With remarkable gaiety, more than a little hucksterism, and the now-traditional confusion of entertainment and reality, the history and entertainment communities (to the extent that they remain separate) over the weekend marked the centenary of the icy drowning of 1,514 people.
It was to the History-History2-Learning-Science-National Geographic (and probably Oprah) channels what the World Series is to the Sporting News. It was James Cameron's chance to wring a little more money out of his fictionalized account of the event. (I have not seen that movie, out of protest. It turns out that Leonardo DiCaprio did not actually freeze to death – so much for his commitment to the role.)
The sinking of RMS Titanic 100 years ago night before last is a fascinating subject. It does not need the help of screenwriters. It stands on its own. The Hollywood - New York crowd renders it two-dimensional (even when it's in 3-D). There's so much more to it than that.
We all know the basics: on her maiden voyage from England to the U.S., Titanic, one of a modern group of ships thought to be so safely built that they needed few lifeboats because they were lifeboats unto themselves, hit an iceberg, filled with water, and sank in the cold North Atlantic. The famous and the anonymous died. A little more than one-fourth of those aboard were saved. It was a sensation.
For the last little while I've been reading about the event, not in the popular press or even in the various interpretive histories of the disaster. Instead, I've been going to a website, titanicinquiry.org, and reading the transcripts of the investigations launched by the U.S. Senate and British Board of Trade within days of the sinking. What I've found is far more interesting than anything that could be made up.
The detailed accounts, by people who were there, tell their stories right after the fact. We learn a great deal about the death of the Titanic, but also about how people witnessing the same event all see it differently, and about how people ashore can quickly, for purposes good, merely innocent or bad, create and act upon their own agendas.
For instance, one reading the transcript of the Senate investigation might suppose for awhile that its chief purpose was to find out why a telegram sent by the president of the United States to RMS Carpathia, the only ship to arrive at the scene in time to pick up survivors, went unanswered. (A friend and adviser to President William Howard Taft, Maj. Archibald Willingham Butt, had been aboard Titanic and Taft wanted to know whether he had survived. He hadn't, leading to unintentionally amusing headlines such as this one from the Washington Times of April 18, 1912: "Woman Faints When Told Butt Is Among Missing.")
But reading a little further, one discovers just how close the disaster came to not happening at all and, indeed, how little it took to sink a vessel that not without reason was thought, yes, unsinkable. On the third day of the Senate investigation, for example, a junior officer, one of the few who had survived, was questioned. He had been walking on the bridge deck on the same side as the fatal iceberg when the collision took place. The officer in charge at the time, William McMaster Murdoch, had seen the ice and ordered a hard turn. It was, of course, too late, but the glancing blow was insufficient even to awaken anyone or cause much alarm. It was barely felt at all.
The offending ice itself was not a great looming lump but instead more a low slab, what mariners call a "growler." It took a few minutes for anyone to realize that there was significant damage – only when mail sorters (the "RMS" in the ship's title stood for "Royal Mail Ship") came on deck and said the mail storage area was being flooded did Captain E.J. Smith learn there was trouble due to the collision. It was all orderly and, at the time, unbelievable. It was nothing like anything you have ever seen portrayed, unless at some point Cameron's film strayed into accidental accuracy.
The disaster almost didn't happen. A few seconds' difference in steering, a few feet difference in the location of the ice, and you and I would probably never have heard of RMS Titanic. The fast new liners were big news at the time, of course, and the shipping news column in major newspapers was among the most important and widely read features. But the only ships most of us can name are known to us only because they sank, with great loss of life: Titanic, of course, and the older but faster Cunard liner Lusitania which along with 1,198 of its passengers and crew joined Titanic in a watery grave, victim of a German torpedo, in 1915.
Titanic had sister ships, built to much the same plan. But what do you know of RMS Olympic? Or of HMHS (for "His Majesty's Hospital Ship") Britannic? The former was in service for 24 years and was scrapped in 1935; the latter, intended as a commercial steamer, was made a hospital ship with the outbreak of World War I. She hit a mine and sank in November 1916.
They were all famous in their day. But we only remember the one that sank, and most of what we remember of it is wrong.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.