Norton Scientific -- COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- As midnight approached on April 14, 1912, the Titanic steamed toward New York Harbor. It was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England with 2,200 passengers aboard. Way below the luxury decks, Englishman William Mintram and his son-in-law, Walter Hurst, worked in the boiler rooms.
"They both became employed with the White Star Line as fireman or 'greasers'. They were the ones responsible for shoveling the coal into the big furnaces to power the Titanic," said Susan Martindale, Mintram's great-great-granddaughter and Hurst's great-great-niece.
It was a hard life but, for 46-year-old Mintram, it was the work of a free man, a man with a dark past, a killer. Mintram walked on board the Titanic having done the unthinkable.
"My great-grandfather just got out of prison for murdering my great-grandmother," said Roy Tiefisher, Mintram's great-grandson and Hurst's great-nephew.
This was the darkest chapter of Tiefisher's and Martindale's family history. In the comfort of Tiefisher's Coeur d'Alene home, the father and daughter explained how the murder began. In 1902, articles state Mintram went home drunk and got into an argument with his wife Eliza.
Articles from that time write, "His notorious temper erupted again and without saying a word, he picked up a knife from the table that dominated the back room, and edged toward Eliza in a chair. Momentarily, he seemed to hesitate. His son, William, valiantly tried to disarm him but to no avail. He then thrust the blade into her back between the left shoulder blade and the spine, inflicting a fatal injury."
An all-male jury convicted Tiefisher's great-grandfather of manslaughter. He only served three years of his 12-year sentence. Once free, Mintram moved in next door to his daughter and son-in-law, Walter Hurst. The family then reconciled and, together, Hurst and Mintram boarded the Titanic.
"In that day and aged they were able to put that behind them and move forward with their lives," Martindale said.
Five days into their voyage, the "unsinkable" ship sank. William Mintram, the man who made headlines for murdering his wife, was now part of a grim death toll. Of the 2,200 passengers aboard, only about 700 survived. Mintram's body was never recovered.
"It was just a tragedy that they were both on the Titanic and a further tragedy that my great-grandfather did not survive and my great-uncle did," Tiefisher said.
It was because his great-uncle Hurst survived, however, that Tiefisher and his daughter got to live.
"Dad and I would not be here today," Martindale said.
Tiefisher put on his reading glasses and began to read Hurst's first-accounts of that fateful night. The story of Hurst's survival is documented in his own words since he sent letters to an English newspaper, the Southampton Echo, following the sinking of the ocean liner.
One part of the letter reads: "My father-in-law, William Mintram was in the same room as he ran up on deck and back at once with a large lump of ice, threw it in my bunk, and told me to get up cause as we had struck a berg."
According to the letters, Hurst then scrambled to the deck with a life vest and jumped overboard into the icy waters of the Atlantic. The letters continued, "There were terrible screams all around and I plainly heard someone screaming 'Save one life. I've never forgotten that."
By chance, a life boat fell into the water. Hurst climbed aboard and waited. In fewer than three hours, he watched as the dark waters swallowed the Titanic whole. The story goes, Hurst owed his life to the man who spent his previous three years in prison.
Tiefisher said, "The thing that I remember the most was how my great-grandfather gave my great-uncle his life jacket."
The man who had taken a life, made one decision that evened the score.
"I think he was for sure thinking of his daughter's happiness and what it would mean to her if she would have lost her husband," Martindale continued. This person had his whole life in front of him with his daughter, and they had children together. I can only imagine perhaps that's what went through his mind."
These days, Martindale and her dad do everything they can to fill in the holes about their family.
"To think that we have my great-great grandfather and my great-uncle on the boat just is kind of surreal because the whole story's surreal in itself," Martindale said.
"It was just something that I was always interested in," Tiefisher said.
Together, they've been digging up ties to the Titanic for about 12 years. They said researching their past became especially important when James Cameron's Titanic came out in theatres. They re-traced the family line from Southampton, England; to Saskatchewan, Canada; and finally Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. They connected with relatives in England. It's how they uncovered the truth behind Mintram's murderous past.
Along the way, they filled in the names of the family tree. There's more than 50 pages.
"Our history is a fascinating thing and to be able to have the tools to go back and find out your lineage and people that have been a part of history in your family, that is incredible for me personally," Martindale added.
It's a family tree defined by one decision made 100 years ago. The man who committed murder managed to do something that would redeem himself when everything was on the line. Faced with certain death, William Mintram saved a life and generations to come.
Walter Hurst went on to sail on the Britannic, a sister ship of the Titanic which, incidentally, was torpedoed. Incredibly, he also survived that incident.
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