The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

25. Collapsible A and a Suicide

As soon as Collapsible C was lowered a distance to the sea now shortened from 75 feet to less than 10 Murdoch climbed onto the roof of the officers' quarters and assisted in the struggle to free Collapsible A. Sixth Officer Moody was still with him, along with a party from the crew and volunteer passengers, including Colonel Gracie; Lightoller and more men were now working to free Collapsible B. No. A was shoved down onto the boatdeck, and attached to the davit; it was the third boat to use the same tackle and Murdoch hurried to straighten the falls before the Titanic vanished beneath him. The sea was now just below the bridge.

Somewhere between the lowering of No. C and the last, futile effort to lower No. A, the night's third shooting incident occurred. One of the deck officers thanked male passengers standing by for their assistance, then apparently stepped back against the officers' quarters and shot himself. Versions of exactly what happened vary, but there were two independent witnesses.

Third Class Passenger Eugene Daly, in a letter to his sister published in the Daily Telegraph on May 4, 1912, described an officer threatening the crowd of men on the boatdeck with a revolver and then shooting two men (dead) who had tried to board the last boat (No. C); there was then a third shot and Daly saw the man's body lying on the deck. He did not see this shooting, only its effect. There were at the time, he remembered, no boats left. Daly's letter is laconic; given his own peril at the moment, he was not particularly interested. He swam away, and ultimately reached a collapsible.

Eugene Daly (Phil Gowan).

First Class Passenger George Rheims wrote to Madame Rheims in France on April 19, 1912, and described witnessing the suicide. Rheims had already lept into the sea on the starboard side, and had an unobstructed view; he, too, reached one of the collapsibles. His detailed letter has a particular Continental touch: Rheims approved of the act, clearly regarding it as a demonstration of elan. The letter remained unknown until discovered by the late Rustie Brown and published in The Titanic, The Psychic And The Sea.

Both Daly and Rheims are worthy of belief. Neither had a motive to invent or was interested in self advertisement. (Daly's comment about the men on the deck whom he assumed were dead would be consistent with men throwing themselves down.) The difficulty then lies in establishing who among the four who did not survive had chosen this manner of exit.

Dr. Washington Dodge, Sr., saved by being allowed into No. 13 by Murdoch, would be quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 19, 1912, as an eyewitness to the incident; he would identify the officer involved as Murdoch. However, in his speech of May 11, 1912, before the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, Dr. Dodge commented disfavorably upon newspapers printing statements attributed to either himself or Mrs. Dodge which they had never made. Only one thing he was reported to have said was accurate, Dr. Dodge said; unfortunately, he did not identify which one. Witnessing the suicide can be ruled out, however, as No. 13 was launched at approximately 1:25 am and was too far away by the time of the shooting for anyone to have seen the decks clearly.

Newspapers had occasionally attributed the suicide to Captain Smith, but that version was not popular and was buried in a welter of counter stories granting the Captain an assortment of heroic ends. Captains had shot themselves the commander of the German liner Prinzessin Victoria Luise had done so when she ran aground off Jamaica in 1906, even though her passengers suffered no hardship worse than a hotel room in Kingston but this particular custom was rare in Great Britain. The only other officer who might logically be assigned a motive was Murdoch, the rationale being that as Officer of the Watch he blamed himself for the tragedy. This theory was assisted by crew gossip immediately following the sinking.

French paper L'Excelsior, 20 April 1912, drawing
by Paul Thiriat, depicts Captain Smith's
alleged suicide. (8.)

First Class Saloon Steward Thomas Whiteley fell overboard and was picked up by a lifeboat which sometime in the night tied up with No. 6, which held both Fleet and Lee. His observations were printed on Page 1 of the New York Times on April 21, 1912, under the dramatic headline "Alarm From Lookout Ignored, Sailor Says". The subhead, in slightly smaller print, was "Officer on Titanic's Bridge Had Warning of the Iceberg From The Crow's Nest". This was true enough, but the article went on to assert that Murdoch had received the warning 15 minutes before the collision. Whiteley reported overhearing Fleet and Lee discussing warnings to the bridge, a conversation of increasing warmth in which one of them stated he had not only advised the First Officer 15 minutes prior to the collision that he "fancied" he saw an iceberg but that he had warned Murdoch twice more in that time period that there was a berg ahead. Whiteley described both men as indignant and then quoted one as saying: "No wonder that Mr. Murdoch shot himself".

That Fleet and Lee were discussing the iceberg rehearsing their story would be a more accurate description is not unlikely, but the multiple warnings were fiction. By the time Fleet testified under oath before the United States Senate, he had forgotten all about this 15 minute running commentary on the ice ahead; perhaps there were too many witnesses from the bridge still alive who would have disagreed. The remainder of Whiteley's interview is a garbled melange of stories obviously picked up on the Carpathia, including the allegation that Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon had bribed the crew of No. 1 to lower prior to the officer's command.

Whiteley's story is useless except for two things: it demonstrates the great fear conceived by Fleet and Lee that they would be blamed, and it suggests that the belief that Murdoch had shot himself was first expressed while the survivors were still in the boats. But this immediately raises the same problem as No. 13: Fleet and Lee were sent away in No. 6, lowered from the port side at approximately 12:55 am, under the command of Quartermaster Hichens. At 12:55 am, William Murdoch was very much alive. Hichens appears from the testimony of nearly everyone in No. 6 to have panicked once in the ocean, and directed the lifeboat rowed as far as possible from the sinking liner. Thus, by time and distance (and by being on the wrong side of the Titanic) Fleet and Lee could have known nothing about anyone's suicide.

From where then did Fleet or Lee obtain their certainty? The most likely probability is that they inferred Murdoch's identity when they heard the suicide discussed on the Carpathia and that Whiteley, who misconstrued so much, misidentified the location of this particular statement also.

Fleet and Lee must have been weak with relief to learn that Murdoch was dead; their desperation to avoid being held responsible cannot be overestimated. Lee told British Consul General Walter Bennett in New York (who repeated it to the New York Times on April 26, 1912) that a haze on the horizon prevented the lookout men from seeing the iceberg sooner. Unlike Fleet, Lee lacked the gift of knowing when to stop, and stuck to his "haze" while under oath in London one of the reasons Lord Mersey ordered his testimony stricken. Neither Fleet nor Lee are reliable when not testifying with a perjury statute in force (in Lee's case, not even with one) and can be disregarded insofar as the suicide is concerned.

Whiteley was a fruitful source but would be displaced from the newspapers when the Senate hearings provided more accurate information. The Sacramento Bee on April 19, 1912, page 2, quoted him as clinging to Collapsible B (which puts Whiteley in two different lifeboats); his description of the shooting on board was succinct:

"There was a bit of panic when it [Titanic's first lunge into the sea] first happened. The officers had to use their revolvers. The Chief Officer shot one man I did not see this but three others did and then shot himself."

The Sacramento Bee, at the end of the transcontinental railway over 3,000 miles from New York, was dependent on the wire services and the big eastern dailies for news on the Titanic until local residents who had survived arrived back in California. On April 18, 1912, the Bee had cautiously noted in its Page 1 coverage that "sensational rumors" from passengers unwilling to give their names, whom the paper described as "hysterical", were crediting revolver shots heard shortly before the end to suicide by the Captain, the First Officer, or the Chief Engineer, among other possibilities; the rumors were assigned the careful newspaper category of "unconfirmed". But Whiteley was willing to be a named source, and was nothing if not precise. He sounded plausible.

The "three others" remain anonymous, and the reference to the Chief Officer frustratingly ambiguous: did Whiteley mean Murdoch, as so many did when they spoke of the Chief Officer, or did he mean, correctly, Henry Wilde? Apparently, no one asked him. Worth noting, however, is the fact that the Bee the day before printing Whiteley's interview had identified Murdoch's rank correctly. Whoever Whiteley meant, the Bee would mean Wilde.

Robert Williams Daniel, 1915, courtesy
the National Archives and Records
Administration/Mike Poirier (8.)

There is one other purported witness who was quite sure Murdoch was the officer involved. First Class passenger Robert Williams Daniel was a Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia, banker who moved in the highest American social circles; he was a friend of John Jacob Astor, and when Astor was not among the survivors Vincent Astor went to Daniel at the Waldorf Astoria, searching for information on his father's last hours. Reporters from the New York Times were right behind Vincent Astor.

On April 20, 1912, Daniel's vivid memories were printed on page 6. He had remained to the end, he said, and gave an eerie reality to the last moments on the boatdeck: "It didn't seem to me that we were sinking, but the waters seemed rising up over us." Then he jumped, struggling among the ice floes until rescued. He was articulate and adamant; it was Murdoch, he said, who had shot himself in the temple:

"I was not more than ten feet away. I do not believe the stories that Capt. Smith ended his life. He stuck to his post to the last. He was a brave man."

The contradiction is clear: if Daniel knew it was the First Officer who had shot himself then he would not need to state a "belief" that Captain Smith had not done so. Either Smith did or did not and Daniel, from ten feet away, should have been able to say so with certainty. Smith and Murdoch could not have been mistaken one for the other. Perhaps Daniel did see the suicide, or perhaps he did not; it is clear, however, that he did not know the officer. He connected Murdoch's name with the incident almost certainly because he heard it proposed on the Carpathia.

The New York Times printed the interview but a reporter added a curious observation. At a time when survivors were being lauded for heroism and self sacrifice, and the dead were receiving lavish praise, a stinging sentence was aimed at a man who had, after all, said he had gone down with the ship and behaved with self discipline:

"Mr. Daniel seemed little the worse for his experience, and in the afternoon entertained a score or more of his friends at the Waldorf." (Copyright 1912 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by kind permission.)

The disdain is obvious. Something in the man's manner aroused the hostility of the press and encouraged disbelief.