The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic

Alexander Meddings - July 31, 2017

The sinking of the Titanic in the early hours of April 15 1912 is an event with which almost everybody is familiar, at least on a basic level. Part of the reason for Titanic’s enduring popularity is that her story contains a bit of everything. Issues of class, gender, race and religion—as visible in the ship’s class-divided blueprint as in the many stories from the sinking (“Women and children first” and “Be British, boys!” being just a couple)—provided the pigment to an overall painting of supreme arrogance and incomprehensible human tragedy. But when the Titanic plummeted to the depths of the Northern Atlantic, it took a lot of secrets with it. And despite our confidence in our knowledge about the ship and her fate, much of what we know—from the memories and personal testimony that came to surface after the disaster—is shrouded in obscurity and misconception.

Titanic was only called “unsinkable” after it sank

It’s difficult to convey just how shocking the sinking of the Titanic would have been to people at the time. In less than three hours, the largest, most luxurious (and supposedly safest) moving object ever made had sunk with horrendous loss of life. On top of that, it had done so on the ship’s maiden voyage, after a glancing collision that few had ever felt. In a way, the sheer scale of the disaster was appropriate, given the scale of the ship herself; even the name Titanic being a conceited allusion to size.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
The wreck of the Titanic, discovered by Robert Ballard in September 1985. Mother Nature Network

But, ironically, the name would have also called to mind the titan Prometheus, who had stolen the secret fire from Zeus and was punished by being chained to a rock for eternity. And both the Titanic and Prometheus shared this common theme: they had tried to go beyond the limits of what was possible but ultimately came up short. This explains, in part, why in retrospect such a big deal was made of the Titanic being “unsinkable”: her ultimate fallibility fit perfectly into a narrative of human arrogance and overreaching.

The Titanic marked the pinnacle of the Age of Progress. And, when it came to technological developments, examples were everywhere. In 1896 Guglielmo Marconi introduced London to the magic marvels of wireless communication. In 1901 Ransom Olds began selling the first mass-produced, affordable automobiles from his factory in Lansing, Michigan. In 1909, 120,000 Edwardians witnessed the spectacle of Louis Blériot flying from Calais to Dover. But while there were some who saw a splendid angel of progress, others saw only a modern-day Icarus.

With the Age of Progress also came the age of secularization. Clergymen and churchgoers alike were becoming increasingly paranoid about technological advances paving over the mysterious foundations their religion was built upon. This helps explain why, before she even sailed, Titanic—with its scale and its size; its swimming pool and its gymnasium—was being reconceived in negative, biblical terms: a “Grand Babylon Hotel” (Babylon carrying connotations of extreme wealth); a floating Tower of Babel. But for all her accolades, during her life, Titanic was never described as unsinkable. The company that built her, Harland and Wolff, described her as “practically unsinkable”, but that’s as close as it ever got.

It was only retrospectively that Titanic was termed “the unsinkable ship”, the first attestation coming the day after the sinking. From there, Titanic‘s unsinkability permeated all facets of media, from newspapers, novellas, memorial services and street conversation to the length and breadth of Britain and America. And it was necessary that it did so: for it was only by making her the “unsinkable” ship, and by making her story one of hubris, that people could come to terms with the disaster and draw lessons from it. Philip Gibbs, a British author, captured the feeling best in his 1912 publication “Deathless Story” when he wrote:

The “Titanic” could not sink.’ ‘The “Titanic” is unsinkable.’ These words were repeated again and again by men of expert knowledge, who rejoiced in the belief that science had conquered over nature and that the sea would be cheated of further sacrifice.”

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
Morgen Robertson: the man who predicted the disaster. Steemit

The sinking was predicted 14 years earlier

In 1898, the American author Morgan Robertson published his novella “The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility“. The book follows the story of its protagonist John Rowland, a disgraced alcoholic who seeks salvation by working onboard the enormous ocean liner, Titan. It goes without saying the names of the two ships are eerily similar. But that’s not where the similarities end. One April night, while making a voyage across the Atlantic, the Titan strikes an iceberg on its starboard side—just as the Titanic would do 14 years later—and founders within a short space of time, resulting in the deaths of many.

Robertson’s novella also predicted the position of the sinking to the point: 400 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland. In both cases, the outcome was incomprehensibly tragic. Granted, while only 13 of Robertson’s 2,500 survived the wreck of the Titan, more survived the real sinking 14 years later. But the loss of life was still enormous: 1,523 of Titanic’s 2,200 crew and passengers perishing in freezing North Atlantic waters in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Even more bizarrely, what accounted most for the staggering death toll most was that the Titan was woefully ill-equipped in terms of lifeboats. It had 24, “as few as the law allowed”, while the Titanic had a pathetic 20 (four of which were collapsible). In Robertson’s novella, in fact, Rowland only survives because, along with a young girl he’s rescued, he climbs up onto the iceberg before commandeering a washed-up lifeboat.

The ships also share a number of physical characteristics. Both the Titan and the Titanic were the biggest built by man to date and measured roughly the same size: the former measuring 800 feet with a gross tonnage of 75,000 tons and the latter measuring 882 feet with a gross tonnage of 46,000 tons. They also incorporated cutting-edge nautical technology in the form of the triple-screw propeller and were both described as unsinkable (though, as we’ve seen, Titanic was only described as such retrospectively). This is where the similarities end, however, and after the sinking, Robertson’s novella becomes focused on John Rowland and his journey towards a prosperous, happy and sober life.

As news of the Titanic‘s sinking began to spread, people immediately started making the connection and hailing Robertson as a clairvoyant. But he denied it, insisting that he had derived all information from his own knowledge of contemporary maritime practice and shipbuilding (he had, in fact, spent his early life at sea in the merchant service. Despite writing prolifically until his death in 1915, Robertson never stumbled upon a similarity so uncanny again, although he did claim after the publication of his 1905 book “The Submarine Destroyer” to have invented the periscope. Suffice to say the claim—like this vessel in his novels—sank.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
“The Unsinkable” Violet Jessop as a nurse in World War One. Wikipedia

One woman survived all three sister ships

Forget the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Violet Jessop—a woman blessed with incredible good fortune—survived the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannic. Born in Argentina, from her youngest years she showed herself to be a survivor: overcoming a terminal diagnosis of tuberculosis. After emigrating from Argentina to Britain, Violet found work as a ship’s stewardess. She struggled initially, her employers believing her youth and beauty to be potential sources of problems with passengers and fellow crew. And in some ways their fears were justified: she received at least three marriage proposals during her time at sea, one from an especially affluent first-class passenger.

Violet Jessop was hired by White Star Line in 1908. Two years later, she started working aboard the Olympic: doing a job which, despite the low pay, gave her immense satisfaction (she liked how the Americans treated her; better than the snobby British). But her time aboard the Olympic was short-lived. In 1911 it collided with the HMS Hawke, putting this ship out of action though, fortunately, without any casualties. A year later, her friends and family managed to persuade her to work aboard the Olympic‘s sister ship, the Titanic.

On the night of April 14, 1912, less than an hour after the Titanic’s terminal glancing of the iceberg, Jessop was ordered onto lifeboat 16 to show the other women it was safe in the boats. Procedure gradually turned into panic, and before lifeboat 16 was lowered, Jessop was handed a baby to look after. She looked after it until she was rescued by the Carpathia. Once onboard, (who she presumed was) the baby’s frantic mother snatched the baby out of her arms without saying a word and hurried away.

Even the trauma of the Titanic wasn’t enough to put Violet Jessop off. After the outbreak of World War One, she enlisted as a nurse on the third sister ship, the Britannic. Then, on November 21, 1916 in the Cyclades Archipelago in the Aegean Sea, the Britannic hit a German mine. She started going down very quickly, forcing her captain into a snap decision. Rather than giving the order to abandon ship, he decided to keep the engine going, trying to beach her on the nearby island of Kea. Up on deck, however, some officers decided to load and launch lifeboats. Tragically, two of them—loaded with passengers—were lowered and sucked back into the ship’s propellers, cutting everyone and everything to pieces.

Realizing he would not be able to make it to land, the captain ordered the ship’s evacuation. With a serious list to starboard, this was easier said than done. Violet Jessop was forced to jump into the water, hitting her head on the ship’s keel and sustaining a traumatic head injury. Demonstrating true Edwardian steel, however, she would only realize this some time after a doctor informing her that her headaches could in fact be explained by her fractured skull. Just 55 minutes after the explosion, the Britannic reared up one last time before nosediving towards the bottom of the Aegean, where it still remains as the largest passenger ship on the seafloor.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
Newspapers internationally print a facsimile of the hymn on their front page. Quora

Did the band play on until the end?

That Titanic‘s eight-man band played on until the very end and finished with the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” is one of the most enduring myths surrounding the disaster. It is, however, just that: a myth. Not only would it have been physically impossible for the full orchestra to keep playing (owing to the Titanic‘s increasingly severe list); but disagreement among the survivors—both those in the water and those out at sea in the lifeboats—about which song was played, combined with the fact that there were several versions of the “Nearer My God to Thee” in existence none of which all band members knew, means we can now confidently dispel it.

What is certain is that, in an effort to calm the passengers and, presumably, give themselves some small measure of comfort, they continued to play into the early hours, long after all hope was lost. The band was composed of Wallace Hartley’s quintet and another piano trio, which combined together first to play in the first class lounge and then to play up on the boat deck. They would have started cheerfully, playing waltzes, lowbrow popular pieces and highbrow classical compositions—a typically Edwardian medley. What they ended with, however, is the subject of much debate.

Colonel Archibald Gracie, who remained on the Titanic until the bitter end, vehemently denied that the band had played “Nearer My God to Thee”, writing that doing so would have been “a tactless warning of imminent death”. Gracie’s book was only published in America. But over in Britain, doubts were already trailing from the pen of the Anglo-Irish playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw who saw the band playing a Christian hymn as an essential, Christian component of a tragedy-turned-triumph type myth. In all likelihood—as those in close vicinity of the foundering ship later testified—the final song was the marginally more upbeat “Song d’Automme“.

So why was this idea so widespread? Firstly it had precedent. During the tragic sinking of the Valencia, run aground on a reef in the middle of a terrible storm in 1906, it was reported that before the ship foundered the women stranded aboard stared death in the face and gave a defiant rendition of the hymn. Secondly—and where Bernard Shaw hit the nail on the head—the idea of the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship went under, spilling thousands to their deaths the icy ocean, was powerfully symbolic. The song was strong, stubborn challenge to the finality of death. It’s not hard to see why people liked to imagine they had played it.

Regardless, the myth became deeply ingrained. A facsimile of the hymns score was printed on the front of the world’s bestselling newspaper, the Daily Mirror. “Nearer My God to Thee” was splashed across the front of postcards (an Edwardian craze), found its way into poetry, prose and art on both sides of the Atlantic, and provided the soundtrack for funerals—most notably of Wallace Hartley—and memorials: most famously at the enormously attended memorial service at Westminster Chapel on April 26, 1912.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
The Olympic (left) and Titanic (right) in 1912. Wikipedia

One conspiracy theory goes that the Titanic never sank at all

Like all titanic historical events, the sinking of the Titanic is awash with conspiracy theories. Among the least believable are those claiming that Titanic was transporting a cursed pharaoh (you can see where that one is going) or that Titanic was torpedoed by a German U-Boat (some passengers reported hearing a loud explosion prior to the engines being cut). Then there are some slightly more believable ones; especially that claiming that, from before she left port, a coal fire was raging in Titanic‘s coal bunker boiler rooms, structurally weakening her hull and making her more susceptible to the iceberg.

However, the theory that’s gained the most traction comes from Robin Gardiner and hypothesizes what would be the greatest (if not most hopelessly organized) insurance scam in history. It’s well known that the Titanic had two aesthetically identical sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic. Unfortunately for White Star Line, as well as sharing the same appearance, they also shared the same luck. Just months after the Olympic‘s maiden voyage, the Olympic had a serious collision with the HMS Hawke, causing serious damage and breaching her hull below the waterline. This had serious financial implications: repairs would cost White Star Line—a company with already precariously balanced finances—millions of pounds.

What I’ve outlined so far is fact. What follows comes from the murky world of guesswork and conspiracy theories. The idea goes that JP Morgan came up with a scam in which the Olympic would be lightly touched up, given a superficial spit and shine and would then take the place of Titanic. She would then be sunk out at sea in a staged accident, allowing White Star Line to claim her back on the insurance. Most people are highly skeptical of Gardiner’s theory (after all, how could JP Morgan be capable of such a thing!) But there are some signs that support it.

Photographs of the Titanic when she was in dry dock and at the time of her maiden voyage show disparities in the number of portholes. It seems initially she had 14, but when she left port in April 1912 she had 16, like the Olympic. There were also rumors among workers that the ships had been swapped, explaining why—despite strikes leading to a shortage of work—there was a reluctance to work aboard Titanic. Some passengers reported a two-degree list to port during the Titanic‘s voyage: something inexplicable on a new, state-of-the-art ship but totally explicable if the two had been swapped.

Several high-profile passengers canceled at the last minute and for no reason, including JP Morgan, and historians have struggled to explain the curious maneuvers of the nearby ship Californian around the time of the sinking. But evidence against the theory is just as strong. Not only were there important structural differences between the two—the Titanic having booked suites that didn’t exist on the Olympic—but the potential loss of White Star Line’s reputation, the incredible planning (or rather lack thereof) that would go into sinking the world’s largest ship in the middle of the Atlantic all point to Gardiner’s theory being just that: a theory.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
The Marconi Wireless System aboard the Olympic. Awesome Stories

Titanic‘s wireless operators ignored ice warnings

One of the great ironies about the sinking of the Titanic is that—precisely to avoid the kind of disaster that happened—it had been equipped with the most state-of-the-art, hi-tech Marconi wireless machines. Anyone familiar with the story will know these had a practical function: sending and receiving information between ships about hazards and obstacles. But they served other lesser-known purposes: receiving news bulletins and sending personal correspondences—think early 20th century tweets—from first-class passengers to friends and family at home. “Hello boy. Dining with you tonight in spirit. Heart with you always. Best love, girl” read one; “Fine voyage. Fine ship”, quite ironically, read another.

Wireless operators had in their best interests to forward as many of these messages as they could. This is mainly because it paid well, a decent supplement to their already reasonable incomes. But as anyone who’s ever held down two jobs simultaneously will tell you, with an increase in the quantity of your workload comes a loss in quality. And in committing their time to relay the messages of rich passengers while failing to pass on messages about the ice field Titanic was entering to Captain Edward Smith, Titanic’s wireless operators neglected their main duty to the safety of the passengers.

Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, received lots of ice warnings of icebergs (“bergs, growlers and field ice”, as they were known). One of these, from the steamer Mesaba, came in less than two hours before the collision and reported: “much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs also field ice [sic]”. But Jack Phillips—by this stage alone on duty as his partner had gone to bed, didn’t relay it to the bridge. In fact, he responded to the next notification he received (from the nearest ship to the Titanic, the SS Californian) responding: “Shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race”—code for the wireless postal service.

This has led some to blame Jack Phillips, who was initially held up as a hero for staying in the wireless room sending of SOSs until the end. In fact, there’s another anecdote to mar his reputation: that, when a panicked passenger broke into the room to steal a lifejacket, Phillips knocked him out, most probably signing his death sentence. It could have been simply a Darwinian reaction. But if Phillips had no intention of escaping, it does beg the question: why rob someone else of the opportunity? Regardless, it seriously undermines the hagiographic tone of a contemporary poem written about Jack Phillips by Edwin Drew, which begins with the line: “He saved others.”

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
The Captain of the Californian Stanley Lord (front right) with his crew. The Australian

The closest ship to the Titanic stood by and did nothing

One of the biggest questions from the night of the sinking comes not from what was happening aboard the RMS Titanic, but what was happening aboard the ship nearest to her: the SS Californian. After warning Titanic about entering an ice field, the Californian’s crew decided to shut off wireless communications and pack in for the night. Titanic would strike the iceberg just ten minutes later. Californian’s crew then proceeded to stand by, watching her fire distress rockets but deciding not to respond. Only after she had sunk, and the Carpathia was fishing out the last of her survivors, did the Californian arrive on the scene.

As already touched upon, conspiracy theorists have suggested that the Californian was part of an elaborate insurance scam. It’s true that nobody to this day has worked out what drove Captain Lord of the Californian to steam into the middle of the North Atlantic without any passengers and with a curious cargo of 3,000 jumpers and wooly blankets. Testimony from some of Titanic‘s surviving passengers seems to implicate her in this; Edith Russell was adamant in later interviews that during the sinking Titanic‘s officers repeatedly assured her the Californian was on its way. Could it be, as some have suggested, that the Californian was meant to pick Titanic‘s passengers up but simply got the wrong coordinates?

Whatever the reason for the cataclysmic Californian’s failure, her captain Stanley Lord failed couldn’t escape public scrutiny. Despite arriving into Boston unnoticed—the country very much distracted by the loss of the Titanic—he was immediately summoned to appear at the American Public Inquiry launched on April 19. And his performance there was far from convincing: not only did he contradict his crew in saying he was 10 miles further away from Titanic than originally thought, but when pressed he refused to divulge his exact coordinates, citing them as “a classified state secret.”

He also gave conflicting accounts about why he had turned his wireless off, changed his mind about ever seeing the Titanic fire emergency rockets (at first he said he hadn’t, then he said he’d seen them from a third ship—probably the Carpathia) and—most incriminatingly of all—he conveniently misplaced the Californian’s scrap log, which documented everything from the night of Titanic’s sinking to the Californian’s arrival in Boston. After more than 100 years, the contemporary verdict remains unchanged: Stanley Lord’s ship probably was closer than the 20 nautical miles he claimed, and therefore was in a position to help.

Lord was held accountable by the American and British inquiries; his failure to act costing an untold number of lives. There was, however, a silver lining: International Maritime Law mandated 24-hour manning of wireless communications and introduced the standardization of rockets. No criminal charges were ever filed against Stanley Lord. But he was branded a coward and publically vilified. His career and personal life in tatters, he lived for another 50 years, at least surviving the Californian, which was sunk in World War One (and, fittingly, never found). He received occasional commissions from shipping companies, but nothing substantial. Still full of regrets, he died on January 24, 1962.

The North Atlantic Tragedy: 8 Surprising Facts About the Sinking of the Titanic
Titanic’s baker, Charles Joughin. President Mommy

The ship’s baker survived because he was drunk

Fans of the James Cameron movie might remember one particular character from Titanic‘s final moments. Dressed entirely in white, his only dark features being his black curly hair and thick Mario mustache, this character joins Rose and Jack in climbing over the edge of the stern as it lifts to a 90-degree angle. He then looks over at Rose—exchanging solemn looks of fear and acceptance—before the impossibly suspended ship begins its slow and final descent towards the bottom of the Atlantic.

Fans might also remember him pulling out a hipflask just before the ship breaks in half, and taking a generous swig of (what one hopes is) seriously strong liquor. Cameron had done his homework: unlike Jack and Rose, this character actually existed: his story being one of many remarkable ones from that fateful April night. Charles Joughin was the ship’s chief baker. He had been assigned as the captain of Lifeboat 10 but refused to assume his post. Instead, he assisted the other crew to load the boats and ferried women and children down forcibly from A Deck (where they thought they would be safer) before hauling them on.

Once the boats were launched, he went below deck to his quarters for half a tumbler full of liquor. In doing what I think most of us would do in his situation, he inadvertently ended up saving his life. Though alcohol normally speeds up hypothermia, when consumed in large quantities it can sometimes protect against it. Lougin spent two hours treading water and admitted to not feeling the cold. Eventually found hanging off an upturned lifeboat, would stay at least partially in the water until morning when the Carpathia‘s crewmen dragged him from the water. Incredibly, the only physical mark of his ordeal was his swollen feet.

Joughin went on to live a long and healthy life: not at all usual for those who had spent any considerable length of time in the icy waters. Colonel Archibald Gracie, for example—the American writer and historian whose own remarkable experience of the sinking “The Truth About The Titanic” was published posthumously in 1913—never recovered. After being pulled underwater, he had managed to scramble atop an overturned lifeboat, where he passed the night along with Charles Lightoller, wireless operator Harold Bride and (hours later) Charles Joughin. But he never recovered from the severe hypothermia he had contracted and died within mere months of the sinking on December 4, 1912.

After the disaster, Charles Joughin briefly returned to England before emigrating to America. Apparently not too deterred by his experience aboard Titanic, he subsequently worked on a number of ships: According to his obituary, he even survived another sinking—that of the SS Oregon in Boston Harbor—though there’s some inconsistency over the dates. After retiring, he contributed a chapter to Walter Lord’s seminal book on the Titanic: “A Night To Remember”. He died in 1956, aged 78.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Science Museum – Titanic, Marconi And The Wireless Telegraph

Google Arts & Culture – Guglielmo Marconi, The Radio, And Wireless Transmission

IEEE Spectrum – Who Invented Radio: Guglielmo Marconi or Aleksandr Popov?

Motor Biscuit – Ransom E. Olds and His Impact on the Automotive World

Business Insider – Years Before The Titanic Sank, Two Mysterious Books Were Published That Seemed To Predict The Disaster

Medium – Violet Jessop: The Woman Who Survived 3 Historic Shipwrecks

UPI Archives – Britannic Victim Of Torpedo Or Mine In The Aegean Sea

Zoomer – Why Did the “Titanic” Band Play On?

CS Monitor – The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic

The Washington Post – Fact-checking QAnon conspiracy theories: Did J.P. Morgan sink the Titanic?

Reuters – CORRECTED-Fact Check-J.P. Morgan Did Not Sink The Titanic To Push Forward Plans For The U.S. Federal Reserve

BBC News – Titanic: The Final Messages From A Stricken Ship

Titanic Historical Society INC. – I Heard Titanic’s Call

History Channel – What Was the Titanic’s Captain Doing While the Ship Sank?

Arcadia Publishing – How Amateur Radio Sank the Titanic

NBC News – Wireless Could Have Saved Lives On Titanic

The Washington Post – Explorers Can Take Titanic’s Marconi Telegraph, Cutting Into Wreck For First Time

Engineering Radio – Shut up! shut up! I am working Cape Race

News Australia – Titanic: How The Californian And Carpathia Sealed Ship’s Fate

WOUB – “Mystery Ship” Turned Away From Titanic In Darkest Hour; SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Abandoning The Titanic, Nov. 4 At 10 Pm

History Collection – Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk

History Collection – Haunting Photographs and Quotes from Titanic Survivors

History Collection – Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic