To mark this week's anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a local historian recalls a Burlington County connection.

The barber and the sea

In 1912, the loss of the Titanic, the "ship of dreams," on its maiden voyage between Southampton, England, and New York City, mesmerized the nation and the world and immortalized the ship and its passengers.

One of those aboard was August Henry Weikman, the only American in the crew. He was the ship's commodore barber, who personally attended to the grooming of the great financier J.P. Morgan during previous transatlantic crossings. Originally from Philadelphia, Weikman moved to Palmyra in the 1890s and became that town's claim to the famous ship.

Weikman's residence was 521 Leconey Ave., just one block off Broad Street, the main business district. The house was built by Rebecca Lore, the daughter of Isaiah Toy, Palmyra's first postmaster, who was responsible for the naming of the town. The house still stands today and is lovingly cared for.

After the Titanic's sinking, Weikman returned to Palmyra a hero on April 19, 1912, aboard the Pennsylvania Railroad (on the same right-of-way NJ Transit's River Line runs on today). He was wheeled through the crowd to his house, two blocks from the train station. Townsfolk lined up, waiting to wish him well and shake his hand. He was soon in demand as a guest speaker.

Although newspaper accounts vary, Weikman's official testimony via affidavit at the U.S. Senate Titanic hearings on April 24 received national attention, contradicting much that had been said about Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, who survived the sinking amid much controversy. Weikman found himself at an excellent vantage point on that fateful evening, helping officers load lifeboats until he was blown off the ship and into the water by a wave when the bow plummeted and the stern began to rise into the air. Weikman was 100 feet from the massive vessel when it sank. The barber suffered severe exposure to the frigid water from the waist down and injuries to his back.

Weikman's grandson, Theophile M. D'Autrechy, said that his grandfather was given a shot of brandy when he arrived on the rescue ship Carpathia, passed out, and with a weakened pulse was mistaken for dead. He was sewn into a body bag in steerage. Women in the next cabin heard Weikman's screams as the barber worked his way out of the body bag.

After the sinking, Weikman feared he would never return to sea after more than 700 transatlantic crossings. There is some evidence he did give up the sea after serving aboard the Lusitania and the Majestic. Weikman is listed in the 1920 census as a dry-goods merchant, then living at 109 W. Broad St., Palmyra. According to his grandson, Weikman owned a great deal of the business block behind his house on Leconey Avenue and several storefronts, including 109 W. Broad, where he set up a short-lived millinery shop for his daughter Helen May (D'Autrechy's mother).

As the years passed, the Titanic's sinking became a specter of another time and place, and soon the town forgot about Weikman. He remained in Palmyra and died there on Nov. 7, 1924. He is buried in the family plot in Morgan Cemetery.

Weikman remained forgotten until a dollar bill he signed surfaced at a 2005 auction and was projected to sell for between $4,000 and $6,000. A similar dollar from Weikman's wallet the night the Titanic sank was given to Palmyra businessman and hardware store owner John Etris. It remained in Etris family until it, too, was sold at auction at the height of craze over James Cameron's blockbuster movie



During much of his life, Weikman led a dual existence, with one foot in the United States and the other across the ocean in places such as Southampton and Liverpool. The Titanic's sinking changed that forever. On Dec. 30, 1913, Weikman commented on his lost Titanic friends in a letter to his wife, Mary, while awaiting his next White Star line commission:

"There lived no less than 10 of my dear old pals in the same street, and I was horrified to think of when I used to pass, they used to all holler at me as I passed by. All my old chums are gone. So I have lost them nearly all. So I feel thankful I am still here, with a good little wife, a nice little home, nice children. I should be happy. So with love and kisses to you and the kids, I am your loving hubby, Gus."