"It's only a legend."
That's the generally held opinion regarding the old story that - in order to save his own life - an unidentified man disguised himself as a woman in order to secure a place in one of the Titanic's lifeboats. But is the above story really just a legend?
No, it isn't.
As is the case with several other so-called "legends" surrounding the Titanic tragedy, the "man dressed as a woman" story is based on a true incident. In fact, it may well be based on any (or all) of THREE separate incidents involving three different men who used the art of deception in order to survive the sinking of the Titanic. Although none of the men in question went to the extreme length of donning a woman's dress in order to find a place in a lifeboat, the measures that these men DID resort to were identical in nature and resulted in their being mistaken for women - which permitted each of them to enter a lifeboat unchallenged (or remain in the boat unnoticed.)
Let us examine the facts connected with each incident.
Daniel Buckley was a young Irishman who was travelling to America in the Titanic's steerage section. After the collision Buckley went up to the boat deck and stood near several of the ship's lifeboats while they were loaded with passengers and lowered away.
During the latter stages of the sinking a big crowd of men was standing on the Titanic's boat deck while the "sixth lifeboat" was being prepared for lowering. When a number of these men attempted to save themselves by jumping into the boat, Daniel Buckley decided to take his chances and jumped into the boat with them.
Suddenly two officers approached the lifeboat escorting a large number of steerage passengers of both sexes. The two officers ordered those men already in the boat to get out of it again in order to make room for the ladies. Most of the men seem to have complied with the officers' order, but half-a-dozen firemen and sailors refused to leave the boat and remained where they were. Buckley decided to remain in the boat with them, and - as he told his parents in a letter written on board the Carpathia on April 18th - "...I hid in the lower part of the boat."
Buckley's later testimony at the Senate Inquiry revealed what happened next: "I was crying. There was a woman in the boat, and she had thrown her shawl over me, and she told me to stay in there. I believe she was Mrs. Astor. Then they did not see me, and the boat was lowered down into the water, and we rowed away out from the steamer."
At the Senate Titanic Inquiry Senator William Alden Smith was interrogating Fifth Officer Lowe regarding Lowe's participation in the evacuation of the Titanic. Lowe, who had been in charge of lifeboat #14, told Senator Smith that his boat contained fifty-eight people, and the senator asked him if all of these people had been women:
Fifth Officer Lowe told Senator Smith how he had begun transferring people from his own lifeboat into several other boats so that he could row back to the scene of the sinking and attempt to pick up survivors. Lowe then described how he had come to discover the man in question.
Edward Ryan was another young Irishman who boarded the Titanic at Queenstown in the hope of starting a new life in America. Ryan was one of the few steerage passengers lucky enough to survive the sinking of the Titanic, and on May 6, 1912 he wrote a letter to his parents telling them the manner in which his life had been spared:
"I stood on the Titanic and kept cool, although she was sinking fast. She had gone down about forty feet by now. The last boat was about being rowed away when I thought in a second if I could only pass out [i.e. get into the boat] I'd be all right. I had a towel round my neck. I just threw this over my head and left it hang in the back. I wore my waterproof overcoat. I then walked very stiff past the officers, who had declared they'd shoot the first man that dare pass out. They didn't notice me. They thought I was a woman. I grasped a girl who was standing by in depair, and jumped with her thirty feet into the boat."
The above three incidents comprise the best proof imagineable that the so-called "legend" of the man who dressed as a woman is based on fact instead of fiction. Two of the men in question freely admitted that a shawl (or a suitable substitute) was instrumental in permitting each of them to find (or keep) a seat in a lifeboat. The third incident involved the Fifth Officer's own discovery of another man who was wearing (once again) a shawl. Clearly the Titanic's boat deck was so poorly lit that night that a shawl-like head covering altered a man's appearance just enough to disarm the suspicion of crewmen already preoccupied with filling the lifeboats with women and children.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that either Daniel Buckley or Ed Ryan might have been the man whom Fifth Officer Lowe discovered wearing a shawl in boat #14; if true, this would mean that there were actually only two men (instead of three) who used the "shawl ploy" in order to find places in the Titanic's lifeboats. Even so, the fact that AT LEAST two men unquestionably survived the Titanic disaster by resorting to the above ruse should demonstrate to historians that the "legend" of a man who disguised himself as a woman is based solidly on fact.