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Author's new play explores Monessen's links to Titanic

| Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cassandra Vivian was bleary-eyed in 1999 from peering at newspaper microfilms for weeks on end.

She doggedly plodded along, conducting research for a book about her hometown of Monessen when suddenly she was struck by a literary lightning bolt.

"FIVE TITANIC SURVIVORS REACH MONESSEN," the Daily Independent headline screamed in April 1912. Vivian goggled at the screen.

"It was such a shock that I just sat there with my mouth hanging open," Vivian remembered. "I grew up in Monessen and had never once heard anything about the Titanic. I simply couldn't believe my eyes."

Until that day, Vivian had been only mildly interested in the RMS Titanic tragedy. "I got really interested about it in a hurry," she exclaimed.

Thirteen people from Finland and four from Hungary had booked steerage passage on Titanic's fateful maiden voyage from England to New York and listed Monessen as their destination.

One scratch from peril

A Hungarian mother named Kristina Torkos and her three children were banned from the steamship at the last minute because one young daughter had a scratch on her cheek from a tussle with her brother. Immigrants were thought by the upper classes to carry disease; that small wound saved the family's life.

They took a later ship, the Kortland, after the child's face had healed, and eventually reunited with their husband/father, who was a Monessen steelworker.

The Finns were not as lucky. Only five of the 13 survived Titanic's sinking.

Intrigued that she had never heard about the survivors, Vivian made it her business to learn as much as possible about those who made it to Monessen as well as those who died. She included information about them in the 1999 book, "Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town."

'Steerage didn't matter'

Then she took it a step further. In 2001, Vivian wrote a play based on their story after receiving a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Southwestern Pennsylvania Council for the Arts. The hourlong play is titled "Titanic: The Monessen Story."

Although the play has never yet been performed, Vivian is hoping it will be read at a meeting from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. April 28 at Mt. Pleasant Library. She moved to Mt. Pleasant from Monessen several years ago after her mother passed away.

Vivian calls her play a "micro-macrocosm" that illustrates the disparaging way that immigrants were treated by the upper classes of the early 1900s. "It was so obvious that steerage (third-class) passengers didn't matter," she said. "The steerage passengers were locked below deck until it was almost too late to escape Titanic's sinking."

Family separation

Her play painfully makes that point in the case of the Panula family. When Maria Panula boarded the Titanic with her four children, her two oldest sons were sent to room with the bachelors in a different part of steerage. As the ship took on water, she could not find her boys, so she and her family never made it to the lifeboats.

"They never separated anyone in first class or in second class," Vivian pointed out. "Just in steerage."

Only 47 percent of steerage women made it to the lifeboats, compared to 94 percent of first class and 81 percent of second class. Far more men perished, percentage-wise; there were more men than women and children aboard. Even in first class, only about a third of the men survived.

As Vivian researched her play, she looked to the section of Monessen that was her family's neighborhood: Finn Town -- and was astounded to learn the five Finnish survivors stayed close to her home when they first arrived in the Mon Valley.

Monessen had one of the largest Finnish populations, percent-wise, in the early 20th century, according to the local writer, who has published many other books and articles, including ones about Egypt, where she lived as a young woman for 17 years.

Ethnic neighborhoods

Clusters of nationalities settled in Monessen, like many other Southwestern Pennsylvania towns and villages. "We had Finn Town and Dutch Town and Russian Hill, to name a few," she said.

Vivian explained that Finns were attracted to Monessen's tin mill because many of them were talented tinsmiths. Finns made up a large portion of the Titanic's immigrant passengers; there were 63 aboard the ship -- eight in second class, the rest in steerage.

Vivian searched for family members of those who survived. Eventually, she tracked down relatives of Elin Hakkarainen, who lived in Ohio. Elin was a newlywed on the Titanic; her husband, Pekka, did not survive. Eventually she remarried and moved to Ohio; her memoirs were published in a booklet written by her son and a co-writer.

Also found was Mary Torkos, the little Hungarian girl with the scratched cheek. When Vivian found her several years ago, Mary was in her 90s "and still very articulate."

Members of Elin's and Mary's families visited Monessen a couple of years ago, where Vivian hosted an event for the Titanic families at the local high school. Since then, Mary has passed on, taking her Titanic memories with her.

'Story needs to be told'

Vivian dreams of the day when "Titanic: The Monessen Story" will be staged.

"This story needs to be told. Here is little Monessen; it was in the middle of international news, and there isn't even a plaque to honor the Titanic passengers," she said. "The people now living in Finn Town have never heard about them, which is ridiculous."

Vivian's latest writing project is a historical cookbook about Northern Italian cuisine, which she learned in her mother's and grandmother's kitchens. (Her last name was originally spelled Viviani.)

A Tuscan-American Kitchen, co-written by Vivian Pelini Sansone, was published by The Pelican Publishing Co. in 2011. More information about her play and books can be found by visiting

EDITOR'S NOTE: Cassandra Vivian's research about the RMS Titanic was a titanic project in its own right. In the Monessen native's search for information about the 13 Finns aboard the doomed steamship as well as the four Hungarians who were banned from it because of prejudice toward immigrants, she also discovered several other people from the region were on the ship.

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