The author set his briefcase carefully down on the cabin’s desk. As he carefully unfastened the leather straps, he watched his wife directing the stewards where to distribute the mountain of trunks and valises. To make his wife happy, he had agreed to booking a first-class stateroom, in part because he knew that a smaller cabin wouldn’t have room for all the purchases his wife had made on her shopping trips to London and Paris.
Though they had come to London so that he could do research at Scotland Yard for his mystery stories, his wife had taken advantage of the excellent shops of Paris and London. As a result, they were returning to America with almost twice the luggage they’d had when they left their home, “Stepping Stones”, in Scituate, Massachusetts.
He knew that it would take his wife, May, and the chambermaid the rest of the day to unpack their luggage, but that wasn’t important to him. From his briefcase, he carefully removed a thick rectangular bundle, wrapped in brown paper and secured with string. Telling his wife that he would be back shortly, he left the cabin, joining the throng of excited passengers in the passageway as they happily searched for their staterooms.
Without even realizing he was doing it, he held his package with both hands, close to his chest, as if it were a fragile object that needed protection. The manuscript was the result of several months’ work, and until he delivered it to his publisher in New York, it was his responsibility to keep it safe.
“Excuse me,” he said to a passing steward, “Where can I find the purser’s office?”
“Down this hall, up the companionway two decks, then forward. You can’t miss it.”
Despite this assurance, the author did miss it and had to ask directions twice more from the busy ship’s company before he joined a line at the purser’s desk. When it was his turn, he carefully placed his package down on the mahogany countertop.
“I’d like to place this in the purser’s safe for safekeeping.”
“Certainly, sir,” the clerk answered as he fastened a claim check to the package’s strings. “Name and cabin number?”
“Jacques Futrelle. Cabin C-123.”
With the manuscripts he had been working on for weeks securely in the purser’s safe, Futrelle suddenly felt exhausted. The night before, April 9, had been his birthday, and friends had surprised him and his wife at their London hotel room, keeping them up until 3:00 in the morning. By the time the party had broken up, Futrelle and his wife had had to leave immediately for Southampton to board the ship.
He was also exhausted after having feverishly worked writing and editing his manuscripts—now in the purser’s safe. While his wife had shopped, he had worked on new mystery stories featuring his famous literary detective, Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, ‘Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., etc., etc., etc.’, best known as ‘The Thinking Machine’.
Four days later, Futrelle was in the smoking room when he felt the boat suddenly shudder. By the time he made his way back to his wife in their stateroom, people had begun to leave their cabins, carrying their life preservers. Even though he got his wife to hurriedly dress, by the time they made their way to lifeboat deck, most of the lifeboats were already lowered into the water.
Spotting some crewmen readying a collapsible lifeboat, Futrelle hurried May over to the boat. When she hesitated to enter without him, he reassured her that he would be leaving later in another boat. The ruse failed to convince her, so he said that in the case he couldn’t find a place in one of the boats, he would simply hang onto the side of one of the lifeboats already in the water.
Futrelle didn’t mention that the freezing cold of the water would still kill him.
Still, May refused to enter one of the boats without him. “Hurry up, May. You are keeping the others waiting,” were the last words he said to his wife as one of the ship’s officers took her arm and forced her to the boat.
As collapsible lifeboat D was lowered, the last sight May had of her ‘Jack’ was of him talking to Colonel John Jacob Astor, with his face visible by the light of the match with which he lit a cigarette given him by the financier. After the Titanic sank, neither of the two men’s bodies was ever recovered….And the purser’s safe has never been recovered, either.
Jacques Futrelle—pictured at right, on the deck of the Titanic—died at the age of 37. Had the author lived, he would have undoubtedly published many more detective stories. At the time of his death, his works were as popular as—and as profitable as—the stories of Sherlock Holmes. If you have never read one of Futrelle’s stories, I particularly recommend “The Problem of Cell 13”—one of the best detective stories ever written. (And since the author has been dead for more than 75 years, you can read it for .)
Unfortunately, unless the purser’s safe was unusually watertight, we’ll never get to read those missing stories.