Cause of Death for RMS Titanic victims


Rachael Howland

Greetings! I am currently working on a theory which correlates the location victims were recovered from the RMS Titanic and their cause of death. This inquiry stems from the fact that I have encountered two different documents and one widely held opinion as to the actual cause of death for the majority of RMS Titanic victims. The first document was the April 25th telegram sent from the Mackay-Bennett (Eaton & Haas) and states that the “medical opinion” is that all of the victims recovered at that date had died due to extreme pressure after having been sucked into the vortex of the sinking ship. Three things came to my mind when I read this. There were embalmers onboard from Halifax, Nova Scotia that were undoubtedly familiar with maritime casualties. What evidence lead them to conclude that these were pressure deaths? According to later testimony, there was very little vortex as the ship went down. Who had been recovered at this point in time and where exactly were they? The next item I saw was a reproduction of the official mass death certificates which claimed the cause of death to have been drowning. Was this finding a function of medical evidence, ignorance or Edwardian principles? Lastly, I have heard and certainly agree that there is overwhelming evidence that the majority of victims died due to exposure or more clinically stated, hypothermia. I believe that in order to answer some of these questions, I will need to know the latitude, longitude and corresponding identification numbers for the victims. In addition, I would like to be able to find any information which could have lead to the findings reported in the Mackay-Bennett telegram. Ideally, I would also like to find the logs of the four ships which were sent out for the recovery work and any records the embalmers might have kept on the victims other than items found and a brief description. Can anyone suggest where I might begin to look for this information? I’ve been skimming through the threads which have been posted on this sight in relation to the “After Math” and just need more detailed info. Thank you for your consideration. — Rachael Howland
Rachel, the death certificates were drawn up without reference to records of condition and ALL showed 'drowning' as the cause of death - this was a standard convention and tells us nothing of the true cause.

When the ship went down it would certainly have carried with it those people who were still below decks and probably a good many who were still on or near the decks. Lightoller and other surviving swimmers told of their difficulties in getting away from the suction as water was drawn eg into ventilators and window openings.

At least some of the bodies wearing lifebelts would have later floated to the surface, especially after the ship broke up during its descent. William Hoyt, who was still alive (but not for long) when pulled into lifeboat 14, was bleeding from the nose and mouth which suggests he had been carried down some distance. Many of the bodies which reached the surface would have shown more permanent evidence of pressure damage, but any which were not already on the surface among the bodies of the hypothermia victims are not likely to have arisen at the same time to form a distinct group. Certainly most observers agreed that within a few hours of the sinking only one body was still to be seen in the vicinity of the wreckage.

As you say, there are recorded statements referring to the general condition of bodies recovered and also some specific reference to individuals (most famously to Colonel Astor). Also the unidentified bodies at least were photographed. But I have never seen any suggestion that systematic written records were made of the condition of individual bodies.

Rachael Howland

Bob, Thank you so much for your response. Can you tell me where I might find the photographs of the unidentified victims? Also, thank you for the mention of passenger Hoyt. I know that there was some discussion about him in the hearings, is this where you are getting you information from? -Rachael Howland
Rachael, there have been several discussions on this Board about the photographs, and you can get to these through the ET search engine or by looking through the threads in the 'Lost & Saved' section. The short answer is that some of the pictures have survived in private collections, and you can see a couple of them reproduced in Eaton & Haas' book. My advice is to leave it at that, as there is little to be learned from them. They were taken for the purpose of identification rather than as forensic evidence. Bodies which showed the most obvious evidence of damage had been buried at sea, and the rest were made 'presentable' as far as possible to conceal any such evidence which would have hindered their purpose.

You won't find the transcripts of the hearings to be very useful either for this particular inquiry, as they were concerned with the actions of the living rather than the recovery of the dead. And there are no systematic records of the causes of death, nor was there any priority at the time to establish this for individual cases. Without such a record, any information you might find about the precise location of each body or group of bodies would be of no significance. If it helps, nearly all of the bodies recovered by the official operation were in the same broad location, surrounded by wreckage and about 45-65 miles from the last reported position of Titanic.

It's notable that the undertakers on the second recovery ship, the Minia, reported that of 17 bodies recovered only one had water in the lungs, which was taken as evidence of death from hypothermia rather than drowning. Maybe the team on the Mackay Bennett drew a different conclusion (ie 'sucked into the vortex') from the same evidence, especially since the bodies were found in the company of ice and a lot of heavy wreckage which was likely to have caused post-mortem damage in many cases - "very badly smashed and bruised" as one crew member put it. It would have been difficult to distinguish this from injuries sustained in the sinking.

It is, of course, quite possible that those who died from hypothermia were a minority, and that many hundreds more died inside the ship and never came to the surface. Nothing now remains of any bodies which were taken down with the wreck, so we can only surmise the possibilities.

Rachael Howland

Bob, I just went to the other threads and read through them. It sounds as if there could be something out there for me. I think also that I should take this opportunity to be very clear as to my intentions. I myself was studying forensic anthropology before I went to sea and have now ended up at Maine Maritime Academy. I am currently a student of Capt. Charles B. Weeks and this data is being collected for a paper for his class. I am in contact with a pathologist named Dr. Fred Meyer. He was responsible for deriving a method for determining whether a drowning an accident, suicide or murder by measuring the amount of different gases in the bone marrow. So, he has some expertise with water related casualties. In addition, my father is an epidemiologist at Boston University and has agreed to help me with the statistical methods I would need to pull valid information from the data. I am not attempting to prove the cause of death for various victims. I simply need the info. for my theory. In a plane crash, the condition and location of the victims often leads to very useful information regarding the casualty itself and also how to protect people in the future against death and injury. Here is what I predict: People who willfully left the vessel, ie. jumped or swam off before she went under, died due to exposure, would be found furthest from the wreck sight and more spread out. People who were on deck, but suffered injuries when the ship sank or in trying to get off could have died from drowning, exposure or the injuries and would be closer to the wreck (because they couldn't swim away as easily or might have been disoriented), the last group would have been those people who were inside the ship or on deck when she went down and these people would have died due to pressure and come up as a group later and been closest to the wreck sight. Hence the Mackay-Bennett's telegram and assumptions, which were made in error as to the sinking of the ship. I really appreciate your responses and hope that people are not offended by this inquiry. My intentions are constructive. Thank you. - Rachael Howland
Rachael, I'm sure nobody is offended by your proposals. I certainly am not, and if that impression was conveyed it was not intended. It's clear that you have a serious intention, and you are deserving of encouragement. I have myself in the past pursued similar lines of inquiry, though not with the same ends in view. My own studies were hampered by lack of sufficiently detailed evidence, or of conflicting evidence, relating to times, locations and condition of recovered bodies. Perhaps we could usefully exchange ideas, in which case feel free to make contact by email (click on my name in the left-hand column). I'm sure that any evidence which you might uncover, along with your conclusions, would be of great interest to others here as well as myself.
Racheal, I don't know if your research is going to yeild much in the way of fruit. The problem I see here is that there wasn't much done in the way of a post mortum examination beyond making a few superficial notes and then getting on with the work to embalm the bodies that were going to be brought to shore. What appears to have happened was oriented more to identifying the person recovered.

The biographies here on ET include some of the records made of the recovered bodies and you can see an example at in Hudson Allison's biography.

You can find more of these at the following links:,

As you can see, there's not a lot to go on there. These records appear to be held in the Public Archives in Halifax and you might be able to find more by getting a hold of them. Wherever your research leads you, I hope you'll consider offering the paper for publication here on ET. I would look forward to reading it.
Not to argue with Michael, but I think this area of inquiry may shed light on one of the "unmentionable" mysteries of that night--why the lifeboats did not go back to pick up more survivors.

My work putting together a chronology of the sinking shows that Titanic remained relatively inhabitable until very close to the end. Most of the large inside public rooms were still dry, warm, and brightly lighted. That changed rapidly after 2:15 a.m. Gracie and others reported large numbers of people suddenly coming on deck as the ship literally started to come apart beneath their feet.

The breakup allowed the stern to float free for some time after the bow effectively disappeared. How long?

Victims of Titanic would have died from four primary causes: 1.) blunt trauma in the breakup; 2.) wet drowning; 3.) dry drowning "hypothermia"; and 4.) being pulled under with the ship. Obviously, the #4 reason combines both #1 and #2 but in a way that is really quite separate.

If most victims were of the #3 "dry" type, then we have good indication that the lifeboats could well have rescued perhaps hundreds more people from the water. A high precentage of "dry" victims would indicate that most of the screaming heard after the sinking came from the water.

However, if most of the victims were of types #2 or #4 then a different scenario plays out. This would indicate that the victims were killed by the motions of the sinking ship which would have made it difficult and dangerous for lifeboats to approach.

A large number of compressive drowning victims of type #4 would reinforce theories that the bulk of those left behind were still inside the ship at the end. These people could not have been rescued by the lifeboats.

So, it is possible that Rachael's research will lead us to a better understanding of what happened that night between the time the lights went out and when the last cry went silent from the water. And, I might add a caution--we may learn some things that emotionally we don't really want to know. History is not always pleasant.

-- David G. Brown
>>And, I might add a caution--we may learn some things that emotionally we don't really want to know. History is not always pleasant. <<

Boy, ain't that the truth!

I just hope that there's something out there that Rachael can work with. From what little I've seen, nobody at the time was particularly interested in doing a really good forensics investigation. (Perhaps because nobody even then really wanted to know???
)It would be nice to be proven wrong on this.
the causes of death was noted as "drowning" for the simple reason that when bodies were found at the site of the titanic sinking, there was more than they could carry on the mackay-bennet. Many were embalmed but if they looked "fresh" then it was probally drowning, if there was anything to go deeps wounds then it would be stated otherwise.
If you think about it though, people who jumped from the ship into the water whilst the stern was in the air, it would have caused mass internal bleeding and therefore maybe would have been un-noticed by the correnor who was working on the bodies. Modern technology has changed since those days, so if Titanic had sunk now, there would have been more forensic work done.

There are many pictures stating the state of the bodies and the cause of death, many of them was crushed because of the pressure of the sinking.
its probally best not really to think about what those poor souls must have gone through.
>>it would have caused mass internal bleeding and therefore maybe would have been un-noticed by the correnor who was working on the bodies.<<

Since some of the work included embalming the bodies, I think it's a fair bet that the signs pointing to internal injuries at least would not have escaped notice. The reason there were a lot of bodies that looked bad...regardless of the actual cause of death...was because it had been several days since the Titanic sank before the MacKay-Bennett had arrived on scene to pick up even the first. As cold as the ocean was, it wasn't enough to stop the normal process of decomposition.
The articles I've read said most bodies were in pretty good shape when recovered.

In a statement published in the Halifax Morning Chronicle for May 2nd, 1912, the Mackay-Bennett's ship's surgeon Dr. Thomas Armstrong, related "With the exception of about 10 bodies that had received serious injuries, their looks were calm and peaceful", (related in Ruffman's Titanic Remembered - The Unsinkable Ship and Halifax). It is unknown as to which of the recovered bodies were of the 10 mentioned, though in Sinking of the Titanic by Jay Henry Mowbray, it is mentioned that the body of Edward Keating (actually Edward Keeping, #45) was damaged by being struck by wreckage, and the face beyond recognition.

There is the story that John Jacob Astor's body was crushed by a funnel, but George Behe found quite a lot of evidence that that did not really happen. See

The Two Deaths of John Jacob Astor
If somebody was going to make an educated guess (if it even could be done), would they say that the majority of Titanic's victims died from hypothermia, etc?

I always wonder about the third class passengers still in steerage whose cause of death might have been too disturbing for me to want to consider...

But were the majority of doomed passengers on deck before the final plunge? This is the kind of information that I feel like I always miss...
I don't know that even an educated guess would be all that useful. We just don't know and have no way of knowing how many were trapped below decks. It would appear that a lot of people made it to the weather decks and if that's the case, hypothermia would be a very good bet.
Lucy -

It's hard to say how many passengers were on deck at the end. It appears more 1st Class passengers were on deck than 3rd. I strongly suspect that quite a few 3rd class passengers were trapped below at the end, unable to get out as the ship tipped - though I cannot prove it without the shadow of a doubt.