Orphans of the Titanic: The kidnapping of Michel and Edmond Navratil
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank beneath the waters of the north Atlantic, about two and a half hours after colliding with an iceberg. Of the estimated 2,200 people on board, 1,500 of them would not survive the night.
The sinking of the Titanic is one of the most well known maritime disasters in history. There are dozens of fascinating stories associated with the ship and her passengers and crew, and today’s case is one of them. Let’s talk about the Navratil family.
Michel Marcel Navratil was born on June 12, 1908 in Nice, France to dad Michel Sr. and mom Marcelle. On March 5, 1910, he was joined by younger brother Edmond Roger.
Michel Navratil Sr. worked as a tailor, but by 1912 the business was failing and he and wife were separated. 3-year-old Michel and 2-year-old Edmond lived with their mom, but their dad had them over Easter weekend that year — April 5-7. When Marcelle came to her husband’s new dwellings to pick her two sons up, all three of them were gone.
Michel Sr. was headed to America, but his exact destination is unknown. After stops in Monte Carlo and London, he bought himself and his sons second class tickets on the Titanic, which they boarded in Southampton on April 10. In order to keep from being caught by his estranged wife, Michel Sr. went by the name Charles Hoffman and said his children’s names were John and Fred. (At least one other document said Michel went by “Ludwig Hoffman” at one point, and he might have also gone by the name “Louis Hoffman” while on board the Titanic.)
During the voyage, the Navratils largely kept to themselves. Few passengers would report seeing them, and the ones who did would note that Michel Sr. rarely let the boys out of his sight.
Around 11:39 pm on April 14, a lookout on the Titanic spotted an iceberg ahead. The iceberg was also seen by multiple passengers. One witness said it came up just a little bit higher than the boat deck, making it over 60 feet tall.
Despite all efforts to turn the ship, Titanic’s side scraped the iceberg as it passed, popping out rivets and allowing water to rush in. The Titanic had sixteen watertight compartments to prevent sinking. She could stay afloat with up to four of them flooded, but the iceberg had opened up six. The ship was going to sink.
When Michel Navratil learned this, he and another passenger went to the room the boys were staying in, got them dressed and brought them to the boat deck. Michel Jr. would later say the following about that night:
“My father entered our cabin where we were sleeping. He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms. A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”
Because of eyewitness reports, the boys are believed to have been in lifeboat D, one of the ship’s four collapsible lifeboats and the last lifeboat to be launched, around 2:05 am. The launching of collapsible D was overseen by Second Officer Charles Lightoller, who only allowed women and children into the boats he was in charge of on the ship’s port side. (First officer William Murdoch, in contrast, was in charge of loading boats on the starboard side and employed the ‘women and children first’ rule that you’ve probably heard before.)
In order to prevent a rush on collapsible D, Lightoller had crew members form a ring around the boat, only allowing women and children through their locked arms. The Navratil brothers were lowered into collapsible D by their father. Just before this, Michel Sr. reportedly said the following to his oldest son:
“My child, when your mother comes for you, as she surely will, tell her that I loved her dearly and still do. Tell her I expected her to follow us, so that we might all live happily together in the peace and freedom of the New World.”
This would be the last time the boys would see their dad.
(About 20 minutes after this, two other collapsible lifeboats, A and B, would float off the deck and be clung to by several more people, allowing them to survive as well.)
after the sinking
Once the Titanic survivors were rescued by the Carpathia, they noticed that these two young boys who only spoke French had been rescued without a parent or guardian. It was obvious they were brothers because of their “striking resemblance to each other.” (Evening World) It was initially believed the boys’ mother was the one who put them in a lifeboat at the last minute and then died herself.
Margaret Hays, another survivor who was fluent in French, agreed to look after the boys until their family could be located. Once the Carpathia reached New York, the boys stayed with Margaret at her home there.
The boys were described as sweet, well-mannered and gentle. It was hoped that if their family couldn’t be found, they would be adopted by an American family.
Newspapers in America and Europe published photos of the boys, hoping to find someone who could identify them. Marcelle Navratil came across one of the photos and contacted the White Star Line, who arranged her passage to New York. She was reunited with her sons on May 16, and the three of them then returned to France.
Michel Navratil Sr.’s body was recovered in mid April, one of less than 350 recovered. He’s buried in Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada.
In 1914, Marcelle Navratil sued the White Star Line for 6,000 pounds for damages in the loss of her husband. I couldn’t find any information about how this turned out.
Margaret Hays, who had taken the boys under her wing after the sinking, married in 1913 and had two daughters. She died in 1956 at the age of 68.
Edmond Navratil later worked as an interior decorator and architect. He fought in World War II, where he was captured and made a prisoner of war but managed to escape. He died in 1953 at the age of 43.
Michel Navratil Jr. became a philosophy professor in France. Later in his life, he travelled to Halifax to visit his dad’s grave. He died in 2001 at the age of 92, the last male Titanic survivor to die.
So I hope you found the Navratils’ story interesting. It’s strange to think that if just one or two details had been changed, things could have turned out a lot differently. If the boys had died in the sinking — as many children did — they could still be missing persons to this day. Their mom could have died never knowing what happened to her sons.
The Navratils pages on Encyclopedia Titanica:
Margaret Hays: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/margaret-bechstein-hays.html
the document that refers to Michel as having gone by “Ludwig Hoffman”: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6210865
French children may be his - Frank Lefebre goes to New York from Mystic to identify two unknown French children. Semi Weekly Iowegian, April 23, 1912: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/french-children-lefebre-new-york-mystic-identify-unknown.html
No Light on the Mystery Hiding the Identity of Two Waifs of the Sea. Evening World, April 22, 1912: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/no-light-on-the-mystery-hiding-the-identity-of-two-waifs-of-the-sea.html
Echo of the Titanic Disaster. The Times, February 10, 1914: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/echo-of-the-titanic-disaster.html
Last male survivor of Titanic dies. BBC, February 2, 2001: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1150329.stm
Titanic Names: A Complete List of the Passengers and Crew: amazon.com/Titanic-Names-Complete-Passengers-Centennial/dp/0983610304/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1HTGZ44OT9V1C&keywords=titanic+names+a+complete+list+of+the+passengers+and+crew&qid=1659811879&sprefix=titanic+names+a+complete+list+of+the+passengers+and+cre%2Caps%2C80&sr=8-1
882 1/2 Amazing Answers to Your Questions About the Titanic: amazon.com/Amazing-Answers-Questions-About-Titanic/dp/0439042968/ref=sr_1_1?crid=29QJ34A64DA1R&keywords=882+1%2F2+amazing+answers+to+your+questions+about+the+titanic&qid=1659811773&sprefix=882+1%2F2%2Caps%2C89&sr=8-1