Mischief, Murder, and the Crooked Hinge

Back in April, I had a friendly email from David Bibb, who was reading my Rough Guide to the Titanic. He took issue with my comment in the introduction that “the evidence suggests that [the Titanic disaster] faded from prominence with the coming of the Great War”.

As well as echoing received wisdom about the Titanic’s place in history, I was thinking of an assertion by the doyen of Titanic authors, Walter Lord. In his book The Night Lives On, Lord wrote that “From 1913 to 1955” – which is to say, before his own  A Night To Remember – “not a single book was published about the disaster”.

The Titanic story certainly didn’t disappear from popular consciousness during those years, however. As my own book makes clear, full-length Titanic movies were released in 1929, 1943 and 1953; countless popular songs re-told the tale; and it figured in all sorts of plays and novels.

Funnily enough, I’ve just stumbled across The Crooked Hinge, written by American author John Dickson Carr in 1937, and hailed by Martin Amis among others as a classic of detective fiction. My wife bought it a few weeks ago, because she’s currently writing a book about Kent, and it happens to be set in Kent. It’s an “impossible crime” mystery, which centres on two boys who may or may not have swapped identities aboard the Titanic as she was sinking. Twenty-five years later, one turns up to claim the inheritance that the other has already received. Murder swiftly ensues . . .

The Crooked Hinge is an entertaining romp, so I don’t want to give away its truly bizarre solution, as painstakingly worked out by amateur sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell. One thing that struck me, though, with my Titanorak hat on, was that I don’t think any modern novelist would get away with getting the details of the disaster quite so wrong.

It doesn’t bother me that Mr Carr strayed far beyond the confines of truth. I just think crime writers couldn’t do it these days, when – thanks to Walter Lord, James Cameron, and many others – their readers would probably know so much more.

To buy the book from Amazon in the US, click here; from Amazon UK, click here.

Did anyone really think the Titanic was unsinkable?

Whether the Titanic was unsinkable was settled once and for all on April 15, 1912. A hundred years later, however, two related issues are still being debated. Did her makers, the White Star Line, claim that she was unsinkable? And did the world at large – and above all, her passengers – believe her to be unsinkable?

The Olympic and Titanic under construction, Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast.

Only the faintest of pre-tragedy references to the Titanic’s supposed unsinkability have been discovered. Describing the system of watertight compartments used in both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, a 1911 White Star Line brochure explained how in the event of an accident the captain could close the watertight doors, thereby “practically making the vessel unsinkable”.

In the Shipbuilder magazine, later that year, the crucial phrase was truncated to become “practically unsinkable”. Far from singling out the Titanic, however, the author referred to such watertight compartments as being “usual in White Star Lines”.

On the very day that the Titanic sank, the word “unsinkable” seemed to rise to the surface. The man largely responsible was White Star vice president Philip A.S. Franklin. When the first rumours of the sinking reached New York, he responded “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable”. He later told the New York Times “I thought her unsinkable, and I based [my] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it”.

Philip A.S. Franklin (left) and J. Bruce Ismay (right) during the US inquiry into the disaster.

The arrogance of imagining any ship to be unsinkable tied in perfectly with the notion of the Titanic being destroyed by hubris. Early reports of the disaster were peppered with the word, and survivors swiftly started to use the term. Less than a month later, White Star’s president J. Bruce Ismay, who had himself survived the sinking, testified at the British inquiry that “I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself”. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who was on the deck of the Titanic as her fate became horribly apparent, described the male passengers as seeking to “reassure the ladies” by repeating “the much advertised fiction of ‘the unsinkable ship’”.

In his stimulating book, The Myth of the Titanic, author Richard Howells concluded that the idea was “an essentially retrospective invention”. He argued that the Olympic was all but identical to the Titanic, built in the same shipyard at the same time. The Olympic sailed on her maiden voyage less than a year before the Titanic, on the same route and even with the same captain.

At no time however was the Olympic hailed as being unsinkable; only the Titanic became known as the “unsinkable ship”, precisely because she did in fact sink. No one would dispute that the Titanic’s passengers, and for that matter her captain and crew, thought they were aboard an exceptionally safe ship. Few appreciated that she was in fact considerably less safe than such predecessors as the Great Eastern.

While that over-confidence may not have caused the collision itself – racing at breakneck speeds towards dangerous icefields was pretty much standard practice at the time – it did ultimately cost lives, because it was surely the main reason why so few passengers came forward to board the earliest lifeboats.

Only once the Titanic sank, perhaps, did people realise quite how invulnerable they had imagined themselves to be, a blind faith they then simply articulated by using that one small word – “unsinkable”.

All text © Greg Ward

Top Ten Titanic toe-tappers no. 2: Down with the Old Canoe

Here’s the second selection from my top ten Titanic songs Down WIth The Old Canoe, recorded by the Dixon Brothers in 1938. Listen to it by clicking on the image below.

While it’s often said that the Titanic disaster was seen as divine retribution for the arrogance of building an “unsinkable” ship, actual expressions of that belief are surprisingly hard to find.  This song, though, a bluegrass duet by two brothers from South Carolina, states it loud and clear.

The Dixon Brothers start by mentioning that “It was 25 years ago”, but they probably adapted the song from a previous version. They then tell their terrible tale, that “Many passengers and her crew went down with that old canoe / They all went down to never rise no more”.

After explaining that “this great ship was built by man, that is why she could not stand”, they move on to use the disaster as an explicit warning to their listeners: “Your Titanic sails today”, and “if you go on in your sin”, you too will “go down with that old canoe”.

You can buy it on the wonderful box set People Take Warning, a compendium of musical mayhem and murder from the early twentieth century. The three separate CDs are categorized as Man vs Machine, which encompasses the Titanic, some tangled and tormented trains, and other transport-related tragedies; Man vs Nature, which is largely weather-related but also covers fires and explosions; and Man vs Man, a catalogue of horrible homicides and heart-breaking homilies.

Author Steven Biel used the title Down With The Old Canoe for his groundbreaking and hugely enjoyable cultural history of the Titanic disaster, a new edition of which is due to appear soon.

Mind over Matter – a Titanic survivor’s story

An American first-class passenger, the redoubtable Colonel Archibald Gracie, wrote the single most dramatic eyewitness account of the Titanic disaster. In his rip-roaring memoir, he described being dragged beneath the waters with the sinking ship, then fighting his way to the surface and onto an upturned lifeboat.

He told his story for  the first time in the Washington Times of April 19, 1912 – the morning after the survivors reached New York. The tone is typically florid: “Emotions never before experienced by man thrilled me as I stood there and felt the great ship trembling”. Amid his tributes to the heroism of all concerned, though, we get the occasional glimpse of repressed panic: “only in rare instances was it necessary for the officers to use force to prevent frenzied men from pushing aside women”.

In his book, Gracie complemented his own experiences with extensive interviews with his fellow passengers, to create a full narrative of the night’s events. Attributing his survival to “mind over matter”, he wrote that in the ship’s final moments,“I questioned myself as to the performance of my religious duties”. He then decided: “God helps those who help themselves; I should have only courted the fate of many hundreds of others had I supinely made no effort to supplement my prayers with all the strength and power which He has granted to me.”

In a public talk on November 24, 1912, Gracie denounced inaccurate newspaper reports of the tragedy. “The terrible phase [sic] of the wreck was that it would go down in history in the way the papers had pictured it”. He insisted for example that the Titanic’s band did not play Nearer My God To Thee, and had stopped playing long before the ship finally sank.

Sadly, Gracie died just ten days later, from the lingering effects of his ordeal. His book, The Truth About the Titanic, was published posthumously the next year.