Everything Historians Think The Captain Of The 'Titanic' Did The Night The Ship Sank
Photo: New York Times / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Everything Historians Think The Captain Of The 'Titanic' Did The Night The Ship Sank

The harrowing final hours of the Titanic remain a subject of intense interest. Rumors and myths about what took place on the Titanic just before it struck the iceberg have intrigued historians and history-lovers for more than a century - especially when it comes to the actions of the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith.

Smith was a lifelong seafarer who spent decades on cargo and passenger ships before taking the helm of Titanic in 1912. Being captain of the luxurious, unsinkable ship came with notoriety and prestige, not to mention an enormous amount of responsibility. Given the fate of Titanic and its passengers, Smith's part in what occurred on April 14, 1912, has come under close scrutiny.

Smith himself perished on the night Titanic sank, so his version of events will never be known. Here are some of the theories about what went wrong and the role Smith may have played.

  • Edward Smith Left A Dinner Party Early And Was Concerned About Ice

    On the evening of April 14, 1912, Captain Smith was honored at a dinner party held by first-class passenger George Widener. Widener, a financier from Pennsylvania, was traveling with his wife Eleanor, his son Harry, and two servants. The Wideners hosted the Captain and their fellow first-class passengers at the À la Carte Restaurant aboard Titanic

    Captain Smith left the dinner around 9 pm. He reportedly went to the bridge where he discussed dropping temperatures with Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. They both acknowledged the need to be watchful for icebergs as the ship powered ahead.

    According to Lightoller's accountTitanic received reports of ice from various ships all day, though they had not all made their way to the bridge. Regardless, Captain Smith was aware ice was a danger, and  he may have left the dinner party early as a result.

  • Before Turning In, Smith Instructed The Second Officer To Wake Him With Any Concerns

    Around 9 pm, when Captain Smith checked in on the bridge of Titanic, Second Officer Lightoller reportedly told him he believed there was enough visibility to identify any icebergs. Smith replied, "If in the slightest degree doubtful, let me know." He then retired to his cabin.

    When Lightoller went off duty at 10 pm, he and First Officer William McMaster Murdoch discussed the weather and, according to Lightoller, "commented on the lack of definition between the horizon and the sky - which would make an iceberg all the more difficult to see." In his testimony, Lightoller said he and Murdoch didn't discuss ice specifically, but the crew in the crow's nest was on the lookout for any problems.

    Gary Cooper's biography of Smith, Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith, dismisses the idea that Smith went to his cabin directly after talking to Lightoller. Using evidence from the American and British investigations into Titanic's sinking, he claims Smith was in the chart room on board as late as 10 pm. Even if this is the case, it does not mean Smith wasn't in his cabin when the iceberg was hit. In another telling, Smith was taking a nap in the chart room when Titanic met her fate. 

    The prevailing view, however, is that Captain Smith was in his cabin, presumably asleep or getting ready for bed. Titanic continued to traverse the Atlantic Ocean at roughly 20 knots.

  • The Collision With The Iceberg Woke Him Up

    When Titanic struck the iceberg on April 14, Captain Smith was, most likely, in his cabin. In most tellings, he was jolted awake by the collision and quickly made his way to the bridge.

    First Officer Murdoch was notified of the iceberg at roughly 11:40 pm by Frederick Fleet, the lookout in the crow's nest. In his testimony about the sinking of Titanic, Fleet testified he "struck three bells" after seeing the iceberg and then "went straight to the telephone and rang them up on the bridge." He was not able to recall how much time passed between sighting the iceberg and when Titanic struck it.

    According to Walter Lord's account of Titanic's final hours, A Night To Remember: The Sinking of the Titanic, Smith arrived at the bridge and received a report from Murdoch. Murdoch told him the ship had hit an iceberg. The first officer said he had "hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines, and I was going to hard-a-port around it, but she was too close. I couldn't do any more." Smith ordered Murdoch to close the emergency doors, which he had already done.

    This account is consistent with Fourth Officer Joseph Grove's testimony following the sinking.

  • Some Accounts Place Smith On The Bridge Only Seven Minutes Before The Ship Submerged

    Captain Smith may have remained on the bridge of Titanic until the very end. Second Officer Lightoller remembered seeing Captain Smith for the last time as the latter crossed the bridge. According to author Robert D. Ballard, Smith was seen on the bridge as late as 2:13 am, just minutes before the ship went underwater.

    This conflicts with other reports about the last moments of Titanic. Captain Smith was said to have told his crew "it's every man for himself" at 2:17 am, just one minute before the ship broke into two parts. 

  • Other Accounts Say Smith Wandered To The Wheelhouse Or Spent His Final Moments Telling His Crew To Abandon Ship

    Other accounts of Captain Smith's last hours place him wandering around the ship or working alongside wireless operators in the radio room. Junior Officer Harold Sydney Bride worked with John "Jack" George Phillips in the radio room and sent numerous messages from Titanic as she took on water. Bride recalled Captain Smith telling him and Phillips they needed to send a distress call, at which time they sent a C.Q.D., a signal that expressed "a state of danger or peril of a ship that sends it."

    Once Bride and Phillips sent the first signal, they relayed the replies they received to the Captain. On one occasion, they found Captain Smith in the wheelhouse, an area within the bridge that held the main wheel of the ship.

    Bride and Phillips stayed in the radio room sending S.O.S. and C.Q.D. calls until the Captain returned and told them, "You can do nothing more; look out for yourselves."

    Bride said that wasn't the last time he saw Captain Smith, however. He claimed that as his lifeboat hit the water, he "noticed Capt. Smith dive from the bridge into the sea."

  • Smith Made No Attempts To Save Himself

    Aside from Bride's claim that Captain Smith jumped into the ocean, there's little indication he took any steps to save himself. From the first time Smith was told about Titanic striking the iceberg, his concerns were on the ship and its passengers. Once Thomas Anderson informed Smith Titanic was taking on too much water and all would be lost, he began instructing the crew to prepare for an evacuation.

    According to Charles Lightoller, Smith was doing his job. As "one of the ablest skippers on the Atlantic," he "went down" with his ship, the second officer claimed.

    Smith's descendants - notably Spencer Smith, an archaeologist with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales - have echoed the sentiment. According to Spencer, "I was told from a small child who he was... There was no fuss made about who he was or what he did. He did his job and [perished] doing his job."