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Rare Titanic Artifact Temporarily on Display in Branson

The Titanic Museum in Branson is currently home to an artifact that recently sold for well over a million dollars at auction.  Its story is a sad one and reflects the tragedy that befell the giant ship.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky has more.

Wallace Hartley was looking forward to his wedding that coming summer when he boarded the RMS Titanic on April 10, 1912 in Southampton, England to lead the band that would play on the ship’s maiden voyage.  He took onboard a violin that had been given to him by his fiancée, Maria, on their engagement.

As the Titanic began sinking after hitting an iceberg early on the morning of April 15th, the eight-member band was instructed to play continuously in an attempt to avoid panic among the passengers. 

Jamie Terrell is first maid at the Titanic Museum in Branson.

She said the story of the band playing until the bitter end is true.

"Even as the water crept up past their ankles, the band kept playing.  The water was 28 degrees, but the band played on," she said.

As the waters rose, Terrell said Wallace Hartley released the musicians from their duties.

"It's every man for themself now, and they stand and they turn to walk away.  As they're walking away they can still hear Wallace continuing to play his violin.  Every single one of them turned right back around, sat down, opened their cases and began to play," she said.

It’s said that the song they played as the ship disappeared into the water was “Nearer My God to Thee.”

All of the musicians perished--Hartley’s body was one of only three band members’ bodies that were recovered.  According to Terrell, he was found floating face up with a large leather valise case—a Gladstone bag—with a nine-foot strap and the initials, W.H.H. on it, strapped to his chest.

"He strapped that around his body, and it's on top of him, and he's got his arms clutched on top, and he's found frozen with those arms clutched over holding it," she said.

Inside the bag, wrapped in a bundle of clothing, was his beloved violin.  A metal plate on the violin reads “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement.  From Maria.”

"And the plan was they were to be married right after he got off of Titanic, and she told him, 'I'll wait on you.'  Maria never ever married--her whole life she never married," Terrell said.

Hartley’s personal effects were given to his father, Terrell said, and since the violin was a gift from Maria, Hartley’s father gave it back to her.  She kept it until her death years later.  It changed hands a few times and was discovered ten years ago in England in the attic of the home of an elderly lady who had passed away.

"Her son took the violin.  He said, 'there's something up with this.  I want more information about this.'  He took it to Aldridge & Sons auction house in England, and this violin went through seven years of forensic investigation.  It's been through an MRI, it's had saltwater testing to determine its provenance, which declares something as an artifact, and it was determined that, yes, it was Wallace Hartley and, yes, it had been on the Titanic," Terrell said.

The violin was sold at auction in October 2013 by a company known as the world’s leading Titanic auctioneers, Henry Aldridge & Sons Auction House in Devizes, England, to an anonymous bidder over the phone for $1.7 million.  It broke the record for the highest price ever paid for a Titanic artifact.

Recently, the Titanic Museum was awarded world exclusive rights to display the violin.  It came to Branson in its own airplane seat and with an armed guard. 

"So, to have this in Branson, even for two months, is a pretty big deal, and we're very very proud to have it on display," Terrell said.

It’s on display, along with the valise case (bought by a different collector) in a clear box suspended in mid-air with the sounds of “Nearer My God to Thee” playing in the background. 

According to Terrell, the story of the musicians conjured up all kinds of emotions—sadness, of course being one.  But she likes to think, very rarely does someone get to choose what they’re doing in their last moments.  Those men, she says, got to choose.

"They got to do what they love more than anything in the world.  And you have to know that the notes they played that night, the  music they played that night was the sweetest, most beautiful music they'd every played in their lives, and we think that's pretty special," she said.

Wallace Hartley’s violin will remain in Branson through May 30th before going to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee from June 7th through August 14th and then will go back to England, Terrell said, “likely to never be seen again.”