The Credibility of Gill's Affidavit


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Noel F. Jones

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Gill's Affidavit:

Reluctant as I am to enter the lists on the much-laboured subject of the Titanic and the Californian, and from which no satisfaction can be got, there is one element of evidence which remained tantalisingly unaddressed at either of the two inquiries or subsequently by informed commentators.

The denigration of Captain Lord started with one Earnest Gill, Second Donkeyman, swearing an affidavit before a Massachusetts Notary Public, the substance being the alleged sighting of rockets from weather deck level. Reading through Gill's affidavit I was arrested by the following highly suspect paragraph:

"I turned in but could not sleep. In half an hour I turned out thinking to smoke a cigarette. Because of the cargo I could not smoke 'tween decks so I went on deck again."

Peter Padfield in his 1965 book The Titanic and the Californian picked up on the improbability of this witness going on deck 'in his night attire' for a smoke in iceberg weather! And it could not have been in consideration for his room mate who'd just gone on watch. But that's not all ....

I write without the benefit of the vessel's GA plan. However, the Californian post-dated inter alia the MSA's of 1894 and 1896. Stowing of cargo in crew accommodation was proscribed thereby. Such stowage would also violate prevailing internationally accepted tonnage exemptions.

Furthermore, the witness was a leading hand who could be expected to know his way around ships. So he would know that smoking on deck poses a greater fire hazard than smoking in the accommodation. He would also know that cargo is stowed in dedicated compartments; tweendecks and lower holds accessed via vertical hatch trunks through the open weather decks and separated from all accommodations by seafast bulkheads. Even allowing for such as centrecastle spaces, cargo access and stowage would be entirely separate from accommodation entrances.

If he was particularly concerned for hazardous cargo, this is either stowed on deck, from where it can be expeditiously jettisoned in an emergency, or is customarily relegated to No.1 tweendeck/lower hold where the consequences of any inadvertent reaction, whether latent or precipitated by external force, can be contained as far from the accommodation and seats of control as is practicable. Customarily, Gill's accommodation would have been right aft.

Why then did he include such an implausible clause in his affidavit? Was he trying to bamboozle a terrestrial official at the time, bearing in mind they were in the presence of 'chequebook journalism'? Gill had already been paid $500 – more than a year's wages – by The Boston American. Four other crew members were also in on the deal.

Had I been Captain Lord's advocate I would have 'done a Columbo' with this witness on this piece of evidence. Perhaps the runaway denigration of Captain Lord could have been nipped in the bud thereby!
 
Sep 20, 2000
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Noel:

This is all very good -- and some fairly erudite commentary overall, from what I can observe without a source reference -- but unfortunately it won't get you to your logical destination. To achieve that, you'd have to somehow demonstrate that Gill was indeed *allowed* to smoke 'tween decks (and knew this), whereas he said he wasn't. All the good reasons in the world why he *could* have been or *should* have been allowed don't make it a fact. As a smoker who's frequently balked at frivolous prohibitions, I know!

Even if you could somehow go back in time and put this minor aspect of Gill's affidavit to the test, what would lead you to believe that this would impinge in any way on Gill's evidence as a whole? It's basically an immaterial side issue -- my primary guess as to why no attorney would even bother to challenge it. And you might get any number of explanations for why this was said that would in no way damage Gill's overall credibility. (Perhaps he just liked to pee over the side, and didn't care to divulge this publicly.)

On one major point, however, you're quite mistaken. The "denigration of Captain Lord", as you dub it, did NOT start with "one Earnest Gill". Gill's published affidavit was the *second* news report from a Californian crewman, the original being the account of Californian's carpenter, published in a Clinton, Massachusetts local newspaper the day before and reproduced by the Boston press the same day as Gill's affidavit. As for "denigration", in realistic terms, it could readily be argued that Lord himself himself initiated that process, long before the ship ever reached Boston.

(I don't see how merely revealing a liar to *be* a liar can appropriately be labeled "denigration", though that may be my own particular nuance "hang-up". But if any of Californian's crew had even remotely falsified aspects of their own accounts, they'd certainly had a crash course from a Master. To hear Lord's prior version of things, there *were* no rockets, and Stewart was the Deck Officer in charge of the middle watch.)

As for the $500, would Lord have somehow fared better if Gill told the same story for free?? (Seems kind of doubtful to me. Once the jig was up for Lord, it was up. The truth was finally out, despite his best efforts to suppress it, and there was no getting away from it.)

Regarding Padfield's presumption of "night attire", to quote one distinguished (albeit recently denigrated) author: "Now where do you suppose he got THAT?"

Regards,
John Feeney
 

Noel F. Jones

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My principal point was that an interrogative opportunity was lost, probably for want of knowledgeable advocacy.

I will agree it's a bit late to rake over the coals at this late stage but:

Gill's reason for going on deck seems so highly contrived as to have invited challenge. To uncover an untruth in an affidavit, however incidental, is to cast doubt on the veracity of the whole. Hence, assuming the rules of evidence applied, this evidence not only would have fallen away but so would have its conspiratorial concomitance.

The putative case against Captain Lord would thereafter have been restricted to the residue of adverse evidence (whatever its merit).

In general, the minutiae of this much laboured subject has been gone into - with varying degrees of detachment - both here and elsewhere. Apart from the unresolved matter of Gill's implausible affidavit I should like to restrict my own input to the following:

Advisory 22 of the British inquiry recommended that the attention of Masters of vessels should be drawn by the Board of Trade to the effect that under Section 6 of the Maritime Conventions Act, 1911, it is a misdemeanour not to go to the relief of a vessel in distress when possible to do so. This has been independently interpreted as it being a misdemeanour for a shipmaster not to aid a vessel in distress if he can do so without serious danger to his own ship. By extension to the present case :-

A vessel perceived by her master to be in peril of destruction [which was the case] and which he has stopped on passage in order to disimperil her [which again was the case] cannot - in logic and in law - be got underway again while remaining so imperilled [which again was the case] unless it be to disimperil her further [which was not the case].

Upon which construction Captain Lord could have rested his case! The corollary is that any inquisitive reopening of the Californian's radio station on that fateful night would have been little more than an act of idle curiosity; indeed, it could facetiously be put that Captain Lord demonstrated commendable restraint in that regard!

So why didn't he so rest, I hear you ask. Not germane to the case, I would riposte. His historic 'misdemeanour' was to walk ingenuously into two hostile inquiries without skilled and fully independent advocacy.
 
Sep 20, 2000
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Noel wrote: "So why didn't he so rest, I hear you ask."

Noel: Not at all! How *could* he so rest when he was fervently back-peddling from the truth of the actual events that transpired that night? One must necessarily be truthful to begin with about the actual conditions encountered to argue that it was not safe to proceed under those conditions.

I fail to see how Lord could start off denying the very existence of the rockets, then attempt obtusely to downplay their significance (company signals?), then say finally, "Oh, I knew all about them, but it wasn't safe to proceed." That progression of evasive maneuvers would strain the credibility of an earthworm!

Considering that the good captain didn't even bother to personally come topside and investigate, such a defense -- once all else had failed -- would have been frivolous in the extreme. Remember, this was a man who admitted under oath that he wasn't at all satisfied that "those" were company signals, and conceded that they might have been distress signals, but nevertheless did nothing.

But why point out the hypothetical speck in Gill's eye while ignoring the beam in Captain Lord's? Even if it emerged that Gill had no business whatsoever smoking on deck, Captain Lord had still deliberately conspired with senior officers to suppress the truth of a far greater fact. If the rules of evidence you cite apply equally to all, why should we believe *anything* Captain Lord said? His armor was well chinked even before the fact!

Nope. I don't think so.

John Feeney
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Noel is confusing the rules of evidence with those of historical fact. It is often the case that people contrive the situation in order to hide how they came to know something. Courts are more-or-less mental jousts in which knowledge of the rules counts more than the preponderance of facts or truth

My point is that from a historical perspective we cannot care how many lies or distortions someone has told in their life as long as the material in question is factual. Gill's testimony seems to be one of those contrived pieces that perplex both the courts and historians. There is some truth in it...but does it arise from the man's personal observation, or did he concoct the story from what he heard other people say? With the principals dead, that question cannot be answered to everyone's satisfaction either by reference to law or to the facts.

In the end, the contents of Gill's statements are quite irrelevant to the story of Californian. What makes his statement important is that it was made and published contemporaneously with the hearings. Once Gill came out of the woodwork, the possibility that Californian had watched Titanic sink became public knowledge and that changed everything.

Noel is correct that Captain Lord walked into a buzzsaw of politics, but I the best Admiralty lawyer in Philadelphia could not have saved him. The reason--Lord Mersey, et. al. were careful not to put the man on trial. Captain Lord was charged, convicted, and punished (by the stinging rebuke in the BOT final report) without recorse to any sort of hearing during which he would have been offered an opportunity to put up a defense.

Several of us (myself included) have previously suggested that Captain Lord should have claimed that he was prevented from moving by the ice. The trouble is that Lord knew that neither the law nor the custom of the sea required him to put his ship in peril. Lord knew he had a "perfect" defense and yet he chose not to use it. Thus, while we can say correctly that he had a reason not to go to Titanic's aid, it is incorrect to claim that he failed to do so because of the ice. Such a claim is putting thoughts into a dead man's head.

We have no idea why Captain Lord chose to do nothing that night. This is just one more of the enigmas surrounding Titanic.

--David G. Brown
 

Noel F. Jones

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Well, thank you all for your mixed reception of my input. How did I guess I would be stirring things up a bit?

On the matter of smoking on deck, please be referred to my latest under "What Kind of Cargo etc."

Regards
 
Jul 9, 2000
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Noel, all I can say is that any discussion on the Californian stirs things up a bit. Short of salvage...and that one ruffles feathers in it's own right, it's one of the nastier controversies facing the Titanic community today. Take any side or no side at all and the sharks begin to move in. Erik, Tracy and myself have learned this the hard way.
wink.gif


The current focus of my own research is to step back from taking sides and try to understand why events happened as they did, but even that can get one in trouble. <shrug>

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 

Dave Gittins

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Noel, I don't think you are that wide of the mark. Gill's affidavit is quite possibly 100% fiction. Apart from your point about going out to smoke on a freezing cold night, there are plenty of other holes. One of the silliest is his claim that he could see rows of portholes on a ship ten miles away. Eyes just don't work that well. He sees rockets, but no ship, at the same time as Stone could see a ship.

Overall, it doesn't matter. If Gill had not made his affidavit, Lord might not have been given such a hard time by Senator Smith, though it's quite possible that some other crewmember might have blown the whistle. The story was all over the ship.

While the US inquiry was going, the British were made aware of the story via a letter from Californian's carpenter to a friend in England. The friend passed the letter (now lost) to a businessman called Jensen, who passed it on to the authorities. One way or another, Lord was going to be called to explain himself. By the time the matter was heard in England, the court hardly bothered with Gill, as it already had the evidence of Stone and Gibson.
 
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