Silent Smith


Suzanne Todman

Looking through older Life magazines, I came across an interesting tidbid from a 1940 issue.
I have never heard this story before and was wondering if anyone knew more about it. I have scanned the small article but because I am new to forum posting, I am unsure if it will show up. I will email the article to anyone who wishes.

It reads:
"Silent Smith"- 28 years ago Captain E.J Smith of the S.S Titanic disappeared in New york. 3 years later an unknown, penniless man, whom local police called "Silent Smith" Died in Lima,Ohio. The stranger wouldn't talk except to mutter "Smith" when asked his name. Undoubtedly he was an Irish seaman. The Rock of Ages was tattooed on his chest.A map of the Pacific was tattooed on his back. His height and weight were the same as the Titanic's Smith.
Embalmbed by a local undertaker, Silent Smith's body has been kept on display in an effort to identify him. No one has been able to do so. But the body is a good barometer and the hair continues to grow and must be cut every so often by the man who is in charge of the body.
This was written By Charles Wilson.
There is a photo of the body included.

I am very curious to know if this man was ever identified.

Hi Suzy.

I have never heard of this article but it sounds fun, go on then if you dont mind you can e.mail me the article and ill have a look.

The mag isnt for april 1 by any chance.

[email protected]

I am going to attempt to link to the article. It was published Feb 12,1940 in Life magazine.

That's pretty interesting. How could that have happened though? Certainly someone would have known Captain Smith was in their lifeboat, right? Karen
Hair continues to grow?(As per the articals assertion) Not on a dead man it doesn't, but pop magazine journalists aren't always renowned for their abilities at critical thinking.

Karen, I'll throw in with you on this one. Had Smith made it to a lifeboat, he would have been recognised instantly. This artical is just a sample of the sensationalist tripe circulating at the time. Not that we should get to smug about the quality of some of what is printed these days. Rags like The Star and the National Enquirer do a very brisk business.

Michael H. Standart
The growth of hair on a dead man is an old folk legend. It's put to good use in the last part of Stevenson's "The Master of Ballantrae". As to Smith, this is not the only tale of him surviving. Some years ago he turned up alive in the North Atlantic, having survived in some kind of time warp. Once back in normal time, he aged rapidly and died before anybody had the sense to conjure up Lord Mersey and put him on the witness stand. A rag called Weekly World News has published this and other Titanic ratbaggery.
Well??? ... I hate to disappoint you guys, but the growth of hair and fingernails on a dead man is no wive's tale. Death is a process, not a discrete event, and skin death doesn't occur for some time after cardiological or neurological death sets in. This is largely because the surface layers of that body-wide organ are capable of respiring independently, without the help of blood oxygen, thank you kindly. (I have a very credible book on this subject, appropriately entitled "Death", which is quite emphatic about this.)

However, there is a limit! While hair and fingernails do continue to grow briefly while the skin persists, they certainly don't do so indefinitely, and the story itself sounds like complete hogwash -- embalmed, and they have to keep cutting his hair indeed!

John, the growth you speak I'm sure you already know...doesn't continue for very long. Once the last of the tissue dies, so does hair growth. Apparent nail growth can seem to happen, but this is due to the shrinkage of skin tissue as it decomposes and draws away from the roots of the nail.(apologies for the gruesome forensics, O.M.) When the writer made the claim of growth happening over three years, I knew he was trying to sell swampland in Florida (Or Arkansas?)

My problem with the whole story is that the assumption that Smith somehow survived...which would have called for him to climb onto a lifeboat, and somehow avoid being noticed by passangers and crew in the boats and on board the Carpathia who would recognise him at once(surely Smith was aquainted with officers in other lines. I recall Rostron mentioning that he had met him in 1907 in his Senate testimony.)

All in all, that charming artical doesn't even survive the laugh test.

Michael H. Standart
Hi, all!

No sooner did I write that than I wanted to go back to the source and double check. On re-examination, I found that "Death: a History of Man's Fears and Obsessions" by Robert Wilkins (a psychiatrist) confirms the continued growth of hair and nails, but doesn't estimate its duration. In "The Lazarus Syndrome" by Rodney Davies (a former mortician), I found the observation that "noticeable growth of facial hair in men, and perhaps of the fingernails, in both sexes" can occur for "twenty four or more hours after" the heart has ceased to beat. As Davies tends to be more liberal in his assertions, I'd assume that 24 hours is pretty much tops for this phenomenon on average. (Davies, incidentally, attributes it to continued slow gas exchange between the dermis and capillaries sufficient to sustain the tissues for that duration.)

Man! Are we havin' fun here or what??

So, Michael, it looks like there can be actual fingernail growth as well, though I don't doubt your observation that the apparent growth is exaggerated by tissue recession. As for the hair growth, it doesn't sound like anything much more than some "5 o'clock shadow" that a quick shave would fix.

But indeed, the thought of someone claiming that this poor embalmed gentleman basically needed a "house call" from a barber every two weeks or so is just too much! (ROTFHLOL)

Oh, and Michael -- better re-read that article. What the original excerpt seemed to be claiming was that old "Silent" had in fact been on display for the last 25 years, and still needs tonsorial care! (Hee hee hee!)

Cheers, all! (And thanks very much for the link, Suzanne. I definitely think we were being joshed there.)
Hi, all!

Without commenting on the veracity of claims of post-mortem hair growth, I'll just point out the existence of an 1877 issue of the "English Mechanic" which contains a Doctor Caldwell's description of how in 1862 he was present at the exhumation of a body that had been buried two years before. The hair on the head of the body was found to be 18" long, the beard was 8" long, and the hair on the breast was 6" long. The face of the deceased had been shaved before burial.

Happy Halloween! :)

All my best,

OK. Now that I've finally seen the real McCoy (from Suzanne's link), we're definitely talking hoax here, with or without "EJ" allegations!

First, modern embalming -- which arose during the Civil War, is a very temporary retardant. Four to six weeks of preservation is about all it's good for.

Second, the corpse in that photo is almost undoubtedly mummified -- by natural process -- and is very possibly one of the "bog people" reclaimed from the peat bogs of Denmark. Note how his skin has the "tanned" appearance of leather. That was exactly the case with the bog people -- they were almost perfectly preserved by tanning in those acid peat bogs (for about 2000 years). (This is covered in "Death: a History of Man's Fear and Obsessions".)

Oh, well. Another legend bites it!
George, O.M., interesting peice, and I wouldn't trust it if you paid me too. I think some of these so-called doctors in that century got their degrees from a box of Crackerjacks. I trust the journalists of the time even less.

John, the tissue reccession I spoke of has been observed in bodies exhumed from graves. In places like Transylvania, this alleged hair and nail growth was considered 'proof' that the decedant was a vampire. Enter the wooden stake, stage left

Mummification occurred to me when I saw that photo. After 25 years, if that had been a body embalmed by modern methods, you would think somebody would have noticed a strange smell coming from the parlor (yuck!)

Michael H. Standart
Euuuuuh! Well, I guess somebody had to say it. I'm just glad it wasn't me, Michael!

Can I have that stake medium rare?

Accounts of post-mortem hairgrowth are quite common - when Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriele Rossetti's wife, was exhumed in order for him to regain the poetry mss he had interred with her, some sources claimed that her lustrous red hair had grown to fill the coffin (and may even have inspired a later line in his poetry suggesting that it was 'undimm'd in death'). It was also claimed that she remained undecayed. First hand sources, however, claimed only that all was as it should be in the coffin, which seems to have been first misread into 'no decay' and then later the myth of the hair took root, so to speak ;-)

Perhaps a better indication of the real state of affairs can be garnered from the need for the book of poetry to be disinfected, and problems in reading the text caused by worm holes through the pages...

All the best,