Immediately upon its release, the 1997 movie Titanic became a huge hit.
The romantic drama, set amidst the historical RMS Titanic’s sinking disaster, quickly found its place in cinematic history. The movie, directed by James Cameron, was critically and commercially successful.
At the time, it was also the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget of $200 million. But that investment paid off when it became the highest-grossing movie of all time (until being surpassed by Avatar in 2010) and the first movie to reach the billion-dollar mark in ticket sales.
Many people love the movie because they’re fascinated by the sinking of the real Titanic. But arguably just as many adore it simply for its timeless central love story. Because the movie blends fact and fiction, so many teen girls and women have totally fallen in love with the character Jack Dawson without even knowing whether he was one of the film’s inventions or a real-life person.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there actually was a Titanic victim by the name of “J. Dawson” — and many are convinced that he’s the character from the movie.
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Jack was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1997 film.
In the movie, he’s a penniless artist and orphan from Wisconsin who wins third-class passage on the Titanic — to travel from Europe back to the United States — in a poker game.
While several characters in the movie were based on real victims of the sinking (like the older couple who died cuddling in bed), almost none of the lead characters were. That includes both Jack and his love interest, Rose DeWitt Bukater.
Despite the fact that James Cameron and the movie’s producers have come out and said that Jack and Rose aren’t real, some fans aren’t convinced — partially thanks to a grave for one “J. Dawson.”
The “J. Dawson” Titanic victim is buried in Fairview Cemetery, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The grave’s inscription reads, simply:
April 15, 1912
The mysterious “J. Dawson” is far from the only Titanic victim buried in this cemetery.
In fact, he’s one of 121. The group of graves are even arranged in the shape of a ship’s hull, according to the New York Times.
For years, fans of the movie have flocked to the gravesite. Some even leave flowers and love notes, believing the “J. Dawson” grave to be the final resting place of Leo’s handsome, tragic character.
“After the movie, I saw fathers with their daughters standing here crying. For two or three years that lasted. Instead of spring break, fathers would bring their daughters here to see J. Dawson,” cemetery tour guide Blair Beed told CBC News.
But those who created the movie are clear: their Jack Dawson wasn’t at all based on this “J. Dawson.” In fact, they didn’t even know there was any Dawson aboard when they named the character!
“It wasn’t until after the movie came out that we found out that there was a J. Dawson gravestone,” said the film’s producer, Jon Landau.
Not much is known about the real J. Dawson. Historians are pretty sure that he was named Joseph Dawson and that he shoveled coal in the bowels of the ship as a member of the crew, not as a passenger — third-class or otherwise.
According to Encyclopedia Titanica, Joseph was born in Dublin, Ireland, around September 1888 and joined the British Army at age 19. He met a ship’s fireman, John Priest, when on leave around 1911. It was John who encouraged Joseph (by then dating John’s sister, Nellie) to take a job on a transatlantic sea liner.
John and Joseph were both working aboard the Titanic when it sank, but John survived. Joseph would be the 227th corpse recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, a cable ship used for body recovery in the aftermath of the disaster.
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