Monday, March 18, 2013
Ismay: Hero or Coward
The actions of Joseph Bruce Ismay have fallen under much scrutiny in regards to the Titanic and he has been a favorite person to be made the villain ever since the sinking by newspapers, films, and books. It is my hope in this post to uncover the truth regarding what happened and why he is hated so much. J. Bruce Ismay was the son of Thomas Ismay, one of the founders of the White Star Line (WSL) which was a ship company. The WSL was bought by J.P. Morgan who was the owner of the International Mercantile Marine which had almost a complete monopoly on all companies that were using the North Atlantic run. J. Bruce Ismay followed in his father's footsteps and eventually became the Managing Director of the WSL. The Titanic was actually Ismay's vision from the beginning. He and Lord Pirrie who owned Harland & Wolff, the ship building company that built nearly all of the WSL's ships, were talking after dinner and the two came up with a plan to construct three new ships that were bigger and more luxurious than any ship that had ever been built. Soon after that, they began making plans and Ismay ordered the three new ships. The Olympic was first built and it was very popular. Ismay went on board as the representative of the WSL for the maiden voyage as he often did and I would think was impressed with her. The Titanic came next. One thing that is not generally realized about Ismay is that he was a very shy man. He was in reality a kind and caring gentleman when you got to know him, but with WSL, he was devoted to the success of his father's company which has caused some to view him as arrogant or difficult to deal with. He may very well have been arrogant, but he pretty much had a right to be. His company was building such wonderful ships. Contrary to popular belief that the Titanic disaster forced him to retire, he put in his notice that he would resign around the time the third ship, Britannic, would launched in January of 1912, 4 months before the Titanic set sail. It is true that he had 20 lifeboats put on board rather than 64. However, you need to put yourself in his shoes. He was a man who was trying to sell passage on his ships rather than anyone else's and you had these "unsinkable" ships which even if they did sink, would have sunk so slowly that there would have been enough time to ferry people between the ships and shore or another ship. In looking back, it was a stupid move. But back then, it seemed like a good decision. When the Titanic set sail on April 10, 1912, Ismay was one of the first passengers on board, having stayed at a hotel near by and boarded at about 9:30 A.M. During the voyage, he would socialize with the 1st class passengers. Because he had sailed with many of them on previous vessels, he was one of the most well known passengers on board. He stayed in one of the best suites on board which encompassed B-52, B-54, and B-56. It was nicknamed the "Millionaire's Suite" because it included 2 bedrooms, a sitting room, and a private 50 foot long promenade deck. It would cost $50,000 to stay in that room. It was originally supposed to be occupied by J.P. Morgan, one of the richest men in the world and the owner of the White Star Line, but he canceled at the last minute which allowed Ismay to occupy it instead. Passengers claimed that Ismay urged Captain Smith to increase the speed, which is against WSL policy. All WSL officers are required to sign a contract that they won't interfere with the way the ship is run and leave that to the captain. With this being reportedly Smith's last voyage, however, he didn't have much to lose. 1st class passenger Elizabeth Lines said that Ismay and Captain Smith were talking about it in the Reception Room. Ismay was talking loudly and Captain Smith just nodded. Ismay was reportedly urging Smith to increase the speed to get to New York early and make the headlines, adding in that he was just a passenger and that it was up to him. Such claims, I believe, are exaggerated. He admitted to asking about the possibility of increasing speed of Captain Smith and Chief Engineer Joseph Bell, but due to the policy, I think that he pushed Captain Smith to increase the speed. During lunch on April 14th, Captain Smith handed Ismay an ice warning. Ismay apparently showed it to other passengers because he was waving it in front of Mrs. Thayer and Mrs. Ryerson on the Boat Deck, explaining that they were nearing ice. Captain Smith eventually retrieved the message from Ismay. Looking back, we can easily say that it was idiocy to speed through ice. However, at that time, it was natural to try and get out of an area that had ice as fast as you could. Furthermore, you had the best and more experienced crew of the WSL. He showed it to 1st class passengers Marian Thayer and Emily Ryerson on the Promenade Deck and may have shown it to other passengers before Captain Smith asked for it back. Ismay generally ate his dinners at a table in one of the alcoves of the 1st class Dining Saloon except for the 12th in which he ate at Captain Smith's table and the 14th when he ate in one of the alcoves of the A La Carte Restaurant during a party held by the Wideners in honor of Captain Smith. He sat at the table on the Aft Starboard side. Afterwards, it is likely that he went with the rest of the gentlemen to the 1st class Smoking Room a couple of decks above for a smoke and maybe a card game. Afterwards, he retired at about 10:00 P.M. At 11:40 P.M., the Titanic struck an iceberg. The collision caused the ship caused a slight shudder of the ship, but not too bad. It was enough to wake Ismay, though. He went out and inquired about what had happened. He went to the Bridge for the first time during the voyage and saw Captain Smith. Ismay asked, "Do you think that this ship is seriously damaged?" "I'm afraid she is", was the reply. That was enough for him. The order was given to rouse the passengers and lower the lifeboats. Ismay never bothered to into something warmer. I think that as the Managing Director of the White Star Line and one of the guys that came up with the idea, he felt some responsibility. He stayed on deck, helping women and children into the lifeboats and lowering away. He got so passionate in fact, that 5th Officer Lowe, not realizing who he was, harshly rebuked him and told him to stand back. Ismay continued following the officers, often Murdoch, and helping with the loading and lowering throughout the sinking. Now we've come to the point which is most controversial, Ismay's escape. It was 1:40 A.M. and Collapsible C, the last lifeboat on the Starboard side began its descent. The details, unfortunately, are not clear. Some said that the deck was clear and that there were no other passengers. Others said that there was a lot of people and that there was panic. I have always found it hard to believe that with all these stories of panic and with so many left on board, that the deck would be empty with the lowering of the second to last boat on that side with water 1-2 decks below. Jack Thayer mentioned a mass of people around the boat and so did Hugh Woolner. I think that they are right, despite other claims including those of Ismay. There may have been no other passengers (or women or children) in sight, but I find it difficult to believe that there were NO people around the boat. They began to lower the boat and as they lowered it, Ismay and another 1st class passenger, William Carter, got in. Carter from the get go said that they were asked to get in. Ismay on the other hand didn't say so at the inquiries but did admit privately that he was asked. Rowe said he didn't see them talking with any of the officers, but with all the confusion and voices it would be difficult to hear someone at that distance unless they yelled. Lightoller said that on the Carpathia (the rescue ship), Ismay told him, "Women and children went down, I should have gone down too." With this in mind, I think we can picture the scenario. Ismay was standing there, watching the boat go with Carter right beside him. Suddenly, a voice behind them says, "There are no more women on board this ship." Carter said that Wilde told them, "You can get in if you help row." Lightoller described Chief Officer Wilde as a big, powerful chap and the type of man that didn't argue long. Ismay and Carter, believing that the men could justifiably get into the lifeboat and following Wilde's orders, got in as Collapsible C was being lowered. Ismay rowed throughout the night. He looked back once at the Titanic, but then turned away and didn't look back again. He later said at the inquiry that he didn't care to see her go down. On board the Carpathia, Ismay, who already was a sort of reclusive type person, was so shaken up by the tragedy that he was given a room and hated when anyone bothered him. He left all the decisions up to Captain Rostron. He did, however, arrange via the wireless telegraph for a ship to be ready to take the crew back to England. When he got to America, however, he was issued a subpoena and ordered to remain in America for the duration of the Inquiry. Ismay was called to testify and did on days 1 and 11 in the American Inquiry. He was in fact the first one to testify. He later testified at the British Inquiries on days 16 and 17. In America, one man ruined his reputation forever. His name was Randolph Hearst and he was the newspaper magnate. He was a man who hated Englishmen and with such a sensational story as the Titanic tragedy, Hearst couldn't help targeting the one man he could blame and not be lamblasted due to accusing a man who died a hero (like Smith or Andrews) of being at fault. That one man he could blame was J. Bruce Ismay and he did so without mercy. He even nicknamed him, "J. Brute Ismay". He was portrayed as a coward that snuck into a lifeboat like a rat. He sold many newspapers and profited off Ismay's reputation's demise. The British Inquiry and people, on the other hand, was more lenient. The British Inquiry in speaking about Ismay said that if he had died, he would have been just another name on the list of the dead. That is true, considering that he took no woman or child's place. If I may add to that, he also provided some valuable and interesting facts that we likely wouldn't have if he had died that night. Ismay, after he retired, almost never spoke of the Titanic. He did write to Marian Thayer who was also on the Titanic, but his wife prohibited the mention of the Titanic in his presence. Apparently, the tragedy had affected him so much it was better to forget it than relive it. He donated his own money to help the victims of the Titanic disaster and still led a public life afterwards, serving on various boards, but was more withdrawn. It is a mistake to assume that he became a recluse because of the Titanic disaster. He was always that way. He was forced because of his job to be more public and social. The Titanic disaster probably did probably make him more anti-social, though. My conclusion is that he was a hero. He did make a bit of a nuisance of himself during the voyage and sinking of the Titanic. However, his intentions were good. He was simply the victim of circumstance. The portrayal of him in the numerous Titanic films have all been wrong and have made him out to be a cowardly fiend and scoundrel. The Ismay I see historically was a bit of an anti-social man who hid it from public view and was genuinely a kind-hearted man when you got to know him. Because of Hollywood, I don't think Ismay's career will ever recover. However, I hope that one day more people will realize his honorable and dutiful actions during the sinking and justifiable rescue.