Downright Titanic Conspiracy Theories

by Timothy Chilman


<Come on, I would still like suggestions as to things to write about, to the email address above. Updates will be every two weeks until I get more ideas.>

RMS Titanic

The ill-fated ship, Titanic, was the result of fervent competition between the shipping lines, the White Star Line and Cunard. Cunard’s Mauretania performed the fastest-ever transatlantic crossing when it entered service in 1907. Cunard’s other masterpiece, the Lusitania, was launched the same year and much-praised for its spectacular interiors. Its sinking by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915 helped rope the United States into the First World War.

The full title of the ship was RMS Titanic. RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship,” indicating that the vessel carried goods for the British Royal Mail. The ships of the Olympic class to which Titanic belonged were 882 feet long and a maximum of 92.5 feet wide, and were the largest ships and the largest movable, man-made objects of the time. It is said that the ship was thought to be unsinkable, but in reality, Shipbuilder magazine had said that it was “practically unsinkable.”

The ship left Southampton in England and proceeded to Cherbourg in France and then Queenstown in Ireland, before setting off for New York. First class tickets cost between $2,500 and $4,500, or $43,860 to $78,950 at today’s prices. Third-class tickets cost around $35, or $620 today. Several members of the team that had designed the ship were aboard, including the Chief Draughtsman responsible for the lifeboats.

A boarding pass for the Titanic. Photo: daveparker

Below decks were immigrants from 28 countries, of whom some had never previously encountered indoor plumbing. There were over 700 third-class passengers, more than the other two classes combined. Third-class was the largest source of profit for shipping lines. Many had sold all their possessions to afford a ticket to start a new life in the United States. Third-class accommodation was fairly luxurious and superior to that of other ships of the time: third-class rooms were enclosed and held four people who were generally strangers, and the mattresses were real as opposed to the straw-filled pallets of other ships. There were, however, only two bathtubs between all the third-class passengers. The ship’s enormous engines could be felt and heard in their rooms.

Around noon on April 14, 1912, the first of a minimum of four warnings of icebergs was received by wireless. Another came at 5:35 p.m., reporting three icebergs 19 miles north of the Titanic. Late in the evening, one hour before the Titanic’s date with destiny, another ship, the Californian, signaled: “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” According to the Titanic Inquiry Project, the response received was: “Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race.”

The iceberg which is thought to have hit the Titanic

It was a moonless and freezing Sunday night. Shortly before midnight, lookouts Reginald Lee and Fredrick Fleet neared the end of their shift when they saw the most famous iceberg in history. It has been estimated at 50 to 100 feet high and 200 to 400 feet long. They sounded an alarm. 37 seconds later, First Officer William M. Murdoch put the engines into reverse and turned the ship. Stopping would have taken half a mile.

At first, it seemed that the maneuver had worked. The ship appeared to not have touched the iceberg. Below the surface, however, ice had scraped the starboard hull. Rivets popped, steel plates buckled, and openings were made. At the time, it was estimated there was a 300 foot gash, but in reality there were openings of around 3.2 square feet each in six places. The liner had 16 watertight compartments, but they were open at the top. Water spilled from one to the next. Some Cunard ships were designed to avoid this situation.

Captain Edward Smith

Most of the people aboard were asleep, although a tumultuous game of bridge was afoot in the First Class Smoking room. Many people were not woken by the noise. Captain Edward Smith, a highly-popular individual who was due to retire at the end of this trip, called for Thomas Andrews, the managing director of Harland and Wolff of Belfast in Northern Ireland, the company which had built the ship. They went below together and were horrified to find that the squash court and mail room had flooded. Titanic’s bow began to sink. Andrews estimated that the ship would be afloat for only one-and-a-half hours more. Smith ordered the wireless operators to send distress calls. It was the first time the signal, “SOS,” had ever been used.

The Carpathia was 58 miles away and at great risk, traveled at top speed to reach the Titanic. The Californian was close enough to save everyone, but the wireless operator had gone to bed. At 12:25 a.m., Captain Smith ordered that lifeboats be lowered. Lifeboats were regarded as unsightly, so the Titanic carried only 20, sufficient for half those aboard. There were, at least, enough cork-filled life jackets for all. Many third-class passengers had seen little of what lay beyond their cabins, and got lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the ship.

The band played to comfort the passengers. The legend perpetuated by films is that their last tune was the hymn, Nearer, My God, To Thee. This was the tune most commonly-cited and a colleague of the bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, said that Wallace had said it is what he would have played if he were on the deck of a sinking ship. Some accounts say the bang played popular music. James Cameron could not resist sticking with the hymn, saying, “I stole that entirely and put that into my film, because I loved it, it was such a strong part of the story.”

Survivors recounted that the stars were reflected by the sea. They said the sound of hundreds of people in the freezing water was unearthly. John B. ‘Jack’ Thayer III, the 17-year-old heir to a Pennsylvania railroad fortune, said, “It sounded like locusts on a midsummer night in the woods. This terrible cry lasted for 20 or 30 minutes, gradually dying away, as one after another could no longer withstand the cold and exposure.”

RMS Carpathia

The Titanic exceeded Andrews’ prediction and was not underwater until 2:20 a.m., sundering in two beneath the surface. Lifeboats did not return to collect people from the water, fearing they would be overloaded. The Carpathia arrived at 4 a.m. and began to take on what would eventually by 706 human and three canine survivors.

Which brings us on to the conspiracy theories.

The Titanic conspiracy theory put forward by Physics World blames poor engineering. The ship was rushed into service when it was difficult to obtain sufficient iron. The steel and wrought iron fasteners which held metal plates together had been inserted unevenly and by hand rather than mechanically because hydraulic presses could not be used at the bow and stern where the curve of the hull was too great. Weak rivets burst open under pressure.

The theory was based on analysis by science writer, Dr. Richard Corfield, who cited the work of U.S. metallurgists, Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Tim Foecke. McCarty and Foecke tested 48 rivets taken from the wreck and found them to contain a high level of slag, which makes iron brittle and more likely to splinter. So many rivets popped that a fifth compartment flooded, while the Titanic could have survived the flooding of four. Dr. Corfield claims that James Cameron agrees with him: around 100 minutes into his film is a scene where rivets pop a la champagne corks.

Dr. Corfield also said that the Titanic sank where the Gulf Stream intersects with the glacier-carrying Labrador Current. The Gulf Stream was abnormally warm due to the intensity of the summer. This, he said, concentrated icebergs “as if they were tank traps.”

British historian, Tim Maltin, also put the Gulf Stream/Labrador Current intersection in the frame in his book, A Very Deceiving Night. He said it caused a thermal inversion which distorts vision. This prevented the Titanic’s lookouts from seeing the iceberg in time. A study by the British government in 1992 suggested super refraction as the cause, and Maltin referred to survivors’ testimony, ships’ logs, and weather records.

Winston Churchill, who was voted the greatest Briton ever and has been accused of being responsible for the sinking of the Titanic

Winston Churchill was voted the greatest ever Briton in a poll by the BBC. He was blamed for the sinking of the Titanic in a book by Robert Strange, Who Sank The Titanic? The Final Verdict.

Churchill had been entered the British cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, giving him responsibility for maritime safety when the Titanic was built. Strange said that Churchill failed in his duties as he was distracted by “burning political ambition, wounded pride and the pursuit of his future wife Clementine.” “Metaphorically speaking,” said Strange, Churchill sank the Titanic.

Strange studied century-old files in the National Archives of the United States and United Kingdom. He said the Board of Trade should have revised the outdated laws governing how many lifeboats were carried. The 1894 Merchant Shipping Act dictated that the number of lifeboats was proportional to the size of the ship, but did not recognize that ships could be more than 10,000 tons. Churchill had been warned repeatedly that these regulations were out of date.

Churchill must have realized that his department for maritime safety was undermanned, badly-trained and poorly managed after the public embarrassment resulting from its handling of an inquiry into a shipping accident. He made the poorly-trained and underpaid engineer, Francis Carruthers, the supervisor of Titanic’s construction, and he failed to identify flaws. Strange also lambasted J.P. Morgan for pressuring the Harland and Wolff shipyard to build the Titanic at a cut price which led to inadequate materials, poor workmanship, and insufficient lifeboats.

J. Bruce Ismay, who was vilified as a coward for his actions during the sinking of the Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic made J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line, one of the greatest cowards ever known. Some survivors said he was on the first lifeboat, but the ship’s barber said he only entered a lifeboat when ordered to by the Chief Officer. Lord Mersey, who led the 1912 British inquiry into the sinking, said Ismay helped other passengers before leaving on the last lifeboat. Strange said, “It gave him the perfect excuse to stay close by the boats and save himself.”

The 1943 German film, Titanic, the 1958 film, A Night to Remember, and James Cameron’s 1997 epic all portrayed Ismay as a villain. Paul Louden-Brown of the Titanic Historical Society worked as a consultant for Cameron and objected to Ismay’s depiction, to be told: “This is what the public expect to see.” Ismay’s infamy was largely prompted by a campaign – a conspiracy, no less – by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, with whom Ismay had a vendetta. The newspapers labeled him J. Brute Ismay.

Another theory was recently put forward in Good as Gold, a novel by Lady Louise Patten. She is the wife of Lord Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, former chairman of the British Conservative Party, European Commissioner, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and current Chairman of the BBC Trust. She is also the granddaughter of the Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

At the time of Titanic’s sinking, the maritime industry was in upheaval as steam ships were replacing those of the sail variety. Each had its own steering system. Some of the crew were familiar with the Tiller Orders of sailing ships, while the Titanic used the Rudder Orders of steam ships. Under the Tiller system, pushing the tiller left resulted in a rightward turn, while under the Rudder system, turns were made in the direction of intended travel. An iceberg was sighted two miles distance and “Hard a starbr’d” was ordered. The helmsman, Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, panicked and mistakenly acted under Tiller orders, which led to impact with an iceberg.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of the Titanic

Lightoller was in his cabin at the time, but heard of the error at a conference of four senior officers in the First Officer’s cabin after the impact. Ismay persuaded Captain Smith to continue to sail to avoid reputationally damaging delay, which caused a hundredfold increase in the quantity of water taken on. Lightoller said this was a “criminal” decision. If the Titanic had stopped, Patten said that the Titanic’s passengers could have been saved.

Lightoller was the most senior officer to survive and the only survivor aware of what had really caused the sinking. He did not reveal what he knew at the British and American inquiries because he feared for the job of himself and his colleagues. The only person he told was his wife, Patten’s grandmother, who told Patten when she was 10 years-old and lived with her. Her mother believed the story should not be told because the reputation of the twice-decorated Lightoller was at stake, but Patten decided to use it in her second novel because her mother and grandmother were both long dead and “I felt as if I owed it to the world to share the secret. If I died tomorrow then it would die with me.”

Sally Neillson, great-granddaughter of Hitchins, said he had 10 years of experience, with seven as quartermaster, and had been guiding the Titanic for four days, alternating between four hours of duty and four of rest. He would not, therefore, have been unfamiliar with the prevailing system.

The Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic

One Titanic conspiracy theory which has been much-trumpeted was put forward in The Riddle of the Titanic by Robin Gardiner and Dan van der Vat. They say it was not the Titanic which sank, but its sister ship, the Olympic. The ships appeared almost identical. The Olympic had collided with the British warship, HMS Hawke, on September 20, 1911, but was at fault and so received no compensation. So the names on the ships were changed, and the Olympic was sent into an area of sea which contained many icebergs and many other ships, to deliberately ram an iceberg and have all the passengers rescued. The most common maritime insurance fraud involves changing the identity of ships. The ship which sank broke in two at the point where the Olympic had collided with HMS Hawke.

The theory is obviously, transparently, indubitably a load of B.S. The theory is that the ship sank faster than was foreseen, when in fact it took longer. Parts of the ship, including the propeller, were found to be stamped with the Titanic’s hull number of 400 whereas the Olympic was 401.

Ray Boston, who has devoted 20 years of his life to research of the Titanic’s sinking, put forward the theory that the ship was traveling at such a high speed because of an “uncontrollable” fire in a coal bunker which began during speed trials 10 days prior to the ship departing Southampton. Coal fires were not uncommon. The inquiry was told the ship had been traveling at “high speed” – 22 knots – in iceberg-filled waters, which the inquiry declared to be “excessive” and called for additional lookouts. Ismay told the 1912 British inquiry that John Pierpont Morgan, the owner of the White Star Line, had instructed him to cross the Atlantic at full speed. Boston said this was because Morgan was aware of the fire. Morgan was set to sail on the Titanic but canceled his ticket.

J. Dilley, a stoker on the Titanic who gave evidence to the inquiry said that the fire had not been extinguished, and that there was talk among his colleagues that after passengers had disembarked at New York, fireboats would have to be summoned.

One popular story is that the Titanic sank because it was carrying a mummy.

Some people blame the Pharaohs for the sinking of the Titanic. One passenger, Lord Canterville, was transporting a sarcophagus containing the mummy of the Princess Amen-Ra. The mysterious powers of the mummy disturbed the reasoning of Captain Smith, who ignored warnings of icebergs. Again, people’s B.S. detectors will be sounding so very loudly, as Charles Haas, president of a society devoted to the Titanic, obtained the ship’s cargo manifest. While the Titanic carried refrigerating apparatus, hair nets, elastics, rabbit hair, leather, auto parts, hatter’s fur, straw, linen, and raw feathers, there was no mummy.

Another theory explaining the Titanic’s high speed is that Captain Smith was attempting to win the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic. The theory is refuted by the fact that the Titanic was incapable of achieving the 26 knots necessary to win the prize. The record stood for 10 years after the Titanic sank.

John Jacob Astor, who was possibly the richest man in the world and was aboard the Titanic when it sank

Some Titanic conspiracy theories are pretty silly. One, which features heavily online, is that the Jesuits wished to create the Federal Reserve to control the world’s money and therefore politics. John Jacob Astor, Isidor Strauss, owner of Macy’s, and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim were opposed to the idea. Astor is thought to have been the richest man in the world at the time, and Strauss and Guggenheim were also rolling in it. They were coaxed into traveling on the Titanic by means which have never been explained. Father Francis Brown, the most powerful Jesuit in Ireland, was aboard but alighted at Queenstown. Captain Smith is said by rumor-mongers to have been a Jesuit, which explains why he speeded into IceBerg City despite 26 years of experience of Atlantic crossings.

Another conspiracy theory which appeared in the Ballard News Tribune goes that the iceberg was a U-boat in disguise, which was collecting information on shipping. A variant says that the Titanic was torpedoed by a German U-boat to collect insurance money, but nobody aboard the Titanic saw the trail of a torpedo.

100 years later, interest in the Titanic is unabated. Harvard historian, Steven Biel, said, “Only Jesus and the Civil War have been written about more.” Maritime specialist and Titanic researcher, Michael McCaughan said, “People are still fascinated by Titanic because it’s like a parable of the human condition: it’s a story of profit, pleasure and memorialization.” Richard Howells, Reader in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, said, “If a man in his pride builds an unsinkable ship like Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods, it makes perfect mythical sense that God would be so angry at such an affront that he would sink the ship on its maiden outing.” The story is worth telling.

<An article about looney tunes Titanic conspiracy theories can be seen <a href=””>yonder</a>.


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