Legends and myths regarding RMS Titanic
There have been several legends and myths surrounding the RMS Titanic over the years. These have ranged from the myth about the ship being unsinkable, to the myth concerning the final song of the ship's orchestra.
Contrary to popular mythology, Titanic was never described as "unsinkable", without qualification, until after she sank. There are three trade publications (one of which was probably never published) that describe Titanic as practically unsinkable, prior to her sinking, but there is no evidence that the notion of Titanic's unsinkability had entered public consciousness until after the sinking. Harland and Wolff did not claim she was actually unsinkable, but a promotional item from the White Star Line stressed the safety of Olympic and Titanic, claiming that "as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable". Claims of being practically unsinkable were not unique to the Olympic class liners or other White Star ships by trade publications. Similar claims were made about the Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania and German liners Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Advanced safety features on these liners were heavily publicized de-emphasizing the likelihood of these ships sinking in a serious accident.
The vessel was designed to comply with Grade 1 subdivision proposed by the 1891 Bulkhead Committee, meaning that it could stay afloat with any two adjoining out of its 16 main compartments open to the sea. The height of the bulkhead deck above the water line in flooded condition was well above the requirements and the vessel indeed would have been able to float with three adjoining compartments flooded in 11 of 14 possible combinations. The subdivisions could be sealed from communication with each other with cast iron watertight doors. To prevent a sailor from being caught in them, a geared system dropped the doors gradually over 25 to 30 seconds by sliding them vertically on hydraulic cataract cylinders.
The first unqualified assertion of Titanic's unsinkability appears in The New York Times on 16 April 1912, a day after the tragedy. Philip A. S. Franklin, vice president of the International Mercantile Marine Company (White Star Line's holding company) stated after being told of the sinking "I thought her unsinkable, and I based my opinion on the best expert advice available. I do not understand it." This comment was seized upon by the press and the idea that the White Star Line had previously declared Titanic to be unsinkable (without qualification) gained immediate and widespread currency.
David Sarnoff, wireless reports and the use of SOS
An often-quoted story that has been blurred between fact and fiction states that the first person to receive news of the sinking was David Sarnoff, who would later lead media giant RCA. In modified versions of this legend, Sarnoff was not the first to hear the news (though Sarnoff willingly promoted this notion), but he and others did staff the Marconi wireless station (telegraph) atop the Wanamaker Department Store in New York City, and for three days, relayed news of the disaster and names of survivors to people waiting outside. However, even this version lacks support in contemporary accounts. No newspapers of the time, for example, mention Sarnoff. Given the absence of primary evidence, the story of Sarnoff should be properly regarded as a legend.
Despite popular belief, the sinking of Titanic was not the first time the internationally recognised Morse code distress signal "SOS" was used. The SOS signal was first proposed at the International Conference on Wireless Communication at Sea in Berlin in 1906. It was ratified by the international community in 1908 and had been in widespread use since then. The SOS signal was, however, rarely used by British wireless operators, who preferred the older CQD code. First Wireless Operator Jack Phillips began transmitting CQD until Second Wireless Operator Harold Bride half jokingly suggested, "Send SOS; it's the new call, and this may be your last chance to send it." Phillips then began to intersperse SOS with the traditional CQD call.
There are reports that, in 1936, a ham radio operator named Gordon Cosgrave claimed to be receiving long delayed echo SOS messages from the Carpathia and Titanic 24 years after their transmission.
One of the most famous stories of Titanic is of the ship's band. Two of the members of the Titanic's band were devout Methodist Christians. On 15 April the eight-member band, led by Wallace Hartley, had assembled in the first-class lounge in an effort to keep passengers calm and upbeat. Later they moved on to the forward half of the boat deck. The band continued playing, even when it became apparent the ship was going to sink, and all members perished.
There has been much speculation about what their last song was. A first-class Canadian passenger, Mrs. Vera Dick, and several other passengers, alleged that the final tune played was that of the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee". Hartley reportedly once said to a friend if he were on a sinking ship, "Nearer, My God, to Thee" would be one of the songs he would play. But Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember popularised wireless operator Harold Bride's 1912 account (New York Times) that he heard the song "Autumn" before the ship sank. It is considered Bride either meant the hymn tune known as "Autumn" or the tune of the then-popular waltz "Songe d'Automne" but neither was in the White Star Line songbook for the band. Bride is one of only two witnesses who were close enough to the band, as he floated off the deck before the ship went down, some consider to be reliable. – Mrs. Dick had left by lifeboat an hour and 20 minutes earlier and could not possibly have heard the band's final moments. The notion that the band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as a swan song is possibly a myth originating from the wrecking of SS Valencia, which had received wide press coverage in Canada in 1906 and so may have influenced Mrs. Dick's recollection. Also, there are two, very different, musical settings for "Nearer, My God, to Thee": one is popular in Britain, and the other is popular in the U.S., and the British melody might sound like the other hymn ("Autumn"). The film A Night to Remember (1958) uses the British setting; while the 1953 film Titanic, with Clifton Webb, uses the American tune. Recently, a third possibility has been raised. Among items left behind by Hartley's fiancee, Maria Robinson, was the sheet music of a third tune to the hymn written by Lewis Carey in 1902 and made popular by the Australian contralto Ada Crossley. As Crossley performed in both Britain and America, it is possible that this may have been a tune known to passengers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Colonel Archibald Gracie, an amateur historian who was aboard the ship until the final moments, and was later rescued on a capsized collapsable lifeboat, wrote his account immediately after the sinking but died from his injuries eight months later. His detailed account was kept by his family and only recently made public. According to Gracie, the tunes played by the band were "cheerful" but that he didn't recognise any of them, claiming that if they had played ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ as claimed in the newspaper "I assuredly should have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all and one likely to create panic."
The stories of W.T. Stead
Another oft-cited Titanic legend concerns perished first-class passenger William Thomas Stead. According to this folklore, Stead had, through precognitive insight, foreseen his own death on the Titanic. This is apparently suggested in two fictional sinking stories, which he penned decades earlier. The first, "How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor" (1886), tells of a mail steamer's collision with another ship, resulting in high loss of life due to lack of lifeboats. The second, "From the Old World to the New" (1892) features a White Star Line vessel, Majestic, that rescues survivors of another ship that had collided with an iceberg.
Some believe that there was another ship, the Norwegian sealer Samson, in the vicinity of Titanic when she sank. There is also speculation that this was the ship Titanic saw in the distance instead of the Californian. If correct, the coordinates of Samson place her within 10 miles of Titanic's position as the ship was sinking. The story of Captain Hendrik Bergethon Naess suggests that when Titanic set off her distress rockets, Samson did not come to the rescue because she was illegally sealing, and instead thought that the rockets being fired off was a signal to other ships in regard to Samson being there. The captain's statement allegedly states that they sailed north to avoid detection after seeing the rockets. However, research of Lloyd's List records suggests that Samson was in port in Iceland for engine repairs on the date of the Titanic's sinking, making her presence near the incident on the night of 14 April impossible.
The Titanic curse
- For Titanic's mummy curse, see: Mummy section on the alternative theories page.
When Titanic sank, claims were made that a curse existed on the ship. The press quickly linked the "Titanic curse" with the White Star Line practice of not christening their ships (notwithstanding the opening scene of the film A Night to Remember).
One of the most widely spread legends linked directly into the sectarianism of the city of Belfast, where the ship was built. It was suggested that the ship was given the number 390904 which, when reflected, resembles the letters "NOPOPE", a sectarian slogan attacking Roman Catholics, widely used by extreme Protestants in Northern Ireland, where the ship was built. In the extreme sectarianism of the region at the time, the ship's sinking was alleged to be on account of anti-Catholicism by her manufacturers, the Harland and Wolff company, which had an almost exclusively Protestant workforce and an alleged record of hostility towards Catholics. (Harland and Wolff did have a record of hiring few Catholics; whether that was through policy or because the company's shipyard in Belfast's bay was located in almost exclusively Protestant East Belfast—through which few Catholics would travel—or a mixture of both, is a matter of dispute.) In fact, RMS Olympic and Titanic were assigned the yard numbers 400 and 401 respectively.
Literary foreshadowing of the disaster
At the time the Titanic sank, the 1 May 1912 issue of The Popular Magazine, an American pulp magazine, was on the news stands. It contained the short story "The White Ghost of Disaster," which described the collision of an ocean liner with an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean, the sinking of the vessel, and the fate of the passengers. The story, by Mayn Clew Garnett (the pseudonym of sea-story author T. Jenkins Hains), created a minor sensation. In 1898, fourteen years prior to the Titanic disaster, Morgan Robertson wrote a book called Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. This story features an enormous British passenger liner called the Titan, which, deemed to be unsinkable, carries insufficient lifeboats. On a voyage in the month of April, the Titan hits an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic with the loss of almost everyone on board. There are some similarities between the fictional sinking of the Titan and the real-life sinking of the RMS Titanic.
In 1912, the German Berliner Tageblatt newspaper published a book in serial form that ran from January 9 until April 24. This work of fiction was written by Gerhard Hauptmann, who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature later that year. One month before the fateful April maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, the story was published by S. Fischer Verlag as the novel Atlantis. Atlantis is a romantic tale set aboard the fictitious ocean liner Roland, which is coincidentally doomed to a fate very similar to that of the RMS Titanic. This perceived anticipation of the Titanic disaster received considerable attention at the time. A Danish silent film also titled Atlantis was produced by Nordisk Film based on the novel. The film was released less than a year following the actual tragic event. The association became evident, and it was banned in Norway, perceived as being in "bad taste".
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- Joey Butler. "Did faith drive Titanic musicians?". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 2 December 2010. "“It’s more likely that they played a French waltz called ‘Songe d’Automne.’ The most reliable accounts I’ve heard mention that song,” Gowan said. “Wallace Hartley once told a friend that if he was on a ship going down, the best thing he could do would be to play a hymn like 'Nearer, My God, to Thee,’” Turner said. “One of the most convincing accounts I read, by one of the sailors, was that at the end, there was a lone violinist playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I suspect that was Wallace Hartley.”"
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