There's nothing more frustrating for a Titanic researcher than finding a first-hand account by a Titanic survivor that's clear and detailed---only to discover another first-hand account by the same survivor that's just as clear and just as detailed but which completely contradicts the first one.
Take the two tales of Winnie Coutts.
The first appeared in the Washington Post (and can be found on Encyclopedia Titanica in their biography of Winnie Coutts):
(all emphases mine)
RESCUED WOMAN PAYS TRIBUTE TO HEROIC MEN ON TITANIC
The Washington Post
Saturday 20 April 1912
From the lips of the woman who was saved from the Titanic came today one of the most glowing tributes yet paid to the heroism and self-sacrifice of the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be spared a watery grave.
Mrs William Coutts, of this city, described in graphic manner how she and her two sons, Neville and William 3 and 9 years old, respectively, were rescued through the bravery of men aboard the doomed vessel.
“My husband had sent me money to buy second-class passage for the children and myself.” Said Mrs Coutts, “but I went in the steerage. I wanted to save the difference in passage money to help build up our home.”
“I was asleep when the ship struck. The crash was slight that I thought little of it. I lay awake for fully fifteen minutes before I got up. I dressed myself slowly, and then went out on deck to see what the trouble was.”
“Every one was hurrying, but there was no disorder. I heard some talk about lifeboats, and then I hurried back to the children. I tied life preservers on the boys and then looked around for one for myself. There was none in sight.”
“I rushed out on deck with the children following me.”
“Just when I had given up hope of finding my way a seaman came along and said “Hurry now; all women and children to the lifeboats.”
“He took us to the side of the ship but I wanted a life preserver. Just then an American gentleman who had heard me asking for a life preserver stepped up to me. He raised his hat, and then slowly removed the life preserver he had strapped to himself.”
“Take my life preserver, madam,” he said. Then he reached over and put his hand on the children’s heads. “If I go down, please pray for me.” He said.
“There were other brave men on board the Titanic, for I saw them helping women into the lifeboats as our boat pulled away. After kissing those they helped into the boats the men stepped back and did everything they could to load the boats quickly.”
“I was in the first boat that was picked up by the Carpathia. There were seventeen in our boat. It was frightfully cold, but neither I nor the children suffered as much as the others, because we were fully dressed.”
“When we got on board the Carpathia every one did everything possible for us. There was no discrimination, the poorest women receiving as much attention as the wealthiest.”
That story may have come "from the lips" of Winnie Coutts, but the next came "from the pen" of the same woman. It's in the form of a letter written by Mrs. Coutts to a friend in England. The letter is dated April 26, 1912.
The entire letter was reprinted in George M. Behe's terrific book of first-hand accounts 'On Board RMS Titanic' (P. 254). You can hear the sections of the letter relevant to this article read by Winnie Coutts'
granddaughter at http://publicradioeast.org/post/enc-ties-tiantic
Here is a story about that letter containing those parts read by the granddaughter:
(All emphasis mine)
Mon April 23, 2012
ENC (East North Carolina) ties to the Titanic / Public Radio East
New Bern, NC – Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, a British passenger liner that met a watery grave after it struck an iceberg. The vessel was on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York City. This week, we set out to discover any ties the Titanic had with eastern North Carolina. In New Bern, we found a woman whose family survived that disaster. Fay Coutts Blettner reads from a letter written by her grandmother, Minnie Coutts written to a friend in England after the incident.
"the crash was so slight that I thought little of it. I lay awake fully 15 minutes. Presently, I could hear people opening their cabin doors and inquiring what was the matter. Some of the stewardesses assured them that there was no danger."
Many people during this time believed the Titanic was an unsinkable ship.
"However, I got up just to find out all about it. I was surprised to see foreigners carrying all their belongings---rugs, blankets and even small trunks up on deck. Children were crying."
Around 11:40 pm on that April 14th night, the Titanic ran into an iceberg, ripping a large hole in the starboard side of the ship. Blettner says her grandmother became concerned when an order for life preservers was issued. Alarmed, she awoke her two sons, Willie and Neville, who were ages 9 and 3 at the time. Blettner continues her letter:
"I pulled Neville out of bed, put on his knickers and coat over his sleeping suit and put on his boots, no time to lace them up. There were only two life preservers in my cabin and I put one on Willy, and the other on Neville. I mentioned to an officer that I had not gotten one, and he said he was afraid that there were not anymore."
The Titanic didn't have enough life jackets or lifeboats on board for the two thousand two hundred and twenty three people.
"we were just going, when I saw the same officer. I said to him again that I had not gotten one of the preservers. He told me to follow him. He took us through quite a number of corridors and passages right into the first class saloon, to his own quarters. There, he got his own lifebelt and tied it on me saying at the same time, 'There my child, if the boat goes down, you'll remember me.'"
The "American gentleman" has become one of the Titanic's officers.
The story of how he "removed the life preserver he had strapped to himself” is now a story of being led through "quite a number of corridors and passages" to the officer's "own quarters" where "he got his own lifebelt and tied it on me."
The Good Samaritan's last words were either "If I go down, please pray for me.” or "if the boat goes down, you'll remember me.'"
Which story to believe? Both come across as credible. But they can't both be true?
Here's where a Titanic researcher earns his stripes. To refuse to pick one story over another is a cop-out and is not an option. What tips the balance?
One story was in the public sphere; the other was private. You always lean toward a story told in private to a friend or relative. Witnesses will be more open and revealing with confidantes. But that's not enough. You still need to examine the competing story to try to identify its defects.
In the Coutts case, the answer lies in the mechanics of news gathering.
The story is dated April 20, 1912. The rescue ship Carpathia arrived in New York the evening of April 18, 1912. Steerage passengers, including Mrs. Coutts, were the last to be released from the ship after it docked. One newspaper story says all were off the Carpathia within an hour after the first passenger left at 9:35 p.m. Mrs. Coutts was undoubtedly met by her husband, William Coutts, and rushed to their home at 143 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn.
The reunion between a fearful husband and his wife and children would have been as irresistable a story then as now. Yet the Washington Post story doesn't mention her husband. This suggests to me that a reporter spoke to Mrs. Coutts at the pier April 18, and not at her home the following day.
New York was a madhouse for reporters the night the Carpathia arrived and even the day after. Reporters acted as legmen who would buttonhole any survivor they could find, collect a few anecdotes, then phone them in to a rewrite man who would blend their work into a single story.
Some reporters teamed up, each getting what he could with each of them eventually sharing their stories with the other. With 700 survivors scattered to the winds, even that wasn't easy.
The goal initially was quantity, not quality. There are many ways to snag stories in such a chaotic environment. You can stop a witness and ask as many questions as possible before he or she walks away.
You can be part of a mob of reporters lobbing questions at a witness while you copy down the answers. You can eavesdrop on witnesses talking to family members. You can eavesdrop on other reporters phoning in to their rewrite men.
If we accept that Mrs. Coutts' letter details the true version of events, simply because there's no middleman who can misconstrue or misquote her, then we can see that the Washington Post tale was a product of a flawed reporting process.
It's possible another woman's account of getting a lifebelt from an American man was spliced onto Mrs. Coutt's account by a rewrite man. Or something she said was misinterpreted. Or even that a reporter invented a detail or two to spice up the story. We'll never know.
But determining which tale is true is not the an end in itself. Who was the officer who gave his lifebelt to Mrs. Coutts?
From her description of events, it was someone who led her from the back of the ship, to the first class saloon (which was on D Deck, unless Mrs. Coutts was actually referring to the first class lounge on A Deck), to his quarters at the front of the ship. He wasn't wearing his lifebelt; he retrieved it from his room.
Only one officer fits the bill---Sixth Officer James Moody.
Chief Officer Henry Wilde and Second Officer Charles Lightoller had lifebelts. Lightoller wrote in The Christian Science Journal ,Vol. XXX, 10/1912, No. 7, that while in his room handing out guns to the senior officers he heard Wilde say he was going for his lifebelt, prompting him, Lightoller, to grab his own.
Third Officer Herbert Pitman was off the ship in Lifeboat No.5. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe left in Lifeboat No. 14. Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall was sending off rockets before being ordered to Lifeboat No. 2; he was never at the stern of the ship.
First Officer William Murdoch loaded the aft starboard lifeboats, then went forward and wound up briefly at No.2, in which Mrs. Coutts and her sons escaped. But a reconstruction of the timing of events shows his priority was on getting passengers into six still-unloaded lifeboats, not on helping one mother find a lifebelt.
That leaves James Moody. As I demonstrated in the above article, Moody's role during the sinking of the Titanic has been underestimated. His role in lowering the aft port lifeboats has been completely overlooked. He was ordered by Lightoller to get the aft boats ready for loading, so he left the area of the officers' quarters before the order for lifebelts was given by the Captain.
After lowering Boat No. 12, it's possible he met up with Murdoch at No. 10 and was tasked with going below decks to find more women, something he had done for Murdoch at the aft starboard boats. This would explain how he met up with Mrs. Coutts.
Thus, unravelling the true story of Mrs. Coutts and her sons has led to the discovery of an unknown heroic act by James Moody, Titanic's most junior officer.
It also explains how she, a third-cabin passenger, wound up in Lifeboat No. 2, a boat in the first-class section of the ship. The other occupants were three groupings of first cabin passengers (Mrs. Appleton and Mrs. Cornell, Mrs. Douglas and her maid, and Mrs. Robert, her daughter, her niece and her maid) as well as steerage passengers Mr. and Mrs. Kink and their daughter. The Kinks were among the first to abandon their steerage quarters and get to the boat deck, and had been waiting for a lifeboat almost from the beginning, explaining how they were present. (Mr. Kink dove into No. 2 at the last moment as it was being lowered to the sea.)
That's how Titanic's Secrets Unfold.