While 1500 people lost their lives in the sinking, deaths continued to occur in the aftermath of the tragedy. First to die was three-year-old Eugenie
Baclini, a Lebanese immigrant who succumbed to meningitis in August of 1912, followed by Colonel Archibald Gracie who’s heath declined and he died in
December, 1912 (Illustrated History, p.222 (2.)).
Just as there is much controversy and mystery surrounding First Officer Murdoch’s death, talk of suicide also surrounded the deaths of at least 8 of the
700 survivors. Some have connected their suicides with depression, mental illness or trauma caused by personal involvement in the tragedy. Clearly, many
survivors were haunted with unrelenting images of what they saw. However, as the list below shows, there were other circumstances involved and while many
deaths after the disaster were clearly associated with deteriorating health, no suicide took place until at least seven years after the disaster:
1919 -Dr. Washington Dodge (a Murdoch suicide witness) Gunshot wound to the head due to business and investment problems (there are
claims that Dodge was murdered; though evidence seems to suggest suicide). 1927 -Dr. Henry William Frauenthal Jumped from his apartment balcony after months of depression partially resulting from the mental illness of his
wife. 1927 -Johan (John) Niskanen Gunshot wound to head and burns after he set his cabin on fire -depression over failure to strike gold on his property
in California. 1945 -Jack Thayer Throat slit with razor due to depression over the loss of his son, Edward Cassatt Thayer, during World War II. 1949 -Madeleine Astor Cause of death most likely an accidental overdose of prescription drugs; she also had a fragile heart condition. 1951 -John Morgan Davis Ingested poison during the Christmas holidays after his wife left him. 1954 -Phyllis May Quick Gunshot wound to the head allegedly due to marital problems. 1965 -Frederick Fleet (lookout who spotted the iceberg) Hung himself on a clothesline--due to depression following the death of his wife Eva and
being evicted from his home by her brother.
This list does provide two interesting factors worth considering:
1/ Of the eight, six are men.
2/ Certain personal tragedies affected them to the extent that they saw suicide as the only option.
In studying the alleged suicide, it is useful to remember these general trends.
(List courtesy of Phillip Gowan, Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board: Passengers and Crew Research Forum: Survivor’s suicides, January 16,
A Question of Suicide
According to the Rochford suicide organisation “people usually attempt suicide to block unbearable emotional pain, which is caused by a wide variety of problems. It is often a cry for help. A person attempting suicide is often so distressed that they are unable to see that they have other options … Suicidal people often feel terribly isolated; because of their distress, they may not think of anyone they can turn to, furthering this isolation. In the vast majority of cases a suicide attemptor would choose differently if they were not in great distress and were able to evaluate their options objectively.”
As for the type of people who commit suicide, the same source says, “having suicidal thoughts does not imply that you are crazy, or necessarily mentally ill. People who attempt suicide are often acutely distressed and the vast majority are depressed to some extent. This depression may be either a reactive depression which is an entirely normal reaction to difficult circumstances, or may be an endogenous depression which is the result of a diagnosable mental illness with other underlying causes. It may also be a combination of the two.” Quoting from “Appleby and Condonis” Rochford also adds that “the majority of individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness. They are people just like you and I who at a particular time are feeling isolated, desperately unhappy and alone. Suicidal thoughts and actions may be the result of life’s stresses and losses that the individual feels they just can’t cope with.”
The “Suicide Prevention Triangle” lists “a recent trauma or significant loss” as one of the “Signs of an Acutely Suicidal Condition”. Another source on suicide (http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/) also has a saying that clarifies the situation: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” Further to this they add: “You are not a bad person, or crazy, or weak, or flawed, because you feel suicidal. It doesn’t even mean that you really want to die - it only means that you have more pain than you can cope with right now. If I start piling weights on your shoulders, you will eventually collapse if I add enough weights... no matter how much you want to remain standing…. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They must be upset, grief-stricken, depressed, or despairing, but extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness. ”
Conditions associated with increased risk of suicide: 1. Death or terminal illness of relative or friend. 2. Divorce, separation, broken relationship, stress on family. 3. Loss of health (real or imaginary). 4. Loss of job, home, money, status, self-esteem, personal security. 5. Alcohol or drug abuse. 6. Depression.
Emotional and behavioral changes associated with suicide: 1. Overwhelming Pain: pain that threatens to exceed the person’s pain coping capacities. Suicidal feelings are often the result of longstanding problems that have been exacerbated by recent precipitating events. The precipitating factors may be new pain or the loss of pain coping resources. 2. Hopelessness: the feeling that the pain will continue or get worse; things will never get better. 3. Powerlessness: the feeling that one's resources for reducing pain are exhausted. 4. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, self-hatred, ‘no one cares’. Fears of losing control, harming self or others.
Source: Rochford Organisation
Behe's "Mental Checklist"
In his monograph entitled First Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’ George Behe provided what he terms a “mental checklist” to consider possible
reasons why Murdoch would take his own life. It must be emphasised that Behe’s objective is not to “prove” any alleged suicide. The reason for the “mental
checklist” was that “it would not be fair to Wilde … without examining reasons that Murdoch might have had for taking his own life that night as well.” The
following is a conjectural monologue by Murdoch, written by Behe:
Murdoch: “Captain Smith entrusted me with command of the Titanic when he went to bed earlier this evening. He knew (as did I and all the other
officers) that Titanic would reach the outskirts of the ice field at around 11 pm. Why didn’t I awaken Captain Smith at that point? After all, the Commander
had a right to know when the ship was entering the outer fringes of this ice field, and perhaps his judgment about ice visibility would have been more
conservative than mine; maybe he would have ordered a course alteration or a decrease in speed or taken some action that I didn’t take that might have
prevented a collision. As things stand, though, I was the person who decided not to awaken him; I was the person who decided that the situation did not
warrant any alteration of the ship's standard operating procedure; I was the person who was entrusted with the safety of the ship and her passengers, and I
was the person who ‘let the side down.’
“The Sailing Orders posted on the bulkhead behind me specify that ‘No thought of making competitive passages must be entertained, and time must be
sacrificed or any other temporary inconvenience suffered, rather than the slightest risk should be incurred.’ Even though I thought we could see all
icebergs in time to avoid them, and even though this was SOP, I was nevertheless taking a calculated risk in maintaining the status quo, and -- according to
the Sailing Order -- even calculated risks are not condoned by the Company.
“The Titanic will sink in a few moments, and two out of three of her passengers and crew will find themselves floundering in the ocean when that
happens. Nobody will survive immersion in that icy water for long, which means that roughly fifteen hundred people will die tonight as a direct result of
actions that I did -- or didn't -- take.
“A moment ago I shot two unarmed passengers who disregarded my orders but who, after all, were only trying to save their own lives. How can I live
with myself if I should happen to survive tonight's tragedy? In any event, my future career as a ship's officer would be non-existent -- what company would
ever hire a man who was responsible for losing two thirds of the lives that had been entrusted to his care?
“And what about my wife Ada? How could I ask her to live with the shame I'd be certain to bring upon her if I were to survive? I can almost hear the
slurs that would be cast in her direction: ‘There goes Mrs. Murdoch; her husband killed fifteen hundred people but was careful to save his own life.’ How
could I possibly ask her and the rest of my family to endure something like that on my account?
“I couldn't. And I'm holding a Webley in my hand...." (11.)
In summarising both the suicide witnesses and altnernative accounts, it is obvious that no clear line of evidence exists, most of the testimony ambiguous, prone
to prejudice, speculation or lack of information. This is not unusual. By far the majority of information regarding the Titanic tragedy suffered a similar
aftermath of vague nebulousness. But to round out an investigation into this mystery, it is necessary to also review circumstantial evidence that may have
played a role to a greater or lesser degree. In this case, we will analyse ten additional factors:
Whatever obstacles control,
Go on, true heart,
thou'lt reach the goal.
Murdoch quoted this short verse (written by poet John Henry Mackay) when he and his fellow officers on the Medic were asked to autograph the ship’s menu
in 1900. Why did he choose to put this particular verse next to his name? It must have held some special meaning to the then 27-year-old William Murdoch.
Whatever obstacles he faced he would not allow his “true heart” to waver from its goal. Like a ship transversing an ocean, Murdoch would not allow any
storms, or “obstacles” to prevent him reaching his destination, or “goal”. It is appropriate that this was written in 1900, the year he embarked on a
journey through the ranks of the White Star Line, destined to be the captain of his own ship one day.
Through this and other incidents we gain an insight into Murdoch’s personality, such as when Stanley Lord mistook Murdoch as a fellow apprentice on the
bargue Iquique, although Murdoch was in fact an officer. It seems he was unaware of Murdoch’s rank due to the officer’s modesty. Murdoch would likely be
a friendly superior, not “wielding it over” his fellow crew members or reveling in his superiority. Otherwise, it would have been unmistakable to Stanley
Lord that Murdoch was above him.
Reading the last letters written by William Murdoch to his family also provides an interesting insight (the two letters can be viewed in the Articls section of this website). William writes that he is
“glad to hear that all was as usual in Dalbeattie & to know that you had arrived safely. What a journey you must have had, you surely
would have to take lots of refreshments on the way…. I hope that you are having nice weather up north & that you will enjoy your holiday… Glad to hear that
there has been good news from the folks abroad. I think I must owe them all letters just at present. Give my kind love to Mother, Father & Agnes & receipt
some yourself…. I hope Mother is not feeling her pains, irritation, etc. so much & that the milder weather is having a good effect on her, also that Father,
Agnes & yourself are in real good form...”
One can perceive a man sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, showing a concern for those related to him. It must be remembered that he
wrote this on April 8th, 1912, two days before sailing and before Wilde came aboard to take over as Chief Officer. Murdoch would likely be busy recruiting
crew and ensuring the ship was ready for the big day. But he was not too busy to write to his family.
In his last letter written on the 11th of April, he writes: “I also hope that Agnes and Margaret are in particularly good form. With fondest love to all
& looking forward to hearing from some one of you at Q'town [Queenstown]” and he signs it “from your ever affect. [affectionate] son, William”.
At school Murdoch was remembered as an “intelligent and hard working scholar” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic). Walter Lord wrote regarding
Titanic’s First Officer that he was an “agile terrier of a man” (A Night to Remember, p.57 (20.))
while another source states that he had a“ reputation as a canny and dependable man” (Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic & Britannic, p.489 (3.))
Other character references include:
Mr. Edward Wheelton, first class steward (28) when questioned by Senator Newlands at the American Inquiry said: “I would like to say
something about the bravery exhibited by the first officer, Mr. Murdoch. He was perfectly cool and very calm.” (25.)
Commodore Sir Bertram Hayes of the White Star Line commented to Frederick Toppin, former White Star Line Vice-President and Director in
New York, that “William Murdoch was our brightest star.” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic)
Fourth Officer Boxhall considered Murdoch to be “a fine sailor and a great man.” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.))
Colonel Archibald Gracie: “He was a brave and efficient officer and no sufficient motive for self-destruction can be advanced. He
performed his full duty under difficult circumstances, and was entitled to praise and honor.” (Colonel Archibald Gracie, The Truth About Titanic(43.))
Sidney H.V. Abbott, a shipmate of Murdoch and Wilde who wrote to Walter Lord when he was researching his book A Night to Remember in 1955, recalled:
"Regards Murdock [sic]. I served with him in the Oceanic under the well known Capt. Haddock. As I was in that ship for one trip only I saw very little of him and regret I can pass you no information. I can however say this, that for an officer to serve under Haddock [last four words underlined] and be selected for advancement demonstrate without any doubt that he was outstandingly capable." (letter dated 25/6/55 courtesy of Paul Lee's transcription of Lord's, and Macquitty's, notes and letters, source)
Mrs. Charlotte Collyer, Second Class passenger, “He was a masterful man, astoundingly brave and cool. I had met him the day before, when
he was inspecting the second-cabin quarters, and thought him a bull-dog of a man who would not be afraid of anything. This proved true; he kept order to the
last, and died at his post…”
Those who never knew Murdoch personally but have researched his history describe him in glowing terms. Loreen Philyaw, a self-confessed “Titanic history
buff” writes in her web page:
“That man in the uniform was more than an officer--the royalty of a ship’s crew--he was a smitten husband, a literate deep-thinker, a
gifted seaman whose experience had taught him to anticipate, and an affectionate brother and son whose real-life heroes were his father and grandfather… At
5 feet 9 inches tall with a trim, nimble physique and a well-groomed handlebar mustache which was the vogue, William had his share of admirers and
autograph-seekers.” (Loreen Philyaw, The True Heart of Titanic(23.))
In a section on William Murdoch in the “Clan Macpherson” website stated the following: “He is known to have had the ability to keep a
cool head in a crisis; to think quickly and act effectively. Diane Bristow in her book refers to Murdoch as ‘the best and smartest sailor afloat.’ She
quotes from a captain who served under him: ‘There never was a better officer. Cool, capable, on his toes always.’ (Clan Macpherson)
Author Daniel Butler also writes regarding the First Officer: “A pleasantly plain face and a ready smile that heralded boundless good humor . . .
Murdoch was a conscientious officer, and as he had amply demonstrated over the years, he was an excellent seaman, with nearly faultless judgment and iron
nerves.” (Daniel Allen Butler, Unsinkable -The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, p.47 (46.))
Susanne Stormer's Good-bye Good Luck: The Biography of William McMaster Murdoch
-as related in the web page 'First Officer William McMaster Murdoch', contains the following character reference:
"William was a man of distinction on and off the bridge. His exemplary career was guided by his instinctive leadership style. Although
he could have a soft heart, his demand for excellence could surpass that. It was said that it he could persuade merely by his personality. He would not
hesitate to act against a broken regulation or potential hazard to his ship." (45.)
As a young officer, William came to be known for far more than just his steadfast courage and an unremitting determination. He was just as easily seen
for his understanding demeanour. All who met him saw William as a man of quick wit, charm, grace, and a ready smile. He would often toss practical jokes
to his fellow officers, which would be returned in kind. He would have a warm greeting for any passenger or crewman, regardless of their place."(Susanne
Stormer, Good-bye Good Luck: The Biography of William McMaster Murdoch(45.)
Elizabeth Gibbons provides what is possibly the finest of all tributes, reportedly from Captain Smith: "on April 28, 1912, the New York Times cited a survivor from overturned Collapsible B who stated that the Captain swam to the lifeboat in the last moments before the ship foundered and asked "Where is Murdoch?" If true (and the story has the ring of authenticity) it means that in the worst moment of his life Titanic's commander was thinking not of his ship, his passengers, or his family but of his First Officer." (55.)
“Thomas Andrews was a remarkable figure. As builder he of course knew every detail about the Titanic… and he understood equally well
the people who run ships. They came to Andrews with their problems. One night it might be First Officer Murdoch, worried because he had been superseded by
Chief Officer Wilde. The next it might be a couple of quarrelling stewardesses…” (A Night To Remember, p.20
The above quotation from Walter Lord’s famous book shows that Murdoch’s concern over his demotion was a likely scenario. In his letter of April 8th
1912 Murdoch wrote regarding this:
“I am still Chief Offr [Officer] until sailing day & then it looks as though I will have to step back, [to First Officer] so I am hoping
that it will not be for long. The head Marine Supt. [Superintendent] from L'pool [Liverpool] seemed to be very favourably impressed & satisfied that
everything went on A.1 [OK] & as much as promised that when Wilde goes I am to go up again.”
A tone of disappointment is evident when he says he is “hoping that it will not be for long” and then of expectation when he is “as much as promised” by
the Superintendent that he will become Chief Officer when Wilde leaves. Even if he was not frustrated at not being able to fulfill his promotion, the drop
in his monthly salary from £25.00s 00d (25 English pounds) as Chief Officer to £17.10s 00d (17 English pounds, 10 shillings) as First Officer would no
doubt have been discouraging.
Lightoller recalled an element of resentment and “disappointment” when the reshuffle occurred, saying:
“Unfortunately whilst in Southampton, we had a reshuffle amongst the Senior Officers. Owing to the Olympic being laid up, the ruling
lights of the White Star Line thought it would be a good plan to send the Chief Officer to the Olympic, just for the one voyage, as Chief Officer of the
Titanic, to help, with his experience of her sister ship. This doubtful policy threw both Murdoch and me out of our stride; and, apart from the
disappointment of having to step back in our rank, caused quite a little confusion.” (courtesy of Philip Hind’s Encyclopedia Titanica(8.))
Don Lynch thus writes: “Murdoch had been demoted from chief officer just before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and it was he who stood on the bridge when
the Titanic struck the iceberg, so it is tempting to imagine his anguished, suicidal state of mind as the ship sank.” (Illustrated History, p.195) In
addition, George Behe, in his Dalbeattie Defense monograph, quotes a portion of the “unedited version of historian Don Lynch’s Titanic: An Illustrated
History.” Behe writes:
“Regarding the importation of Chief Officer Wilde to the Titanic (with the resulting demotion of Murdoch to First Officer), Lynch says
that Murdoch was ‘a man whom he [Captain Smith] had not trusted enough to keep as his second in command...’ ” (Don Lynch, courtesy of George Behe, First
Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’(11.))
This adds another facet to the demotion scenario: did the demotion result from Smith’s lack of confidence in Murdoch as Chief Officer? Maybe Smith
wanted to maintain the same ‘team’ that he had commanded aboard Olympic. This lack of confidence may have caused Murdoch to question the ‘head Marine
Superintendent from Liverpool’ regarding his feelings with the response that as far as they were concerned they were “favourably impressed & satisfied” with
But there is no way of gauging the exact effects the demotion and Smith’s possible lack of confidence would have had on Murdoch’s state of mind during
the voyage. All that can be said is that it was a temporary disappointment in what -until the tragedy- looked like being a very promising career.
3. Unavoidable Collision?
Much debate reigns over “what if” scenarios in Murdoch’s response to the iceberg in their path. Two factors are for sure: 1/ Murdoch’s reaction was
instinctive and natural and not unusual, (although according to the traditional scenario, theoretically ‘against the book’, please refer to Hard-a-
starboard!) and 2/ the nature of the collision doomed the ship.
We can only speculate what went through Murdoch’s mind after the collision. He would undoubtedly be in shock, reliving the moment several times and
asking himself if there was anything else he could have done. While there is no reason to advance the notion of any negligence on Murdoch’s part causing
the tragedy (he was after-all, following instructions and was the only officer who took any preventative measures, removing a light that was obscuring the
lookout and bridge) even the most competent and equally as innocent sailor would question if there was anything else he could have done to avert disaster.
We could also be sure that with his background and sound seamanship skills he would be more aware of how his decision affected the outcome of the tragedy,
this perception exhibited during his intense starboard evacuation.
Interestingly, George Behe wonders “how Murdoch -- who was *commanding* the Titanic at the time of the collision -- would have fared regarding his own
future career at sea. (One suspects that Murdoch would not have had very good prospects for advancement in his chosen field should he somehow have survived
the sinking of the Titanic.)” (George Behe, First Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’(11.)
Along similar lines, Bill Wormstedt writes:
“Murdoch was the man directly in charge of the ship in the hours leading up to the collision with the iceberg. As such, he was responsible for the
ship and all its passengers during that time. His career at sea was effectively over, if he survived the disaster. If ‘the’ iceberg was not the first to be
spotted that night, as brought out in George Behe’s Titanic: Safety, Speed and Sacrifice, then Murdoch was also responsible for not slowing down, in direct
violation of the posted orders from the White Star Line, that ‘Time must be sacrificed or any other temporary inconvenience suffered, rather than the
slightest risk should be incurred.’ He also did not follow Captain Smith’s final orders (passed on from Lightoller), to ‘If in the slightest degree
doubtful, let me know.’” (Bill Wormstedt, Shots in the Dark(12.))
4. Access to Guns
At approximately 1:35am, due to the urgings of Chief Officer Wilde, Second Officer Lightoller distributed Webley revolvers to members of the senior crew
from Murdoch’s cabin. Only Smith, Wilde, Lightoller and Murdoch were present during this and consequently, we can only say that these four men had official
access to guns that night. However, other members of crew were reported to have used guns, including Fifth Officer Lowe (who used his own personal revolver
during the launch of lifeboat No.14) and Purser McElroy, who Jack Thayer (in 1940) said fired a gun at collapsible C (although Hugh Woolner seemed to think
it was Murdoch who fired the gun). Due to a certain similarity between Murdoch and McElroy and the fact that pursers were generally not involved in such
activities as launching lifeboats (refer to 9. Another Officer?) it is likely that it was Murdoch rather than McElroy who Thayer saw.
5. Crowd control
At first, the difficulty of crowd control lay in that few realised the severity of the collision. The number of men allowed into boats lowered from
Murdoch’s side indicates an officer frustrated with the lack of numbers, but also more understanding of the Captain’s order of “women and children first”.
Lightoller interpreted this as “women and children only”.
When the situation became more obvious, Murdoch was then faced with the difficulty of maintaining order. Several eyewitnesses recount action taken on
the First Officer’s part to restore order, although debate exists over whether or not he actually fired his revolver to enforce control. There is no reason
to believe he did not, since Lightoller and Lowe both readily availed themselves of the gun’s authority without any reports of subsequent injury or death.
But did he fire at the passengers? From knowledge gleaned from his letters and those that knew him, it seems unlikely that he would have fired his revolver
directly into the crowd, unless by accident or provocation.
The author feels that whether anyone was shot my Murdoch is almost irrelevant; by firing his gun into the air or even physically or verbally stopping
people swamping the boat, he was –indirectly- signing their death warrant. It is accepted that all survivors made their escape, in some form or another, by
means of a “lifeboat,” hence its name. But for a lifeboat to be launched safely, crowd control had to be sustained and by extension the officer in charge
was restricting them from a chance at life. A bullet, if it hit its mark –intentional or not- was merely hastening their destiny. This is emphasised by
Masabumi Hosono’s account (as referred to in the Suicide Witnesses section) who said, “even if I became the target of a pistol shot, it would be the same.
Thus, I made a jump for the lifeboat.”
According to Gracie’s evidence, Murdoch was working on collapsible A when there was a sudden surge in the crowd, resulting from a number from Third Class
finally making their way to the boat deck to find they were too late. John Collins mentioned “hundreds on the starboard side” at this time. How did Murdoch
cope with “hundreds” descending on the collapsible lifeboat –the ‘last boat’- with which they were already having difficulty in preparing for lowering? As
the senior officer, it was his duty to maintain or retain control. He was armed with a revolver given to him half-an-hour ago expressly for the purpose of
crowd control. The question is: did he use it? And in what way?
6. Negative Connotations
In the aftermath, many were quick to blame the British crew of negligence. Talk of suicide would only confirm such suspicions and paint the actions of
the officers in a bad light. . Such may have resulted from bitterness at having lost their belongings, or worst still, having lost a friend, loved one or
family member. Such a negative view of the British crew has to be taken into consideration when reading testimony from various passengers –also noting their
ethical background- to decide whether they would be swayed toward a more disapproving description of events.
Even the fact that Murdoch was Scottish and that his name is somewhat similar in sound to the word ‘murder’ (as used to effect in the American TV
adventure series, MacGyver, whose indestructible nemesis is named ‘Murdoc’!) has to be noted since, although to the reasonable and unprejudiced individual
it is illogical and completely irrelevant, it could provide an undue bias in William Murdoch’s portrayal in ensuing Titanic literature and accounts.
7. Edwardian Environment: Noble Suicide?
Crew committing suicide on a sinking ship was not unusual at that time. There had been several reports of captains and officers committing suicide (for
instance only “six years earlier a climacteric German captain had caused considerable scandal by killing himself after accidentally breaching and injuring
his ship” –Wyn Wade, The Titanic, p.53 (18.)) and it is possible that something similar may have also happened aboard Titanic. It might have also unduly
predisposed the public to accepting that such behaviour was the norm on a sinking ship, resulting in unfounded rumours.
It has unfortunately become popular opinion today to frown upon the suggestion of shootings/or suicide aboard Titanic and relegate it to myth based
solely on the fact that such activities are today considered as negative, criminal and villainous, undeserving behaviour of any officer or gentleman. But
it has to been seen in its context. Unlike today, people’s values in Edwardian society of 1912 were quite different.
Most are familiar with the fact that many men (and a few women) refused to enter lifeboats and proudly went down with the ship (Thomas Andrews, the
Strausses and Benjamin Guggenheim are famous examples). In the words of millionaire passenger Ben Guggenheim, “We are dressed in our best and prepared to go
down like gentlemen.” Today, such behaviour would be considered extremely foolish. Few would ever ‘go down with the ship’ without any attempt at survival.
Modern ethics encourage the value of the individual, ‘each for his own,’ ‘I'm not a number,’ equal rights, freedom for all. Yes, ensure that ‘women and
children go first,’ but then also make attempt to save yourself as well.
In other words, men like Guggenheim were allowing themselves to die. They did not put on lifejackets, warmer clothing, fortify themselves with alcohol
and find something to float on as one would today -going into ‘survival mode’. They were, in effect, committing what has been called a ‘noble suicide’.
Such gentleman-like prestige and sacrifice resulting in so-called ‘noble suicides’ lasted until even the 1930s with the stock market crash and depression.
Rather than face humiliation (like White Star Line President Bruce Ismay did when he survived the Titanic disaster) they would rather sacrifice any
continued chance of existence, even though innocent victims of unavoidable circumstances.
In those days, order and control were also very important, especially in regard to ‘class structures,’ each person catagorised into general sections
based on their financial and social status. Officers were hence forced into a position to ensure that others also behaved in a ‘gentleman-like manner’ and
kept within their own spheres.
It cannot be overlooked, then, that Edwardian society, as represented aboard the decks of Titanic, still had the ideal of a so-called “noble suicide”.
Many first class male passengers in effect committed suicide, even though they were innocent victims of the disaster and no way involved in causing the
tragedy. To allege that an officer also took his own life should not be viewed any differently. It is no wonder then that Frenchman George Rheims wrote:
“That’s what I call a man!” in connection with the suicide of an officer he witnessed. Remembering the long history of friction between Britain and France,
Rheims could be forgiven for any inherant prejudice or negativity, but shows neither. (Also refer to the box Survivor’s Suicides)
8. State Of Mind
At the British Board of Trade Enquiry, the Solicitor-General - while interviewing Second Officer Lightoller about the hours leading up to the sighting of
the iceberg - made the following statement: "We have to get at what is Mr. Murdoch's state of mind, with your help, because he is not here. - I quite see.
(British Board of Trade Enquiry 21 May, 1912 (24.)). Such a desire to enter the thoughts of the
First Officer in the moments before and after the collision with the iceberg have been the dreams of many historians and researchers.
During the evacuation of the starboard side we have differing insights into Murdoch’s state of mind. We have a man cognisant of the dilemma and stating
such to Hardy and Pitman, and then conversely finding moments of humour that almost seem misplaced in his otherwise fervent demeanor (refer to section
"Starboard Evacuation”). Factors such as lack of sleep and mental and physical exhaustion should be taken into account. Murdoch relieved Lightoller during
his watch at around 7pm that night and then his own watch began at 10pm. By 2pm, the approximate time of Murdoch’s alleged suicide, his watch would have
ended and he would have retired for much needed rest. Admittedly, 2 o’clock in the morning after a hard day’s work is a dreadful time to be engaged in
In the web page entitled 'First Officer William McMaster Murdoch' (based on Susanne Stormer's Good-bye Good Luck: The Biography of William McMaster
"He was one of the first on his Titanic to have the knowledge of her fragility. He was also painfully aware of his place in it. William shrugged
off whatever guilt and shock he may have felt to tend to his passengers... On this Fate-entangled night William fought to send off as many life-boats as
time would allow. In doing so he ignored the rising, frigid waters as they devoured his ship. He struggled against the increasingly frustrated and angry
mob of passengers as they faced dwindling boat seats. He so gallantly set aside the want for his own survival to see that others had the opportunity to
live... All the while though, he had no thought of escaping his dying ship. Fraught with guilt, William intended to go down with her."
Author George Behe has proposed a series of thoughts that may have gone through Murdoch’s mind during the sinking, though based purely on conjecture.
They are: 1/ We knew the Titanic would reach ice around 11pm. Why didn’t I wake the Captain? Why did I maintain status quo? 2/ At least half of the
people aboard Titanic are going to die as a direct result of actions that I did, or did not, take. 3/ I’ve just shot two unarmed passengers –how can I
live with myself? 4/ My future career as a ship’s officer is out of the question. What if I was to survive – the shame it would bring on the family?
(refer to Behe’s Mental Checklist for details). (11.)
We can imagine that there must have been a certain fear of the approaching water. Paul Quinn writes that he had also already fired his gun at least
several times, (for instance, Woolner reporting Murdoch firing his gun into the air at collapsible C) and that the weapon may have “felt familiar in his
hand now. If he really had gone so far as to shoot one or two men attempting to get into the lifeboat earlier, he may have felt fatalistic at this point.
Seeing the water so near now, it was the perfect time for someone considering suicide to go through with it.” (Paul Quinn, Titanic at 2 A.M., p.77 (34.)). Murdoch had been “master” over the waters; it was his career. Now the ocean was going to end his
life. The thought of drowning, of inhaling water into the lungs, of suffocating, is repulsive to anyone but a masochist. Would Murdoch have also found the
option of a quick death more desirable than drowning in an ocean he had adored so much?
No one can know for sure just what it would like to be in Murdoch’s situation. We can imagine frustration and anxiety, natural responses to tragedy. As
to any suicidal tendencies, the subject is a delicate one and with a lack of complete information any comment is pure speculation. However, it has been
noted that despite recent emphasis on the rise in suicides among young people, the 20th century was also renowned for disturbing suicidal statistics among
older people. On a personal note, at the time of writing, the author had lost two close friends, both of whom had committed suicide. They were both aged
around 40 and had young families. Their suicides came as a shock, since no one would expect them to do such a thing. Some have put it down to a
combination of factors commonly termed a “mid-life crisis”. William Murdoch was in his 40th year.
Hopelessness is the general reason given as to why one would even contemplate suicide. ‘Wherever you turn a brick wall.’ Could this be said of Murdoch?
It could be surmised that as a sensitive man, who thought of his family, he wouldn’t even think of hurting them by such an act. Nevertheless, a person
involved in such a tragedy can rarely think outside of what is occurring at that instant.
But, is it too easy to suggest that Murdoch, embittered by his demotion and overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness found himself responsible for the
tragedy? Did the frustration build to the extent that he began wielding his gun to stop the crowds? And then seeing that by stopping so many people from
boarding a boat -in effect eliminating their chance of life and possibly by firing his gun into the crowd unintentionally or by provocation- then decided to
eliminate his own chance at life?
Those who have suggested the above line of reasoning have been criticised and rightly so since it all based on pure conjecture and supposition. Yet,
there is no evidence that has been brought forward that can eliminate it entirely. (NOTE: To say that Murdoch definitely did not commit suicide based
purely on strength of character or personality is bulstering the erroneous belief that only so-called “bad” or “cowardly” people would ever take their own
life. Just because a person commits suicide does not necessarily make them “bad” or a “coward” or even mentally sick. To propose that Murdoch would not
have taken his own life because he was a “good” person would thus condemn everyone else who has. Refer to 'A Question of Suicide')
9. Another Officer?
Some conjecture has been put forward regarding other officers being the suicide victim. For instance, in a 1954 interview with Harold Bride by Ernest
Robinson and related in Richard Edkins Dalbeattie website, he mentions that Bride saw ‘Murdoch lying motionless in the water and Moody appeared to have
suffered a heard injury.’ (paraphrased from Richard Edkin’s text, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.))
prompting Bride to wonder at the time if it was Sixth Officer Moody who had been shot. Yet, as already considered, Bride was most likely on the port side
and never on the starboard side. Also, while under oath, he testified to the fact the he was incapable of identifying any of the officers at the time
Titanic sank. George Behe, in analysing this claim, wrote the following:
“As for the webmaster’s [Richard Edkin’s] reference to Sixth Officer Moody (‘was Moody shot?’), this seems to be an attempt to divert
attention away from First Officer Murdoch, but the attempt does not hold up to close scrutiny. We know that Titanic’s senior officers -- Smith, Wilde,
Murdoch and Lightoller -- were issued Company weapons during the evacuation of the Titanic, and we also know that Fifth Officer Lowe carried his own
personal weapon that night; there is absolutely no evidence, however, that Titanic’s remaining junior officers (Moody, Boxhall and Pitman) were armed during
the sinking of the Titanic -- which means Sixth Officer Moody probably could not have taken his own life with a revolver even if he had wished to.” (George
Behe, First Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’(11.))
Paul Quinn writes that Moody’s likely cause of death was the same as most of those at collapsible A who were engulfed in “the equivalent of a small tidal
wave that pounced on the deck .. abruptly and without warning… Sixth Officer Moody was inundated by the rush of water” (Paul Quinn, Titanic at 2 A.M., p.78
(34.)). Walter Lord also discussed the possible identity of the suicide victim in The Night Lives
“Who was the officer involved? Could it have been Purser McElroy? Jack Thayer re-called McElroy firing two shots to stop a rush on one
of the forward starboard boats, but Thayer did not think it was the last boat. Apart from that, the officers of the Victualling Department were basically
‘housekeepers.’ They were not likely to be in charge of loading and lowering lifeboats, nor would they have the authority to declare ‘Each man for him-
self,’ as Rheims noted. Lightoller in his memoirs recalled saying good-bye to the pursers and doctors, who were standing off to one side of the Boat Deck.
He specifically praised their quiet courage for staying out of the way while the deck force launched the last boats.
“A far more likely candidate would be one of the three lost officers of the Deck Depart-ment. Sixth Officer Moody was on the scene; he
was in charge of the party on the roof of the officers’ quarters that cut Collapsible A free. On the other hand, once back on the Boat Deck, he would have
come under First Officer Murdoch, who was trying to attach the collapsible to the falls. He then wouldn’t have had the authority to give the order ‘Each man
for himself.’” (21.)
In this summary, Lord clearly eliminates Purser McElroy and Moody from the list, leaving officers Wilde and Murdoch.
10. Wilde Hypothesis
Richard Edkins in his Dalbeattie website addresses a theory that Chief Officer Wilde, not Murdoch, committed suicide. At first it might seem almost
cheap to vigorously defend the reputation of their former fellow Dalbeattie resident by shifting the ‘suspicion’ on to another officer, especially one who
indirectly caused Murdoch’s demotion. First, let us consider the evidence.
James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer CD-ROM provides a condensed review of Wilde’s life:
“Henry Tingle Wilde, 40, joined the White Star Line in 1905. He lived in Liverpool with his wife Mary and their twin sons Archie and
Richard. Overcoming the personal tragedy of losing his entire family in December 1910, he served ably as chief officer aboard the Olympic…During the
sinking, Wilde supervised the other officers and helped prepare the collapsible lifeboats. To this day, rumours persist that he committed suicide on the
Boat Deck during the sinking.” (41.)
In regard to the “Wilde hypothesis” Mr. Edkins writes:
“Elizabeth Gibbons was sure that if anyone shot himself, it was Henry Tingle Wilde, the Chief Officer, by a process of elimination.
Moody was last seen jumping or falling into the sea from the deckhouse, so presumably could not have killed himself. Smith either went down with the ship or
died in the water, Murdoch died when the ship abruptly sank...which only leaves the Purser, McElroy, or Henry Tingle Wilde, poor fellow. McElroy’s body was
buried at sea, with no reference to any gunshot wounds, when found in the water. The bodies of Moody, Smith, Wilde and Murdoch, were never recovered.
“The researcher Geoff Whitfield was the first to pass word to me that the Liverpool Echo published a story at the time, that Wilde had
shot himself. Other newspaper accounts offer the same story, some (for example, the Sunday April 21st 1912 News of the World) prematurely stating that it
had happened on the bridge before any boats were launched. The best that the writer can state for certain, is that both Murdoch and Wilde were alive when
Collapsible C was launched. Thereafter, interpretations diverge; Wilde was a taller man than Murdoch, so that may help separate the identity of the ‘officer
who shot himself’.
“It was alleged by one of my correspondents that Wilde’s wife (who died in 1910, soon after two of their children) had wealthy relatives
who did not let the suicide story spread past its first mention. The story may have been re-directed at the less-influential William Murdoch.” (Richard
Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.))
Although the process of elimination paraphrased by Richard Edkins and proposed by Elizabeth Gibbons lacks one vital ingredient -accepted fact- (no
definite information regarding the deaths of Smith, Wilde, Murdoch or Moody has ever been found or confirmed) the line of reasoning does succeed in
eliminating Chief Purser Herbert McElroy, since his body was located with no reported indication of suicide. We could also possibly eliminate Moody, since
it seems unlikely that he would have had access to a weapon. Without the recovery of the other bodies and any tangible documentation or testimony, the
deaths of Smith, Wilde and Murdoch will always be subject to speculation.
It is correct that the title ‘Chief Officer’ has appeared in connection with the ambiguous testimony regarding an officer committing suicide. Some of
the eyewitness accounts already considered have referred to an unnamed officer or the Chief Officer. The problem is that both Wilde and Murdoch had been
Chief Officer of Titanic, and so the title, when mentioned by passengers and crew or in newspaper accounts, could equally refer to both, depending on a
person’s knowledge of the change in crew. And likely First Officer could also be seen as almost synonymous with Chief Officer, “First” and “Chief” having
very little difference in meaning, providing further confusion.
For example, quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was at the helm during the collision, refers to Murdoch when he said in evidence at the US Inquiry that
the “chief officer rushed from the wing to the bridge…” showing that even crew under Murdoch’s command were still confused. Even Senator Smith presiding
over the United States inquiry into the disaster and reviewing over 18 days of evidence had difficulty in distinguishing between the two. (25.)
Smith: Mr. Murdoch, the chief officer?
Woolner (passenger): Yes; he was the first officer, was he not?
While his demotion to First Officer was only to be of short duration (just the maiden voyage) it is unlikely that he would have neglected to change his
uniform insignia, thus leading to mistaken identity. Such probably arose from lack of information regarding his change in position and with the majority of
passengers (especially third class) being unfamiliar with the identities of most of the senior crew. And the lack of light would also have provided
additional difficulties, as noted by Steward William Ward in the American Inquiry. Speaking about an officer who called out for women to get into lifeboat
No.9, he said: “I think it was Chief Officer. I would not be sure whether it was him or the purser. They were both tall men, and I would not be sure which
one it was. It was dark, you know.”
As to Wilde’s conduct during the voyage, collision and evacuation, there is surprisingly little to go on, he being a rather reticent participant who
rarely appears among survivor’s recollections (this due to his role as a supervisor of the evacuation, not being as actively involved as his colleagues).
However, Second Officer Lightoller, who, according to information provided by Mr. Edkins, did not look favourably upon Wilde, is quoted in Titanic and Her
Sisters Olympic & Britannic as saying that he considered him “one of the bravest men who ever stepped on deck” (p.488 (3.)). The same source gives additional insight stating that Wilde was
“very experience and well respected…certainly he was a man of courage, steeped in the traditions of the sea and the etiquette of his
time. He gave the order to issue small arms to the officers as the evacuation began. And, although White Star Line’s owner Bruce Ismay was condemned for
escaping on a lifeboat, witnesses testified that it was Chief Officer Wilde who man-handled Ismay into a boat when no further women came forward. He
remained at his post and went down with the ship.” (Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic & Britannic, p.488 (3.)
But it is also interesting to note that Second Officer Lightoller, in an article he wrote for The Christian Science Journal (Vol. XXX, 10/1912, No. 7), stated "[I] was on my way back on deck again when I heard Wilde say, 'I am going to put on my life-belt'" which would indicate self-preservation was on his mind rather than any suicidal tendancies.
There had been major tragedy in his life, his twin boys, Archie and Richard, dying in infancy (some sources state scarlet fever as the reason)
and his wife (a few years older than him) Mary Catherine Jones passing away soon after on December 24, 1910 from complications in childbirth. And then
there is his fateful premonition contained in a letter he wrote to his sister: “I still don't like this ship . . . I have a queer feeling about it.” (letter
posted at Queenstown, Ireland, April 11, 1912). Richard Edkins proposes that Wilde’s ill-at-ease resulted from a feeling of ‘here we go again’ when the
New York near collision occurred the day before writing his letter, reminding him of a very similar incident with the Olympic.
Richard Edkins also provides a series of other reasons that allegedly make Wilde “more of a candidate for self-murder than Murdoch,” including
“Lightoller’s disdain for Wilde,” that his “chances of survival would be low... even if no blame attached to him, - Wilde might have had to consider himself
tarred with the same brush that affected the surviving officers.” He also stated that if Wilde survived he might have been “blamed, - as Smith was, - for
errors of navigation and complacency about the ice ahead” and he would have had no chance of being captain of the Oceanic as was expected after Titanic’s
voyage. Edkins further writes:
“Unlike the active Murdoch, Lightoller and Moody, Wilde was far more cautious, possibly reluctant to face the awful truth; he delayed
launching the lifeboats, he allowed himself twice to be over-ridden by Lightoller going to Captain Smith. In short, Wilde was a man with a lot on his mind,
unable to set it aside in the same way that Murdoch appears to have done… other crew members have little positive to report about the actions of Wilde, who
comes across as being a strangely ineffective figure. It is impossible not to pity Wilde, who should not have been on the Titanic in any case… The person
who suggested issuing the guns was Wilde himself; there had not been any real disorder that merited issuing firearms, although it could be argued that this
would occur later. Why, then, did Wilde want a gun? …Wilde might have been unsure of his authority, or he might have already been considering another death
than freezing in the Labrador Current. Why give up, after Collapsible C had gone ? It still appears strange to the writer, that Wilde should shoot himself
at that moment. The answer may lie in the fact that the other deck officers were at work elsewhere… With the crew and passengers minutes from death, Henry
Wilde may have decided that nobody who would survive to tell of him doing what he did. Psychologically, a depressed and inactive introvert is more likely to
kill himself than a man who is acting coolly and with decision to deal with other concerns; in that sense, Wilde is more of a candidate for self-murder than
Murdoch.” (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.))
Free thinkers may surmise, then, that his family tragedy, the resentment he felt from the other officers, an uncomfortable feeling regarding the ship and
the stress of the evacuation resulted in him being the true subject of the suicide allegations. Is this a reasonable supposition?
It is fair to conclude that Wilde’s background, like Murdoch’s, is not of a man prone to rash violence or suicidal tendencies. True, he had suffered a
family tragedy and it could have predisposed him to hopelessness. However, that particular tragedy had occurred two years previously and did not directly
result from actions taken by Wilde. George Behe, who in his monograph vigorously refutes Richard Edkin’s speculation regarding the “Wilde Hypothesis,”
summarises this: “It seems rather unlikely that Wilde (after having had such a long period of time to come to grips with his loss) would suddenly take it
into his head to mourn his dead wife, fall to pieces over it and suddenly become suicidal -- all during the middle of a sea disaster.” (George Behe, First
Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’ (11.))
Wilde also had four surviving children ages 3 to 12 at home and was most likely about to receive a promotion. While in the case of Murdoch, his personal
tragedy had occurred only two hours previously and was still occurring, and although not directly responsible, he was nonetheless directly involved.
Murdoch was also without children.
There are other factors that should be considered, such as Murdoch being specifically named in at least 10 suicide descriptions, while Wilde is not once
mentioned, other than a dubious entry from an “unknown” source. Location is also an issue. Most suicide witnesses were located on the forward starboard
deck, involved with launching collapsible A, while Wilde was primarily engaged in the port side evacuation. On the point of location, Bill Wormstedt
writes: “When last seen, Wilde was helping load the forward boats – he was there for both Collapsibles C and D. Since C was lowered slightly before D,
Wilde would have had to cross over to the port side. No eyewitness testimony has been found which shows he crossed back to the starboard side” (Bill
Wormstedt, Shots in the Dark). Paul Quinn adds an interesting alternative: “Chief Officer Wilde’s whereabouts were unknown. Keeping in mind that the
captain had released the crew from duty only minutes earlier, he may have been caught inside his quarters rounding up some of his personal belongings.”
(Paul Quinn, Titanic at 2 A.M., p.79 (34.))
Richard Edkin’s reasons that allegedly make Wilde “more of a candidate for self-murder than Murdoch” can all equally be applied to Murdoch. For
instance, Murdoch was also involved in and/or affected by the Hawke collision with the Olympic and the New York with the Titanic. Murdoch’s “chances for
survival were also low” and if he did survive he would also have been “tarred with the same brush that affected the surviving officers.” As for Wilde being
“blamed, - as Smith was, - for errors of navigation and complacency about the ice ahead” this could apply with equal if not more force to Murdoch, who was
in command of the bridge during the collision. And although Wilde’s chances of being captain of the Oceanic would have likely diminished after the tragedy,
Murdoch’s opportunities for premotion would have not have fared any better. His cautious “lack of activity” and delay in launching the lifeboats was more
likely due to a lack of understanding as to Titanic’s true situation, an attitude that permeated most of the crew, with Murdoch a notable exception. And
while Wilde did suggest the issuing of guns there is no report of him ever being seen with a revolver and/or using it at anytime, unlike Murdoch. As for
the purpose of issuing the guns, it was quite obvious that problems with crowd control would exist. Fifth Officer Lowe retrieved his own revolver (possibly
before the general issuing of guns to senior crew) and there is no reason to suggest that his initial motivation was self-destruction as suggested by Edkins
in Wilde’s case. As early as the launching of lifeboat No.15 (approximately 1:35am) crowd control was becoming an issue. Certainly, the idea that
“psychologically, a depressed and inactive introvert is more likely to kill himself than a man who is acting coolly and with decision to deal with other
concerns” has to be considered in context; this was during a maritime tragedy of unprecedented magnitude and such generalisations as to a person’s state of
mind cannot be verified.
In an interesting twist, in 2006 Titanic researcher Senan Molony discovered a letter written by John Smith to his brother Hugh which provides an alternative account of Wilde's death. John Smith was a chief steward in a New York club for officers of the International Mercantile Marine (which included White Star Line) and heard Lightoller speaking 'in lodge' at the club, making private remarks about the tragedy. He writes that "the account I got from the surviving officers, I am sure, is as near the truth as will ever be known."
Most notably John Smith's letter has the following regarding Wilde:
"Mr Wilde, the Chief Officer, and Mr Murdock, the first mate, were splendid types of men, and old Captain Smith was beloved by everyone....The last seen of Mr Wilde he was smoking a cigarette on the bridge. I expect he was hoping the water wouldn't put it out before he finished it. His wife died about sixteen months ago, and I have heard him say he didn't care particularly how he went or how soon he joined her. He leaves three children. He would have been Captain of the Cymric two trips ago, only the coal strike and the tying up of some of the ships altered the company's plans." (source)
This account does tie in with an account in the Cornish Post of May 2, 1912 in which reference is made to “ Chief Officer H.T. Wilde, who was last seen on the bridge smoking a cigarette.” It further claims that he “waved good-bye to Second Officer Charles Lightoller as the Titanic's bows went under.”
Richard Edkins writes: “George and Pat Behe disagree with me about Wilde; this is understandable, as his movements are rather ambiguous, and the Wilde
Hypothesis does need modification in the light of received information. I am now fairly sure that he was awaiting a posting to the Oceanic, but that his
Captaincy was delayed by events such as the Coal Strike. Smith grabbing him for the Chief Officership of Titanic would have kept his service in the eyes of
the White Star Line. (Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.) )
Given that accounts - even from White Star officials- have referred to officers (i.e. plural) opens up the possibility that both Wilde and Murdoch
committed suicide. We must be sure then that if we feel justified in theorising regarding Wilde that equal if not more can be done in the case of Murdoch,
since the evidence for Henry Wilde’s behaviour is certainly no more extensive than that of Murdoch. These factors and others make the “Wilde hypothesis” as
speculative, even more so, than the allegations laid against Murdoch.
In summary, Walter Lord called Chief Officer Wilde “the enigma of the night.” He writes:
“None of the survivors had much to say about him. He was new to the ship, and Lightoller’s feathers were clearly ruffled at being bumped
down a notch to make room for Wilde as ‘Chief.’ But silence and our lack of knowledge are not evidence so in the end there’s no more reason to suppose Wilde
was the officer seen by Daly and Rheims than anyone else.” (Walter Lord, The Night Lives On(21.))