A Tar Heel Aboard Titanic
By Michael Maynor
Twenty years ago, then North Carolina Governor Mike Easley declared November 24, 2003, Oscar Scott Woody Day. The day was set aside to honor someone that few people in North Carolina had heard of. Someone whose life probably would not have made it into the pages of history had it not been for the fateful night of April 14, 1912.
Woody was born near Roxboro, North Carolina, in 1871. For several years, he worked on the Railways Mail Service trains between Greensboro, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. Oscar left Washington in 1909 and moved to New York City where he married Leila M. Bullard, a native of Texas. In 1910, he was transferred to the Sea Post position, where he would be a clerk aboard a mail ship. This prestigious promotion also came with an excellent salary of around $1,000 a year, and in today’s money, that would be over $30,000 a year. I feel sure with a new wife, Oscar was excited about this new assignment. Woody sailed from New York aboard the SS Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse. He stopped first in Plymouth, England, and then to Southhampton to board a new ocean liner. Imagine Woody’s excitement when he looked up and read the words Titanic. The RMS Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship in the world, and on her maiden voyage to New York City, she would be carrying two thousand men, women, and children.
Oscar would be one of five mail clerks on the Royal Mail Ship’s maiden voyage. Most don’t realize, but the letters RMS, in Titanic’s name, stood for Royal Mail Steamer. The Titanic was contracted to carry mail. Oscar Woody along with two other Americans and two British postal workers were responsible for sorting the mail from the 3,364 bags that had been brought aboard Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York City, as well as any letters posted by the passengers or crew. On April 14th at 11:40 pm, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. The clerks had been celebrating Woody’s birthday when they realized something was wrong.
They arrived in the mail sorting room and realized it was already flooding. Mail was essential, and the postal clerks knew their job was to protect the mail at any cost. Hence, they frantically began working to save the registered mail, which was around 200 sacks weighing up to 100 pounds each. They were working in water up to their knees but got all the registered mail to the boat deck along with much of the regular mail. The men worked feverishly to save the mail knowing, it would probably cost them their own lives.
None of the mail clerks survived the Titanic sinking. Oscar Scott Woody would die on his 41st Birthday, April 15th. A week later, his body would be recovered from the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. As the bodies were brought aboard the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, they were assigned a number and a small effects bag with the corresponding number stamped on it; Woody’s number was 167. Some of the items in his bag were a watch ,chain and clip; 2 fountain pens; letters; knife; cuff links; 1 gold ring; keys and chain; [and] $10.02. Due to the condition of his body, Woody would be buried at sea. His wife Leila would receive a letter informing her that his body had been recovered and instructions on how she could obtain his personal effects. At his death, they had only been married 18 months. According to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum website, a pocket watch found on postal clerk John Starr March’s body stopped at 1:27am. This suggests postal clerks survived the initial rush of water into the main compartment at 11:40pm, and backsup several of the survivors’ accounts that the clerks were working to rescue mail till the very end.
I, like so many people around the world, have a fascination with the Titanic. A couple of years ago, I was looking for a connection to the Titanic and North Carolina when I learned of Oscar Scott Woody. I, instantly,had a mix of emotions. I was excited that there was a fellow North Carolinian on the ship, but also, I felt a great sadness knowing his fate. I have never worked for the postal service, but I know how seriously they take responsibility to ensure the mail is delivered. My Granddaddy was a rural mail carrier, and I grew up hearing stories about him delivering the mail and knowing all the people on his 100 mile postal route. I knew I wanted to share Oscar Scott Woody’s story at Feathers & Whiskey. As we observe the 111th Anniversary of the ship sinking, we also remember a postal clerk born in North Carolina who exemplified our state’s motto “Esse quam videri” a latin phrase meaning “To be, rather than to seem”. At the time of this writing, I am 41 years old, the same age as Woody when the ship sank. On April 14th, I’ll pause and remember this brave Tar Heel and the other postal clerks that died on the Titanic.”
James Bertram Williamson, 37, American
John Starr March, 50, American
Oscar Scott Woody, 41, American
John Richard Jago Smith, 35, British
James Bertram Williamson, 35, British