Premonitions of the Titanic Disaster

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Encyclopedia Titanica

Encyclopedia Titanica

Philip Hind
Staff member
Information from Terry Keefe about his new book Premonitions of the Titanic Disaster:

Terry Keefe's new publication, Premonitions of the Titanic Disaster (Matador, 2021, 424 pp, Amazon US, UK), is the only book in English on the topic for over thirty years, and the first to set out all of the (201) 'premonitions' mentioned by the five main commentators (Ian Stevenson, Rustie Brown, Martin Gardner, George Behe, Bertrand Méheust), as well as to compare their treatments of the subject.

It can be sampled on both the Amazon and Google Books websites, or below. Queries and comments would be welcome.



Foreword ix
Introduction xiii
Ch. 1: Premonitions in Literature: Poems, W.T. Stead, Morgan Robertson, ‘Mayn Clew Garnett’ 1
Ch. 2: Premonitions of the Death of W.T. Stead 62
Ch. 3: Ian Stevenson 103
Ch. 4: Rustie Brown and Martin Gardner 158
Ch. 5: George Behe 198
Ch. 6: Bertrand Méheust 283
Ch. 7: Results and Methods 320
Conclusion 362
Appendix 1: Full List of Cases 371
Appendix 2: Table of Contents of Méheust’s Paranormal Stories of the Titanic 380
Bibliography 382
Index of Names 391
About the Author 396

These are just a few of the many alleged premonitions explored by Ian Stevenson, Rustie Brown, Martin Gardner, George Behe and Bertrand Méheust, the writers who have contributed most to the examination of Titanic ‘premonitions’. … In Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 general premonition cases are looked at in the chapter on the commentator who first raised them, again in the order in which they appear. Each case is considered just once, with the additional contributions of later authors taken into account. There are 201 cases in all.
Readers so inclined may focus first on the alleged premonitions as such by turning to the sections marked ‘Case’ or ‘Cases’ in Chapters 1-6. (P. 3, 6, 22, 49, 63, 109, 138, 163, 205, 226, 239, 270, 287.)

The commentators concerned are of varied backgrounds and have different – to some extent complementary – preoccupations. While, in their very different ways, Gardner and Méheust bring out the literary and philosophical links with the Titanic disaster, Stevenson’s approach may be characterised, in general, as somewhat more ‘scientific’. On the other hand, Brown, with her early reference to ‘the premonitions, the superstitions, and the so-called “coincidences”’, and Behe, who discusses, among other things, ‘curious coincidences’ and ‘mistaken accounts and deliberate hoaxes’, both set foreseeing the catastrophe within a rather broader context. Other premonitions have been reported and are in the public domain, but very often these are unsourced and poorly substantiated. In any case, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Few will deny that the trawl carried out by our five authors, and their presentation of the 201 cases in print, provides an extensive and representative collection of Titanic premonitions.
One justification for the present inquiry is that none of these works has had the kind of currency that it might have had. Stevenson’s investigation from the 1960s was published in the specialised Journal of the American Society for Psychic Research, and his two articles themselves have not been seen by many. Brown’s book is not commonly referred to; and Gardner’s only slightly more frequently. Méheust’s book – not yet translated into English – is used as an original source by still fewer in English-language Titanic studies. Behe’s book remains the best-known on this subject, but even this is long out of print and has not been read by as many as it might have been. The results of the five commentators’ inquiries, moreover, have never been systematically compared.

Stead wrote two fictional items that are commonly taken to constitute or contain a foretelling of the Titanic disaster: ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor’ (1886), and ‘From the Old World to the New’ (1892).
Méheust is guilty, in a general way, of over-stressing and over-interpreting ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down …’, which is a very short story of just over 2,600 words. In itself it does not contain any paranormal element at all. And, above all, it bears strikingly little relation – however it is interpreted – to the Titanic disaster.
(IS,9b) The second fictional piece, for which Stevenson gives Estelle Stead’s book, My Father (1934), as his source, ‘From the Old World to the New’, was published in the Review of Reviews in 1892. Stevenson says this item imagines the sinking of a liner by collision with an iceberg and the rescue of its sole surviving passenger by the White Star liner Majestic. He adds that the captain of the real Majestic at the time was Edward Smith. … Overall there is little, if anything, in the comments of our five authors to substantiate any claim that ‘From the Old World …’ anticipates Stead’s own death, much less that it somehow foretells the Titanic disaster. It is true that, unlike ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down …’, the story definitely contains paranormal elements. But, in fact, our first four authors scarcely make the case for premonition at all …
Gardner regards Robertson’s novel as by far Stevenson’s best example of precognition, going on to claim that it is the ‘single most impressive example of seeming precognition of the Titanic disaster, or any other disaster’. … He points out that Robertson’s short autobiography, ‘Gathering No Moss’, which is around 9,000 words long, strangely makes no mention of Titanic or his own prophetic novel. Nor does it suggest that he writes in any paranormal state. … Behe classifies Robertson’s novel as only a ‘curious coincidence’. After relating what happens to Titan, he argues that the ‘many similarities’ between Titan and Titanic seem uncanny at first, ‘but are actually perfectly understandable’. … Méheust devotes a great deal of space to Robertson – two-and-a-half chapters – emphasising that his is just one of a group of fictional stories that appear to foresee the Titanic disaster. He gives new dimensions to the case, but his treatment of it is less than satisfactory in a number of respects. … It cannot be overstressed that the Titan’s sinking is but one element just over a third of the way through a story of love and financial struggle that contains incidents like the slicing in half of a sailing ship, the killing of a polar bear with a penknife, and the rescue of Rowland and a child from an iceberg.
(MG,24) Gardner is the first of our five authors to introduce the case of Mayn Clew Garnett. Neither Stevenson nor Brown makes any reference at all to Garnett. Gardner, however, in introducing ‘The White Ghost of Disaster’, which he reproduces in his book, notes that Stevenson was unaware of Garnett’s story when he wrote his papers, and that he had sent Stevenson a copy. … He says that the main interest of the story is that it was written ‘only a short time before the Titanic sank’. … The interest of these parallels is that they cannot be explained by the point that Garnett could have had detailed knowledge of Titanic, and even its sailing plans. In short, the balance between similarities and dissimilarities can be seen in different ways, but the case for asking whether Garnett might have had some kind of premonition of the Titanic catastrophe is certainly no weaker than with the stories by Stead, and perhaps even Robertson’s tale.

(GB,cc,52) Giving the Vancouver Daily Province (2 May, 1912) as his source, Behe records that in Suva, Fiji, on (or after) 16 April 1912, the officers of the liner Marama were told by the inhabitants that Titanic had gone down with heavy loss of life. Two days after their departure for Honolulu, Marama received a wireless message saying that Titanic had struck an iceberg, but was being towed to safety. The officers could not explain how Fiji knew about Titanic’s loss two or three days before the first reports of the collision reached this area of the Pacific. Behe comments that this is indeed a puzzle, though there is probably a ‘completely normal explanation’ for it. He believes it may always remain a mystery. Citing Behe, Méheust follows his account of this incident (although he mistakenly refers to the Marana). In Part III of his book he says that if the information is exact this is ‘one of the strangest cases in the dossier’. The ‘incomprehensible’ phenomenon makes him wonder whether it is a question of ‘means of communication characteristic of ancient peoples’. He points out that in the accounts of missionaries, and early ethnographic literature, stories of this kind are very common. He thinks that an historical inquiry ought to be able to establish when exactly news of the loss of Titanic and passengers reached the Pacific, and asserts that if this was on 18 April we have a striking case of ‘metacommunication’. While it is noticeable that Méheust’s rating of the case as two-stars-plus contrasts with Behe’s categorisation, it has to be said that there is a vagueness about the account of this incident that rather undermines its significance (What was the exact date of the incident? How long was Marama in Suva? Where exactly was it when it received the wireless message? When – and how – did news actually reach Fiji? And so on.)
(GB,cc,53) Several months before his death, Captain Smith had spoken about his bad luck at sea with a businessman, J.P. Grant. He felt that he had been jinxed and said he would resign if he had another accident with a liner. Behe comments that Smith intended to retire after Titanic’s maiden voyage, although this is by no means certain. Méheust suggests that a series of accidents to Olympic ‘must have’ weighed heavily upon Smith, who came to wonder, in a discussion with Grant, whether ‘the die had not been cast for him’. He does not return to this vague and inconsequential story in Part III of his book.
It is noticeable that, not only does the amount of detail in Behe’s ‘probable’ cases fluctuate very considerably, his degree of conviction is also variable. He commits pretty strongly to one or two instances in particular, but often leaves us wondering why he has included others in this category at all, since he gives no reason for doing so. His assertion that he finds a statement ‘believable’ hardly helps persuade us, and a few experiences are so insubstantial that the reader is left genuinely puzzled that Behe should rate them so highly. Together with the fact that a number of ‘possible’ cases appear more plausible, this rather undermines Behe’s classification scheme as a whole.

Méheust also touches on the possibility of one writer influencing a later one, but regards the hypothesis that Robertson drew on Stead’s stories as ‘unlikely on the psychological level’, although he argues that we cannot absolutely exclude it as an unconscious phenomenon. Nonetheless, as we have already indicated, a thorough examination of literary premonitions would certainly involve both a more detailed consideration of Stead’s possible influence on Robertson, and of Garnett’s debt to both authors.
Altogether, far more space is devoted in the texts to premonitions regarding Stead’s death than to any other specific topic or type of premonition. They constitute more than 17% of our total number. Our suggestion that they are a special instance of non-literary premonitions, since initially they clearly actually circulated within the circle of Stead’s acquaintances, is borne out by the fact that 21 of the 32 cases for which sources are given quote books by either Stead’s daughter, Estelle, or Edith Harper, Stead’s secretary, or James Coates, who knew Stead well. Even so, only one instance is mentioned by all 5 of our authors, and 15 by just one author.
Again, if we look at Behe’s 35 ‘probable’ cases, we find that only 2 are awarded three stars by Méheust (Jessie and Marcelle Navratil), and another 2 two-star-plus (b*** and Esther Hart). In fact, Méheust quite often classifies Behe’s best instances as only one-star or one-star-plus. And even when we examine the 4 cases where there appears to be something like a common (positive) judgement, the results are disappointing.
Perhaps an even more important point is that, insofar as a reason or motive is required, the desire to receive attention or feel important after the event would be more than enough to generate self-deception in some people. In any event, one must always be conscious of the possibility of self-deception in the spoken or written statements of both witnesses and those reporting their words. In principle, this has to be regarded as potentially a major feature of premonition accounts. Yet none of our authors treat self-deception, as they probably ought to have done, as on a par with chance/coincidence and inference when it comes to considering alternative explanations for apparently paranormal experiences.

When we look at all of the anecdotal Titanic cases we have listed, it is already surprising that fewer than half are covered by more than one of our authors, and a great deal more puzzling that only 8 cases (of the total of 26 examined by Stevenson) are treated by all five. Yet in itself this is of less significance than the fact that very little indeed by way of harmony and agreement on the substantive issues of premonitions emerges from the writings of these writers. … One might have expected at the very least a certain consensus on the most convincing or plausible cases on the part of all or nearly all of our authors, even one or two remarkable instances that commanded common approval. That this is far from what we find may not be sufficient to undermine belief in the reality of Titanic premonitions, but it has to be regarded as a major factor in an overall view of the phenomena concerned.

IS,9c – Stead (vision of a mob) – (MG,22) , [(GB,wts,2) , (BM,wts,3).
IS,9d – Stead (shipwrecked) – (RB,34) , (MG,19) , (GB,wts,6) , (BM,wts,8)[/B].
RB,20 – Stead (Egyptian mummy story) – (GB,cc,36) , (BM,26a) .
RB,29 – Stead (his own premonitions).
RB,35 – Stead (predicts he will be killed).
GB,wts,5 – Stead (discusses his death, in Toronto) – (BM,wts,7).
[GB,wts,12[/B] – Stead (predicts his violent death) – (BM,wts,14) .
GB,wts,17 – Stead (no anxieties about Titanic).
BM,wts,21 – Stead (says goodbye emotionally).
]BM,wts,22 – Stead (writes to Harper).
BM,wts,23 – Stead (letters from Queenstown).


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