A Dozen Myths about the Titanic
by Philip Chien
The Titanic sent the first SOS in history, the iceberg wasn't spotted in time because the lookouts didn't have binoculars, Molly Brown was a famous heroine who traveled on the Titanic, and the band played "Nearer My God To Thee" while the Titanic sank. All commonly known facts about the Titanic. And all myths.
With the centennial of the Titanic's sinking (April 15, 1912) there's lots of renewed interest including reissues of books and movies, a 3-D version of the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, and plenty of non-fiction articles.
This article is not specifically about the James Cameron movie, but it does use several images from the movie simply because photos of the real events don't exist.
There are hundreds of myths about the Titanic, and it was hard to select just a dozen for this article. I had to leave out several because their explanations would be too long. Even more difficult was to pare them down to a reasonable length to avoid boring readers. It's still a very long article (by web magazine standards) but I hope it will be of interest.
If Captain E.J. Smith was a bit luckier then the Titanic's first crossing would only be a footnote in the history of oceanliners - not a special part of contemporary history. But because of how the Titanic hit the iceberg and what happened afterwards it's much more interesting.
1) A sailor survived the sinking of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania
2) The lifeboats were loaded with women and children only
3) Only one lifeboat decided to come back and try to rescue survivors in the water
4) Ismay's cowardice
5) After the Titanic sank ships carried enough lifeboats for everybody onboard
6) If there were enough lifeboats everybody could have been saved
7) The last song
8) The iceberg wasn't spotted in time because the binoculars were missing
9) Molly Brown
10) The watertight compartments
11) The 300 foot gash
12) The Cameron Titanic movie is historically accurate
Myth - A sailor survived the sinking of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania
This was published in Ripley's Believe it or Not. In this case it's "Not". Supposedly Frank "Lucky" Tower was the sailor. But nobody named Frank Tower ever showed up for a paycheck.
There is another story which is just as astonishing - but true. The White Star Line had three Olympic-class ships - Olympic, Titanic, and Brittanic. In 1911 the Olympic had a minor collision with the British cruiser Hawke. In 1912 the Titanic sank. In 1914 the HMS Brittanic, outfitted as a hospital ship to transport wounded soldiers, was sunk by a mine or torpedo. Stewardess Violet Jessop was present for all three events. Does that make her the unluckiest White Star employee of all time - or the luckiest since she survived all three incidents?
There's nothing implausible about Violet Jessop's history. As an employee of the White Star Line she spent much of career at sea. Violet Jessop had a far better chance of surviving the Titanic's sinking than a typical passenger or male crewmember. She certainly knew the ship's layout better than the passengers, and female crew was given the same priority as female passengers when loading the lifeboats.
It's not likely that any specific person would have been present for all three accidents, but not improbable that someone could, with the most likely candidate a crewmember. Violet Jessop was lucky (unlucky) enough to be at the crossroads of history three times.
Myth - The lifeboats were loaded with women and children only
Amazingly that depended on what side of the ship you were on! First officer William Murdoch and second officer Charles Lightoller had different interpretations of the Captain's orders to load the women and children into the lifeboats. If you were a male passenger the most important factor which determined whether or not you survived was whether you chose to turn left or right when you got up to the boat deck!
For most of the evening Murdoch loaded the boats on the starboard side of the ship. He interpreted the order as "Women and children first", along with the necessary crew to man the boat. After that he filled the remaining spaces with any available male passengers. On the port side Lightoller interpreted the Captain's order as load only the women and children into the lifeboats (plus the male crew).
Based on the best information available Murdoch saved much more people than Lightoller (376 vs. 250). Lightoller saved more women and children than Murdoch (205 vs. 165). On Lightoller's side there was a far higher number of crewmembers (124 vs. 43). While the numbers are very uncertain they do show the different approaches taken by the officers.
Lightoller's policy of women and children only contributed to many unnecessary deaths. There were many families who refused to be separated and Lightoller let many boats go with empty seats rather than fill those seats with male passengers to the very end.
Lightoller's final boats to leave Titanic had many empty seats. Women and children no problem. Husbands of pregnant women - could escort their wives in but then were asked to leave. Young boys - okay but no more boys. With his restrictions on who was allowed in a lifeboat only 34 of the 65 seats on lifeboat 4 were filled even though it was one of the final boats! Many of society's richest men watched their wives and children depart in a lifeboat which had room for all of them - and more.
Myth - Only one lifeboat decided to come back and try to rescue survivors
Mostly true. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe in Lifeboat 14 was the only lifeboat chief to make the decision to rescue survivors in the water after the Titanic sank.
The lifeboats tried to get as far as possible while Titanic was sinking. Suction pulling down the boats was a real fear and the lifeboats had every right to row as far away as possible to avoid getting sucked under.
After the ship went down the lifeboats had the moral imperative to row back as quickly as possible to rescue people who were still alive in the freezing water. But they didn't.
Tradition has it that Lifeboat 14 was the only boat to go back while 19 boats did nothing. Collapsible A and B were not seaworthy and could not go anywhere. Boats 13, 15, and C were completely full and had no space for additional survivors. Lifeboat 11 had 51 seats filled out of a capacity of 65.
Lowe collected Lifeboats 4, 10, 12, 14, and D and tied them together. Lowe transferred the passengers from his boat (14) into the others so his boat could search for survivors. In effect Lowe's boats worked together as a team.
That still leaves 11 lifeboats, including ones commanded by the officers who outranked Lowe (fourth officer Boxhall and third officer Pitman), with plenty of room, which stood back and did nothing.
Lowe had been acclaimed as one of the heroes of the Titanic disaster, but his darker side has been glossed over, especially in the movies. Lowe forced a boy out of his lifeboat at gunpoint because he considered the boy too old to be considered a child, resulting in an additional needless death.
Myth - Ismay's cowardice
Depending on which version you choose to believe J. Bruce Ismay was lucky enough to be at a lifeboat while it was being lowered without any women or children around, or he purposely sent away passengers so he could save himself.
Ismay was the president of the White Star Line which operated Titanic. He sailed as a first class passenger, not a crewmember. Ismay was on Lifeboat C, one of the last boats to leave the Titanic. The other men on Lifeboat C included first class passenger William Carter, several third class men, and several crewmembers. The boat had a capacity of 47 passengers and was filled with about 45 making it one of the most packed lifeboats.
Ismay was one of the earliest to know that Titanic was doomed. If he just wanted to save his life he could have entered one of the early lifeboats. After the women and children were put aboard Ismay could have boarded any of the forward starboard boats along with the 35 men who did enter those boats. Those boats had plenty of empty seats.
For some reason - inner guilt, responsibility, whatever - Ismay chose to assist with the lifeboat loading and consider himself part of the crew.
Ismay probably decided to jump into Lifeboat C because the opportunity presented itself and he realized - without a shadow of a doubt - that Titanic was about to sink and if he didn't take that seat then he'd die. The seat Ismay occupied had nobody in it and would have been wasted.
If Ismay decided to stay aboard, all it would have done is increased the body count by one. Plus - as one inquiry noted - people would claim that he chose to die because he didn't have the guts to stand before an inquiry.
Ismay's detractors were vocal. It was claimed that Ismay left on the very first lifeboat, or a lifeboat that only had a dozen onboard - just first class passengers and a handful of crew. Charlotte Drake Cardeza claimed that Ismay was on her boat and personally selected the men who would row, including her husband - neatly justifying how her husband survived and accusing Ismay at the same time! According to Washington Dodge Ismay was in Boat 15, the boat almost lowered on top of Boat 13 where Dodge was sitting. All of these claims are easily proven false - Ismay was not in any of those lifeboats. Some may have been distorted newspaper accounts; others may have been clouded thoughts by new widows blaming Ismay for the loss of their husbands.
In other versions of what happened, Ismay actually gives an order to send people to the other side of the ship, giving himself the opportunity to get into the lifeboat. In the fictional movie "A Night to Remember" Ismay cowardly whispers "any more women and children" before sneaking into the boat. Another claim said Ismay entered during the confusion when guns were shot.
So it all depends on which version of the events surrounding the loading of Lifeboat C you believe.
Ismay does have his supporters, like passenger Edith Russell, who recalled him encouraging women to enter the lifeboats.
One of the many who died was Ernest Edward Samuel Freeman, Ismay's personal secretary. Freeman's body was recovered and buried in Fairview Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His headstone reads, "He remained at his post of duty, seeking to save others, regardless of his own life and went down with the ship. Erected by Mr. J Bruce Ismay to commemorate a long faithful service". Ismay also set up a pension for Freeman's parents. Perhaps that says more about how Ismay felt about his own failings than anything else.
Ismay is thought of as a villain primarily because when he was given the opportunity to live instead of dying he chose to live. Had he died history would have probably remembered him for his efforts to encourage women and children to enter the lifeboats.
Myth - After the Titanic sank ships carried enough lifeboats for everybody
It took time before all of the world's oceanliners obtained additional lifeboats, but not very much. Any company without enough lifeboat seats, whether or not it was required by law, would be telling passengers to go elsewhere.
But while ships have enough lifeboats for their rated capacities, that doesn't necessarily mean enough lifeboats for everybody. Ships are overloaded in many cases, especially in regions where regulations are lax and companies are more willing to squeeze in more paying bodies.
You'd think that the transportation industries would never forget the lesson of the Titanic. Well, not always. NASA's space station "Freedom" was planned as a permanent outpost in space. It lacked one very important item - a way to return its crew to Earth if an emergency occurred. The crews would fly to and from the space station on the space shuttle but were on their own when the shuttle wasn't docked.
After the Challenger accident in 1986 the concept of a space lifeboat was discussed. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the lifeboat for the International Space Station and has a seat for each crewmember.
Myth - If there were enough lifeboats everybody could have been saved
Even if Titanic held three times as many lifeboats it probably wouldn't have helped much. Recall that most of the boats were only half full. More importantly, the boats were lowered sequentially with teams working on the starboard and port sides, not simultaneously. The first boat entered the water around 12:30 a.m., and the last two floated off as the Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m.. If there were more boats it's doubtful there would have been enough time to put them to use.
Myth - The last song
Was the band's last song "Nearer My God to Thee", "Autumn", "Song d'Autoume", or some other tune? The most heated arguments over what happened on the Titanic has to be what was the last song. While the majority of the survivors claimed that they heard "Nearer my God to Thee" (NMGTT) that doesn't make it so, any more so than the majority of people thinking the Earth's flat makes it any flatter.
It's interesting to note the fervor which some people believe that a particular song was played, and refuse to look at or even consider any contradictory evidence. The claim has even been made that the reason why people insist the last song had to be "Song d'Autoume" is part of a widespread conspiracy to remove religious references from history!
Since the purpose of having the band play was to keep the passengers calm the band would be playing cheery songs while the boats were being loaded, not hymns. Nobody in an early lifeboat could have heard hymns.
After the final boats were gone and it was clear that everybody remaining on the ship was doomed the band could have changed over to hymns as those remaining reflected on their lives and the fact that they were almost certainly going to die very soon.
Certainly sounds carry over water well at night, but add the noises from the ship falling apart and the screams of those in the water. Also recall that Titanic was four blocks long. If you weren't close by, you couldn't hear the band. Only a couple dozen survivors were still on Titanic as it was about to go under and could have heard the last song.
Walter Lord did an excellent analysis of the last song in his book "The Night Lives On". The source for the song "Autumn" was wireless operator Harold Bride. Bride was one of the very last to leave the ship and in a place where he could hear the band, unlike most the witnesses who claimed it was NMGTT.
Lord gives excellent reasons why Bride (a British citizen) probably assumed that the "New York Times" writer would understand that "Autumn" meant the popular waltz "Song d'Autoume".
Snoopes.com claims "Song d'Automne" is not one of the songs the band was expected to know, but they're wrong. The official White Star music book includes "Song d'Automne" by name (song number 137). The list does not include NMGTT, but that would fall under the generic category of "National Anthems, Hymns, of all Nations".
Claims that there's no way any song besides NMGTT was the last should be lumped in the same category as any rumors which claim absolute knowledge of events where absolute knowledge isn't possible.
So what was the last song? There's no way to know for certain, but the best evidence is "Song d'Automne". What is certain is anybody who insists that it had to be a particular song is incorrect.
Myth - The iceberg wasn't spotted in time because the binoculars were missing
The binoculars for the lookouts couldn't be found and were presumably misplaced while preparing for the maiden voyage.
The lack of binoculars came up in the investigations. Lightoller claimed that binoculars would have helped and the lookouts said the lack of binoculars was the reason they didn't spot the iceberg earlier. But these were almost certainly excuses for not seeing the iceberg in time.
You can't use binoculars to find something unless you already know the object's location. Binoculars limit your field of view. You're only looking at a small portion of the sky (magnified of course). The limited view actually hinders the search for hazards. In addition viewing through binoculars quickly leads to eyestrain.
At night binoculars are even more of a disadvantage. Any binoculars, no matter how good, lose some light. Each lens and prism absorbs some light and the surfaces scatter some light making it more difficult to see a dark object on a dark background. Minor issues in daylight, but extremely restrictive at night.
And this was all documented in the 1912 inquiries!
Myth - Molly Brown
Her name has been inexorably linked to the Titanic, a musical was made about her, and even a spaceship was named after her. Trouble is she didn't exist - at least by that name. There was a "Mrs. J.J. Brown" (as shown on the manifest), "Margaret Brown", or "Maggie" (as she was known to her friends). She was never known as "Molly". Broadway writer Richard Morris created the name "Molly" for the 1960 musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown". The hit was (very) loosely based on her life.
Maggie Brown's life had so many legends that it's difficult to tell what was true and what was tall tales. She encouraged the stories since it encouraged people to talk about her. There are plenty of legends about her on the Titanic. According to one account "She commanded the frightened women to stop whimpering and sing so that they would stay warm. She exhorted the men at the oars to head for shore, although they were in the middle of the North Atlantic, at least six hundred miles from land in any direction. Molly told one gentleman, who claimed he could not go on, to keep rowing or she'd shoot his guts out and everyone was inclined to believe her". And it's doubtful any of it is true.
Maggie Brown's adventures on the Titanic don't need any exaggeration and she was a real hero. On the rescue ship Carpathia she helped form a committee to collect funds for the third class passengers, many who lost everything they owned. Over $20,000 was collected in three days (roughly $240,000 in today's dollars). In addition she helped draft letters of thanks to the Carpathia crew and gave a loving cup to Captain Rostron.
The Maggie/Molly Brown character has been extremely popular in Titanic's fictional accounts. Tammy Grimes played Molly Brown in the 1960 Broadway play. Some of the actresses who played her in movies include Tucker McGuire (A Night To Remember (ANTR) 1958), Debbie Reynolds (The Unsinkable Molly Brown 1964), Cloris Leachman (SOS Titanic 1979), Marilu Henner (Titanic 1996 CBS movie), Kathy Bates (Titanic 1997) and Judy Prestininzi (Ghosts of the Abyss 2003).
The character is in "ANTR", but without the name "Molly" since it preceded the musical which "renamed" her. IMDB.com, the CD-ROM version of ANTR, and Wikipedia all list the name "Molly" in the credits, an anachronistic mistake.
Regrettably many books and other references call her Molly without any acknowledgement that it isn't her real name and was created over two decades after she died.
The James Cameron movie continues the "Molly" myth. It's certainly understandable that most of the movie's viewers wouldn't recognize the name "Mrs. J.J. Brown" or "Maggie Brown", but might recall something about "The Unsinkable Molly Brown". Old Rose's voiceover says, "At Cherbourg a woman came aboard named Margaret Brown, but we all called her Molly. History would call her the Unsinkable Molly Brown". The only scene where a character calls her Molly is before the dinner. Molly calls out, "Hey Astor!" and Astor replies, "Well, Hello Molly!"
If the movie had left out the phrase "but we all called her Molly" and Astor just said "Hello Mrs. Brown" then it could have remained true to the character's actual name.
Myth - The watertight compartments
The feature that made the Titanic 'practically unsinkable' was separate watertight sections. If one or two sections are flooded the remaining compartments have enough buoyancy to keep the ship afloat. The compartments were designed so any two could be opened to the sea, or even the first four and the ship would remain afloat. The watertight compartments only covered the lowest decks where crew quarters, cargo, and the boiler rooms were located. The compartments prevented water from moving horizontally among the compartments, but wouldn't help if water came in from above.
The watertight compartments were connected with automatic doors, controlled by the bridge. The movies "A Night to Remember" and "Titanic 1997" both include extremely dramatic scenes showing crewmembers just escaping in time as watertight doors are lowered. The viewer is left with the impression that anybody who didn't make it into the next compartment was doomed. But the 'trapped' crew could climb up ladders and stairwells above the highest watertight bulkhead to travel over to the other side. This was so time consuming that at least one door was reopened to permit passage between the boiler rooms, with plans to close the door again if that particular compartment started to flood.
Myth - The 300 foot gash
The 1912 newspapers described in lurid detail how the iceberg ripped open a 300-foot gash in Titanic's side. Many drawings showed large wounds - large enough to cause the Titanic to sink within minutes - before the first distress signal could even be sent.
The damage couldn't be one continuous gash; it was either multiple small punctures or the metal plates bending apart at various points.
The size of the openings was determined fairly accurately - in 1912! During the British inquiry marine engineer Edward Wilding estimated the size of the opening at 12 sq. ft. (1.1 sq. meters). That's roughly the size of an adult human!
Wilding knew the volume of each of the watertight compartments. He knew the time the Titanic struck the iceberg and the time it went under. He knew which compartments were breached. With less certainty he had descriptions from the survivors for how the water level changed over time and when certain decks went beneath the surface. With all of that information he was able to calculate the total area.
Myth - The Cameron Titanic movie is historically accurate
This claim was made several times by James Cameron. In the television special "Titanic: Breaking New Ground" Cameron states, "Wherever you see anything about the Titanic which doesn't include Jack and Rose, it's accurate. And it's there because it's part of the greater drama".
"Accurate" can be interpreted in many different ways. The Cameron movie is extremely accurate in the design of its sets, costumes, and much of the 'feel' for the period. The Jack and Rose story is completely fictional of course. Historically there's no way a first class woman and third class man would have had such easy access to each other's portions of the ship. Physiologically there's no way the two of them would have remained alive long enough to make it to the stern - much less to the door/raft which saved Rose's life.
The Cameron movie does make many historic mistakes, some for dramatic reasons, others for no obvious reason.
One obvious mistake for dramatic reasons - Jack's locked inside the Master of Arms's office and looks out of a porthole, watching the Titanic sink. Outside rooms are normally cabins. On the actual Titanic the Master of Arms's office was an inside room without a porthole.
One intentional mistake was Lowe's use of a flashlight (electric torch) during his search for survivors. The flashlight was the only way to light an otherwise completely dark scene. Another problem - when he calls out, "Is anybody here!" there's an echo. It may sound poignant, but there's nothing for his voice to bounce off!
The lifeboat sequence follows the British Inquiry's timeline (which is known to be inaccurate) with the correct historic figures in the correct locations. We see Molly (sic) Brown entering Lifeboat 6, Lifeboat 15 as it's almost lowered on top of Lifeboat 13, Lowe fire shots while 14 is being lowered, and Ismay as he boards Lifeboat C. In each case men only enter boats or are prohibited where that happened in real life.
The movie correctly shows that Lightoller prohibited men from entering his boats, but gives an incredibly misleading impression that Murdoch only allowed men into his boats for bribes.
And a bonus 13th myth because I couldn't limit myself to just a dozen.
Myth - Titanic's impact caused the iceberg to flip over
The mass of the iceberg, calculated from the size estimates given by witnesses, would have been between 3 and 8 million tons. Titanic's mere 50,000 tons wouldn't have even budged it off of its course.
Pictures from "Titanic" courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Used with permission.
Other photos from the author's collection.
Order Titanic books via Amazon.com.
Order Titanic movies via Amazon.com.
Preorder Titanic 3-D, Blu-Ray from Amazon.com.
The earliest Titanic books are now in the public domain and can be legally downloaded.
Project Gutenberg has one of the best of the early books, written by a second class passenger, and one of the early lurid yellow journalism sensationalism books which is the source of many of the myths which persist to this day.
The Loss of the S. S. Titanic by Lawrence Beesley. Beesley was a second class passenger and gives a realistic view of what happened.
Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters by Logan Marshall. One of the quickie books which comes out after any disaster where the priority is to publish fast and getting the facts right isn't important. Among other things it has first person accounts from many who died aboard the Titanic.
Archive.org also has several excellent contemporary Titanic resources.
The Truth about the Titanic by passenger Archibald Gracie. Gracie wrote this book to correct many of the rumors and incorrect stories which had appeared in the press. Generally it's considered accurate, however Gracie is very unclear when he's stating that he actually saw something vs. something which he was told by another passenger. In addition Gracie whitewashes over many controversial topics (i.e. - he insists that no guns were fired and he's absolutely sure that he would have known if any guns were fired. Besides contradicting sworn testimony that guns were fired, there was no way Gracie could have known every single thing which was happening aboard the four block long ship or categorically state that something could not have happened without his knowledge.)
The story of the Titanic, as told by its survivors - a compilation of the Gracie and Beesley books and the New York Times interview with Harold Bride.
The American Inquiry held immediately after the survivors arrived in New York.
The British Inquiry, held after the surviving crew and managers returned to England.
Other Titanic related materials at archive.org.
There are many excellent websites by amateur historians interested in the Titanic.
An excellent analysis of the lifeboat lowering sequence.
Encyclopedia Titanica is an excellent compilation of information.
and something not directly related to the Titanic but interesting. First class passenger John Jacob Astor had written a science fiction story, A Journey in Other Worlds.
About the author
Philip Chien has been a Titanic fan since about 15 minutes into the first time he saw the James Cameron movie.
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