Did a Rumor Doom Titanic Passengers?

How one piece of misinformation sent some of the the ship's male passengers in the wrong direction, and to their probable deaths


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The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade speculates on the thinking of his grandfather during the sinking of the Titanic:

My grandfather was standing on the top starboard deck of the boat with a large group of men when a rumor went around that the men were to be taken off on the port side. Almost everyone moved across the ship. Only he and two others stayed where they were. ....

He knew the ship was in distress because it had already launched distress rockets. The drastic separation of families, so that women could be given precedence, gave him grounds to suspect that there were too few lifeboats. And if so, what more hazardous place to be than in a crowd of doomed men? By declining to follow everyone else across the ship, my grandfather improved his odds of escape considerably.

The facts support this speculation. Neither Lawrence Beesley (Wade's grandfather) nor the other men were probably aware that officers on each side of the Titanic were enforcing different policies. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, in charge of the port side, was not allowing men onboard the boats, even when they were lowered without any women or children present. First Officer William Murdoch, in command of starboard evacuation, would let men aboard rather than lower the boats with empty places.

That's why Mr. Beesley was allowed to jump. It's not clear whether Murdoch was still in charge by then, but when the CEO of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, boarded the last collapsible boat at the last moment when no more women or children were present, it was also on the starboard side.

Thus, there's a mystery in Beesley's account. Why did the rumor reverse reality, sending men to the jurisdiction that was almost certain to reject them? And how could even desperate men believe that they would be given any priority anywhere on the ship? We'll probably never know how the rumor started, but the significance of the event goes well beyond the Wade family history.

For reasons I've discussed elsewhere (see links at the top of my home page), many of the errors of the Titanic's builders and captain, tragic as they were, are understandable given assumptions of the day. The real scandal of the White Star Line was not the number of lifeboats or even the treatment of third class passengers, but the inadequate drills and planning for evacuation with the lifeboats the ship had, with technical knowledge that all officers should have known. Lightoller, for example, erroneously doubted the boats could support a full passenger load while being lowered. Three out of four passengers rescued from the Titanic abandoned ship from Murdoch's side.

More than 10 years ago, I learned at a European design conference of an emerging engineering discipline of evacuation dynamics, which helps to assure orderly movement of people in disasters. As I have suggested about the Costa Concordia, one challenge of this new discipline is that particles don't communicate and share behavior as people do. Successful rescue strategies of the future will need more sociology, anthropology, and psychology. But whether science will ever unlock the secrets of the generation and propagation of rumors -- or find ways to suppress them when so many people subscribe to conspiracy theories -- remains to be seen.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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