A Minnesota granddaughter of Titanic survivors is irked. For the second time in five months, a letter her cigar-puffing grandfather penned on the deck -- and the stationery -- of the doomed luxury liner is going back up for auction just in time for the 100th anniversary of the ship's collision with an iceberg.
Helen Waldron blames a cousin in Montana and the simmering feud involves, at least through familial shirt tales, one of Minnesota's most powerful family names: Pillsbury.
"We're dismayed and disappointed that something with such historical value to our family and our state is floating around so these people can capitalize on it," Waldron, 73, said Thursday from her home in Orono. "This letter belongs in a more protected historic venue like the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society."
Waldron's family teamed up with the Historical Society in October, but they were outbid by an unknown private collector when the pricetag topped $83,500 for the letter and other items once belonging to John Pillsbury Snyder. (He was the grandson of Minnesota's eighth governor, John Sargent Pillsbury, but Waldron points out the Snyder family today has only a distant familial connection to the Pillsbury flour milling clan.)
Now, that anonymous collector is flipping three of Snyder's artifacts, selling them online next month through a New Hampshire auctioneer that specializes in historical documents.
"Because of the 100th anniversary ... anything written from the deck of the Titanic on Titanic stationery has extreme value," said Bobby Livingston, of RR Auction. "We'd love to see it get back to Minneapolis."
For a price. In October, a lot including the letter sold for $100,750. Waldron said she's considering rallying relatives to make another bid.
"I'm not saying we'll come out and pay $100,000, but we'd love to get it back in state hands," she said.
A collections director at the Historical Society, however, said Thursday state archivists will back off this time because all the 100th-anniversary hype surrounding the sunken ship will only crank up the price and the money used to bid with last fall has been spent on other objects.
Thanks for the cigars
The family's tale started, in the words of John Pillsbury Snyder himself, "peacefully and complacently."
The 24-year-old had just married, and he and his bride, Nelle, had spent two months honeymooning around Europe. They were among 25 Titanic passengers heading for Minnesota, most of them emigrants far below the Snyders' first-class cabin.
Before boarding the new ship for the voyage home, Snyder bought some cigars. From his cabin, he jotted down a quick, 100-word, thank-you note to the London cigar merchant named Mike.
"While I sit here at the writing desk peacefully and complacently smoking 'one of your best,' I just want to thank you ever and ever so much," he wrote, apologizing for not getting down to Queen Street to say goodbye and urging him to visit Minneapolis someday.
Snyder dated the letter April 10, 1912. The Titanic rammed an iceberg and sank five days later, killing 1,523 of the ship's 2,228 passengers. But the Titanic had stopped in France and Ireland to pick up passengers -- and drop off letters -- before setting off across the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage, so that's how the letter survived.
As for John and Nelle, Waldron said, her grandmother used to tell of how a deckhand urged honeymooners to board the first lifeboats. Most were reluctant to descend 80 feet into icy darkness, still confident the ship would remain afloat long enough for rescue.
"They told the honeymooners to get on first and keep rowing," said Waldron, their oldest grandchild.
She recalls how her late grandmother, at 90, said she thought the wreck should be left alone on the ocean floor as a burial ground -- "but, boy, I sure would like to find my trunk."
After their deaths, the letter wound up in Bigfork, Mont., with Waldron's first cousin Stevenson Miller, who has since died. Miller said, in 1998, that the letter was among "a bunch of stuff nobody in the family wanted."
Waldron said he was trying to justify the sale of the historic documents and said Miller's son, Nick, apparently put it up for auction for his own "personal financial benefit." Attempts to reach Nick in Bigfork were not successful.
"We tried to stop the auction and pay them directly so we wouldn't lose it," Waldron said, but the younger Miller told her he was under contract with auctioneers.
Asked if Minnesota cousins are now estranged from Nick, Waldron said, "pretty much, because of things like this."
"It's just so disappointing to have these items taken away for us and the state," she said.
Besides the thank-you note, a letter from Frank Snyder, a Minneapolis mortgage banker, dated April 18, 1912, also will be auctioned off between April 19 and 26. In it, Frank details the anxious search for information about John and Nelle Snyder. The auction house says Frank was John's brother, but Waldron said John had no brothers. So the relationship is unclear, but in the letter, Frank laments "what a pity to have their wedding trip clouded by such a tragedy."
Also being auctioned off from Snyder's collection is a photograph taken from the Carpathia, the ship that rescued Titanic survivors, showing an iceberg off in the distance.
"The last night of the auction should get very intense," said Livingston, the auctioneer.
Curt Brown 612-673-4767