SPRINGFIELD - Except for a small blue sign in a window filled with sun-bleached trinkets, the aging storefront of Henry’s Jewelry divulges no clues to the hidden gems inside. But Henry’s back room is its true jewel, a museum devoted to the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago on April 15, 1912.
The humble store in the city’s Indian Orchard neighborhood may be far removed from the glitz of James Cameron blockbusters and oversized theme-park attractions complete with icebergs, but it boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Titanic-related memorabilia. The Titanic Museum is the brainchild of Henry’s co-owner, Edward Kamuda, who for decades has collected artifacts connected to the ill-fated liner, many donated by survivors.
Like splinters from the True Cross, relics include tiny fragments of the mammoth ship, such as a piece of green carpet cut from a first-class stateroom before the voyage and a breadboard found floating among the flotsam. Mementos such as the champagne corks popped by Selena Rogers Cook to celebrate her rescue and the memorial cards bearing photographs of victims vividly relate the passengers’ divergent fortunes.
A glimpse at the Titanic-related merchandise produced just weeks after the disaster that claimed more than 1,500 lives makes plain that the mythmaking - and the profiteering - of the Titanic industrial complex was in overdrive as soon as the ship hit the seabed. On display are books about the tragedy that were peddled door to door, melancholy black teddy bears sold as “mourning bears,’’ and popular sheet music such as “My Sweetheart Went Down With the Ship,’’ a tune “inspired by the wreck of the Titanic.’’ In addition, a letter sent just seven days after the disaster by a Wall Street lawyer seeking contact information for any survivors might surprise those who thought ambulance chasing was strictly a modern-day phenomenon.
Among the museum’s most powerful items are handwritten accounts of Titanic survivors. Edwina Troutt penned a letter on Titanic stationery that was sent from the ship’s final port of call in which she recounted the liner’s near collision in Southampton, England, but declared her “as firm as a rock.’’ “I was beginning to regret being upon her but she seems alright now,’’ Troutt wrote her cousin.
Even more riveting are the letters scribbled by Gershun “Gus’’ Cohen to family and friends in which the teenager recounted his rescue after plunging into the icy waters, the furious rowing aboard the lifeboats, and the haunting cries for help after the ship went under. In contrast to his vivid letters, Cohen’s telegram back home to England after arriving on the rescue ship in New York is a remarkable understatement: “Arrived safe. Gershun.’’