The reported implosion of the Titan submersible and presumed death of its five passengers is likely to boost interest in Titanic-related history and sites in Nova Scotia. 

As the final resting place for about 150 people who perished in the April 15, 1912 sinking of the luxury liner, Halifax has drawn a steady stream of tourists (and locals) to the West End cemeteries where the dead were interred: Mount Olivet Catholic, Baron de Hirsch, and Fairview Lawn.

Indeed, aside from the ocean floor off the Newfoundland coast where the vessel plunged on its maiden voyage, the Halifax graveyards comprise the largest burial ground for Titanic victims.

Tickets for the ill-fated 1912 journey from England to New York City cost from $350 (third-class bunk bed) to $100,000 (first-class parlor suite) in today’s dollars. Passengers on the doomed U.S.-owned OceanGate submersible that was en route to the Titanic wreckage — first located in 1985 — reportedly paid $250,000 each.

A sign that says "Titanic grave site" with an image of a ship stands on a black post along the driveway of a cemetery. Behind the sign are rows of small grey headstones. There are trees in the background and a bright blue cloudless sky.
The Titanic Grave Site at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax. Credit: Suzanne Rent

At Fairview Lawn, the headstones for the Titanic dead (many never identified) stand in an arc of small, grey granite markers that evoke the hull of a ship. A few years ago, during a stroll through the cemetery, I encountered a group of women from Australia who were taking rubbings from the memorial stones.   

Self-described “Titanic fanatics,” the women claimed no blood ties to the 700 survivors or 1,500 casualties of the disaster. “We’re just intrigued by the story,” one said.

As for intrigue, none of the 10 male passengers buried in the Baron de Hirsch Jewish cemetery were ever confirmed to be of the Jewish faith. “They were mistakenly identified as such by physical examination,” notes a popular Titanic Memorial website. Another grave at the cemetery contains the remains of a passenger who, embroiled in a child custody battle, was traveling under an assumed name.

Visitors to Mount Olivet will find a memorial stone (number 202) for John Frederick Preston Clarke, a violinist in the Titanic’s eight-member orchestra that, according to survivor accounts, continued to play as the ship sank.

A small grey headstone that says "JFP Clarke. Died April 15, 1912" with the number 202
The headstone for John Frederick Preston Clarke, a violinist in the Titanic’s orchestra. Credit: Suzanne Rent

Many prominent figures drowned when the liner slammed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic. They included British newspaperman W.T. Stead, whose 1885 articles on child prostitution garnered him fame as the “father” of modern investigative journalism. 

George Wright, a wealthy Halifax businessman and philanthropist, was also aboard the ship. He bequeathed his Queen Anne Revival-style home — now a heritage property in the South End of the city — to the Local Council of Women.

The building that houses the celebrated Five Fishermen restaurant on Argyle Street in downtown Halifax was once a mortuary that received — from the recovery ship Mackay-Bennett — many of the Titanic dead, including New York tycoon John Jacob Astor IV.

Joseph Laroche is the only known Black casualty of the disaster. Born in 1886 to an affluent family in Haiti, Laroche arrived in France, as a teenager, to study engineering. He later married Juliette Lafargue, the daughter of a wine merchant.

By March 1912, the couple had two daughters, Simonne and Louise. With a third child on the way and stymied in his career, Joseph Laroche decided to return to Haiti.

“It was a great disappointment to him that having earned his engineering degree in France he could not find employment there,” writes Judith Gellner in her book, Titanic: Women and Children First (1998).

“No matter how qualified he was, the blackness of his skin kept him from securing a position that paid his worth.” 

Laroche’s mother booked passage for him and his family on a ship that was scheduled to sail on April 20, 1912. But having learned that children were not permitted to dine with their parents on the vessel, Laroche exchanged the tickets for a cabin on the Titanic that launched earlier.

“The couple did not want separation at mealtime to upset their daughters,” notes archival documents.   

A large sign on two posts that says Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery. And Titanic, Voyage Remembered. Several paragraphs on the sign detail the history of the ship and sinking. Behind the sign are headstones on a grassy lawn.
A sign next to the gravesites of Titanic victims at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Halifax. Credit: Suzanne Rent

After the cataclysmic collision, Laroche (fluent in Creole, French, and English) ensured that his wife and children were among the Titanic passengers transferred to a life boat. Age 25, he remained aboard the sinking ship, never to be seen again. 

Madame Laroche and daughters arrived safely in New York City. Disinclined to go on to Haiti, she and the girls returned to France. There, in December 1912, she gave birth to a son — Joseph, Jr., named after her late husband.

Who knows what contributions the ambitious engineer might have made to uplift his embattled homeland had he returned to Haiti? 

History has yet to reveal if Joseph Laroche is among the unidentified Titanic victims that were buried in Halifax. But after global press coverage of the OceanGate disaster, here’s hoping that his story, as the sole documented Black man on the iconic ship, is highlighted in the city’s many Titanic-related ventures.     

“The news out of Haiti is always so negative,” an HRM resident of Haitian ancestry told me. “It’s so interesting that I share roots with a man who was aboard the Titanic. And that he sacrificed his life for his family.” 

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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