7 Myths About The Sinking Of The Titanic: True Or False?

It's been 84 years, and I can still smell the fresh paint. The china had never been used. The sheets had never been slept in. Titanic was called the Ship of Dreams, and it was. It really was. - Old Rose

There are few events in modern memory more shrouded in myth and romance than the sinking of Titanic. But how much of that mythology is true? Read on the find out!

One of the most memorable and shocking aspects of James Camerons Titanic is the ships crew refusing to allow third class passengers onto the deck of the ship during the sinking. We all remember those locked gates, guarded by heartless sailors, conspiring to trap our heroes in the ever rising water. 

Actually, theres no truth to that at all. 

There were indeed gates on the ship designed to keep passengers in their class-assigned areas. But there was no concerted effort to lock poorer passengers below during the sinking so that the rich could escape instead - and certainly not one carried out at gunpoint. 

It is true that one of the reasons many first and second class passengers survived is more and easier access to the higher decks. It was more difficult for those in steerage to make their way out of the bowels of the ship because thats where their quarters were located.

To the extent gates were used to keep the poor in their place, this was a result of a US immigration policy enacted out of fear that newcomers might spread disease. 


Two of the most enduring myths about the sinking of the Titanic concern the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, who was aboard for the maiden voyage and survived the sinking. 

One commonly-held belief is that Ismay was a despicable coward who snuck aboard a lifeboat, possibly in disguise, and saved himself at the expense of fellow passengers lives. 

After the disaster, Ismay was savaged by the American press for having survived. He was shunned by British society as well, and retired from public life shortly after Titanic went down. Every single portrayal of the sinking has depicted Ismay as a villain - even the one produced by the Nazis.

However, an examination of the facts reveals that this is totally unfair. The real reason why Ismay was smeared in the first place probably has less to do with his behavior and more to do with his powerful enemies. (continued…)

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Ismay had previously worked for the notorious American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose life inspired the movie Citizen Kane

Hearst, who was fiercely anti-British, fell out with Ismay after the latter married an American woman. 

Hearsts papers seem to be responsible for reducing Ismay to a caricature of the heartless, self-entitled businessman. They dubbed him J. Brute Ismay and published nasty editorials branding him a coward. Hearsts papers published a list of all those who died aboard Titanic, but under the survivors column, they printed Ismays name alone. 

In reality, the British inquiry into the sinking exonerated Ismay completely, noting that he stayed behind and helped many fellow passengers into lifeboats. He only just escaped from the ship about 20 minutes before it sank, climbing aboard a collapsible when he realized that there were still empty seats no other passengers around. 

There was room for [Ismay] and he jumped in, reads the finding of the British inquiry. Had he not jumped in, he would merely have added one more life, namely, his own, to the number of those lost.


The even more serious slander against Ismay is the oft-repeated notion that Titanic sank because he ordered the Captain and Chief Engineer to attempt reckless speeds order to set a record. There is no credible evidence that this ever happened. In fact, it makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, ships making trans-atlantic voyages at that time followed one of two routes - a northern track and southern track. Titanic was on the southern track, which was a longer trip by about 200 nautical miles, meaning it would have been impossible to set any record. 

Secondly, the White Star Line did not design its ships for speed. Titanic, like the rest of the fleet, was built to carry a large number of passengers in comfortable accommodations at a modest pace. Trying to make the ship go faster would have cost an enormous sum of money, both in fuel and in potential damage to the engines. 

Thirdly, even if it were practically possible, a ship arriving in port a day early would only annoy passengers and cause no end of trouble. Nobody would be pleased to arrive on Tuesday morning with no hotel room to stay in until Wednesday night. In fact, Ismay had written letters in the past expressly arguing against his ships arriving ahead of schedule. 


And now for a Titanic myth thats actually completely true. The sinking actually was predicted in a work of fiction in terrifying detail. (continued...)

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In 1898, 14 years before the sinking, author Morgan Robertson published a novella called Futility. In hindsight, people noted that there were a number of eerie similarities between Robertsons book and the wreck of the Titanic

The ship in Robertsons novella was called Titan.

It was 800 feet long (Titanic measured in at 882 feet) with a displacement of 45,000 tons (Titanic: 46,000 tons). 

It was rumoured to be unsinkable, had a triple screw engine, and carried the minimum legal complement of lifeboats. Sound familiar?

The fictional Titan sank after striking an iceberg on its starboard side in the North Atlantic in April while travelling in excess of 20 knots about 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland. 

The real-life Titanic sank after striking an iceberg on its starboard side in the North Atlantic in April while travelling in excess of 20 knots about 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.

Robertsons fictional portrayal was so true-to-life that it led to speculation that he was some kind of clairvoyant. (He insisted he wasnt.)


Captain Edward John E.J. Smith is often presented as a tragic hero, the gallant seafarer doomed to a watery grave on the final voyage of his career. But historians call foul on that flattering depiction of Titanics senior officer, suggesting that he deserves more blame than his big screen portrayals would lead you to believe. 

For one thing, Smith inexplicably ignored the ice warnings he received from other ships, failing to slow his ship down even though he surely understood the risks posed by icebergs in calm water. 

He also allowed lifeboats to launch while they were only half full or less. Perhaps he didnt realize the seriousness of the situation at first, but even if thats the case, his arrogant miscalculation cost many lives. Once the half-empty boats were clear of the ship, they did not return to pick up others, rightly fearing that they would be capsized in the panic. 

Finally, historians fault Smith for failing to issue an order to abandon ship, resulting in chaos and complacency both. 

"History records him as dying a heroic death, says Titanic expert Paul Louden-Brown. Statues were erected in his memory. There were postcards produced and stories of him swimming through the water with a child in his arms, saying 'good luck, lads, look after yourself'… all of which never happened.

Smith's ultimate fate is unclear, despite some garbled reports that he may have shot himself. 


Speaking of people who may or may not have shot themselves. (continued...)

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First Officer William Murdoch continues to be a contentious figure, mainly because of his portrayal in James Cameron's Titanic.

In the film, Murdoch is the officer in command when the ship strikes the iceberg - which is accurate. He's also shown to be corrupt, accepting a bribe from Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), but later throwing it in his face - Your money can't save you any more than it can save me. This, of course, is not accurate. 

Most controversially, in the midst of the sinking, the character shoots a passenger before turning the gun on himself in a final act of desperate contrition.

This aspect of the script sparked outrage in Murdoch's home town of Dalbeattie, Scotland, where his memory is still held dear. 

It is true that a scene similar to the one depicted in the movie was reported by several eye witnesses, who recalled seeing an unidentified officer shoot disorderly passengers and then commit suicide in the ship's final moments. Even if these reports are accurate, there is no evidence that the officer in question was Murchoch. 

The suggestion that the First Officer took his own life was contradicted by the testimony of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, who survived. Lightoller attested that he saw Murdoch get swept overboard by a wave while attempting to launch one final lifeboat, and insisted that his superior had died like a man, doing his duty.

It is possible that Lightoller fabricated this account in order to spare Murdoch's widow further anguish, but there's absolutely no evidence that Murdoch behaved improperly during the sinking. In fact, 75% of those who escaped Titanic did so in lifeboats launched by Murdoch. 

James Cameron ultimately apologized for the unjustified vilification.

Sources: 1, 2,3

The immaculate, detailed, and accessible list of those who survived and those who died aboard Titanic has led to an interesting coincidence; as it happens, there was a man listed as J. Dawson who died that fateful night. 

This fuelled speculation by James Cameron fans that the character Jack Dawson was real, or at least based on a real person. Actually, J. Dawson was a crew member named Joseph. He was a 23-year-old Irishman who worked in the ship's furnaces, and Cameron has stated repeatedly that he had no idea the real Dawson existed.

Nevertheless, Dawson's grave in Halifax, marked J. Dawson, became a site of pilgrimage for teenage girls (and others) after the release of the film in 1997, with many leaving flowers and other tokens by Jack's grave. 

Source: 1, 2

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In life, sometimes there's wrong and "technically not wrong" - and the difference can often be hilarious.

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