Credibility of survivor testimony


chrismireya

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There were 705 survivors from the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In the days, weeks and years following the sinking, the survivors told their stories many times.

Two major inquiries with sworn testimony were held -- the U.S. Senate Inquiry and the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry. Other survivors told their stories through newspaper, magazine and even audio interviews. Later, some survivors told their stories on television.

It doesn't take long before we realize that some of the stories aren't entirely accurate. They may have been affected by the trauma of the sinking (and immediate aftermath). Others may have injected hearsay (from stories heard aboard Carpathia or elsewhere) into the retelling of their stories. Some stories may have been simply exaggerated.

The discovery of the Titanic wreckage in 1985 revealed some truths about certain events on that cold April night in 1912. Other things are still clouded in mystery. Unfortunately, there are stories that defy scientific or medical realities. Some of those claims are used to support alternative versions of the sinking (as well as a few conspiracy theories).

When you research the testimony of Titanic survivors, how do you rank that testimony in terms of credibility? Do you generally rank credibility for each survivor by their testimony (in terms of whether you deem them credible) or do you consider each statement rather than the person as a whole?
 
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Bob_Read

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One other aspect needs to be considered. Did the person’s future employment depend on his testimony?
 
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Aly Jones

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In these regards, passengers and lower crew members testimonies probably be more accountable then officers testimonies. Officer lightoller is a great example. We know he lied in some cases. He had a good career to protect, good friends reputation to protect, and he had to protect his employer the WSL. People had said that lightoller was a company man. Passengers and lower crew had nothing to lose, Lightoller did .
 

Bob_Read

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Aly Jones: I know a lot of people beat up on Lightoller for being a "company man". It is understandable that in cases where his opinion was solicited that he would express things in a favorable light for White Star and Titanic's crew but when it comes to questions of fact I can't think of an example where he "lied in some cases" as you put it. Can you give any examples? I'm not talking about where he might have been mistaken about whether the ship broke in two or not but examples where he was not mistaken buy clearly lying.
 

Sam Brannigan

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I recently watched a Netflix series on the trial of John Demjanjuk who was a war criminal alleged to have worked at the Treblinka extermination camp.

One of the most interesting clips was of a former camp inmate coming face to face with him at the trial in 1987 and declaring him to be his tormentor, that he could never forget his eyes. However, it turned out that the witness had declared in writing in 1943 that he had taken part in the killing of Demjanjuk.

This led to a very uncomfortable situation in which a primary witness of the Holocaust found that his story was being doubted. Until then all testimony had been sacrosanct.

This struck a chord with me because through studying the Titanic I have been fascinated by the discrepancies from survivor testimonies - e.g. "I was on the last boat launched". How much was muddled memory, deliberate falsehood or journalistic enhancement?

There are certain things we can be pretty sure that happened but I have a feeling that if I could have an omnipotent view of the Titanic on the night she sank things would look, sound and feel very different to the image that has been in my mind most of my life. Walter Lord was spot on with his observation about being final arbiter on what happened in the ship's final hours.
 

chrismireya

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There are certain things we can be pretty sure that happened but I have a feeling that if I could have an omnipotent view of the Titanic on the night she sank things would look, sound and feel very different to the image that has been in my mind most of my life. Walter Lord was spot on with his observation about being final arbiter on what happened in the ship's final hours.
I think it would be great to have a third-person overview of the sinking. This should include the deck (as it was during the sinking) and the position of each and every lifeboat. Perspective, distance and darkness -- along with the frenzied trauma of the moment -- obviously played a role in the "recollection" of each survivor.

One thing that I mentioned in response to another topic was just how crowded the decks of Titanic were as the night progressed. The ship had an estimated 2,224 total passengers -- and most were likely crowding upon the upper decks of the ship. It only grew worse as the disaster unfolded.

I suspect that there was some chaos. It may have been organized in an almost-Edwardian English manner, but it was chaos nonetheless.

As for perspective: Not long ago, the YouTube channel "Titanic Animations" began a series of videos that provided testimony from each lifeboat at the time of the sinking -- including the perspective of what the ship looked like from each boat (in proximity to the ship). I was struck by how far away the ship looked to some of the survivors. It is no wonder that some described very different scenarios.
 

Aly Jones

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Aly Jones: Can you give any examples? I'm not talking about where he might have been mistaken about whether the ship broke in two or not but examples where he was not mistaken buy clearly lying.
Hi Bob,

Yes I can.

Yesterday was chatting with Michael .H.S on FB about officer Lightoller. He made me aware that he was caught out with saying they never had any warnings on ice bergs. Then when lightoller was told they had evidence he then admitted that they did know of ice warnings.

This hasn't changed my mind on officers, they are my favorite people and they were not perfect ,just like you and I.
 

Mike Friedman

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This struck a chord with me because through studying the Titanic I have been fascinated by the discrepancies from survivor testimonies - e.g. "I was on the last boat launched". How much was muddled memory, deliberate falsehood or journalistic enhancement?
"The last boat" was subject to the limitations of each survivor's sight. To begin with, it would be hard for any survivor to know what was going on with boats on the opposite side of the ship. On the starboard side, Boat 15 was the "last boat" in physical placement, and if a passenger could not see far forward, they would be unaware of the presence of Collapsible C, the last boat launched on the starboard side, as opposed to Collapsible A, the last boat to actually leave the starboard side.

Similarly on the port side, while Boat 16 was the last boat in physical placement, Boat 10 was the last boat launched from the aft port side quadrant. Could a passenger in Boat 10 see Boat 4, one deck down and somewhat forward? Collapsible D was the last boat launched on the port side, while Collapsible B was the last one to leave the port side.

So in various contexts, there were three boats on the starboard side and at least four on the port side that could be termed "the last boat". Likely many, if not most, of those who claimed to have left in the last boat were convinced that their account was accurate. Those who either falsified their stories (or had them falsified by overzealous reporters) likely had other details that were manifestly inaccurate, since accuracy was not their goal.

Mrs. Futrelle seems to have been an exception to all these, as she gave multiple and various accounts, some of which agreed with Mrs. Lines' placement of her in Boat 9, which in no way could accurately by termed the last boat. But her stories seem to have been "all over the place", for reasons I'm not sure anyone has ever figured out.
 
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chrismireya

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"The last boat" was subject to the limitations of each survivor's sight.
Good point.

Think of what it was like sitting in a lifeboat after midnight on a cold and moonless April night. In most images of the sinking as depicted in paintings and movies, we see the ship from a perspective above sea level. Yet, the passengers onboard the lifeboats were viewing the sinking while seated about three feet above sea level from a distance of "let's get far away from this ship as quickly as possible!"

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Some of the survivors estimated their distance from Titanic at the time of sinking from distances of 200 yards up to a half-mile. Even with good eyesight, many were unlikely to see some of the details that were described in some testimony. Others likely misinterpreted what they saw. It's interesting that one person in Collapsible D saw the ship break apart while someone else in the same lifeboat did not.

In fact, when it comes to the breakup, I think that proximity, angle, etc. was important in providing a clear view of the final minutes of the ship. For instance, Lifeboat 10 must have been in a good position, because quite a few witnesses were adamant about the breakup of the ship.

 

Arun Vajpey

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As for perspective: Not long ago, the YouTube channel "Titanic Animations" began a series of videos that provided testimony from each lifeboat at the time of the sinking -- including the perspective of what the ship looked like from each boat (in proximity to the ship). I was struck by how far away the ship looked to some of the survivors. It is no wonder that some described very different scenarios.
That's very interesting. I have not seen it, but will look for it.

As for the ship looking 'smaller' to survivors in lifeboats that were not all that far away, it is sort of "optical pseudo-illusion" that happens almost every day to everyone but we take it for granted and don't think about it. It is the way our visual depth perception works.

On example is, if you take a photograph of a passing ship with a standard 50 mm lens of a full-frame camera (ie same focal point as the eye), the ship looks relatively smaller in a printed photograph than it seemed to appear to to the naked eye at the time of taking the photo. That's because of the way the brain interprets the things that one sees; You might be seeing a passing ship that is relatively distant and occupies only a small part of your field of vision but because that ship is what you are interested in, the brain sort of "magnifies" your perspective of that ship so that in your mind it seems larger than it actually is.

Another related phenomenon is the so-called 'blossom effect'. If you are driving at constant speed towards a large but distant object, it seem to remain rather small till you get rather close and then suddenly 'looms' larger and larger as you drive past. This happens to all of us all the time but we just take it for granted; having other reference points around also affects to 'dampen down' the blossom effect on a single object.

That is why I felt that the way the iceberg was shown in Cameron's film was all wrong. To get the best perspective of what the iceberg might have looked like from the viewpoint of Titanic's crow's nest, check out the serial graphics in Sam Halpern's superb article Encounter in the Night on his Titanicology web page. It can be accessed via the Chartroom link.
 
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Rob Lawes

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There are so many factors that effect the credibility of survivor testimony the best we can hope for after all these years is "a line of best fit" with which we can find a majority consensus.

We tend to consider the obvious factors such as where abouts the survivor was at the time, how much duress they were under such as battling to survive in the freezing water versus huddled in a lifeboat or if their description was first or second hand.

Among the numerous other considerations are things such as social and economic status or level of education. Just because a poor, low educated third class passengers description differs from a first class, well educated passenger in the same lifeboat does not necessarily make either statement less valid.

The vocabulary of either passengr may inadvertently distort the description they are giving. Add to that, regional dialect, slang, passengers who did not speak English or had English as a second language. The list goes on...

Look at something as humble as the word "cob". In the UK this could be used to describe any or all of the following:

A bird
A bread roll
A horse
A building material
A person in a bad mood
A corn on the cob

When read out of context it becomes that much more difficult to understand what was meant at the time.

Add to that, terms that were common place in 1912 that are meaningless today and there may be further confusion.

All of this looks at just one small area. When we add our own biases, perceptions or misinterpretation on to any piece of evidence we get into all sorts of additional issues.

We can only hope to eliminate through shared discussions as many of these inconsistencies as possible to arrive at the most credible version of events.
 
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