S1E4 – Show Notes

Edmond and Michel Navratil, the Titanic orphans, pose for a photo opportunity in the garden of Margaret Hays

Edmond and Michel Navratil, the Titanic orphans.

When Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, she took 128 children with her. These children, ranging in age from 2 months to 14 years, were on their way to America with their families, bound for New York for any number of reasons. Whether for travel or to visit family they had never met, or to start a new life among new people in a new country they’d grow to call home, they were all really just along for the ride. Going where their parents wanted to go.

They boarded with first, second, and third class tickets, each child from an entirely different background with an entirely different upbringing. The first time travelers had been told of the things they’d see in America–baseball, the Statue of Liberty, and buildings so tall that they really did look like they scraped the sky. And some were returning home, rehearsing in their minds the things they would tell their friends about the camels they’d seen in Egypt or the wine they’d been allowed to drink in Paris. But regardless of their reason for traveling, the Titanic was an adventure for nearly all of them. Their parents were excited to be there, on that ship, and by extension, so were they.

They were from places like England, the United States, Sweden, France, Lebanon. They spoke languages that the other young passengers had never heard before. Many would have to learn English when they arrived, since they’d never really been around anyone who spoke it regularly.

Their entire lives until that point had been spent learning the languages of their friends and family. Many of them had no use for English yet.

Edmond and Michel Navratil were two such passengers. At only 2 and 3 years old, respectively, they had boarded the Titanic in Southampton with their father, who was also named Michel.

They had left their home and their mother in Nice, France for the Easter holiday, and traveled with Michel Sr to Monte Carlo, a half hour away by today’s standards. They stayed very briefly, and then made their way northward by train and by boat to England where they boarded the Titanic on April 10th.

Their mother, however, had not been invited.

Titanic passenger, Michel Navratil, poses for a photo, mustache and hair perfectly coiffed.

Titanic passenger, Michel Navratil. Photo via France Dimanche.

Michel Sr and Marcelle Caretto were married in London on May 26, 1907. Marcelle, an Italian immigrant to France, had quickly fallen in love with this man. He had a strong jawline and a stately mustache, and his clothes were always perfectly fitted. He was ten years her senior and had already established himself as a tailor, having learned the trade from an early age. The first few years of their marriage seemed happy, and they proudly introduced Michel Jr to the world in 1908. Edmond followed in 1910, and Marcelle stayed home to care for the boys while Michel Sr struggled to find work in his trade. You see, Nice wasn’t exactly lacking in tailors in 1910, and basic economics tells us that when your market is flooded, it’s hard to make a living. Michel Sr’s frustrations grew as he watched his business begin falling apart at the seams. He became depressed and took his anxieties home with him, causing trouble between he and Marcelle. He was stricken with paranoia and began accusing Marcelle of being unfaithful to him, an accusation that carried a lot of weight in a devoutly Catholic France.

Marcelle Caretto, mother of the Titanic orphans, poses for a photo in a white dress with white hat.

Marcelle Caretto, mother of the Titanic orphans. Photo courtesy of Find-a-Grave.

Michel and Marcelle separated in early 1912, and the father was determined to keep custody of his boys. Marcelle had no skills to support them, he argued. She had married a businessman at 16. Michel loved his sons and he didn’t want to lose another important part of his life. The one thing he felt successful in. It was decided, however, that the boys should remain in the custody of Marcelle’s uncle.

This did not sit well with Michel and he began to formulate a plan. He made his way to Monte Carlo and ordered three tickets to Australia under the alias “Louis Hoffman.” He then asked his wife if he could spend the weekend with his sons over the Easter holiday, a request that Marcelle agreed to. He loved those boys, she knew. And it was only fair that he be able to see them too. He picked up his sons and immediately left town for Monte Carlo, having changed his mind about their destination. He instead booked a second-class trip to America, aboard the White Star Line’s newest ship. There would be work for him there, he knew. He could give his sons the life he’d always wanted them to have.

And when they had settled into Charing Cross Hotel the evening before their departure, Michel wrote his wife a note, confirming what she was already dreading to be true. She had lost everything.

Charing Cross Hotel in the early 1900s. This is the hotel where Michel Navratil and his sons stayed before embarking on Titanic.

Charing Cross Hotel in the early 1900s. This is the hotel where Michel Navratil and his sons stayed before embarking on Titanic. Photo via Architecture.com

Edmond and Michel Jr, of course, had no idea what was happening. They were with their father. They were on a boat. And they were going to America. That’s all they knew. But they didn’t know what any of it meant. They didn’t realize that they had just been kidnapped.

Edmond and Michel had a seemingly pleasant time aboard Titanic. Their father, who was still calling himself Louis Hoffman, introduced them as Lolo and Mamon to hide their identities. They played together in the sunshine on the second class deck, their father never leaving their side. He held their hands and knelt down beside them as they looked over the seemingly endless expanse of the sea.

He kept a close watch on his sons. In fact, many passengers said he never left their side. Only once, he let his sons stay for a few hours with another young second class passenger. She was from Switzerland and she spoke French. So for a few hours onboard, Michel Sr played cards in the second class smoking room while Edmond and Michel Jr played games and sang songs in a language they understood.

And on the evening of April 14, Edmond and Michel were awoken in their cabin by their father. There was a stranger there with him and they were gathering the boys up in blankets and carting them out into the hall. Neither one knew what was happening, or why their father and this strange man were both wearing a puffy white vest, or why they were hurrying up the stairs so quickly.

And when the men had climbed up five flights of stairs and found the deck crowded with gentlemen in their evening coats and ladies crying in a lifeboat, they knew they’d never make it off of Titanic alive. So Michel Sr held both of his sons and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. At only 5’6” tall, he couldn’t see the officers standing guard up ahead of him, but he could understand enough English to know he should follow the voice yelling “women and children only!”

When he reached the officers, he found himself being blocked by a group of men with their arms locked, allowing only women and children to pass through. He hugged his sons tightly and according to Michel Jr, he said “My child, when your mother comes for you, as she surely will, tell her that I loved her dearly and still do. Tell her I expected her to follow us, so that we might all live happily together in the peace and freedom of the New World.”

Charles Lightoller poses in official uniform for a portrait photo.

Charles Lightoller, officer aboard Titanic. Photo via Wikipedia.

And then he let his sons go, he passed them through the ring of men and handed them over to officer Lightoller, who put the boys into the last lifeboat to leave the port side.

Michel Navratil Sr watched as Collapsible D was lowered down into the water, taking his 2 and 3 year old sons to America on their own. He loved those boys. He had just wanted to give them the life he’d always wanted them to have.

He was 32 years old when he went into the water that night.

His body was recovered by the rescue ship the Mackay-Bennett the next morning. He was dressed in a grey overcoat with green lining, in a brown suit. His pockets held a wallet, a gold watch, a coin purse containing £6, a receipt from the ticket purchase in Monte Carlo, his boarding ticket itself, a pipe, a loaded revolver, a set of keys, and a receipt for Room 126 from the night of April 9th at the Charing Cross Hotel. His name was recorded as Louis Hoffman.

Collapsible D floated in the waters of the North Atlantic until the following morning. The boys, still bundled up in their blankets, were held and comforted by the women aboard the boat. Their ears were covered to spare them from hearing the screams of the passengers who hadn’t made it into a lifeboat safely.

Sometime around dawn, Michel Jr awoke to the sounds of yelling. He looked up and spotted the Carpathia approaching them. When it came time for them to board the ship, they were placed into burlap sacks and pulled up to the deck with a rope. Michel Jr recalled this instance later in life, saying “I thought it was extremely incorrect to be in a burlap bag.”

The boys were fed and clothed and taken care of by a member of Carpathia’s crew as the search for their family began. No one aboard the Carpathia knew their story, or even their names. The boys didn’t speak English, after all. They’d never been taught. They had grown up learning French.

A 24 year old first-class woman named Margaret Hays had been taken onto the Carpathia that morning as well. She’d been traveling in France with her friends and managed to escape the ship on the first lifeboat to leave, taking her Pomeranian, Lady, with her.

Margaret Hays, Titanic survivor.

Margaret Hays, Titanic survivor, cared for the Titanic orphans after disembarking the Carpathia. Photo via Find-a-Grave.

Upon hearing that a pair of French boys had been left unclaimed, she volunteered to take care of them. Margaret was fluent in French, and felt that the boys should be taken in by someone who spoke their language and understood what they’d been through. With the help of other second class passengers, it finally came to light that the two boys had been traveling with their father. Beyond that, nothing was known. The three of them disembarked the Carpathia together and stayed in Margaret’s home at 128 W 83rd St in New York.

And still, the search continued for any family member who might claim the boys. Newspapers became obsessed with the mystery, dubbing the pair “Louis and Lola” and referring to them as the “Titanic waifs.” She bought them outfits and toys and they spent their time playing with Lady.

The French consul arrived at her home, hoping to pry information out of them, and at this time a photo was taken. In the photo, the boys are standing together on a sidewalk, surrounded by chicken wire. Both dressed for a photo opp, a mop of curly hair on each of their heads. They’re looking off camera, somewhere to the right of the photographer, possibly at Hays as she tried to coax a smile out of them. And Edmond is holding a toy boat. An ocean liner. Too young to realize the irony.

Edmond and Michel Navratil pose in the garden of Margaret Hays. Edmond holds a toy boat.

Edmond and Michel Navratil pose in the garden of Margaret Hays. Photo via Biography.

The consul tried for hours to coax some information out of Michel, but only managed to receive a subdued “oui”

“Do you like to play with your boat?”

“Oui”

“What city do you come from?”

“Oui”

“Do you remember the big boat that brought you away from France?”

“Oui”

This wasn’t much to work with.

And all the while, the newspapers in France had been running stories of these boys, the orphans who only spoke French. Who were they? Where was their family?

And it was in one of these newspapers that Marcelle Caretto finally caught sight of her boys. Passing by a newstand, she saw the photo. Michel and Edmond, smiling for someone out of camera range on another continent, and she recognized them instantly.

She contacted the authorities, who contacted the office of the French consul, who sent a frantic and wholly unbelievable message across the Atlantic to New York.

Marcelle was given free passage to The United States by the White Star Line and was reunited with her boys on May 16, 1912. She cried as she took her boys into her arms for the first time in over a month. But the boys smiled. And so did Margaret Hays. They were no longer orphans and their future was no longer uncertain.

Marcelle Navratil poses with her sons, Edmond and Michel, after being reunited in New York.

Marcelle Navratil poses with her sons, Edmond and Michel, after being reunited in New York. Photo via Find-a-Grave.

And from New York, they boarded the Oceanic and returned home to France.

Over the course of a month, Marcelle Caretto had experienced a range of emotions only a mother in her position could ever make sense of. She went from fear to grief to anger and back to grief. And finally elation, relief.

But for the boys, this had all just been a big adventure. They were too young to understand the magnitude of what had happened to them. They were really just along for the ride. Going where their father wanted to go.

 

Edmond and Michel Navratil spent the rest of their lives in Southern France.

Edmond worked as an architect and builder. He married and joined the French Army in WWII. He was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war until he was able to escape. Although he had made it out alive, his health never quite recovered and he died in 1953 at the age of 43.

Michel attended college and married a woman he met there. He earned his doctorate and became a professor. He traveled to America for the second time in his life in 1987, to mark the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and in 1996, he visited his father’s grave in Nova Scotia for the first time. He died in France in 2001.

Marcelle lived the rest of her life in Nice. She died in 1963 at the age of 71.

About Omitted:

Omitted is a history podcast, focusing its first season on the Titanic. The podcast is written, produced, and edited by Corey Constable.

 

 

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