Whether an officer shot men before committing suicide in the final stages of Titanic’s sinking, or who that officer may have been, will probably never be known with certainty, at least not without the discovery of more eyewitness information. There is just not enough hard, factual, reliable data available to make any concrete determinations about the incident, much less about who may have been involved. Many of the people who would have witnessed the suicide if it occurred, or witnessed how the officers met their fate, perished in the disaster. Very few that were on the ship during the loading and lowering/attempted lowering of the collapsible boats lived to tell their story.
One does not envy the situation of the crewmembers who were working to get Collapsibles C and D, and later, Collapsible A, launched at the last minute, as water rapidly approached the Boat Deck, with well over a thousand still on board. Collapsible C got away from the starboard side just fifteen minutes before the Boat Deck plunged under, and when Collapsible D was lowered away shortly thereafter, the Boat Deck on the port side was just ten feet above the water, due to the 10˚ port list that had developed. During the attempted launch of Collapsible A between 2:00 to 2:15 a.m., water approached, and eventually reached the Boat Deck.
At Collapsible C on the starboard side, it is reported that there had been a rush of men during the loading, and First Officer Murdoch had to fire shots to control the situation, with the men being pulled out, and women and children being loaded aboard. Although the exact circumstances are unclear, Chief Officer Wilde and Second Officer Lightoller may have had to do the same when men pushed their way into Collapsible D, and the crewmembers then linked arms to prevent another rush on the boat ahead of the remaining women and children.
According to Colonel Gracie’s testimony at the US Inquiry, there was a mass of humanity, most likely steerage passengers, which came up from below deck at the last minute, only to find the sea near, and nearly all of the boats gone. This crowd included women and children. Scullion John Collins agreed with this, and testified in the Senate Inquiry that there were “hundreds on the starboard side” during the attempted launch of Collapsible A. Saloon Steward Edward Brown testified in the British Inquiry that there were four or five women waiting to get into that collapsible, and that as the water came onto the boat deck, there was a “scramble” amongst the passengers to get into the boat.
One can easily imagine how the situation at any of these three boats could have escalated to the point where shots needed to be fired to prevent the women and children from being crowded out, and to ensure that the boats could be lowered away safely, or in the case of Collapsible A, to prevent people from getting in the way of the efforts to cut the falls that fastened the collapsible to the sinking ship. By the time these boats were being loaded, it was abundantly clear that the end would come in minutes, as the water came up and up. There is no way of telling for certain whether a shooting/suicide happened. What is certain is that if Collapsibles C and D had not been lowered, or if Collapsible A had not been freed, more people would have died in the sinking.
In the opinion of the authors, all of the men examined above were heroes to the end –regardless of whether any of them were forced to open fire on passengers in an attempt to restore order and to save the lives of others including women and children, and regardless of whether they did or did not take their own life. Despite any human failings that may have led to the collision itself, there is documented evidence that all of the officers helped load the lifeboats and saved many people – people who would have otherwise lost their lives. The officers and crewmembers of the Titanic did their duty until their final moments, when they could do no more.
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