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  • Writer's picturePaul Amirault

Was Jack Dawson from "Titanic" a real person?

It's no exaggeration to say that Jack Dawson, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron's epic, Titanic, is an iconic film character. Moviegoers across the world were swept away by the romance between the carefree young vagabond and his privileged, upper-class girlfriend, Rose (played by Kate Winslet.) However—as we all vividly remember—the relationship ended tragically when the Titanic sank and Dawson froze to death in the North Atlantic.

Although filmmaker Cameron said the character was fictional, visitors to Halifax, Nova Scotia, are often confused while spending time at Fairview Lawn Cemetery. That's because the historic graveyard contains the remains of several of Titanic's victims whose bodies were recovered from the sea in the days following the sinking.

One them was J. Dawson.

The intriguing headstone

When I visited the cemetery a dozen years ago, I took this picture of Dawson's grave. You'll notice someone had placed a promotional pin from Titanic on it.

I assumed the person who'd left it had been a Titanic fan. I also assumed they didn't realize that the buried man's name wasn't Jack Dawson. It was Joseph Dawson.

The real J. Dawson

Joseph Dawson, unlike DiCaprio's character (a 3rd class passenger from America), was actually an Irishman who worked on Titanic's crew.

Dawson spent his days aboard Titanic toiling belowdecks helping feed coal to the ship's boilers, which, in turn, powered the giant steam engines required to run the vessel. His body was one of several recovered by the Halifax-based steamship MacKay Bennett.

Real Grief Inspired by the Movie

As it turned out, my visit to Dawson's grave wasn't unique. According to news reports, ever since the movie came out, cards, letters and flowers have frequently been left at the site by grieving (and presumably, young) fans. And although DiCaprio's "Jack Dawson" wasn't a real person, Joseph Dawson was, and it's probably a good thing moviegoers were so taken by the fictional Dawson's story. I think the film made them appreciate the very real loss of 23-year-old Joseph Dawson in a way history books alone never could.

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In addition to being a Titanic aficionado, Paul Amirault is a TV producer and author of the new book The Man Who Sent the SOS: A Memoir of Reincarnation and the Titanic. The book chronicles Paul's own experience researching a past life that ended with the sinking of the famous White Star liner.

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