the people who briefly inhabited the Titanic. Never again will an author have the opportunity to speak to so many of them in this most essential way, Lord's book can never be outdone, making A Night to Remember the ultimate survivor's tale."
The accident happened at 11:40 p.m. Less than an hour before, a nearby ship attempted to transmit a warning to Titanic's crew of dangerous ice structures ahead. But Titanic's wireless operator, apparently overwhelmed with his job of relaying personal messages to passengers, failed to heed the alert. The ship sank two hours later and wasn’t seen again until September 1985, when explorers discovered the wreck’s location.
A century later, April 14th continues to mark fate's perilous calendar --not only as the eve of Income Tax Day in the United States, but also the date -- in 2018 -- of the devastating fire that swept Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Coincidence? Perhaps future authors will say.