4. Collision & Aftermath
Logo on White Star Deck Rug
From lifeboat recovered by 'Carpathia'.
Lt. W.M. Murdoch RNR
The recent release in the United Kingdom of the film 'Titanic' has yet again brought the actions of her crew under public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this has also perpetuated myths about the principal officers such as Captain Smith and his First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The film has incorrectly portrayed Murdoch as a man who committed suicide by shooting himself after taking a bribe and killing passengers. Survivors' evidence does not support this.
In this page, the events of the 14th and 15th of April 1912 have been reconstructed, centering particularly on those involving Murdoch. There is also a summary of later events up to the British Board of Inquiry under Lord Mersey. The Inquiry, and the effects of the death on Murdoch's family, are dealt with elsewhere on this site.
Smith gives the order to load the lifeboats, "Women and children, first." This is to be interpreted in different ways on the port and starboard sides of the ship.
First and Second Class passengers are nearest the boats, so arrive there before Third Class, who have to come up several flights of stairs. Many Third Class passengers are mustering on the after well deck, but others are still in their cabins despite stewards' attempts to make them don lifejackets and come up. A lack of interpreters and a reluctance to leave all they own, are to cause the deaths of many emigrants unable to understand English. This has lead to a great deal of unfortunate controversy.
One misinterpreted matter was the attempt by Stewards at the gates from the rear well-deck to let through women and children whilst excluding the men. This was poorly-managed, many of the passengers (including some without any knowledge of English) thinking that they were all being excluded from the lifeboats. An officer (identity as yet unknown, probably either Murdoch or Wilde) went aft and assured the passengers that a ship was on its way to rescue them. At the time, Boxhall was trying to signal the 'Californian' or the vessel with the mysterious light on the port bow, so the officer may have genuinely believed what he said. Both ships were close enough to have been alongside before 'Titanic' sank. In that circumstance, having the lifeboats in the water may have been dangerous; it would also account for Wilde's caution about launching.
First to be launched, carrying 28 rather than 65. Murdoch puts in Lookouts Hogg and Jewell and Seaman William Weller as crew. He loads it with passengers (mostly First Class) who were dressed and ready to go, including some young couples who were newly-weds. He may have said "Put in the brides and grooms first." This saved the lives of a number of men. He asked " Are there any more ladies before this boat goes ?" but none were there, so he ordered the crew to bring the lifeboat round to the rear starboard gangway once lowered.
This was the second launched, carrying 40. Third Officer Pitman ordered aboard by William Murdoch, who tells him :
"You go in charge of this boat and also look after the others. Stand by to come along the after gangway when hailed."
They then shook hands, Murdoch adding
"Goodbye. Good luck."
as Pitman entered the boat. As the boat was lowered, it may have been Murdoch who called out
"Be sure and see the plug is in that boat."
Quartermaster Alfred Olliver and Steward Henry Etches were crewing the boat, Olliver pushing past passengers to plug the drainhole after water started to enter it. Pitman went round to the starboard aft gangway, but it was shut, so lifeboat No. 7 was rowed off to await orders. In his memoirs, Pitman wrote that his boat was too full to take aboard any others; this shows an error of judgement, but not deliberate negligence.
This was the first launched on the port side and left with barely 24 women aboard. Crewed by Quartermaster Robert Hichens and Lookout Frederick Fleet. Major Arthur Peuchen, yachtman, offered assistance when Lightoller asked for another man to help Hichens. Lightoller was actually launching the lifeboats far too fast, and without waiting to put more passengers in them, - again, an error of judgement. Although he should have stayed nearby, Quartermaster Hichens became scared of the suction, and of losing authority to Peuchen, a famous yachtsman. Peuchen and Fleet rowed clear of the ship, then waited to see what happened. Georgina 'Molly' Brown and other society ladies were also aboard.
This leaves 'Titanic' with 15 crew and over 25 passengers. Crewed by Seaman Moore. No more than five lifeboats are in the water at this time.
Was said by Gracie to be the first launched on that side. This was after Wilde told Lightoller "No, wait," and Lightoller appealed to Smith, who said "Yes, swing out," whilst Wilde said nothing. Captain Smith thus destroyed the remaining authority of his Chief Officer in a few words. No. 4 was lowered to A-Deck level, Wilde still reluctant to load, so Lightoller again went to Smith, who said "Yes, - put the women and children in, and lower away."
This was loaded by Murdoch. Only a handful of crew nearby, plus Cosmo and Lucille Duff-Gordon, who may have been actually lifted into the boat after Cosmo asked
"May we get into the boat ?"
Murdoch is said to have replied :-
"Yes, I wish you would."
He also ordered another passenger Henry Stengel, to"Jump in !" when Stengel complained, irritated that passengers were being 'endangered and inconvenienced' by being put into lifeboats. When Stengel stumbled and rolled into the boat (he was rather fat), Murdoch laughed, saying "That is the funniest sight I have seen tonight !" Passenger Abraham Salomon and a woman also entered the boat, but the rest were seven crew under Lookout George Symons. A dozen people in a lifeboat with a capacity for forty.
The Duff-Gordons were later accused of bribery for paying £ 5 to each crew member aboard. Ostensibly for replacing the mens' lost kit, the offer came just after Lucille Duff-Gordon expressed fear about returning to pick up people in the water. Her argument was that the ship would suck them down. In the circumstances, the occupants of Lifeboat 1 behaved disgracefully, and were censured for their behaviour. Duff-Gordon was later ostracised by his London club.
Chief Baker Charles Joughin and Steward William Burke on board. Seaman Buley in charge.
Seaman Poigndestre was in charge.
Seaman Joseph Scarrott used the boat's tiller as club to stop foreign men from seizing the boat, - he threw two men out onto the deck. Eventually lowered with 65 aboard. Scarrott helped by Fifth Officer Lowe, who drew his personal revolver and fired two shots to stop men on 'A' deck jumping into the boat as it was lowered. Lowe took charge of this lifeboat. Possibly the most famous officer aboard 'Titanic' in terms of his behaviour in going back to find survivors.
Loaded by Sixth Officer Moody to capacity. Moody staying on the ship. Leading Stoker Fred Barrett and Seaman Robert Hopkins had to cut the falls [ropes] to get free, after the engine condenser outflow washed the lifeboat under No. 15.
Loaded by 6th Officer Moody. Master at Arms Bailey in charge.
Was nearly lowered on top of 13. Fireman Frank Dymond was in charge.
Wilde asked Lightoller for revolvers. Collected by Lightoller, Murdoch and Captain Smith from Murdoch's cabin. Lightoller was given a revolver and some ammunition by Wilde, but put gun into his pocket still unloaded. Lightoller later considered that Murdoch had done the same, as neither seemed to have felt that they needed firearms.
The first collapsible launched, and the most contentious lifeboat other than Nos. 1 and 6. Quartermaster Rowe was in charge of 39 people. James Bruce Ismay got into this boat, in the presence of Murdoch, who stood and said nothing. He then gestured to the seamen and they continued to lower the boat. It is said that Ismay's act cost him any sympathy and respect that he might have gained from assisting at the lifeboats. Whether Murdoch would have dared pull Ismay back on board is another matter; as Ismay was more than 'just another passenger', Murdoch had little authority over Bruce Ismay.
4th Officer Boxhall in charge.
Seaman Humphreys in charge. (Carried Alice Cleaver, with the Hudson Allisons' baby Trevor).
The 1912 time of launching, but the earlier (1:00 a.m.) time is in Don Lynch's 'Titanic'. Lynch's time is the more likely, in view of Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Thayer, Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs.Widener being aboard. Mrs. Widener later wrote a letter in which she claimed to have seen the First Officer shoot himself. Unfortunately, though much-quoted, No. 4 would have been too far off for accurate identification of crew on the deck. Cameron's set was probably far more brightly lit than the genuine 'Titanic'.
Quatermaster Brown in charge. Lowered by Lightoller with 44 aboard. He used his unloaded gun to halt a rush on the lifeboat (British Inquiry) or discharged two shots into the air (American Inquiry). Assisted by a ring of crew-members who held back the male passengers.
It is at this point that the much-vexed shooting event is said to have taken place. If it took place, it was before the attempts to launch Collapsibles A and B, the last boats aboard. The main three witnesses to the death (actual and mythical) do not appear to have identified Murdoch beyond reasonable doubt. The evidence is summarised here :-
George Rheims, First Class passenger. (In sea beside ship)
Eugene Daly, Third Class passenger. (On deck, - heard shots, did not see event, later saw one dead body on deck, two other people lying on deck. Reliability not known.)
Robert Williams Daniel, passenger. (Saw event 'from ten feet away', said later that "It must be Murdoch" but apparently did not know him personally)
Thomas Whiteley, Steward. (Hearsay; generally considered unreliable. Has been the basis of books by Behe and Gardner that abuse William Murdoch).
Elizabeth Gibbons was sure that if anyone shot himself, it was Henry Tingle Wilde, the Chief Officer, by a process of elimination. Moody was last seen jumping or falling into the sea from the deckhouse, so presumably could not have killed himself. Smith either went down with the ship or died in the water, Murdoch died when the ship abruptly sank...which only leaves the Purser, McElroy, or Henry Tingle Wilde, poor fellow. McElroy's body was buried at sea, with no reference to any gunshot wounds, when found in the water. The bodies of Moody, Smith, Wilde and Murdoch, were never recovered.
The researcher Geoff Whitfield was the first to pass word to me that the 'Liverpool Echo' published a story at the time, that Wilde had shot himself. Other newspaper accounts offer the same story, some (for example, the Sunday April 21st 1912 'News of the World') prematurely stating that it had happened on the bridge before any boats were launched. The best that the writer can state for certain, is that both Murdoch and Wilde were alive when Collapsible C was launched. Thereafter, interpretations diverge; Wilde was a taller man than Murdoch, so that may help separate the identity of the 'officer who shot himself'.
It was alleged by one of my correspondents that Wilde's wife (who died in 1910, soon after two of their children) had wealthy relatives who did not let the suicide story spread past its first mention. The story may have been re-directed at the less-influential William Murdoch.
Collapsible A was brought down from its storage point on the officers' quarters. Murdoch was seen by Lightoller trying to disentangle or cut the forward falls (ropes, halliards) of lifeboat No. 1's davits, to use them to launch Collapsible A. Jack Thayer claimed that he was trying to cut the aft falls of the lifeboat at this time. The sudden sinking of the forward section made the sea surge and sweep many people from the deck. A.B's. French and McGough later stated that Murdoch, then straightening the forward falls, waved to those about him to get further back up the tilting deck. The sea then engulfed them, and Collapsible A was left floating at the davits until it broke loose.
A dozen people managed to struggle into the half-swamped boat, only to be washed out and mostly drowned when the forward funnel's stays parted [The 'Four Gun Shots'?] and the funnel itself fell in the water amongst them. Either the first surge, - or the fall of the funnel, - appear to have injured, drowned or killed William McMaster Murdoch. Collapsible A, - now half-full of water, - became the refuge for several survivors, about half of whom died from hypothermia before being rescued.
Charles Herbert Lightoller, ship's 2nd Officer.(on roof of officers' quarters: Inquiry evidence and letter to Ada Murdoch)
Harold Sideney Bride, Radioman : (working on Collapsible A : evidence to Ernie Robinson and Inquiry - but he did alter his story several times)
Archibald Gracie, Colonel, First Class passenger.(working on Collapsible A : evidence in his book)
George McGough, Seaman.(working on Collapsible A : U.S. Inquiry evidence)
The flamboyant Lightoller altered his testimony on the use of guns, but volunteered the information about William Murdoch in his letter to Ada Murdoch. At the Smith Inquiry he stated that he saw Murdoch trying to launch the last lifeboat. The other surviving officers added their names to the letter.
It has to be said that the men most forthright in their stating that Murdoch had not shot himself (Lightoller, Gracie) were most reticent about Wilde. Passenger evidence is the main source for allegations that an officer had shot himself. Regrettably, the attitude of some historians has been to accept hearsay such as Steward Whiteley's and to disregard as biased or as 'whitewash' the accounts of those who would have known Murdoch personally.
This page was prepared with editorial assistance and information from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic', and from Ernie Robinson, maritime historian.
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