The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

27. What Happened to Murdoch?

What exactly happened to William Murdoch we shall never know. He was pitched into the North Atlantic in the worst possible area, exactly where the first funnel would fall, weighted down by the revolver still in his possession and possibly still wearing the greatcoat. Whether or not he had bothered to don a lifebelt would have made no difference now. His body was not recovered.

No death certificate was issued. In due course a civil servant in the employ of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen would issue what would suffice for one, under Section 255(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. Certificate No. 131428, entitled Certified Extract from a List of Crew, listed in the multipurpose area styled "Particulars of Termination of Service" the date (April 15, 1912), the place (About Lat 41°16'N Long 50°14'W) and then under cause: "supposed drowned". It was as logical a surmise as any. Copied from the Titanic crew list, Murdoch's age was still wrong. The clerk added an error of his own: Titanic's latitude is wrong, too.

On April 24, 1912, Lightoller wrote a chilling condolence letter to Ada Murdoch, in which anguish, sympathy and anger are mingled and obvious. The letter is extremely formal and gives no hint that he knew Ada, but he would have met her if only briefly, and may well have known from Murdoch that she was displeased and anxious over her husband's transfer to the Titanic. Lightoller, enraged that the suicide rumors had affixed to Murdoch, hastened to advise his widow that they were not true. The stories had clearly reached her, and the family and friends in Scotland, or the letter would not have been forwarded to the Dumfries & Galloway Standard. On May 11, 1912, the letter appeared under the hearing "The Titanic Disaster: Tribute to Lieutenant Murdoch":

Mrs. Murdoch, the widow of the late Lieutenant Murdoch, first officer of the ill fated liner, has received the following letter: Hotel Continental, Washington, April 24th, 1912. Dear Mrs. Murdoch, I am writing on behalf of the surviving officers to express our deep sympathy in this, your awful loss. Words cannot convey our feelings much less a letter. I deeply regret that I missed communicating with you by last mail to refute the reports that were spread in the newspapers. I was practically the last man, and certainly the last officer, to see Mr. Murdoch. He was then endeavouring to launch the starboard forward collapsible boat. I had already got mine from off the top of our quarters. You will better understand when I say that I was working the port side of the ship, and Mr. Murdoch was principally engaged on the starboard side of the ship, filling and launching the boats. Having got my boat down off the top of the house, and there being no time to open it, I left it and ran across to the starboard side, still on top of the quarters. I was then practically looking down on your husband and his men. He was working hard, personally assisting, overhauling the forward boat's fall. At this moment the ship dived, and we were all in the water. Other reports as to the ending are absolutely false. Mr. Murdoch died like a man, doing his duty. Call on us without hesitation for anything we can do for you. Yours very sincerely, (Signed) C. H. Lightoller, 2d Officer; G. [sic] Groves Boxhall, 4th Officer; H. J. Pitman, 3d Officer; H. G. Lowe, 5th Officer.

Wherever else Lightoller may have been less than forthright, he was not lying here. In his anxiety to contradict the suicide rumors, Lightoller had presented Ada Murdoch an alternative of appalling disquietude. He could not tell her exactly what had killed her husband because he did not know, and what he could tell her was certain not to assuage but rather to augment distress. No one could consider such a description a comforting lie, or repeat it unless it was the truth.

Surviving officers from left: Lightoller, Lowe, Puitman and Boxhall.

Ada Murdoch's dignified gesture of sending the letter for publication was her only known public action. She may have attended the memorial service held in Southampton on April 30, 1912, but if so her presence was not recorded by the Southampton Echo. Sometime in May she was certain to have been visited by Lightoller in person; he also called on Captain and Mrs. Murdoch and the family in Dalbeattie. After such journeys of condolence, Lightoller's version of what had happened that dark April night was immovable.

On July 22, 1912, Letters of Administration for William Murdoch's estate were issued by a clerk of His Majesty's High Court of Justice, Principal Probate Registry, to Ada Florence Murdoch, the "lawful widow and relict". The ancient language of "relict" meant the survivor of a legally married couple. The paper work would have been prepared by a solicitor, and probably forwarded to her in Brittany, where she had gone to find whatever solace might be had in the company of the French.

The estate came to a respectable total: £1,141.9.6, the net value of Personal Estate set at L1,076.3.10. It was an intestate proceeding. Murdoch very clearly had had no premonitions which would have prompted him to write a Last Will and Testament.

With the closing of the estate, the legal formalities marking William McMaster Murdoch's existence as a British subject came to an end.