It's now been more than four months. A simple narrative that would involve stops at three lifeboats turned unexpectedly into an odyssey where conclusions depended on which of Titanic's officers committed suicide, and where, and when, and how confusion over what witnesses saw has led Titanic research down the wrong path for decades.
For the longest time researchers dismissed accounts of shootings on the Titanic as a myth, invented by reporters who wanted to spice up their interviews with survivors. Then, some researchers conceded there might have been one, and only one, shooting incident which happened just minutes before the great ship took its final plunge beneath the waters.
Their opinion was swayed by the discovery of a private letter from First Class passenger George Rheims to his wife in France in which he recounted seeing an officer on the Titanic shoot a man who was trying to climb into a lifeboat, and then, shoot himself. The letter was dated April 19, 1912, the day after the rescue ship, the Carpathia, reached New York City with the survivors of the Titanic.
The Rheims letter corroborated the known account of Irish steerage passenger Eugene Daly as told to a witness on the Carpathia, and subsequently in a letter to his sister in Ireland, of an officer who shot two men "because they tried to get in the boat", after which Daly heard another shot and saw the officer lying on the deck. He had, Daly was told, shot himself.
The consensus was that this event, if it happened, happened at Collapsible A, the last starboard lifeboat left on the ship before it sank, the lifeboat being swept off the deck without having been launched from the davits.
I had no reason to disbelieve that conclusion---until I looked at the evidence.
No passengers were shot at Collapsible A. An officer did shoot at passengers earlier at Collapsible C, which left the Titanic from the same set of davits that A was to use. Follow the evidence, as did I, to its inevitable conclusion...before doubling back to incorporate the result into the story of the final shootings on the Titanic.
The events at Collapsible A were witnessed by many people who managed to survive the disaster. It's possible to intertwine their accounts to build a strong web of observations that leaves no doubt to what happened in Titanic's final moments.
Greaser Walter Hurst starts the story (in a letter, lack of punctuation and all, that he wrote in 1955 to Walter Lord, the author of A Night to Remember):
"After no 9 (the reading of his letter leaves no doubt he means Collapsible C when he says No. 9) had left the Chief Officer shouted any crew here..."
Steerage passenger Olaus Abelseth, U.S. Inquiry
"So we walked over to the starboard side of the ship, and just as we were standing there, one of the officers came up and he said just as he walked by, "Are there any sailors here"?"
First Class passenger Archibald Gracie, in his 1913 book The Truth About the Titanic
"...I recall that an officer on the roof of the house called down to the crew at this quarter, "Are there any seamen down there among you?" "Aye, aye, sir," was the response., and quite a number left the Boat Deck to assist in what I supposed to have been the cutting loose of the other Englehardt boat up there on the roof."
Walter Hurst, letter to Walter Lord
"...and about 7-8 stepped forward and he said hurry men, up there and cut that boat adrift it was a collapsible on top of Smoke room we got it down to the deck..."
Steward Walter Brown, British Inquiry
10633. How many men did it take to get that collapsible boat off the house?
- I could not tell you the number; there were seven or eight on the top deck and two or three down below receiving it.
Wireless Operator Harold Bride, New York Times, April 19, 1912
I saw a collapsible boat near a funnel and went over to it. Twelve men were trying to boost it down to the boat deck. They were having an awful time. It was the last boat left. I looked at it longingly a few minutes. Then I gave them a hand, and over she went. They all started to scramble in on the boat deck, and I walked back to Phillips. I said the last raft had gone.
Archibald Gracie, The Truth About the Titanic
"Meanwhile, four or five long oars were placed aslant against the walls of the officers' house to break the fall of the boat, which was pushed from the roof and slipped with a crash down on the Boat Deck, smashing several of the oars."
First Class Steward Edward Brown, British Inquiry
10529. Did you get it down?
- Yes; we got two planks on the bow-end of the boat, and we slid it down on to the boat deck.
10530. Having got it down, the next thing, I suppose, would be to get it to the davits?
- We tried that, and we got it about halfway and then the ship got a list to port, and we had great difficulty. We could not get it right up to the davits, so we had to slacken the falls. The ship took a list to port, and we could not get it up the incline right up to the davits.
10532. You did make it fast?
- Yes, we did make it fast by slackening the falls, but we could not haul it away any further.
William Mellors, private letter
At this time it was almost impossible to walk on the deck without you caught hold of something owing to the ship heeling right over.
Edward Brown, British Inquiry
10534. Were there any women there whilst you were dealing with this boat that had come from the top of the Officers' quarters?
- There were four or five women that I could see there waiting to get into this boat if we got it under the davits.
10585. Whilst you were working down the last collapsible boat from the top of the Officer's quarters to the deck, did you notice Captain Smith?
- Yes, the Captain came past us while we were trying to get this boat away with a megaphone in his hand, and he spoke to us.
10586. What did he say?
- He said, "Well, boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves." He walked on the bridge.
Harold Bride, New York Times
Then came the Captain's voice: "Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself. You can look out for yourselves. I release you. That's the way of it at this kind of a time. Every man for himself." I looked out. The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending.
Walter Hurst, British Inquiry
"... we got it down to the deck but could not overhaul boats falls as they were hanging down shipside in waters. The ships bows were now under water there was a group of officers in corner of the bridge and I never saw one move from there..."
Second Officer Charles Lightoller, U.S. Senate Inquiry
...shortly before the vessel sank I met a purser, Mr. McElroy, Mr. Barker, Dr. O'Loughlin and
Dr. Simpson, and the four assistants. They were just coming from the direction of the bridge. They were evidently just keeping out of everybody's way. They were keeping away from the crowd so, as not to interfere with the loading of the boats.
Samuel Hemming, Senate Inquiry
I rendered up the foremast fall, got the block on board, and held on to the block while a man equalized the parts of the fall. He said, "There is a futterfoot in the fall, which fouls the fall and the block." I says, "I have got it;" and took it out. I passed the block up to the officers' house, and Mr. Moody, the sixth officer, said: "We don't want the block. We will leave the boat on deck."
Edward Brown, British Inquiry
10535. Whilst you were trying to get this boat up the hill, as it were, to the davits, did anything happen to the ship?
- Yes, she put the bridge under then.
10536. She put the bridge right under water?
- Yes, she put the bridge right under water.
10540. What happened to you when she put the bridge under water?
- I found the water come right up to my legs here, and I jumped into the collapsible boat then. I cut the after fall, and I called out to the man on the forward end of the boat to cut her loose; she would float if we got the falls loose.
William Mellors, private letter
We were trying to fix up a collapsible boat when she gave the first signs of going under.
There seemed to be a tremble run through the whole of the ship and the next thing we heard were loud reports inside which I think were the water-tight doors giving way and before you could say Jack Robinson there seemed to be mountains of water rushing through the doors, and I was swept away from where I was right against the collapsible boat,
Thomas Whiteley, lecture
... the Titanic was listing. By that time her head broke and the water came rushing on to her boat deck where I was.
When I felt the water on my feet I rushed to get into a boat. The officer cut its davits one end but could not cut the other.
The rope got around my leg and pulled me on to the deck again, and a big wave came on deck and washed me into the sea about ten yards.
Edward Brown, British Inquiry
10652.- There was a lot scrambled into it then; when the sea came on to the deck they all scrambled into the boat.
10540 -I cut the after fall, and I called out to the man on the forward end of the boat to cut her loose; she would float if we got the falls loose.
10541. Did this other man do that?
- I could not say.
10542. Did she float?
- I cut the ropes and then I was washed right out of her.
10543. You cut both falls?
- No, only the after fall.
10544. What happened to the forward fall?
- I could not say. I was washed out of the boat then.
10653. -. The boat was practically full, when the sea came into it, and washed them all out.
Thomas Whiteley, New York Tribune, April 19, 1912
I got my leg caught in one of the ropes. The second officer was hacking at the rope with a knife.
I was being dragged around the deck by that rope, when I looked up and saw the boat filled with people turning end up on the davits.
The boat overturned like that.” He waved his hand to show just how it happened.
William Mellors, Private letter
I was swept away from where I was right against the collapsible boat, and I simply clung on for all I was worth, whilst all this was going on she was going under water and it seemed as if thousands of men were dragging me under with her, when suddenly her (the forward) nose on which I was seemed to suddenly rise from underneath the water and I and a few more that were close by cut the ropes that held the boat to the falls (davits).
So there it was. The story of Collapsible A. But something was obviously missing. Where in the timeline would the shooting take place?
There was no clear moment when you could point and say, there, that's it.
I resisted the inevitable conclusion until I couldn't resist it any more.
There was no shooting at Collapsible A!
There's an old adage that's used repeatedly in Titanic research: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But there's one exception to the rule: except when it is. And this was that exception.
First, no one working at Collapsible A reported seeing or hearing shots fired at that boat.
More specifically, is the evidence of Titanic greaser Walter Hurst. He wrote two letters to Walter Lord. He spoke of seeing the Chief Officer fire two shots at Collapsible C to warn men to stand back. But he never mentioned any shooting at Collapsible A. Why go to the trouble of highlighting shots fired at one lifeboat and fail to mention shots fired at the very next boat? Because there were none at the second boat.
And yet there are credible accounts of an officer shooting at passengers, then shooting himself just before the Titanic sank.
Well, if you're looking for a place where shots were fired, look for witnesses who saw someone shooting a gun or hearing shots fired. Witnesses like Hugh Woolner.
Woolner even testified at the U.S. Senate Hearing into the sinking of the Titanic that he saw with his own eyes First Officer William Murdoch fire two shots in the air at Collapsible C. Collapsible C left the ship minutes before men pushed Collapsible A off the roof of the officers' quarters to the deck and tried to launch it from the same falls that lowered C.
In one of his letters to Walter Lord, Hurst wrote about Collapsible C: "there was a bit of trouble there, the Chief officer was thretening [sic] someone and fired 2 Revolver shots shouting now will you get back I was not near enough to see if anyone was shot."
In the book 'Voices from the Titanic: The Epic Story of the Tragedy from the People Who Were There' by Geoff Tibbals, there's a newspaper account attributed only to "another seaman" (identified as one who jumped into the ocean with a baby in his arms) who relates (P. 369, Paperback edition) that "he saw the Chief Officer shoot at two Italians who were pushing women aside on the steamer in a frantic endeavour to reach the lifeboats. As the first shot fired above their heads did not serve as a warning, the officer shot one of them."
Three witnesses who saw shooting at Collapsible C and none who saw shooting at Collapsible A. Add to that the fact that the prime witnesses cited for a shooting at A, George Rheims and Eugene Daly, provided no details that can be used to isolate the lifeboat to which they were referring.
But they did provide some clues.
George Rheims, in a letter to his wife, dated April 19, 1912:
As the last lifeboat was leaving I saw an officer kill a man with one gun shot. The man was trying to climb aboard that last lifeboat.
A year and a half later he gave a deposition to the Limitation of Liability Hearings in New York in which he said:
DEPOSITION OF GEORGE RHEIMS.
Q. Did you hear any particular noise?
- Yes I heard two pistol shots.
Q. About how long before the ship sank?
- About 40 minutes before she sank.
Rheims saw an officer shoot a man "as the last lifeboat was leaving." Collapsible A was never "leaving". It was never in the davits. it was never launched properly. It floated off. And 40 minutes before the ship sank, it was still ensconsed on the roof of the officers' quarters.
Eugene Daly was even more vague in a letter he wrote to his sister who was still in Ireland and which was published in the London Daily Telegraph, May 4, 1912:
At the first cabin when a boat was being lowered an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in, he would shoot him on the spot. I saw the officer shoot two men dead because they tried to get in the boat.
Not even the linchpin between the two accounts, the subsequent suicide of the officer who shot the men, helps identify where the shooting happened. Just the opposite, in fact.
Rheims gave this account:
"Since there was nothing left to do, the officer told us, “Gentlemen, each man for himself, goodbye.” He gave us a military salute and shot himself. This was a man!!"
I was intrigued by the reference to a military salute. I asked the obvious question. Which officer who was lost was in the military?
It wasn't First Officer William Murdoch. or Sixth Officer James Moody.
But Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde was a Lieutenant in the prestigious Royal Naval Reserve.
There's no doubt that Murdoch shot himself. Crewmen were talking about his committing suicide even as they clung to an overturned liferaft, hours before being rescued.
You can see where this is going. Two officers. Two suicides?
Mrs. Eleanor Widener, in Lifeboat No. 4, is quoted in the New York Times, April 20, 1912, giving her account of an officer's suicide:
“As the boat pulled away from the Titanic I saw one of the officers shoot himself in the head, and a few minutes later saw Capt. Smith jump from the bridge into the sea.”
Since the Captain jumped into the ocean literally moments before the Titanic sank, its clear this is not the suicide seen by Rheims 40 minutes earlier.
The unravelled story, then, appears to be that there was a shooting at Collapsible C not Collapsible A, that it was deadlier than warning shots fired in the air, that one or possibly two men were shot by an officer, and that that officer shot and killed himself.
George Rheims and Eugene Daly both saw the shooting. Rheims saw the officer, likely Chief Officer Wilde, shoot himself. Daly was only told that the officer who he saw firing his gun killed himself. The body he saw could have been either Wilde's or Murdoch's; it's impossible to tell from his accounts when the single suicide shot that he heard happened.
Deconstructing the account of a shooting a Collapsible A has taken a long time. But it lets me complete the story of the shootings on the Titanic. That's next.