The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 shocked the world. The luxurious ocean liner, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, New York, was thought to be the largest and finest vessel on the water, perhaps even impervious to danger.
In the aftermath of the Titanic's sinking, public interest and government inquiry resulted in large-scale investigations into all things Titanic - everything from what exactly happened during the vessel's final moments to how the whole disaster could have even occurred in spite of the oversight, precautions, and engineering. As historical imagination took over, Titanic myths and facts soon blended, resulting in a blurred historical "truth."
Titanic myths continue to contribute to mainstream understanding of the disaster, with movies like A Night to Remember (1958) and Titanic (1997) perpetuating some of the most popular, yet unverifiable, beliefs.
The Reality: When the Titanic launched, contemporary newspapers went to great lengths to promote the safety of the ship. The Belfast Newsletter, on June 11, 1911, reported, "So thorough are the precautions which have been taken to prevent the ship from sinking in the event of a serious accident that any two compartments may be flooded without endangering the safety of the vessel." The Shipbuilder magazine praised the Titanic's watertight compartments, calling the luxury liner "practically unsinkable," a phrase that may have been picked up by some members of the general public.
The White Star Line, itself, never called the Titanic unsinkable, and there were no advertisements that included the word. The new science and technology that went into the Titanic, combined with its luxury, gave passengers, crew, and observers alike a false sense of security.
One crew member reportedly told passengers, "God himself could not sink this ship" - something they took to heart. According to the US Senate hearing on the disaster, "There was practically no excitement on the part of anyone" as they gathered on the Titanic's deck, with "the majority seeming to think that the big boat could not sink altogether."
Why The Myth: While there may have been some passengers and others who believed the Titanic to be unsinkable, it wasn't actively presented as such. When word reached New York that trouble had struck, White Star Line Vice President Phillip Franklin told reporters, "There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers."
As the irony of a so-called unsinkable ship going under became clear, the tragedy was only made more acute with such a description. After the disaster, the myth of the vessel's invulnerability was perpetuated and expanded as time passed.
The Reality: Steps were taken to separate first-, second-, and third-class passengers on the Titanic in accordance with US immigration law. Law also necessitated gates between the ship's decks due to concerns over the spread of disease as passengers from around the world landed on American shores. Third-class passengers had the ability, however, to move about their designated parts of the ship freely.
While third-class passengers were in the bowels of the Titanic and lacked direct access to lifeboats, they were not actively kept from attempting to flee the sinking ship. In fact, third-class stewards were instructed to have passengers put on their lifebelts and make their way to the deck, although many refused.
Why The Myth: There were 709 third-class passengers on the Titanic, roughly equal to first- and second-class passengers combined. Because more third-class passengers perished in the disaster than their upper-class counterparts (two-thirds of the third-class group lost their lives) there has been widespread belief that they were sacrificed for their social betters.
During the American inquiry into the disaster, only three third-class passengers testified, while none appeared before the British investigatory commission. The attorney representing third-class passengers, W.D. Harbinson, even asserted, "No evidence has been given in the course of this case that would substantiate a charge that any attempt was made to keep back the third class passengers." In spite of this, representations of the sinking, including 1997's Titanic, continue to prompt allegations of discrimination against the third class.
The Reality : Eight musicians aboard the Titanic played until the very end on April 14, 1912, keeping spirits up among ill-fated passengers. The band leader Wallace Hartley and all of the musicians - Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux, John Frederick Preston Clark, John Law Hume, George Alexandre Krins, Percy Cornelius Taylor, and John Wesley Howard - perished in the disaster.
Passenger accounts regarding the music they played varied. Survivor Ada Clarke said she heard "the strains of 'Nearer, My God, to Thee'" as she floated away in a lifeboat. Clarke left the ship 15 minutes before it went under, however, making it difficult to substantiate if this was actually the final song the band played. By other accounts, the musicians were much more uplifting in their music selections, playing ragtime.
The length and logistics of their final performance are also unclear. In some accounts, music could be heard until the lights on the ship were gone, while other passengers said, "The musicians were up to their knees in water," having marched "from deck to deck" throughout the ordeal. Due to the piano players and cellists in the band, however, it's difficult to assess exactly how this would have taken place. As a result, it's impossible to know exactly what they played and how they did so as Titanic vanished into the sea.
Why The Myth : The heroism of the band members on the Titanic was enhanced by the retelling of their final performance. Numerous survivors of the disaster mentioned the hymn, giving credence to the assertion that it was among the final numbers heard that night. The idea that the group played hymns was bolstered by assertions that Hartley once told fellow musician Ellwand Moody what he would play should he ever be on a sinking ship. "I don't think I could do better than play 'Oh God Our Help in Ages Past' or 'Nearer, My God, to Thee,'" he supposedly told Moody, "both favorite hymns of mine, and they would be very suitable to the occasion."
Movies have kept the myth alive. In the 1958 movie A Night to Remember , based on the events of Titanic 's sinking, the band is shown playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee." This scene is recreated in James Cameron's Titanic , which he admitted he lifted "entirely and put that into [his] film, because [he] loved it, it was such a strong part of the story."
The Reality: In anticipation of the launch, White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay made it known that he intended to have the Titanic at full speed during the journey. Ismay, who was on board the ship, told both Captain Edward Smith and chief engineer Joseph Bell about his plan, which caused some consternation when reports of ice warnings were first received.
Even the passengers were aware of how fast the Titanic was traveling and there were rumors that the captain and the White Star Line were trying to set a record. While Ismay may have wanted to push the Titanic, there's no indication that his plan was to have the vessel arrive in New York Harbor early. To do so would have caused the Titanic to run out of coal too early. While the exact arrival of the Titanic was somewhat fluid, it was largely believed that the ship would arrive on Wednesday, April 17. If the ship were to arrive on the night of the 16th, it would have been impossible to dock the ship until daylight.
Why The Myth: Titanic was a technological marvel, one built amid a flurry of innovations in maritime travel. In 1907, White Star Line's rival, Cunard, announced they would build the Lusitania and the Mauretania, two ships expected to traverse the Atlantic Ocean in record time (they both succeeded and received the Blue Riband, a prize for fastest crossing). When White Star launched the Titanic and her sister ships, the Britannic and Olympic, they were designed to combine luxury and speed, but with only minimal thought given to latter.
Within that group, there was perceived competition. The Olympic launched first, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean at roughly 21 knots. Captain Smith, who had once helmed the Olympic, pushed Titanic to 22 knots at times, creating speculation that he was trying to make the transatlantic trip more quickly on the sister ship.
Some of the blame fell on Ismay, too. The businessman's insistence on maintaining a high speed even in iceberg-laden waters was thought to be a clear dismissal of safety in the interest of publicity.