As a former newspaper reporter, I've always been interested in how the newspapers of 1912 covered the Titanic disaster.
I recently began paying special attention to coverage of the Senate Titanic hearings, to compare the formal transcript with newspaper stories on the testimony of witnesses.
I was reading of steerage passenger Daniel Buckley's appearance at the Senate inquiry ---in the Connecticut newspaper, The Day, of May 4, 1912---when I was struck with the feeling that something seemed odd about the story.
Odd how? While the gist of the story was what I remembered, there were details that sounded new. So I checked the transcript, and, sure enough, the newspaper story was radically different. It was way beyond the normal disparity between what appears in the press and the formal transcription of the (alleged) words spoken at the hearing.
Was it a case of bad reporting? Or something more?
After weighing all the options, only one answer made sense. The reporter wasn't reporting Buckley's testimony!
What was printed in The Day as the purported account of Buckley's questioning before the Senate Titanic Inquiry was actually a long-lost deposition given by Buckley to Senate investigators before the Inquiry was in session!
Of course. No wonder the opening sentence ("I, with three companions from County Cork, Ireland, took a steerage passage on the Titanic.") read more like a sworn legal document than the words of a Irish immigrant barely out of his teens.
Titanic researcher Senan Molony has called the missing depositions 'the holy grail' of Titanic research.
"Raising to the light of day the missing depositions – if, indeed, they still exist - ought to be a prime goal of Titanic research. Two have recently seen the light of day, and are enough to encourage a certain hope. They also inspire the possibility that this material may be the Holy Grail… with inherent power to rewrite history."
Molony was writing specifically of the depositions taken for the British Inquiry from 212 crew members who returned to England following the disaster. The Buckley deposition, if that is what it is, was taken for the earlier Senate Inquiry and would be the earliest on record.
But how and why did it appear in the middle of an obscure story in an east coast state and nowhere else?
As a former newspaper court reporter, I can hazard a guess.
Buckley gave his official evidence on May 3, 1912. According to the Senate Report on the sinking of the Titanic, on that day Senator William Alden Smith, Inquiry chairman, took testimony from six witnesses. He questioned them separately---that is, alone, without the rest of the committee present.
The reporter for The Day accurately names five of the six.
"Among the witnesses yesterday were Daniel Buckley, a steerage passenger; Melville E. Stone, of the Associated Press; Jack Binns, wireless operator on the steamer Republic, when she went down ... and George Harder, of Brooklyn, a first cabin passenger."
Elsewhere in the story he mentions "Olaus Abelse, who was in the Titanic steerage". This is obviously Olaus Abelseth, the second steerage passenger to testify that day.
There is no mention of Norman Chambers, another first cabin survivor.
The snippets of testimony from four of the five men that he names in his story can reasonably be found in the transcript of the session. Only Buckley's account stands out.
The best explanation I can give is that the reporter wasn't there for Buckley's questioning. He approached Senator Smith afterward for help in recreating what Buckley said. Instead, Smith gave him the depostion, which covered the same ground, and the reporter ran with it.
For a comparison with how Buckley's testimony was covered in other newspapers, see this story in The Telegraph, May 4, 1912.
As an added curiousity, the same story in The Day reported on the testimony of "Thomas Watkins, another steerage passenger." Here, in its entirely, is what the newspaper said:
"Thomas Watkins, a professional swimmer, testified."
"I swam about 14 miles, the night the Titanic went down, before I was rescued. I take these accidents as a matter of business. I have been in similar accidents before, but I lost $2,200 this time."
There was nobody named Thomas Watkins on the Titanic passenger list. Nor was Thomas Watkins mentioned in the official Senate Inquiry Report. Was Senator Smith duped by a phony survivor to the point of taking his sworn testimony?
I initially thought that Thomas "Watkins" was actually Thomas McCormack, another Irish survivor, who, like Buckley, travelled in steerage. In his accounts, he said he swam for hours before being rescued. I considered the possibility that he said in his deposition that he swam "about 14 miles."
But, although you can find many first, second and third-hand accounts of McCormack's experience on the Titanic, there is never a mention of his being a professional swimmer, having swum 14 miles, or losing $2,200. So, who was the Thomas Watkins who testified at the Senate Inquiry? We'll probably never know.
Here, then, is what I believe to be the deposition taken from Daniel Buckley, as reported in The Day, May 4, 1912:
I, with three companions from County Cork, Ireland, took a steerage passage on the Titanic. The night of the tragedy I was awakened by a grating noise. That was when our ship hit the iceberg. My friends and I dressed hastily and started for the boat deck.
We found that officers of the ship had locked a gate to prevent steerage passengers from going up on the first cabin deck. The water was rising fast. We broke the gate and rushed up on deck.
One of the first class passengers said to me: 'here buckle this preserver on; you will need it.' I helped to lower lifeboat No. 6. There being no women around men started to fight their way into it. An officer fired several shots over their heads.
Just as we lowered the boat and stood ready to shove off we saw a group of women on deck. The officer ordered 'you men get out of that boat or I'll kill you.'
Almost all the men except myself got out. I was crying when I jumped into the boat and fell face forward on the floor.
Mrs. John Jacob Astor took pity on me. 'Stop crying,' she told me 'and take this shawl and wrap it over you.' Officers saw me wrapped in Mrs. Astor's shawl. They thought I was a woman and let me be. Then they loaded a lot of other women in the boat.
We had rowed about 200 yards away when the Titanic went down, with a noise like thunder.
I would be dead today if it were not for the mercy of Mrs. Astor, and her goodness," said Buckley.
The witness, 21 years old, told his story without shame and apparently with no realization of the light in which he was placing himself.
"Was any preference shown as regards first cabin and steerage women," asked Senator Smith.
"Not that I could see, " replied Buckley. "The women were loaded into the lifeboats as fast as they came on deck. It made no difference who they were just so they were women."
"What sort of people were with you?" inquired Senator Smith.
"There were 20 or 30 passengers, all classes, I should say, and some firemen and stewards."
"Were there any women left on deck?"
Yes, there were some.The officers ordered us out and when we didn't go one of them shot his revolver over us six times. Then they threw us out, until there were only six men left, and the women began to climb in, mostly steerage passengers."
"A fireman in my boat said that she hadn't been sunk by ice at all. He said that they had been trying to make a record with her and her boilers burst."