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Two New Britain Men and the Tragic Events of April 15th

On this day in two different years two of America’s most heart breaking incidents took place. The events themselves are well documented and not the absolute focus of this story. The point of interest here is that two men who set off from New Britain not only found themselves involved, but their involvement came with incredible stories and controversy.

The day before the first event was a very busy one for the President of the United States. According to his friend and colleague James Burtis Merwin, the President was in fact awake most of the previous night preparing a press release for what could be his greatest undertaking since the conclusion of the war. Mr. Merwin would recall meeting with the President that afternoon with the final version of the press release. More importantly to Merwin, the President promised that the next time they met, they would plan to pursue work on the issue closest to Merwin’s heart – the Temperance movement.

Born in New York, Merwin came to New Britain as a young man and became married to Margaret Andrews. She was the daughter of Alfred Andrews, local educator, historian, and promoter of the Abolitionist and Temperance movements. Merwin embraced Andrews’ cause of Temperance and would help enact a state Temperance law. He would meet his friend and colleague just five years before he became President, while in Chicago. United by this common interest, they would do work creating the Illinois Temperance law and then to promote temperance among the soldiers during the War.

That evening, stopping for the evening on his way to New York, Merwin received the news that shook not only his soul, but would sadden the entire nation. His friend, President Abraham Lincoln, had been shot at the Ford’s Theatre and was not expected to recover. Although shocked, he was nevertheless determined to deliver Lincoln’s last press release to the New York Tribune on April 15th, the day President Lincoln died. Unfortunately, the editor would lose the document before reading it, and Lincoln’s last proposal, to employ freed slaves to build the Panama Canal, would be lost along with the great President who did so much for our nation.

Forty-seven years later, the son of a New Britain banker was on his way home after spending three months in Egypt and Europe. Having seen the freedom of leaving the employment and household of is stern, conservative father, he had spent the months traveling with good friends and spending time with a number of young women. The dance craze of his generation was the Tango – very scandalous among the elders but a sure way for a young man to entertain wealthy and beautiful women.

William Sloper spent part of his time in Cairo with his first dance partner – Alice Fortune. During his time with her, Miss Fortune called upon an Indian fortune-teller to read her palm. The man would warn her of an impending disaster at sea, where she would be saved while others lost. William and Alice would shrug this off with a laugh. A few months later, they would meet again just before boarding the Titanic, and Alice jokingly warned him of the fortune-teller’s prediction. Of course this was not something to be taken seriously, and William Sloper was more interested in the grand voyage home on this floating palace. Specifically, spending the last days of his vacation dancing and entertaining ladies before returning to the drudgery of the banking industry. Indeed, up until the evening of April 14th, William would find himself enjoying just that not only with Miss Fortune, but with movie star Dorothy Gibson.

Nearly two years later, Sloper was in Miami, hoping to escape the constant reminders of the tragedy and the questions about the rumors of his having escaped by posing as a woman. Once again doing the Tango with a young woman, Sloper met another gentleman who he for some reason felt a connection with. As it turns out, the gentleman, Mr. J. A. Moore, had just missed boarding the Titanic. Both Sloper and Moore had been reported lost initially in the newspapers, and Moore’s photograph was published as that of Sloper!