Officer Suicides & Related Issues


Dec 29, 2006
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I have been giving the matter of the supposed officer suicides some thought. This question has been discussed many times before, but there seem to be one or two issues that might be worth raising. For clarity, the questions might be set out as follows:

1. Has anyone yet considered how suicide was regarded in 1912? My feeling is that there was a very real stigma attached to those who took their own lives, which was against the teaching of all of the major Christian churches in Britain and America. Suicide was a sin, and suicides were not supposed to be buried in consecrated ground. This would have been a powerful argument against taking ones own life.

2. Modern psychological research suggests that, although post traumatic stress disorder may lead to suicide long after traumatic events have taken place, soldiers and sailors, etc., tend NOT to kill themselves when those events are under way, because their minds are narrowly focussed on the important tasks in hand. I can imagine that First Officer Murdock's mind would have been so concerned with with practical tasks such as "how can we launch the inflatable lifeboats without davits?" that he would not have had time for thoughts of suicide.

3. If First Officer Murdock HAD shot himself, this would imply an element of mental instability. Is is likely that a man with such mental problems could have risen to the rank of first officer on a prestigious ocean liner? Could such a man have obtained a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve?

4. I am still working on this one, but it seems to me that the first reports of officer suicides appeared BEFORE the Carpathia had docked. This surely indicates that the stories were being manufactured. Lawrence Beesley's statement and subsequent book were published, in part, as a corrective to the highly misleading headlines that were appearing in some sections of the press.

5. Beesley, and all of the other reputable witnesses, were adamant that the suicide, or suicides, did not take place.

6. How reliable were those who claimed that first Officer Murdoch shot himself. In particular, is it conceivable that, at the height of the 1912 Home Rule crisis, Eugene Daly, (an Irish Catholic) wished to discredit Murdoch, (a Scottish Protestant), and imply that he was a coward who had cracked under the strain of events?
 
Dec 29, 2006
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Elsewhere on this site, Inger Sheil has asked me to clarify my statement to the effect that misinformation had appeared in the press BEFORE the true facts had been made known. It was perhaps unfortunate that I posted this as a statement rather than a question, but I nevertheless believe that the issue is crucial, and should be very carefully examined.

Quality newspapers such as The Times printed a great deal of information from 16 April onwards. In the case of The Times, the timing of each report is normally quoted, which is most useful for modern researchers. Unfortunately, the quality papers tended not to print unsubstantiated reports, and so they are of little use in this context. On the other hand, less important papers were less fastidious, and they certainly published some odd material. The following report from The Witney Gazette is a classic example:

"Captain Smith shot himself on the bridge. The Chief Engineer likewise committed suicide. Three Italians were shot to death in the struggle for the lifeboats. The passengers, who were first told of the Captain's end, were told that two attempts were necessary to end his life. His brother officers wrestled the revolver from his hand in the library, but he broke away to the bridge and shot himself through the mouth".

Before we laugh too much at the editor of The Witney Gazette, it should be added that this story was quoted verbatim from a Reuters report, which had appeared in one or other of the daily papers (I think it was The Daily Express) and then been re-printed in the locally-produced Witney Gazette (a weekly paper) on 20 April. The Gazette did not quote a time/date, but it would be interesting to ascertain when these over-the-top reports first started to appear.
 

Inger Sheil

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Dec 3, 2000
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quote:

Elsewhere on this site, Inger Sheil has asked me to clarify my statement to the effect that misinformation had appeared in the press BEFORE the true facts had been made known. It was perhaps unfortunate that I posted this as a statement rather than a question, but I nevertheless believe that the issue is crucial, and should be very carefully examined.
Thanks for clarifying that, Stanley - when you stated in the other thread that "All of this information [i.e. the accounts of a suicide, including Smith's] was appearing BEFORE the Carpathia had docked - which surely proves that the stories had been fabricated." I was rather startled, as - to my knowledge - no story of suicide pre-dating the Carpathia's arrival in NY has yet come to light. It would indeed have cast great doubt on there being even a kernal of truth in the suicide stories if this were the case.
quote:

The Gazette did not quote a time/date, but it would be interesting to ascertain when these over-the-top reports first started to appear.
To my knowledge, they began appearing on the 19th when the papers began producing many 'eyewitness' accounts - many garbled and even possibly outright fabricated accounts.

The Witney Gazette article that you posted bears a remarkable resemblance to accounts that appeared in the US on the 19th - as I mentioned, MAB uploaded an article from the Washington Times to ET, which claims Gretchen Longley as the source. This article made reference to contradictory stories about Smith's end, but alledges Longley said:
quote:

“Captain Smith made two attempts to kill himself,”￾ said she, “and at last he succeeded. He was in his library when the officers saw him with a revolver in his hand. They rushed their superior officer and tore the gun from him. The captain struggled with them desperately, broke away, and rushed to the bridge, where he killed himself, placing the revolver to his mouth and firing.”￾
https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/item/4070/

Have you had a look at Bill Womstedt's site, Shots in the Dark? Bill has been collecting material relating to the suicide rumours for years, and it makes interesting reading to see them collated on the one site. It will also give you an idea of the forms the stories took.
http://home.comcast.net/~bwormst/titanic/shots/shots.htm

Have you read through the many past threads that have appeared on ET regarding this issue? If you do a search on the keyword 'suicide' you'll turn up the many, often very involved, discussions that have taken place on this topic.​
 
Dec 6, 2000
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Thanks for mentioning my site, Inger!

Just a note to let everyone know that I am still looking for more accounts! If you have something I don't have listed, drop me a line, and I'll be glad to include it!
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>This would have been a powerful argument against taking ones own life. <<

And yet, for some, it wouldn't be enough to stop them.

Just a few thoughts here. You're right about the stigma attached to suicide and families would go to some pains to cover it up. Ever read an obituary where the term "Died Suddenly" was used? I think you can take it as a given that they weren't all heart attacks or strokes.

Keep in mind however that even in the Judeao-Christian tradition, not all suicides were regarded as dishonourable, particularly in cases of extreme moral duress. The men and women who gave up seats on the lifeboats were hardly blind to the fact that they were signing their own death warrants. In military service, the idea of "Death Before Dishonour" goes back for centuries, and in the Edwardian age, this idea was taken very seriously in some quarters. Just take a look at how Ismay was villified for the crime of being alive!

In any event, before getting too closely wedded to the idea that there were suicides...and there might have been...one might consider that some of what happened was murder as well. The officers on the Titanic weren't the only ones packing heat, and it's not impossible that somebody may have resorted to gunplay in a last ditch gambit to survive.
 
Dec 29, 2006
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I am aware that a great deal of information has been published in this site on the supposed suicides. However, I am still confused by the chronology. I had assumed that it was generally agreed that the stories had appeared in New York before the Carpathia had docked on the evening of 18 April. As Lawrence Beesley put it "Horror piled upon horror, and not a word of it true .... no one on the Carpathia could have supplied such information ... the only possible conclusion is that the whole thing was a deliberate fabrication to sell the paper".

I thought that it would be a relatively easy matter to establish when some of these lurid stories were first published but, as Inger suggests, the evidence is very hard to pin down. I have ready access to only two papers at the present time, The Times and The Witney Gazette. The Times seems to have contemptuously ignored the suicide rumours, but the Gazette naively published one of the more ridiculous versions.

At first glance, something that turned up in a provincial paper on Saturday 20 April may seem irrelevant, but consider the following facts. The Witney Gazette was a "one man" operation that was written during the week, printed on Friday and published either on Friday evening or on the following day. Its national news content was culled from other newspapers and was therefore UP TO A WEEK OLD by the time that it appeared on the bucolic streets of Witney. The "suicide" report that I have quoted had, in effect been re-cycled, probably from The Daily Express on 17 or 18 April. As such, it would clearly have pre-dated the arrival of the Carpathia. This misinformation had, moreover, been published by Reuters, and it should therefore be possible to obtain a positive time/date of appearance.

I know that the story concerned relates, not to First Officer Murdoch, but to the Captain and First Engineer but, if can be proved that it appeared on the Monday, do we not have the makings of a case (I almost said "smoking gun"!) On a footnote, I was looking at The Witney Gazette in an attempt to find any new data on local crew or passengers J.W.Woodward, Amy Stanley and Captain Smith's steward, Mr Paintin - not a word was published on any of them.
 

Tad G. Fitch

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Hi Stanley, how are you? Good I hope. As Inger stated, I am unaware of any evidence suggesting that the suicide stories began appearing *before* the Carpathia reached New York, although there were certainly any number of stories that appeared in the press later, ranging from possibly credible ones (based on people saying the same thing in private letters as in these accounts) to the completely ludicrous.

Nobody can say for certain whether or not a suicide took place, but there is a good deal of evidence both from survivors and Carpathia passengers, and not all of it from press accounts, but from private letters too, that the stories were at the very least circulating onboard the Carpathia before it reached New York (Bill and myself wrote an article for the Commutator on this last year which has more updated information than the website at the moment). What that means, I don't know, but I really have seen no evidence to indicate the stories originated in the press prior to that ship's arrival.

As far as your theory about Daly's story originating from animosity towards Murdoch due to his country of origin, it is an interesting theory, but you must bear in mind that nowhere did Daly ever identify the officer who he saw, and in fact, all indications are that he did not know who the person was that he had seen, and he mentions it in court testimony, private letters, press accounts, etc.

Hope your week is going well.

Kind regards,
Tad
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>However, I am still confused by the chronology.<<

You have some good company there. If you're wondering about the chronology behind the stories, it would be helpful if anyone could figure out where they started in the first place. Therein lies the rub. Any stories published before or as Carpathia docked in New York couldn't possibly have come from that ship. The Marconi operators had all they could manage in just transmitting the names of the survivors that had been collected. In that light, it seems reasonable to presume that any story which came out before Carpathia arrived in New York were fabricated out of thin air.

Even the most reputable papers weren't immune to that sort of thing, and quite a few in that day and age, being little better then modern rags such as The Weekly World News, just didn't care.
 
Dec 29, 2006
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Hello Tad & Michael,

I agree that it is unlikely that Eugene Daly had any personal animosity. As the son of an RIC man who had apparently died in the course of duty his Irish nationalist sympathies were probably quite mild - and as you say, he did not name the officer concerned.

The Times attributed what it called "misinformation" to the unregulated nature of wireless telegraphy in North America at that time, which had allowed malicious rumours to be manufactured by unscrupulous amateurs. These stories were taken up by reputable agencies such as Reuters and the Central News Agency and circulated in good faith. The Times had, at one stage, published stories about the Titanic being towed stern-first towards Canada, although it did not print any of the suicide stories.

Does anyone have any views about the origin of the suicide-in-the-library report; this must have appeared before the Carpathia docked?
 
Dec 6, 2000
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Mike said:

"Ever read an obituary where the term "Died Suddenly" was used? I think you can take it as a given that they weren't all heart attacks or strokes."

I have to disagree. My ex-wife 'died suddenly' two months ago, and it had nothing to do with suicide. On the death certificate, it's going down as 'unknown causes', due to the medical examiner not being positive what had happened. But those of us who know Barb's life, have a strong suspicion it *was* heart related. It just can't be proved.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>I have to disagree. My ex-wife 'died suddenly' two months ago, and it had nothing to do with suicide.<<

And not all of them do. Sometimes however, it's a euphemism for suicide and I've seen this happen right in my hometown with a man who ate his own pistol and pulled the trigger. The family was not about to put "Blew his brains out" in the obituary. The term they used was "Died Suddenly."
 
Feb 7, 2005
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Oh my gosh, Bill, I'm sorry to hear that. You have our deepest sympathies. It must have been a shock, even though the two of you had parted ways awhile ago and moved on with your lives. I'm sure it was a difficult time for you and your kids.

Even with all the medical knowledge we have today the experts sometimes just don't know why someone passes away, and have to attribute it to "unknown causes." I suppose it's simply another way of saying "natural causes."

Denise (and John)
 

Inger Sheil

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Dec 3, 2000
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quote:

I agree that it is unlikely that Eugene Daly had any personal animosity. As the son of an RIC man who had apparently died in the course of duty his Irish nationalist sympathies were probably quite mild - and as you say, he did not name the officer concerned.
Indeed, yes - although being the son of an RIC man, or even being an RIC man yourself - did not in 1912 preclude one from having nationalist sympathies. Employment of a non-agricultural kind was limited in Ireland at the period, which is why so many emigrated - some, like Michael Collins, to the heart of the empire itself, London. When the Irish War of Independence really swung into high gear at the end of the teens, there were many RIC recruits to the nationalist cause. Others simply harboured sympathies. One of my favourite stories of the period relates to an RIC man on the O'Connell St Bridge cheerfully greeting 'The Big Fellow' with a "Good day to you, Mr Collins!" as he walked past. At the time, Collins was possibly the most wanted man in the British Empire.

It's also worth noting that Daly, even if he had mentioned Murdoch by name, would hardly have known his religious leanings. I know a family of Catholic Murdochs from the same branch as William McMaster. And although WMM came from an area where the Scots Covenanting tradition was strong, what evidence we do have on his religious leanings indicates that he wasn't strident at all about his faith. One Murdoch researcher who has a lot of work on the oral traditions relating to the family notes that some of the more rigid individuals in Dalbeattie disapproved of WMM, as he wasn't living up to their religious standards. The fact that he married his wife in a C of E ceremony suggests that he did not share the same fervour as many Scots Presbyterians.

I've found many small regional papers picked up stories very quickly after they appeared on the 19th, on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, it becomes almost monotonous to read through the same material again and again. The library story is hardly unique to the two papers mentioned in this thread that carried it. I've come across it in other sources as well (Bill, did I ever send them to you?). There are a number of researchers going through the news sources with a specific eye out for suicide stories, but - as far as I know - none has identified any that pre-date the Carpathia docking.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this net of rumour is the cross-pollination of accounts that occured on board ship in close quarters. Look at the seamen who spoke to reporters when the disembarked in Plymouth - some gave quite detailed accounts of a suicide, but by that time they had been on the Carpathia and the Lapland, in an environment where shipboard rumours feed on each other. So many accounts, at first glance definitive, fail to stand up to scrutiny. Either the supposed source wasn't in a position to see what they claim to have seen, or they're not identified so we can't evaluate their claims, or they name a specific individual it is highly unlikely they could identify, and on it goes.

Bill - I'm so sorry about Barb.​
 

Tad G. Fitch

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Dec 31, 2005
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Stanley, I would have to check, but I am relatively certain that the library story originated in the New York papers. There are several shorter or edited versions of the "library suicide" story that appeared on April 19, 1912, in the New York, Chicago, and Cleveland papers, and others. I have never seen anything to indicate that this story originated prior to the Carpathia's arrival in New York, or prior to that date.

One thing to keep in mind is that even if there were such earlier accounts, there are private letters written onboard the Carpathia prior to its arrival in New York which mention stories of a suicide. Of course, if you have anything to indicate that some of the stories originated in the press prior to the Carpathia's arrival, I think we all would definitely be interested in seeing it.

From what Bill and myself have been able to find during our research, there were several witnesses who appear credible who claimed to have witnessed a suicide, there was rumors circulating onboard the Carpathia about it, and then when the yellow press got a hold of it, they took it and ran with it, resulting in some of the more absurd claims. Unfortunately, this has caused much confusion and controversy ever since then, and has obscured whatever grain of truth there is to the stories.

All my best,
Tad
 
Dec 6, 2000
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Thanks for the sympathy, folks. Yes, it was sudden, yes it was a shock. But, as my daughter, and Barb's sister both said after it happened, now she's at peace.

I want to echo Tad's statement - we would very much appreciate any and all information on this.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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I wonder if it'll ever be possible to really sort any of this out. Rumours have a way of improving in the telling, especially on a ship. (Which I know from direct experience!) Throw the yellow journalists into the mix and you have a stew where it's difficult to impossible to tell the real meat from the spicy additives thrown into the pot. Even worse, anybody in a position to know the real deal have long since made their own journey into The Great Beyond. That makes it rather diffucult to question any of them, so about the only real hope here is if something like a personal journal or diary turns up somewhere.
 
Dec 29, 2006
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Details about the loss of the Titanic seem to have appeared in two waves, starting on 15 April 1912 when a great deal of false information was generated by malicious hoaxers. There was, thereafter, a "news black-out" which lasted until Friday 19 April when, having worked through the previous night, US papers published the first genuine survivors' stories.

These sequence of these events was as follows:

15 April - False news reports circulated.

18 April (evening) - Carpathia arrives with survivors and interviews take place.

19 April - US papers print first genuine news.

20 April - After a 24 hour delay, UK papers publish their first genuine news reports.

I believe that the Reuters suicide-in-the-library was part of the wave of false news and, if this is indeed the case, it must have been one of the first "suicide" stories to appear. The fact that this story was quoted in an essentially local British paper such as The Witney Gazette on Saturday 20 April has little bearing on the date of the story, because the Gazette was a one-man paper that is most unlikely to have run its single press on Friday night. The story was already "old" news, which the proprietor must have discovered in a daily paper. If anyone has a run of The Daily Express between 15 April and 20 April I would suggest that the precise date of this story will probably be revealed.
 
Dec 29, 2006
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Earlier in this thread I had posed a question regarding the time lapse that would have ocurred before news of the sinking started to appear in British provincial papers, this question having been prompted by an item that appeared in The Witney Gazette on 20 April 1912 concerning the supposed suicide of Captain Smith and the First Engineer. Briefly, I suggested that in view of the time lapse that must have taken place, this report may have predated the arrival of the Carpathia at New York on the evening of Thursday 18 April 1912. As this question appeared to have important ramifications concerning the officer suicides, I wanted to know the source of the "news". Well, having had another look at The Gazette, it appears that the story emanated from Reuters news agency early on the morning of Friday 19 April, the report being preceded by the following introduction:

"The latest news of the terrible disaster is published this (Friday) morning by the Daily Telegraph who, at 4.00 am, received the following telegram".

There follows a garbled news item which includes the notorious suicide-in-the-library story. Ironically, the Gazette - an unimportant, low-circulation publication - had already printed a very full and surprisingly accurate report in its main Titanic news feature. The suicide story was NOT part of this sober report, but it had obviously been added at the very last minute on the back page as what purported to be the "latest news" from New York.

If anyone is interested in receiving the full text of the "suicide" report I would be happy to e-mail it to them.
 

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