The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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After Murdoch's death the Dalbeattie Town Council held a meeting that decided to erect a memorial to William, even before the outcome of the Board of Trade Inquiry. Additionally, the Council set up the Murdoch Memorial Prize fund paying £4 a year to the Dalbeattie school as a prize for the best 14-year-old scholar, later the ‘Junior Dux’.
The Dalbeattie memorial tablet reads:
"This tablet is erected to commemorate the heroism displayed by Lieut. William McMaster Murdoch R.N.R a native of Dalbeattie. When, on her maiden voyage, the R.M.S. Titanic of which he was first officer collided with an iceberg and sank and 815 of her passengers and 688 of her crew including Lieutenant Murdoch perished, 14th and 15th April, 1912.
A memorial prize is also to be competed for annually in Dalbeattie Public School where Lieutenant Murdoch was educated."
The Dalbeattie Apology
Mr. Richard Edkins, a resident of Dalbeattie, Murdoch’s hometown, began creating a website in 1998 in response to James Cameron’s portrayal of Murdoch.
In it he states:
“The recent release in the United Kingdom of the Cameron production of ‘Titanic’ has put before the public the remarkable construction
of this ship and its still more incredible final resting place. It has yet again brought the actions of her crew under public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this
has also perpetuated myths about the principal officers such as Captain Smith and his First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The film has incorrectly
portrayed Murdoch as a man who committed suicide by shooting himself for being responsible for the collision. The writer trusts that this account will set
forth the truth about a very worthy seaman.” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.))
A ‘catch-phrase’ used throughout the website are the words of Commodore Sir Bertram Hayes, of the White Star Line, who reputedly said: “William Murdoch
was our brightest star”. The site contains a wealth of information regarding almost every aspect of Murdoch’s history, particularly his early life, some of
which has been used in this document, courtesy of Mr. Edkins. Those desiring to gain further insight into Murdoch and his hometime are urged to take a look
In private correspondence to me (15 April, 2003) he wrote in summary:
"I am not myself a Murdoch, but lived in Dalbeattie since 1988 and felt dismay at the portrayal of the town's most famous son. Also rage
at the treatment (ignoring his letters) given to William's nephew Scott Murdoch by Cameron. However, I enjoy the music of the film, even though I deplore
the incompetence of the plot. Cameron had very little understanding of the mindset of Edwardian Britain, for which he deserves censure."
Samuel Scott Murdoch
Among those calling for an apology is First Officer William Murdoch's nephew, Samuel Scott Murdoch (who passed away in August 2010). Concerned that the film will tarnish his uncle's
reputation, he was quoted by the BBC News as saying: "From my own family connections and also from my father having spoken to various officers who survived
-he didn't commit suicide... If someone says to you somebody in the family committed suicide when he hadn't, you take objection." (Source)
It must also be said that Mr. Edkin’s ‘Friends of Murdoch’ web-site is part of a much larger ‘information centre’ entitled the “Dalbeattie Domain,”
promoting Dalbeattie’s various features and history and containing maps and information on hotels, restaurants and wildlife. Rather than a site devoted
to gaining the truth about Murdoch and analysing information from an impartial viewpoint, geographic status has unfortunately created a bias, completely
ruling out even the possibility that Murdoch may have committed suicide. While a worthy endeavour with a vast, comprehensive account, Mr. Edkins displays a
definite prejudice in reviewing any factors or evidence, while his overall knowledge of some details regarding Titanic is also questionable. It is thus
strongly urged that in the light of insufficient evidence that readers maintain an open mind when reviewing this site, or the related newspaper articles discussing the town's Titanic connection and recent 'apologies'.
20th Century Fox Apologise?
One of the key objectives of Mr. Edkin’s site was to receive some form of apology for Murdoch’s portrayal and in this they have partially succeeded.
Alistair Morgan, MP and lawmaker in Dalbeattie, wrote a letter to the makers of James Cameron's Titanic requesting an apology. Scott Neeson, executive vice
president for 20th Century Fox, replied that “Officer Murdoch was a decent, responsible and very human hero and should remain a source of pride for
Dalbeattie, and in the memories of all who know of his life,” but stopped short of a ‘full apology’.
On the 15th of April 1998, Mr. Neeson traveled to Dalbeattie and met with Samuel Scott Murdoch. A cheque for £5,000 was handed over as compensation
for the ‘distress’ felt and the money used to fund new computers and a memorial board at Dalbeattie High School, the remainder administered by Stewartry
Educational Trust, funding two Murdoch Memorial Trust prizes. A silver tray was presented to the school also. There were several media releases regarding
this, both from print media journalists and the broadcast media, presenting it as if Twentieth Century Fox had made a full apology for their portrayal of
However no real ‘full apology’ was ever made. Mr. Neeson said publicly of Murdoch that “he really was a hero in real life” and “we apologise for any
distress caused to his relatives and to the town of Dalbeattie” but no retraction of the way in which the character was depicted, except that “there is no
irrefutable link” between the screen character and the historical character, to which Mr. Edkins responded: “Something as simple as ‘Sorry, folks, - we got
it wrong, - here’s some money to help the Murdoch Memorial Prize Fund’ would be far better than ‘no irrefutable link’”. He also writes in his website:
“In all honesty, I have to say that Mr. Neeson and his colleague were very polite, and apparently are well aware of this site. However,
the film company have yet to say that they (or, rather, Cameron) were wrong to portray William McMaster Murdoch in the way that they did. The video is going
to be released this September, but without any kind of apology to the relatives of William Murdoch in its credits. I can only say that I find this to
be a very poor-spirited action, as an amendment to the credits would probably be less expensive than a ‘Director's Cut’…
“It is fairly plain that 20th Century Fox are trying to pass off the half apology as a complete one, and this is not good news… reports
coming in from various international press agencies, - as read by my correspondents, - read as if we had scored a complete victory. In fact, the victory is
only one battle, and the war is not won. Linda Kirkwood was correct to remark that the ‘apology’ was liable to be forgotten within three or four years, for
the film would go on being shown unchanged….
“Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox will only gain beneficial publicity, if they incorporate an honest and honorable apology within the
first part of the film and video credits… Fox are still going to release the video in September 1998 without any kind of apology in the credits.” (Richard
Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic (1.))
As far as the ‘Friends of Murdoch’ are concerned, “an absolute and unconditional apology is really required. Something that leaves ‘maybe’ hanging in the
air, is really inadequate”. They are unsatisfied with Neeson’s “half-apology”. To gain complete “victory” they are demanding that the
film’s credits have some form of retraction, even requesting the sending of letters to put “pressure” on the studio to issue a disclaimer that Cameron “got
it wrong”. Such an inclusion is highly unlikely however.
It is debatable whether the film’s credits require any alteration when they already contain this disclaimer: “This motion picture is inspired by
historical events. However, certain of the characters, events and dialogue portrayed in the motion picture were created for the purpose of fictitious
dramatization, and any similarity to any person living today is purely coincidental and unintentional.”
With talk regarding a possible “director’s cut” (although later dismissed by Cameron) Mr. Edkins wrote:
“I have been informed that the addition to the film of a quarter-hour explaining the difference between the fact and the fiction about
Murdoch will be delayed for THREE YEARS. By that time, about 800-900 million Chinese may have seen the incorrect version, and Fox will have made more
billions out of the film… By that time, all but the better-informed watchers of the film and the video will believe Murdoch to have been a villain.”
(Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic)
Has Cameron apologised?
In July 2004, according to several newspaper articles, James Cameron 'apologised' for his depiction stating that he has "come to a
realisation that it was probably a mistake to portray a specific person." The so-called apology took place when James Cameron was awarded an
honorary doctorate from Southampton University to recognise his contribution through film to marine science and maritime archaeology.
While touring the Southampton Oceanography Centre, Mr Cameron apparently admitted retrospectively that if he had made the movie again he would have changed some aspects. He then said the following:
"I think I have come to the realisation that it was probably a mistake to portray a specific person... He (First Officer Murdoch) has a family - some surviving family - and they took exception to that, and I think rightly so."
-James Cameron, Film Director
However, this certainly cannot be refered to as an apology as it contains such speculative and indecisive terminology such as "I think" and "probably". And most importantly we must remember that Mr. Cameron is a film director, not a historian,
and his comment certainly does not change the historical fact that whether First Officer William Murdoch committed suicide or not is unknown -there is not enough evidence to prove either line of theory.
So even if he feels it was a little dangerous to portray the First Officer as shooting passengers and himself in his film, based on some eyewitness testimony, it still remains a possibility that it in fact really did happen.
George Behe’s “Dalbeattie Defense”
Rather ironically, Richard Edkin’s Murdoch website itself has caused some controversy, especially among some ardent Titanic enthusiasts. As already pointed out, there are, unfortunately, some aspects that were found to be less than convincing and one of the first to
realise this was author George Behe, who posted his response in the form of a monograph entitled First Officer Murdoch and the Dalbeattie Defense (located
in Behe’s Titanic Titbits web-site (11.)).
Behe states that Edkin’s “website undoubtedly contains useful biographical information” but the documentation regarding “a supposed non-suicide death for
Murdoch is inaccurate at best and downright false at worst” and he urges readers to “exercise a great deal of caution”. As a means of “defense,” Behe
systematically analyses each point of “disinformation” He writes: “This task has been rendered difficult in that the information which purportedly
‘documents’ the non-suicide death of Titanic's First Officer is scattered far and wide across the Murdoch website. Indeed, it is this very scattering that
makes the information so difficult to ferret out, since a single dubious ‘fact’ hidden within a string of otherwise reliable information will remain
unnoticed by most people and will probably be accepted by them as being true”.
Many of the points raised and analysed by Behe have already been included in this website. But it must be emphasised that Behe states that his
objective was not to “prove” Murdoch’s suicide but to correct “disinformation”. In fact, in conclusion, he writes: “Although the present author does not
know if First Officer Murdoch took his own life during the sinking of the Titanic, I can at least understand why the thought of doing so might have crossed
However, Richard Edkins, in referring to Behe’s work, rather unfairly says that it ‘abuses Murdoch’ despite the fact that Behe explains he “does not know” and
his aim has never been to prove the alleged suicide.