To this day, the 1990s sensation Titanic remains one of the highest-grossing and most successful movies ever made. Most people know that the tragic tale is based on real-life events, and in the film, the sadness is punctuated by a love story between two main characters, Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater.
Were these characters real, or is it a case of “artistic license” being used with the original, heartbreaking tale?
The Tale of the Titanic
James Cameron’s big-budget movie set out to tell the story of the Titanic. The ship was dubbed as “unsinkable” and seen as one of the most impressive of its kind in the world before it set off on its maiden journey, where it would tragically hit an iceberg and sink.
There were 2,240 on board including the passengers and the Titanic’s sizable crew, and over 1,500 of these perished in the tragedy.
Were Jack and Rose among them? Who was the character of Jack Dawson based on?
Was Jack Dawson Based on a Real Person?
If you believe what director Cameron has said in interviews, Jack Dawson was not based on a real person. Any similarities to any people on board have been dismissed as coincidence, but there are those who believe that it is a bit too much of a coincidence…
Upon the film becoming a smash hit, and lead actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio being put firmly in the spotlight, people started to flock to a grave in Canada. At first glance, this would appear to show that Jack Dawson was a real man.
This grave belonged to a man who did die in the tragic events of the Titanic sinking, but his name was Joseph Dawson, a 23-year-old who was working on the ship when it went down.
Dawson’s tale has some similarities to that in the film. He was a poor man from Dublin, and he went to sea to try and make his livelihood and get to America. He was identified from his union card when his body was recovered.
Director James Cameron has not admitted any inspiration from the gravestone or the tale of this young Irishman.
Who Was the Real J. Dawson?
So, what do we know about Joseph Dawson, the man who really died on the titanic on that fateful morning? There are a few scraps of information out there, but not a great deal is known about the young man.
Image source: https://titanic.fandom.com/wiki/Joseph_Dawson
Joseph is on a census that was taken in 1901, which shows him to be the son of Patrick and Catherine Dawson. He had one sister, called Maggie, and lived in a very poor part of Dublin, Ireland’s capital city.
How did he come to be on the Titanic? Well, he moved to the port town of Southampton to look for work in 1911 and took a role on the Adriatic. His job was a trimmer, and this put him low down in the pecking order for a ship at the time. His days would be spent shoveling and moving supplies of coal.
By the end of 1911 he had signed on to work on the Majestic, but there was a coal strike the following year and Joseph, along with the coal, moved to the Titanic as it was prioritized.
Records show that Joseph was able to sign on to work with his own unique signature. This doesn’t sound significant now but back then it was a clear sign that he had some form of education, even if this was very basic.
It is thought that as the tragedy struck, Joseph was not on duty. As women and children were prioritized and a lowly trimmer had very little chance of using a lifeboat, he attempted to swim to safety but died of hypothermia.
When his body was recovered, Joseph was buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
The tragic tale of Joseph Dawson is perhaps never really remembered, with so many of the people grieving and visiting his grave thinking of the Leonardo Di Caprio portrayal of a character which may or may not be linked.
Another Jack? Is Jack Thayer the Real Jack Dawson?
There were other Jacks onboard the ship, and one of these young men actually lived to tell the tale, with invaluable accounts of what happened that day.
Jack Thayer is a man who survived the tragedies of the Titanic, and there are those who think that the character from the movie is actually based on him.
The truth is that there could be some influence from both, or that it really may all just be a coincidence, but there have certainly been many dramatizations made from the accounts of real life survivor Jack Thayer, who would live until 1945.
Andrei Tapalaga states with some certainty that Thayer was indeed the inspiration for the character. There are undeniably some differences in their tales, though. His experience is certainly very different from that of Joseph Dawson, too.
Thayer was from a very wealthy family, and having vacationed in Europe, the family were heading home on the Titanic from Southampton port, heading to New York. Thayer was born in 1894, while the fictional character of Jack would’ve been born in 1892.
Of course, if Thayer was the inspiration, it is clear that the stories were very different, with the fictional account of Dawson claiming the tickets were won at a poker game. The wealth of the Thayer family would certainly have made for a different tale, that was less relatable to some.
Stories that undeniably feature Jack Thayer do exist, including SOS Titanic from 1979.
Thayer’s experience on the Titanic was also very different to the character we saw played by Di Caprio back in the 90s, but his accounts of the ship sinking do have some similarities with the end of the movie.
Thayer claimed that he had a heated encounter with a married woman a few days before the tragedy struck. There is a rumor that this could have been the tale that inspired Rose in the James Cameron film.
As the ship was sinking, Thayer did not encounter ‘Rose’ though. He lost his parents, assuming they were on another lifeboat, and as he found another lost teenager, Milton, the two were not allowed on any of the scarce lifeboats.
Instead, Milton and Jack are said to have taken to the water and found one of the lifeboats that had dropped from the Titanic upon impact. After hours of drifting, a rescue crew found them, along with his mother. His father was never found.
What About Rose?
Was Rose also based on real characters or was she a work of total fiction? Kate Winslet’s character of Rose DeWitt-Bukater was actually based on Beatrice Wood.
Image Source: Wikimedia Portrait of Beatrice Wood
There can be no debate about this in the same way there is about which “Jack” was the inspiration for Di Caprio’s character. Beatrice Wood actually lived for long enough to be invited to the premiere by the director, so it is no great secret that Winslet is portraying a woman at least based around the same kind of background Wood had.
Beatrice Wood was not on the Titanic. In fact, her inclusion is said to be purely down to the fact that James Cameron was reading about her while they made the film, and scattered elements of her background and character into that of Rose, who was fictitious in general.
Many still believe that Beatrice Wood was actually onboard the Titanic as they know what a big impact she had on the character.
There were two women onboard the Titanic who may well have gone by the name Rose (one was called Rosa) but these are purely coincidental.
Summary – Who Was the Real Jack Dawson?
There is a chance that the mystery around the character could be a deliberate ploy, of course. The official story from the makers of the movie claim that the similarities with characters on the ship are pure coincidence.
Reading the tales of Joseph Dawson and Jack Thayer, it is hard to assume there is no influence from these two stories, and the accounts of the Titanic, though not a great deal is known about Dawson and his time onboard, other than the official work records.
It is possible that it really is a coincidence, and it is also possible that Jack Dawson borrows little parts of both of the characters of these real men who were onboard the ship when tragedy struck. Much like the character of Rose is a loose portrayal of Beatrice Wood, could Jack be built up from other characters and stories from the records we have of one of the most high-profile tragedies ever to occur at sea?