One hundred years ago, the unthinkable news began reaching New Jersey: The “unsinkable” Titanic met with disaster, sinking in the freezing Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage.
In Haddonfield, one family anxiously waited with increasing panic before confirming the worst news possible. Family patriarch Frederick Sutton, a self-made man who rose to the top of local business and society circles, perished in the April 15, 1912, sinking.
Sutton was the only New Jerseyan passenger from south of Trenton aboard Titanic.
In many ways, Sutton was the embodiment of the American story. An immigrant from Suffolk County, England, Sutton arrived in Philadelphia essentially penniless in 1870, determined to make a name and career for himself in America.
“He worked hard to become successful. By all accounts, he really was a wonderful guy and very committed to the community,” says Katherine Tassini, librarian of the Haddonfield Historical Society. In an odd connection, Tassini once lived at the house where Sutton resided when he died—212 Warwick Road—and got to know Sutton's heirs, including a living great grandson, Tom Tomlin.
“If he had died any other way," Tassini adds, "he would just be another wealthy businessman from the late 19th and early 20th century who led a good life, had a good family.”
Instead, Sutton’s destiny and legacy are forever tied to the Titanic.
An American success story
Born June 15, 1850, in England, Sutton set sail for America at age 20, first landing in Philadelphia. He moved to Haddonfield in 1877, the same year he married wife Ella. The couple would have three daughters: Elizabeth, Florence and Jennie.
Sutton made his fortune as a coffee importer in his own firm, Sutton & Van Sant, and as president of Collingswood National Bank. His resume reads like a business mover and shaker of the time: leader of Haddonfield Mutual Building and Loan Association, director of other banks and electric companies, an officer in a hotel company and real estate firm in Wildwood, where he was interested in propping up the fishing town.
“He was a member of several social groups, like the Union League in Philadelphia, and he was a Mason,” Tassini notes. “It’s very likely he knew a lot of similarly prominent men also on the Titanic.”
But ill health plagued Sutton at age 62, and doctors advised a recuperative trip to England. Sutton decided to make the return voyage on Titanic. As a wealthy businessman, he traveled first class, staying in room D50.
“We know this is a trip he made often,” Tassini says. “It was pure bad luck that he picked the Titanic.”
‘Died that others might be saved’
When Titanic struck the iceberg late on April 14, 1912, it became a near certainty that more than half of the people on board would die because of insufficient lifeboat space and freezing ocean temperatures—not to mention the violent fracturing of the ship.
Sutton jumped from the ship before it sank, according to witnesses.
“… And although we deplore his unfortunate end, yet it is with pride and patriotism that we point to him as one of the many men who stepped back on the ill-fated steamship Titanic in response to that noble Anglo-Saxon sentiment ‘Women and Children First’ and thus died that others might be saved.”
So read a commemoration from Collingswood National Bank’s board of directors, who convened a special meeting a week following the sinking to mourn Sutton.
But Sutton didn’t actually die immediately.
“According to testimony later, a lifeboat did pick up Sutton and he was alive. But already in ill health, he died of exposure,” Tassini says. “Later, the lifeboat passengers had to throw his body overboard to lighten the boat because it was taking on water and they were worried about survival.”
Sutton’s corpse was recovered, becoming the 46th body identified.
Back in Haddonfield, news trickled in agonizingly slow by telegram. Newspaper accounts of the period trace the confusion over and, ultimately, confirmation of Sutton’s fate.
In the Camden Daily Courier’s April 18 story, “Nothing Heard of Frederick Sutton,” the paper reports the Sutton family has “given up all hope of his survival.” The paper reiterated that in an April 20 piece, “Sure Sutton Has Perished at Sea.”
“Mr. Sutton’s Body Surely on the Morgue Ship,” the Camden Post-Telegram ran on April 29.
“Interestingly, the more local papers, like the Haddon Gazette, didn’t seem to report on the death at first,” Tassini says, noting that the archives are spotty for the paper. “I think a lot of people were very shocked and very sensitive to the family, and that’s why the local papers may not have covered the news at first.”
Bringing Sutton home to Haddonfield fails
Sutton’s wife Ella and surviving daughter Florence Tomlin heard the body had been recovered. Florence’s husband set off for Nova Scotia to bring the body home, but the family was met with more bad luck.
“White Star Line realized there might be some important estate issues and decided to retain the bodies of first-class passengers. Very few were reburied at sea,” Tassini says. “But Frederick Sutton was. Dr. Tomlin stayed in Nova Scotia for at least a week, but learned there was no body to collect.”
Tomlin was able to recover the personal effects found on his father-in-law: a gold watch and chain, $60 in traveler’s cheques, a whistle, eyeglasses, two silver thimbles and a knife, among them.
Without a body to bury, the family instead erected a memorial stone for Sutton at the . It became a family plot, with several relatives names now inscribed there.
“Tributes came from all over, from Philadelphia, from Wildwood and locally,” Tassini says. “He was a prominent member of the St. George’s Society and that year, they didn’t celebrate St. George’s Day in honor of Sutton.”
"... Mr. Sutton displayed admirable qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice in the hour of impending danger and certain death, and never once faltered in his adherence to the highest standards of true and noble manhood. His death but rounded out and honored the useful and helpful life which he lived. ..." –Obituary in the Journal of Commerce, Philadelphia
Although people tend to be celebrated in death, Tassini says the tributes appear genuine, as did Sutton’s geniality.
“He came here with nothing and built a great life for himself and his family,” she says. “He really seemed to appreciate the life he ended up having in America and in Haddonfield.”
Click on the photos and PDFs above for newspaper coverage of Sutton’s death, his grave marker in Haddonfield, a copy of his personal effects and more.