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Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Officer's Suicide?

Since the Titanic sank, many experts have debated and examined accounts of the claim that an officer committed suicide.  The debate intensified when the Titanic 1996 miniseries and Titanic 1997 showed 1st Officer Murdoch shooting 3rd class passengers that were attempting to rush Collapsible A in panic and then in a knee-jerk act of desperation, shot himself.  This portrayal was viewed as showing him to be cowardly and unmanly.  While it is every Titaniac's dream to find out exactly who committed suicide, nobody will ever know.  However, we can put forward the most likely candidate by using a process of elimination and either crediting or discrediting the witnesses.  It's also worth trying to answer the question almost everyone is really asking, was Cameron's portrayal of Murdoch accurate?

There were 4 officers in the area of the suicide.  They were Captain Smith, Chief Officer Wilde, 1st Officer Murdoch, and 6th Officer Moody.  All of them have been suggested (some more than others) as the ones that committed suicide.  First, we need to look at the lives of each of these men to determine which had the most motive.

Captain Edward John Smith had led a long and glorious career as a seaman, never having a ship sinking from under him before.  He started out at sea at the age of 13 and rose the rank of Captain.  He became so well liked by the wealthy and influential that he was nicknamed the "Millionaire's Captain" and eventually started getting the command of the White Star Line's biggest and best ships.  He had previously captained the Olympic, Titanic's older sister ship.  It is said that he planned to retire after the Titanic's maiden voyage.  During the Titanic's voyage, he under the pressure of J. Bruce Ismay sped up the Titanic.  It was quite normal, however, to try and get your ship out of an ice field as soon as possible at that time.  With him being such an experienced sailor, this being his last voyage, and the Titanic being unsinkable (he undoubtedly believed that the Titanic was unsinkable), there was a very slim chance that the Titanic would sink.  When she struck the iceberg, he was in his quarters and rushed out when he either heard or felt the collision.  After learning the news an hour later that the Titanic was doomed, he was in shock until the final plunge.  However, he was still with it enough to order the evacuation and to manage the attempts to contact a rescue ship.  It is unclear what happened to him.  Some say he went into the bridge.  Others say he dived into the sea from the bridge. There is one story that says that he rescued a baby and put it onto Collapsible B but refused to get on himself.  Still others say that he shot himself.

Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde like everyone started at sea as a young man and rose up in the ranks an officer in the White Star Line.  In 1910, Wilde's wife and twin infant sons died probably of Scarlet Fever.  From that time on he would mention how he would like to be reunited with his wife.  However, he did have 4 children and a sister that he cared for.  Wilde was formerly on the Olympic and was probably going to stay on when Captain Smith was transferred, but the White Star Line decided to take Chief Officer Wilde on to the Titanic.  This demoted Murdoch who was going to be Chief Officer to 1st Officer and Lightoller from 1st Officer to 2nd Officer.  It also bumped David Blair who was going to be the 2nd Officer off the ship.  Before he left on the Titanic, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he stated that, "I still don't like this ship... I have a queer feeling about it".  The voyage for Wilde was uneventful for the most part.  He was relieved from being the Officer of the Watch on April 14 by Lightoller.  What he did next is unknown.  He was near the bow at the time of the collision, however, probably checking around, making sure everything was all right when the iceberg struck.  He ran into two men that said that the ship was flooding and air was escaping from the bow.  Realizing that the ship might have been damaged, he went up to the Bridge.  On his way there, he ran into stokers and firemen that were rushing up from the lower decks.  He ordered them back down.  He made it to the Bridge and he, Captain Smith, and Thomas Andrews inspected the lower decks.  Andrews afterwards explained that the ship was doomed.  Captain Smith then went up and ordered all the boats to be uncovered.  Wilde assisted in doing so.  Lightoller, having done as ordered, went up to Wilde to ask if he should swing the boats out.  Wilde said not to.  Lightoller then saw Captain Smith and asked the same question.  Captain Smith gave him the go-ahead.  Afterwards, Lightoller asked Wilde if he should load the boats with women and children.  Wilde again said no, and Lightoller again went over and asked  Captain Smith the same question.  Captain Smith gave Lightoller the go-ahead.  It is possible that Wilde thought that he thought that a ship would be coming soon and it was best not to let them freeze for a long time since the ship would probably last a long while or possibly he just wanted to prevent a panic.  The reasons will never be known.  His exact whereabouts cannot be reconstructed throughout the sinking because he is rarely mentioned by name in survivors' accounts.  It is known that he assisted in the loading and lowering of the lifeboats, however.  At one point, he stopped Lightoller where the firearms were kept.  Lightoller led him to where he stored the firearms when he was the 1st Officer.  The guns (which were Webley Mark III's)were given out to the officers.  It is very possible that Wilde seeing all these people and realizing the full reality of the situation that there simply weren't enough boats for everyone had the foresight to know that there very likely would have been a panic. He helped with the launch of Collapsible C which had Ismay and Carter, men that afterwards were branded to be cowards even though (as I will Lord willing discuss in a later post) their actions are justifiable.  Carter mentioned that both he and Ismay were told be Wilde that they could get in if they helped row and the two men got in.  Since Ismay failed to mention this, the reliability of this story is in question.  Both Gracie and Lightoller said that they last saw him working to launch Collapsible A when the water came up and swept him away.

1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch came from a seafaring family.  Both his father and grandfather were captains and William was well on his way to become one himself, following in their footsteps.  He first went to sea as an apprentice at the age of 15 and did very well.  Beginning in 1899, he served the White Star Line as an officer on their ships including the Medic, Arabic, Germanic, Oceanic, Majestic, and Olympic.  In 1903, while he was the 2nd Officer of the Arabic, a dark object loomed in the distance in front of them.  Officer Fox (a more senior officer) ordered "Hard-A-Port" and Murdoch ran in, telling him to keep on their course.  The two ships narrowly missed each other and it was said that if the Arabic which was brand new had done what Officer Fox ordered, the Arabic would have collided with the other ship.  In 1903, he met Ada Banks on the Runic enroute to Australia.  After a long distance relationship, they were married in  1907. On the Titanic, he was originally going to be the Chief Officer which was a promotion.  However, Wilde was brought on which brought Murdoch back down to being the 1st Officer.  On the night of April 14, he was the Officer of the Watch which meant that he was the most senior officer on the Bridge.  At 11:40 P.M., the bell in the crow's nest rang three times and the phone rang.  6th Officer Moody answered.  It was about this time that Murdoch saw the iceberg.  He ran in as Moody relayed the message that the iceberg was dead ahead.  Murdoch ordered Quartermaster Hichens to turn the ship Hard-a-Starboard, shut the watertight doors, and ordered the engines to be reversed.  These were the orders that Captain Smith had given before, when the S.S. New York narrowly missed the Titanic in Southampton and they worked, then.  Unfortunately, they didn't work.  In fact, reversing the engines made it worse and if Murdoch had gone straight, only one or two compartments would be damaged.  That likely wasn't on Murdoch's mind when he saw the iceberg and had to make split second decisions right then.  Captain Smith came onto the Bridge after the collision and Murdoch told him what had happened.  After it was confirmed that the ship was going down, Murdoch went into immediate action.  He helped to get the boats on the Starboard ready and then when the order was given to lower away, he worked as quickly as possible to fill and lower them.  He let men, women, and children in and didn't really enforce the "women and children first" rule strictly like Lightoller did.  He gave women and children top priority and if there was more room, men got to go.  He was more focused on filling and loading the lifeboats as quickly as possible.  Towards the end, the last lifeboat, Collapsible A, was still on the roof.  Murdoch and about 1-2 dozen men pushed the 2 ton boat off.  His last confirmed actions while he was alive was helping Wilde as the water came up to free Collapsible A from the davits.  About 2/3 of that survived owe their lives to the courage and dedication of Murdoch.

6th Officer James Paul Moody was the most junior officer on board.  He was the one that answered the phone when the iceberg was reported to the Bridge by Frederick Fleet in the crow's nest.  He helped Murdoch for most of the time during the sinking with loading the lifeboats.  The only peculiar thing Moody did that we know about was that he told 5th Officer Lowe, a more senior officer to get into a lifeboat.  It was customary for more senior officers to allow the more junior officers first dibs in the lifeboats.  He was last seen on the roof of the Officer's Quarters, helping Lightoller.  

Most of those that talk about a suicide from what they actually saw are credible and most of the accounts are from the Boat Deck, it is safe to say that an officer did indeed commit suicide despite what some have claimed.  There are two prominent accounts that attempt to discredit the suicide that are not very credible when you investigate further.  The first is from 1st class passenger Archibald Gracie.  He said in his book, "The Truth About the Titanic", "...Did either the Captain or the First officer shoot himself? Not withstanding all the current rumors and newspaper statements answering this question affirmatively, I have been unable to find any passenger or member of the crew cited as authority for the statement that either Captain Smith or First Officer Murdoch did anything of the sort. On the contrary, so far as relates to Captain Smith, there are several witnesses, including Harold S. Bride, the Junior Marconi operator, who saw him at the last on the bridge of his ship, and later, when sinking and struggling in the water. Neither can I discover any authentic testimony about First Officer Murdoch’s shooting himself. On the contrary, I find fully sufficient evidence that he did not. He was a brave and efficient officer and no sufficient motive for self-destruction can be advanced. He performed his full duty under difficult circumstances, and was entitled to praise and honor. During the last fifteen minutes before the ship sank, I was located at that quarter forward on the boat deck, starboard side, where Murdoch was in command and where the crew under him were engaged in the vain attempt of launching the Engelhard boat. The report of a pistol shot during this interval ringing in my ears within a few feet of me would certainly have attracted my attention, and later, when I moved astern, the distance was not so great as to prevent my hearing it." Gracie indicated previously that he didn't know Murdoch on sight, so that automatically diminishes his credibility on this subject.  Next, take into account that he was about 50-70 feet from the place where the shooting took place.  He was caught up in a mass of humanity which likely had yelling and screaming.  That plus the sounds of the water rushing up and groaning of the ship would have probably provided sufficient distractions that would block out the sounds of one or more gunshots. Futhermore, Gracie relied heavily on his conversations with Lightoller (who we'll talk about next) and Harold Bride who for the most part stayed on the Port side.  

The other often cited account, that of 2nd Officer Lightoller, is the other most relied on detractor.  He was on the roof of the Officer's Quarters and helped to free Collapsible A after he got Collapsible B off.  According to him, the water rose up and swallowed 1st Officer Murdoch and Chief Officer Wilde.  He said something similar to Murdoch's widow, Ada.  Some have pointed out that Lightoller was a "company man".  It is known for certain that Lightoller lied about firing a gun in the air and possibly other things in the Inquiry.  He later admitted privately that someone he knew committed suicide.  He was good friends with both Murdoch and Wilde, having served with them before on previous vessels.  He was very loyal to his company and friends and a suicide in that society might have been viewed as cowardice which would give Lightoller enough motivation to adamantly deny a suicide in front of everyone at the Inquiries and comfort Murdoch's grieving widow.  However, his being adamant about Murdoch not committing suicide may suggest that he saw nothing and was too busy with everything to notice.  The sounds would have carried over the roof and he may have heard a gunshot, but not seen who did it.  His letter to Ada Murdoch indicates that he saw Murdoch trying to free Collapsible A from the davits, but didn't watch him for all that time.  I think that it is possible that he heard a gunshot but didn't see who it was which would lead him to believe that a friend (either Wilde or Murdoch since he indicated that he saw both working together) committed suicide but didn't know who did it. But, the thing that makes both Lightoller and Gracie unreliable is the fact of the ship's list to Port which at that time was about 8-10 degrees. Water had filled the Port side which would have caused both men's hearing to be over-stimulated and make the whole thing confusing. That and the fact they were focusing on other things like survival. There's only a small chance they would've heard something absolutely identifiable gunshot in all that confusion. Considering the facts, now let's eliminate the least likely candidates until we come up with one left.

There were several passengers that insisted the it was Captain Smith that committed suicide.  However, the people on the Boat Deck that claimed to see Captain Smith in his final moments said that Captain Smith was near the Bridge and some even said that he dived into the sea.   I will Lord willing talk about his death in a later post.  Needless to say, the reports that it was Captain Smith mostly came from those that were observing from some distance away.  It is safe to assume that it was not Captain Smith who was very recognizable with his white beard.  1st class passengers and crew would instantly recognize Captain Smith because he was such a popular figure and there would be more accounts from those that were actually on the Boat Deck that he shot himself if he did.  Instead, those that claimed it was Captain Smith must be assuming but due to the poor lighting and chaos all around which would have been a distraction, they must have assumed that it was Captain Smith.

6th Officer Moody almost certainly did not have a firearm in his possession unless he brought a personal one like 5th Officer Lowe did.  There is absolutely no motive that I can find for Moody to commit suicide with him doing his duty to fullest and not having anything that we know of that he did wrong.  Furthermore, Moody, according to Lightoller, was working on the Officer's Quarters which was not where the suicidal officer reportedly was.

Chief Officer Wilde is one of the more likely because of his wife and twins' deaths.  It is possible the Titanic disaster pushed him over the edge.  However, why would he willingly leave 4 children without someone to care for them?  Such a question continues to plague my mind when I think of him.  He was a dutiful and conscientious man who was level headed and clearly thought things through.  He showed that to be the case when he denied Lightoller permission at first to load and launch the boats probably because it might start a panic and had Lightoller get the guns which likely meant that he was anticipating people to rush the lifeboats.  Such contrary evidence largely eliminates Wilde from the equation.

This leaves 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch as the officer that committed suicide.  Most survivors that mention the suicide and identify the shooter say that it was Murdoch.  Even those that say it was a Chief Officer may have meant that he was wearing a Chief Officer's uniform considering the fact he was demoted just before the voyage.  He had the motive.  He had a wife which I believe he did love.  However, there was the pressure of the moment.  I believe he did blame himself.  He was faced with the launch of Collapsible A which was 2 tons and he just pushed it off the Officer's Quarters.  2nd Officer Lightoller had fired shots minutes before with a rush of 3rd class passengers that had just gotten to the Boat Deck and were trying to rush Collapsible D.  He ordered everyone to the starboard to even out the ship which was listing about 9-10 degrees.  It didn't do much good, but some people apparently did go over to the Starboard side such as Archibald Gracie and Clinch Smith.  He by all accounts was working near the edge of the Boat Deck on te falls which would allow some of those in the boats to see him kill himself.  Now water was close to the Boat Deck and Collapsible A was the last lifeboat on the Starboard side.  It is understandable that the 3rd class passengers would have rushed the boat.  I would be surprised if the 3rd class passenger did not rush Collapsible A with most of the boats being gone, the spot where they were standing about to go under, and them just getting up from the lower decks.  Murdoch did have a gun.  He was handed one when Smith, Wilde, Lightoller, and Murdoch met for the guns to be dealt out.  I don't doubt that he shot his gun when passengers tried to rush Collapsible A.    Some said he shot at people who were trying to rush Collapsible A.  Then, with water coming up, Collapsible A in the care of Wilde, him likely blaming himself for the deaths of the people around him, and facing possible ruin, I do believe he pulled the trigger on himself.  Does that make him a coward or anything less than a hero?  No.  Do I think he was human with failings and misunderstandings?  Yes.  Murdoch's work towards getting as many people as possible off the ship was honorable.  He was a true man and gentleman with a sense of duty and responsibility.  As the grandson and son of captains, he knew full well the duty of a captain which I believe was likely instilled into him as a child.  If he blamed himself, it was misplaced.  He was not responsible for the death of the other 1,495 people that died that night.  However, this is us looking back at history.  Murdoch didn't have that advantage.  He acted on what he believed happened at that time.  He did his duty as set before him and with him being human, the stress and pressure likely got to be more than he thought he could bear and then he shot himself.  Murdoch was a hero for all he tried to do and did.  He is an inspiration to me for his dedication, heroism, and selflessness.

If you would like to examine the facts for yourself and draw your own conclusions, I recommend the link below which provides all the accounts mentioning and not mentioning an officers' suicide.  What I believe happened is the conclusion of myself and many researchers based on the accounts on this website:


In conclusion, was Cameron's portrayal of Murdoch accurate?  My answer is yes and no.  His portrayal was unfortunately misinterpreted and Cameron could have done better in his portrayal of Murdoch.  Cameron intended to show Murdoch as a hero that blamed himself, the same conclusion that I have drawn.  The bribe was misinterpreted as showing Murdoch as a person that cared about money.  He didn't.  It was supposed to show him being too busy to respond.  Furthermore, Cameron's apology to Murdoch's family and hometown has been viewed by some to mean that they willingly showed him to be a selfish coward.  Considering the facts above, I don't believe that.  I believe that it was just something to ease the tension and outrage the film's portrayal caused.  So many people like to rely on emotions and not on facts in interpreting history.  They want their hero to die launching Collapsible A and not shooting himself.  I'm not saying Murdoch's action was right.  I'm simply attempting to look at the facts without emotions tugging me one direction or the other.  What we want people to do and what they actually did is often times very different.  Cameron has made it obvious that he has great respect for Murdoch.  Every time he visits the wreck, he pays homage to Murdoch at Lifeboat Davit No. 1 where Murdoch died.  If he did it once, I'd say it was probably something to sooth the tension and anger over his portrayal of Murdoch.  But no.  He insisted of paying homage to Murdoch every time he visited the wreck.  May his courage, duty, and dedication never be forgotten.

I think Charlotte Colyer's words about Murdoch best describe him when she said, “He (Murdoch) was a masterful man, astoundingly brave and cool.  I had met him the day before, when he was inspecting the second-cabin quarters, and thought him a bull-dog of a man who would not be afraid of anything.  This proved true; he kept order to the last, and died at his post.  They say he shot himself.  I do not know.”

1 comment:

road11 said...

Very well written with sound logic. I agree with your conclusions based on the presentation of your evidence. Thank you for researching and composing and posting this.