Gunshots on the Titanic

Were shots fired as the Titanic went down? If so whom and toward whom?

Titanica!

In over 2000 pages of testimony at the two official inquiries into the sinking of Titanic, there are only three documented cases in which a gun was fired, however, only one was thoroughly investigated. This case involves Fifth Officer Harold Lowe as port side Lifeboat No.14 was being lowered, sometime around 1:15 a.m. During Lowe's testimony at the Senate Inquiry, Senator Smith asked him if he heard any pistol shots, and Lowe responded:

Yes...I heard them, and I fired them.

To his later regret, Lowe went on to state:

I saw a lot of Italians, Latin people, all along the ship's rails — understand, it was open — and they were all glaring, more or less like wild beasts, ready to spring. That is why I yelled out to look out, and let go, bang, right along the ship's side.

Lowe's statement refers to a group of steerage passengers who tried to jump in Boat 14. Lowe fired the shots strictly as a warning and therefore aimed them horizontally along the side of the ship. While his testimony at the Senate Inquiry is a little confusing, it would appear that Lowe fired his seven-shot Browning automatic pistol three times, one at the level of the Boat Deck, and then one at each of the next two lower decks as Boat 14 was being lowered.

Lowe also testified about the warning shots at the British Inquiry. The following questions were posed by Mr. S.A.T. Rowlatt, one of a group of lawyers representing the Board of Trade:

15855. There is just another thing I want to ask you. Did you use a revolver at all? — I did.

15856. How was that? — It was because while I was on the boat deck just as they had started to lower, two men jumped into my boat. I chased one out and to avoid another occurrence of that sort I fired my revolver as I was going down each deck, because the boat would not stand a sudden jerk. She was loaded already I suppose with about 64 people on her, and she would not stand any more.

15857. You were afraid of the effect of any person jumping in the boat through the air? — Certainly, I was.

15858. In your judgment had she enough in her to lower safely? — She had too many in her as far as that goes. I was taking risks.

Later in his testimony, Lowe stated:

15989. You have told us about your firing a revolver in consequence of two men trying to jump in? — Yes.
15990. Who were they? — One was — I do not know whether he was an Italian or what, but he was of the Latin races anyhow?

15991. And who was the other? — I do not know who the other was. He managed to get out of the road.

15992. What was he like; was he fair or dark? — I do not know. If I had I should have chased him out.

This incident was collaborated by a number of sources including Able Seaman Frederick Clench, Able Seaman Frank Evans, and Steward George Crowe during their testimony at the Senate Inquiry; and by Greaser Frederick Scott and Able Seaman Joseph Scarrott during their testimony at the British Inquiry.

The other two gunshot incidents were reported by First Class Passengers Hugh Woolner and Archibald Gracie. However, these cases were not thoroughly investigated. The incident reported by Woolner occurred during the loading of starboard Collapsible C, which left Titanic sometime around 2.00 a.m. This is the same lifeboat in which White Star Managing Director, Bruce Ismay, used to escape from the sinking Titanic, although Ismay never mentioned any trouble during the launching of this boat. Obviously, any reports of gunshots and mayhem would not be in the bests interests of the White Star Line. But First Class Passenger Hugh Woolner did report a scramble at this boat to Senator Smith during the Senate Inquiry. Woolner testified that he saw "two flashes of a pistol in the air" which he thought were fired by First Officer William Murdoch in an attempt to stop a rush on "a collapsible." This incident must have occurred during the loading of Collapsible C. The testimony at the Senate Inquiry reads:

Senator SMITH. Who fired those two shots, do you know?

Mr. WOOLNER. Mr. Murdoch, so far as I can tell.

Senator SMITH. Mr. Murdoch, the chief officer?

Mr. WOOLNER. Yes; he was the first officer, was he not?

Senator SMITH. You are quite certain it was not Mr. Lowe?

Mr. WOOLNER. I am pretty certain. I think I recognized the voice of Mr. Murdoch.

Senator SMITH. Mr. Lowe says he fired three shots as his lifeboat was being lowered.

Mr. WOOLNER. I do not remember them.

Woolner could have been mistaken in his identification of Murdoch, as fellow First Class Passenger, Jack Thayer, wrote a private account in 1940 which partially corroborated Woolner's story but named Purser H.W. McElroy as the person who fired the shots. Thayer's account reads:

"Purser H.W. McElroy, as brave and as fine a man as ever lived, was standing up in the next to last boat, loading it. Two men, I think they were dining room stewards, dropped into the boat from the deck above. As they jumped, he fired twice in the air. I do not believe they were hit, but they were quickly thrown out."

Thayer was standing near the starboard rail, almost abreast of the Grand Stairway, beneath the second funnel, and from his vantage point, "It was really every man for himself." Thayer also reported seeing Bruce Ismay, pushing his way into Collapsible C, and he "did not blame him," stating that he would have jumped in himself, had he been nearer. Ismay later described the scene surrounding this collapsible "as quiet as if gathered in a church." However, the evidence suggests otherwise and could help to explain why Ismay decided to enter this particular boat at this particular time.

But the bottom line is that Woolner and Thayer, two independent and reliable witnesses with no axes to grind, and with no misguided loyalty to the White Star Line, both recalled an officer firing twice into the air to stop a rush on a collapsible lifeboat.

First Class Passenger Archibald Gracie also testified to the Senate Inquiry about a warning gunshot incident, this time during the loading of Collapsible D which left Titanic at about 2:05 a.m. Gracie was responding to questions from Senator Smith and stated:

Mr. GRACIE: As to what happened on the other side during our departure, the information I was given by the second officer was that some of the steerage passengers tried to rush the boat, and he fired off a pistol to make them get out, and they did get out.

Senator SMITH. Who fired that pistol?

Mr. GRACIE. Lightoller. That is what he told me. He is the second officer.

Senator SMITH. Are you sure it was not Murdoch?

Mr. GRACIE. I am sure it was not Murdoch.

Senator SMITH. Or Lowe?

Mr. GRACIE. I am sure it was not. That is what Mr. Lightoller himself told me. I did not hear the pistol. That is what I was told by Lightoller himself. That is all hearsay, Senator.

By the time Gracie came to write-up his account his story had changed somewhat, even though he was under oath during his testimony at the Senate Inquiry. Page 37 of "The Truth About the Titanic" reads:

Meanwhile I will describe what was going on at the quarter where I left Lightoller loading the last boat on the port side. The information was obtained personally from him, in answer to my careful questioning during the next few days on board the Carpathia, when I made notes thereof, which were confirmed again the next week in Washington...'Men from the steerage,' he said, 'rushed the boat.' 'Rush' is the word he used, meaning they got in without his permission. He drew his pistol and ordered them out, threatening to shoot if they attempted to enter the boat again.

In his 1935 autobiography, "Titanic and Other Ships," Second Officer Charles Lightoller told of being handed a revolver along with a handful of cartridges by Chief Officer Henry Wilde, which he subsequently pocketed. Later, Lightoller "encouraged" some men to leave a lifeboat by "vigorously flourishing my revolver." Lightoller went on to write, "the revolver was not even loaded!"

Gracie may have changed his story in response to some pressure, either from Lightoller who would do anything in his power to support White Star, or perhaps Grace may have been 'leaned on' by White Star officials. Or, the answer might be as simple as Gracie's memory failing him when he wrote about the incident in his book.

So, based on testimony given at the two official inquiries, only warning shots were fired and these took place during three separate incidents, as follows:

 Time (a.m.)

 Officer

No. of Shots

 Event Involved

 Witnessed or Reported By:

1:15

5th Officer Lowe

3, in air

Loading #14

Lowe at both Senate and British Inquiry

2:00

1st Officer Murdoch or Purser McElroy

2, in air

Loading Collapsible C

Passenger Woolner to Senate Inquiry

2:05

2nd Officer Lightoller

1, in air

Loading Collapsible D

Passenger Gracie to Senate Inquiry (hearsay)

However, there have also been many unsubstantiated stories of gunfire, with the intent to kill or maim, which were directed at passengers and crew. These incidents are recorded both in private correspondence written by the observers, or in accounts published in newspapers shortly after the disaster. The earliest recorded gunshot incident was reported by Third Class Passenger Eugene Daly to Dr. Frank Blackmarr on board the rescue steamer Carpathia. Blackmarr, a passenger on the Carpathia, was able to obtain a number of oral and written statements from survivors, including one from Daly. Daly, with two women under his care (his cousin Maggie Daly and his neighbour Berta Mulvihill) had worked their way from steerage quarters on F Deck all the way to the forward boat deck and Collapsible B where he eventually made his escape. Daly gave the following account to Blackmarr:

Finally some of the women and children were let up, but, as you know, we had quite a number of hot headed Italians and other peoples who got crazy and made for the stairs. These men tried to rush the stairway, pushing and crowding and pulling the women down, some of them with weapons in their hands. I saw two dagos shot and some that took punishment from the officers.

Blackmarr reported Daly's story of the shooting to the Chicago Tribune where it was published on April 18th, 1912. Daly also repeated the incident afterwards in a letter to his sister in Ireland which was subsequently published in the London Daily Telegraph on May 4th, 1912. This letter reads:

At the first cabin when a boat was being lowered an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in, he would shoot him on the spot. I saw the officer shoot two men dead because they tried to get in the boat. Afterwards there was another shot, and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him. I was up to my knees in the water at the time. Every one was rushing around, and there were no more boats. I then dived overboard.

Did Daly really see two men shot down by officers? Daly was travelling with other Irish survivors who also wrote letters home about their experiences on Titanic and one would think that at least one of these survivors would have mentioned the incident in their correspondence to family, or at least have mentioned Daly's experience in seeing two men shot down by Titanic's officers.

The Daly incident is of considerable interest to Titanic historians as it was collaborated when a letter written by First Class Passenger George Rheims was discovered in 1980. This was a letter which Rheims had sent to his wife in France and was dated April 19th, 1912, the day after the Carpathia reached New York. So Rheims did not have a lot of time to build up an extensive lie. The letter, originally written in French, reads:

While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing more for him to do, the officer told us, 'Gentlemen, each man for himself, Good-bye.' He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head. That's what I call a man!!!

The Daly and Rheims letters are important because unlike some sensational, third-hand newspaper accounts, the letters were private and not intended for public consumption. However, when Rheims later testified at the liability hearings, he only mentioned having heard shots and did not say that he personally witnessed the shooting incident. It is of course possible that Rheims had was dramatized his Titanic experience when he wrote the letter to his wife.

Daly and Rheims did not report where the shooting took place, or by whom, but it is likely that the incident occurred during the loading of Collapsible A. In his book "The Night Lives On," author Walter Lord deduced that the boat in question could only have been Collapsible A. It also appears likely that the officer in question was either First Officer Murdoch or Chief Officer Wilde.

It is interesting to note that both Daly and Rheims were the subject of vicious rumours which were circulated in the morning tabloids shortly after the Carpathia landed. Both were depicted as cowards who had survived only by sneaking into a lifeboat. The rumours concerning Rheims were particularly vicious as they had him dressed in women's clothing. Obviously, there was an attempt to discredit their statements about the shooting and in particular, the reports of an officer's suicide. It is supposed that Rheims had tried to relay this information to the press shortly after his arrival in New York (as discussed earlier, the Daly account was forwarded to the Chicago Tribune by Dr. Blackmarr. Daly and Rheims were never cleared of these unfounded charges. Rheims stuck by his story to the end, but his credibility was destroyed beyond repair. Daly simply sought anonymity and obscurity.

Another very graphic story was related in the 1912 book "Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters" (edited by Logan Marshall). These early books are not generally believed by serious Titanic students, however this particular incident is of interest as it specifically mentions a gunshot wound to the jaw. Page 55 reads:

'Stand back,' shouted the officers who were manning the boat. 'The women come first.' Shouting curses in various foreign languages, the immigrant men continued their pushing and tugging to climb into the boats. Shots rang out. One big fellow fell over the railing into the water. Another dropped to the deck, moaning. His jaw had been shot away. This was the story told by the bystanders afterwards on the pier. One husky Italian told the writer on the pier that the way in which the men were shot down was horrible. His sympathy was with the men who were shot. 'They were only trying to save their lives,' he said.

This story is remarkably similar to the story related by Titanic author Diana Bristow in two of her books (Titanic: R.I.P., and Titanic: Sinking the Myths) which also mentions a gunshot wound to the jaw. During her research into the disaster, Bristow received a letter from James O. McGiffin in which he related details of a shooting incident involving First Officer William Murdoch which was told to him by his father, Captain James McGiffin. Captain McGiffin was a close personal friend to Murdoch, and served with both Murdoch and Charles Lightoller (Second Officer on the Titanic) on White Star's Medic around 1900. Captain McGiffin ended up as White Star's Marine Superintendent in Queenstown during the period 1903-1912. After Titanic sank, Lightoller saw Captain McGiffin and naturally told him all about the disaster, including the Murdoch shooting incident. This story is related in the following two Bristow books:

Titanic: R.I.P. (Page 172):

Lightoller told my father in Queenstown that Mr. Bruce Ismay kept pressure on Captain Smith to keep the Titanic to her maximum speed of 22-23 knots in order to create a new record time for the souther track crossing of the Atlantic. This Captain Smith did in spite of ice warnings from other ships in the area...Murdoch shot one crewman in the jaw as he tried to rush the lifeboats...

Titanic: Sinking the Myths (page 49):

After Titanic sank, Lightoller saw McGiffin and naturally told him all about the disaster, including the fact that Murdoch had been forced to shoot a crewman who led a rush on one of the lifeboats, pushing aside women and children. The bullet struck the man's jaw.

Numerous shooting incidents were also reported in newspaper accounts, some of these involving fatalities. They were mostly taken from survivors as they disembarked from the Carpathia, but all should be taken with caution for obvious reasons. Following is a sampling of some of the accounts:

Newspaper

Date of Publication

Remarks attributed to:

Remarks Published

Bangor Daily Commercial

Apr 19, 1912

Steward Thomas Whiteley

?Earlier, during the loading of the collapsible boat on the starboard side, there was a bitter panic. The officers had to use their revolvers. The Chief Officer shot two men but three others attempted to get into the boat. Later, I saw the Chief Officer shoot himself.?

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Apr 19, 1912

1st Class Passenger Mrs. W.F. Bonnell

?There was some shooting. They would not allow those half crazed men to get into the boats.?

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Apr 26, 1912

3rd Class Passenger Victor Sunderland

?One boat, partly filled with women, a man sat?I think he was a Russian. An officer told him to get out, but he wouldn?t. The officer fired his revolver into the air once or twice and still the man sat there. The officer then shot him and he dropped back in his seat. He was lifted and dropped overboard.?

Daily Sketch

Apr 20, 1912

1st Class Passenger Lady Duff-Gordon**

?Lady Duff-Gordon declares that she saw an officer shoot one of the male passengers who endeavoured to force his way into a boat, and others agree that there was a shooting, but it appears to have been more for the purpose of restoring order and frightening ?panicky? passengers than with the intention or necessity of killing stampeding cowards.?

Daily Sketch

Apr 29, 1912

Fireman Robert Williams*

?While the boats were being loaded I saw the first officer produce a revolver and fire at two or three men who were trying to rush the boats. I don?t think he killed anyone, for as far as I could see he fired over their heads.?

Daily Sketch

Apr 30, 1912

Un-named male passenger

?I saw Mr. Murdock shoot down an Italian. This officer performed heroic work all through.?

1st Class Passenger Charles Williams (as related by Mr. George Standing to a reporter from the New York World)

?He [Captain Smith as he approached a lifeboat in the water] did ask what had become of First Officer Murdoch. We told him Murdock had blown his brains out with a revolver. Then Captain Smith pushed himself away from the lifeboat...?

Mirror

Apr 20, 1912

1st Class Passenger Lady Duff-Gordon**

?Everyone seemed to be rushing for that boat. A few men who crowded in were turned back at the point of Captain Smith?s revolver, and several of them were felled before order was restored. ?I recall being pushed towards one of the boats and being helped in,? she said. ?Just as we were about to clear the ship a man made a rush to get aboard our lifeboat. He was shot and apparently killed instantly. His body fell in the boat at our feet. No one made any effort to move, and his body remained in the boat until we were picked up.?

The Times

Apr 20, 1912

1st Class Passenger George Brayton (actually George Brereton)

?Mr. Brayton also said that he saw one of the stewards shoot a foreigner who tried to press past a number of women in order to gain a place in the lifeboats.?

* This individual does not show up on Titanic's Crew List.
** At the British Inquiry, four weeks later, Lady Duff-Gordon completely retracted her story of panic and gunfire on Titanic's decks.

Conclusions

The sensationalist third-hand newspaper accounts aside, there is reasonable documentation to suggest that there were a number of gunshot incidents, other than the warning shots admitted to by Lowe, namely:

- Warning shots, attributed to either First Officer Murdoch or Purser McElroy, were reported by passengers First Class Passengers Woolner and Thayer at Collapsible C. These were entered into evidence during the Senate Inquiry but not thoroughly investigated.

- One or more warning shots, attributed to Second Officer Lightoller, was reported by First Class Passenger Gracie at the Senate Inquiry but later retracted. This incident was also not thoroughly investigated.

- Third Class Passenger Daly and First Class Passenger Rheims both wrote letters stating that they witnessed two men being shot down by an officer at Collapsible A, which was then followed by the officer's suicide. Unfortunately both Daly and Rheims were not invited to testify at either the Senate or British Inquiries. Also, both were discredited as being cowards in newspaper accounts, which was likely the reason they were not invited to testify.

It is of course possible that more gunfire incidents occurred than those described in this paper. As James Cameron surmised during a conversation with Titanic author, Charles Pellegrino, "only one-third of the Titanic's people lived to tell what they saw; so as a rough estimate we must be missing two-thirds of the shooting incidents that actually occurred..."

References:

"The Night Lives On" by Walter Lord.
"Dr. Frank Blackmarr's Remarkable Scrapbook" by James T. Harper (published in the Titanic Commutator, Volume 22, Number 3, 1999.
"Ghosts of the Titanic" by Charles Pellegrino
"Titanic: R.I.P." by Diana Bristow.
"Titanic: Sinking the Myths" by Diana Bristow.
"The Titanic Disaster" by Dave Bryceson
U.S. Senate Inquiry
British Inquiry


© Earl Chapman, Canada

Contributor
Earl Chapman

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(2001) Gunshots on the Titanic Titanica! (ref: #1484, accessed 26th May 2017 04:44:20 PM) URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/gunshots-on-titanic.html

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