If the enigma of the "officer’s suicide" had been a work of fiction created by Rex Stout, creator of the legendary fictional sleuth Nero Wolfe, chances are Stout would have called it "Too Many Questions". For the questions are numerous and the answers elusive.
Since the publication of the late Walter Lord’s book The Night Lives On in 1986, the question as to wether or not one of the RMS Titanic’s officers committed suicide after shooting down passengers trying to board a lifeboat has been debated ever since thanks to evidence Lord presented from two Titanic survivors: George Rheims and Eugene Daly. Both of whom reported the event in question.
Since then, a number of other accounts have surfaced which claim one way or another of gunfire and a suicide upon that night to remember.
Collapsible A, which was carried atop the deckhouse aft the Titanic’s bridge and was brought down to the boat deck, where it floated off during the sinking, has been the popular candidate for the lifeboat at which this incident might possibly have taken place, and First Officer William Murdoch, who had been supervising the work at that lifeboat when the end came, has been a popular candidate as who might have been the officer in question.
This paper present focuses upon two witnesses. First Class passenger George Rheims, whose account indicates a suicide took place, and Second Officer Charles Lightoller. Whose account seems to rule out any shootings and suicide involving Murdoch at Collapsible A but who has been challenged in recent years due to a certain remark he made at the American inquiry.
In a letter to his wife, written on April 19th, Mr. Rheims recounted his experiences during the sinking:
I dined with Joe [Joeseph Holland Loring, Rheims’ brother-in-law] Sunday evening and went up to my cabin to go to sleep around 11.00 P.M. I felt, being in the front part of the ship, a strong shock and heard a noise that sounded like steam escaping, it was dreadful. I thought we had an accident in the engine. After one fourth of an hour there was an announcement informing us that we had collided with an iceberg but that there was no danger and we should all go back to sleep!!! Since I noticed that the ship wasn't listing I thought nothing of it. Soon after Joe came to join me and we stayed together until the end. Around 11.30 all passengers left their cabins. The ship tilted more and more. An officer came to tell us to put on our life jackets. You can well imagine how this news affected me!
I went down to my cabin to put on some warm clothing and my life jacket. Joe did the same and rejoined me on the boat's deck, where by now a crowd of people gathered. We started lowering the lifeboats down in the ocean – 16 lifeboats for 3,000 people. The men were forbidden to use the lifeboats. A few men – traitors – did not hesitate to jump into the lifeboats just the same. In general the people's attitude admirable. It took one and a half hours for all 16 lifeboats to be lowered. A few of them were only half full. As the last lifeboat was leaving I saw an officer kill a man with one gun shot. The man was trying to climb aboard that last lifeboat. Since there was nothing left to do, the officer told us, "Gentlemen, each man for himself, goodbye." He gave us a military salute and shot himself. This was a man!!
We were about 1,500 people left on board without any means of escape. It was death for us all. I can not convey how calm everyone was. We said goodbye to all our friends and everyone prepared himself to die properly. Joe took both my hands and said, "George if you survive look after my babies. If I live you will not have to worry about Mary." I then left him for one minute to go back to my cabin and find our photograph, then went up to join Joe on the deck. We then undressed, keeping on only our underwear. I did not lose one second of composure and had decided to jump overboard to save myself by swimming. I can not describe the unbelievable things I saw at that moment. Suddenly the ship started nosediving and I was thrown to the deck by an explosion. I found myself entangled in chairs and ropes. I was able to free myself. Joe wanted to go back in the rear of the ship. I told him it would mean death and that he should follow me. He told me that he could not swim well enough. Then I took my momentum and jumped overboard. The fall seemed endless, then suddenly icy cold and a long plunge down into the ocean. When I came up again I started swimming vigorously to get away from the ship fearing that I would be dragged down with it. It was frightfully cold. Suddenly I saw the Titanic going straight down with horrible explosions and piercing screams. All the passengers were pressed against the railing like flies. There was a big whirlpool swirling movement, then silence. Suddenly there were pitiful pleas that I will never forget. It was all those who were able to float crying for help. It was atrociously grim, mysterious – supernatural. This lasted for half an hour, then all was quiet. The poor people went down.
Rheims’ later gave a sworn deposition in New York City on November 14th, 1913 as preparation for the 1915 Limitation Of Liability hearings took shape.
This is what he testified to regarding the launching of the lifeboats and the foundering of the vessel:
Q. How long was it before you went out doors on any deck after the time that you felt the original shock?
- Well, I went out on the A deck first about ten or fifteen minutes after the shock.
Q. Later did you go on another deck?
- I went up on the boat deck.
Q. That was say how many minutes after?
- About 25 minutes.
Q. That is altogether from the shock?
Q. State what you saw with reference to lifeboats at that time?
- When I got up there, they were lowering one of the lifeboats on the starboard side.
Q. Were any orders given as to who should get into the lifeboats?
- Yes, the officer who was in command said "Women and children first; men stand back".
Q. Was that order generally obeyed?
- Yes, but some men managed at the last minute just before they were lowering the lifeboats to scramble in just the same.
Q. To what extent was this first boat filled before it was lowered?
- About three-quarters.
Q. Did you see any other lifeboats loaded afterwards?
- I should say about five or six.
Q. This was on what side?
- Some on the starboard side and some on the port side.
Q. What will you say as to these lifeboats as to whether they were completely filled before being lowered?
- They were not completely filled.
Q. How many will you make that remark about?
- I could swear to at least four.
Q. Well by not completely filled, will you state about what you mean?
- About one-half or three-quarters filled.
Q. Did you hear any particular noise?- Yes I heard two pistol shots.
Q. About how long before the ship sank?
- About 40 minutes before she sank.
Q. How long did you stay on the ship?
- I left the ship, I jumped off the ship about one-quarter of an hour before she sank.
Q. How high was the deck from which you jumped from the water on your side at that time?
- About 15 feet.
Q. What deck did you jump from?
- I jumped from the boat deck.
Q. What part of the boat deck did you jump from with reference to the length of the ship?
- I jumped on the starboard side near the gymnasium.
Q. Was that pretty well forward?
- I think about mid-ships.
Q. About midships?
- I think so.
Here we find a divergence of views: In his letter he reports seeing a man shot, then the officer who did so taking his own life.
Yet he only recounted hearing pistol shots in his deposition. Shots which he said occurred about forty minutes before the end. No mention at all of an officer shooting a man trying to board a boat, then taking his own life.
However, when viewed strictly on it’s merits alone, Rheims’ statement in his letter as to the officer’s suicide could fit Collapsible A. Given he was on the same side of the ship that lifeboat was towards the end.
Yet if Rheims had witnessed the shooting and suicide at Collapsible A, which would have to have been as water flooded up onto the starboard boat deck mere seconds before a huge wave kicked up by the final plunge swept all on deck into the sea, how:
- have gone to his cabin, A-21, to retrieve the photograph of him and Loring,
- come back up to the boat deck again without drowning as flooding caused by the final plunge engulfed that part of the ship.
- had time enough to discard his outer garments and shoes in preparation for swimming
- fought his way through the crowd of steerage passengers which crowded up onto the starboard boat deck minutes before the end came; a crowd which would have impeded his progress as he headed down towards the gymnasium and thus left him vulnerable to being swept off the ship by the wave?
The answer to all of the above is simple:
Rheims could not have witnessed a suicide at Collapsible A, gone below to his cabin to get the photograph, discarded clothes and shoes, fought his way through the crowd with Loring to by the gymnasium where they parted company as Rheims abandoned ship because there simply would not have been enough time.
What is more, Rheims makes no mention of him and Loring dealing with a crowd of steerage passengers on the boat deck in either of his accounts. Nor mentions somehow avoiding a massive wall of water that swept the boat deck in the immediate area of the lifeboat he saw the officer kill himself at.
To cap it all, Rheims said that the shooting occurred "as the last boat was leaving".
Now, the common theory based on that statement is that the boat in question was Collapsible A due to how it floated away upright after both falls were cut..
But boat A was not swung out in the davits when it was washed off the ship. It was only fastened to the falls of the davits and was sitting halfway across the boat deck when the final plunge began.
For at that point in the sinking the Titanic was listing to port enough that it prevented First Officer Murdoch’s crew at Collapsible A from getting the boat all the way to the davits, as was attested to by steward Edward Brown at the British Inquiry:
10526. After you had finished with that boat where did you next go to? - We turned our attention to another collapsible boat that was on top of the Officers' house on the same side of the ship.
10527. That was a boat which lay on the top of the Officers' quarters? - Yes.
10528. You tried to get that boat down to the deck? - Yes.
10529. Did you get it down? - Yes; we got two planks on the bow-end of the boat, and we slid it down on to the boat deck.
10530. Having got it down, the next thing, I suppose, would be to get it to the davits? - We tried that, and we got it about halfway and then the ship got a list to port, and we had great difficulty. We could not get it right up to the davits, so we had to slacken the falls. The ship took a list to port, and we could not get it up the incline right up to the davits.
10531. Did you do your best? - We did our best. We slackened the falls and made it fast.
10532. You did make it fast? - Yes, we did make it fast by slackening the falls, but we could not haul it away any further.
10533. Were you ever able to get it outboard so as to lower it? - No.
And later affirmed in his testimony:
10598. I believe that this collapsible boat which you failed to get into the water was practically a new collapsible boat the same as the others? - Yes, as far as I know, it was.
10599. And would have been serviceable if you had succeeded in getting it launched? - Yes.
10600. Did the fact that this boat was on the top of the Officers' quarters make it difficult to get her near the davits? - No, Sir; not if the ship had been on an even keel; but when we got it down on to the boat deck the ship had a list to port.
Now perhaps Rheims was using the word "leaving" in a broad sense when describing what he saw.
But on the other hand boat A’s launch from the ship was hardly conventional to say the least. Yet Rheims seems to say the boat he saw the officer shoot a passenger trying to board was being lowered away conventionally. Leaving well before the ship went down.
Indeed, it is a bit of a stretch, landsman or no, that Rheims would think a collapsible boat without it’s canvass sides raised stuck in the middle of the boat deck lashed to the falls of a set of nearby davits was ready to be properly launched.
Settling the matter as to wether or he could have been at Collapsible A is this bit of evidence from Rheims’ Liability hearings deposition:
Q. While you were on the Englehardt [Rheims took refuge aboard A after the sinking] was any attempt made to row the raft whatever?
- None whatever; it was impossible.
- Because the boat was half sunken; we did not have any oars.
Q. Were the canvas sides up?
- No, they were not up.
Q. You did not see the collapsible get off the ship, did you? [Emp. Added]
If Rheims did not even see boat A washed off the deck, it is definite that what he wrote of in his letter occurred at a lifeboat being conventionally launched. If, indeed, he saw anything at all due to his contradictory evidence in his deposition on the point of gunfire.
Second Officer Charles Lightoller
Alarmed at rumors of First Officer William Murdoch’s suicide, Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller wrote a letter to Murdoch’s widow Ada from Washington D.C. on April 24th. Saying that it was not so. Saying to her:
I deeply regret that I missed communicating with you by last mail to refute the reports that were spread in the newspapers. I was practically the last man, and certainly the last officer, to see Mr. Murdoch. He was then endeavouring to launch the starboard forward collapsible boat. I had already got mine from off the top of our quarters. You will understand when I say that I was working the the port side of the ship, and Mr. Murdoch was principally engaged on the starboard side of the ship, filling and launching the boats. Having got my boat down off the top of the house, and there being no time to open it, I left it and ran across to the starboard side, still on top of the quarters. I was then practically looking down on your husband and his men. He was working hard, personally assisting, overhauling the forward boat's fall. At this moment the ship dived, and we were all in the water. Other reports as to the ending are absolutely false. Mr. Murdoch died like a man, doing his duty.
He gave the same story at the British Inquiry:
14035. Had you time to do anything more after you got that collapsible boat afloat? - I called for men to go up on the deck of the quarters for the collapsible boat up there. The afterend of the boat was underneath the funnel guy. I told them to swing the afterend up. There was no time to open her up and cut the lashings adrift. Hemming was the man with me there, and they then swung her round over the edge of the coamings to the upper deck, and then let her down on to the boat deck. That is the last I saw of her for a little while.
14036. There was no time to open her up at all? - No, the water was then on the boat deck.
14037. Can you tell us, this last one you speak of, whether there was time to open her; was she ever really cast clear of the ship? She would be lashed, of course, to something or other. Were her lashings cut away? - Her lashings would be cut away before we could get her off the side of the house and put her on the deck.
14039. That shows she was free of the ship? - Free of the ship.
14039a. We have to piece it out. We have some evidence about one collapsible boat, that the after-fall was cut, and it was doubtful whether the other one was cut. This boat, I understand, was never put on the falls at all? - The one I am speaking of?
14040. Yes? - No, it was not put on the falls at all.
14041. Then there would be no occasion to cut that away? - None whatever.
14042. Could you see which of the two this was, because there are two on the deck house, are not there? - One on each side, yes.
14043. Which of the two was it - which side? - The port side.
14044. That is the one you are speaking of? - Yes.
14045. You say it was pushed on to the boat deck, and the boat deck was awash? - Yes.
14046. Could you see by that time whether there was any time to get her to the falls or not? - Oh, no, no time.
14047. Then tell us your last minute or two on the ship. What did you do? - I went across to the starboard side of the Officers' quarters, on the top of the Officers' quarters, to see if I could do anything on the starboard side. Well, I could not.
14048. And coming over to the starboard side on the roof of the Officers' quarters, could you see any other Officers? - I saw the First Officer working at the falls of the starboard emergency boat, obviously with the intention of overhauling them and hooking on to the collapsible boat on their side.
14049. The other collapsible boat? - Yes.
14050. That would be Mr. Murdoch? - Yes.
14051. Were there others with him helping? - There were a number round there helping.
However, some have argued in recent years that Lightoller could not have seen Murdoch working there based on the following statement he made at the American Inquiry:
Just describe that a little more fully. You were sucked down?
I was sucked against the blower first of all. As I say, I was on top of the officers' quarters, and there was nothing more to be done. The ship then took a dive, and I turned face forward and also took a dive.
From which side?
From on top, practically midships; a little to the starboard side, where I had got to; and I was driven back against a blower - which is a large thing that shape (indicating) which faces forward to the wind and which then goes down to the stokehole. But there is a grating there, and it was against this grating that I was sucked by the water and held there.
This could be construed as to mean Lightoller dove off the Titanic from directly amidships the officer’s quarters. However, he could not have done so due to one little detail:
The huge blowers that were placed aft of the roof of the Titanic’s bridge atop the officer’s quarters. The selfsame blowers that Lightoller was pinned against while attempting to swim away from the ship.
They would have blocked his path had he attempted to dive off from right amidships atop the deckhouse.
What is more, Lightoller added after saying "practically midships" that he was "a little to the starboard side, where I had got to [Emp added]". Meaning he had been en route to help Murdoch at Collapsible A when he stopped short on the starboard side of the officer’s quarters.
Lightoller’s statements before Senator Smith as to what he saw before the final plunge fully bears out his British Inquiry testimony:
Senator SMITH. From what point on the vessel did you leave it?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. On top of the officers' quarters.
Senator SMITH. And where were the officers' quarters?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Immediately abaft the bridge.
Senator SMITH. Immediately abaft the bridge?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Abaft the wheelhouse.
Senator SMITH. Was that pretty well toward the top of the vessel?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. Were the lifeboats gone when you found yourself without any footing?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. All except one.
Senator SMITH. Where was that one?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. In the tackles, trying to get it over.
Senator SMITH. Did not the tackle work readily?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. What delayed it?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. It was the third boat over by the same tackles.
Senator SMITH. The third boat over by the same tackles?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. From what deck?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. The boat deck.
Senator SMITH. The sun deck?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. The sun deck.
Senator SMITH. How close were you to this lifeboat at that time?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Fifteen feet
Senator SMITH. Was it filled before starting to lower it?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. It was not high enough to lower.
Senator SMITH. Why?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. It was not high enough to lower. They were endeavoring to get it over the bulwarks, outboard; swinging it; getting it over the bulwarks. When it was over the bulwarks, then it would hang in the tackles, and until it hung in the tackles it was impossible to put anyone in it.
Senator SMITH. How far below the boat deck?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Above the boat deck.
Senator SMITH. How far above the boat deck?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. About 4 feet 6 inches.
Senator SMITH. And it was lowered to the boat deck?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. It did not get over the bulwarks to be lowered.
Senator SMITH. The last you saw of it?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. Who was managing this tackle?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. The first officer, Mr. Murdoch.
Senator SMITH. He lost his life?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes.
And later affirmed:
Senator SMITH. You say you were 15 feet from this last boat when it was lowered?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. It was not lowered, sir. I was 15 feet from it when they were endeavoring to get it into the tackles.
Senator SMITH. Did you go nearer to it than that.
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Did not have the opportunity, sir.
Senator SMITH. Why not?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. The ship went down.
Senator SMITH. Was this boat ever lowered?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir.
Senator SMITH. It remained in the tackle?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
And affirmed yet again:
Senator SMITH. Did you see Mr. Murdoch after that?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir; I saw him when I came out of the quarters after the impact.
Senator SMITH. Where was he?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. On the bridge.
Senator SMITH. With the captain?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. One on one side, and one on the other side of the bridge; one on each side.
Senator SMITH. Did you speak to him after that?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir.
Senator SMITH. I mean after he took the watch?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir.
Senator SMITH. You never spoke to him again?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No; sir.
Senator SMITH. You were not together when finally parted from the ship?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir.
Senator SMITH. You saw him on the bridge at the time?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Immediately after the impact; yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. Did he remain there until the end?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. He was getting the boats out on the starboard side later on.
Senator SMITH. Later?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. Did you see him at that work?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir; I was on the port side.
Senator SMITH. How do you know that he did it?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. I saw him at the last boat
And when asked once more on this point:
Senator SMITH. Do you know who had charge on the starboard side of the lowering and filling of the boats?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. No, sir. Merely what I am told.
Senator SMITH. What have you been told about it. May be we can get something from that.
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. As far as I know, and I think it is correct, Mr. Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch was on the starboard side. I was on the port side, and Mr. Murdoch was on the starboard side, and the chief officer was superintending generally, and lowered one or two boats himself.
Senator SMITH. From whom did you get information?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Of course, I saw Mr. Murdoch there when finally I had finished on the port side.
Senator SMITH. You went to the starboard side?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. On top; yes, sir.
Senator SMITH. For the purpose of lowering this -
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. I went over to see if I could assist.
Senator SMITH. And you saw him there?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. I saw him there.
In Lightoller’s American testimony he tells exactly how far he was from Collapsible A: Fifteen feet. Which from his perch on the officer’s quarters was enough room for him to have seen everything. Indeed, would have been, as he wrote to Ada Murdoch "practically looking down" on them.
In light of the above facts, the doubts cast as to Lightoller’s word based upon his statement about being "practically amidships" at the time of the final plunge are needless.
What does this all mean as far as the officer’s suicide enigma is concerned?
First, the fact George Rheims was not at Collapsible A when the end came makes one wonder just what exactly it was he saw, and where. As well as casts serious doubt on the possibility that it was at Collapsible A, given Rheims’ absence from that boat.
As far as Charles Lightoller is concerned, his word is unimpeachable. Given how his three accounts from immediately after the sinking match perfectly.
Indeed, despite researcher Suzanne Stormer’s discovery some years ago that Lightoller allegedly admitted later in life that he knew someone who took their life aboard ship during the sinking, Lightoller’s eyewitness account as to Murdoch’s end, to my mind at any rate, puts Murdoch in the clear as to wether or not his death was a suicide.
In closing, the whole officer’s suicide enigma is one which is wrapped in layer upon layer of riddle.
Hopefully, the deductions made in this article as to Rheims and Lightoller’s evidence slices through at least one of those layers.
1. This is a slightly different translation than the one available to Walter Lord when he wrote The Night Lives On. It can be read in it’s entirety at Bill Wormstedt and Tad Fitch’s "Shots In The Dark" website where can also be found the complete text of Lightoller’s letter to Ada Murdoch.
2. Could Rheims have heard First Officer Murdoch firing his pistol at Collapsible C?
Consider the evidence of Hugh Woolner at the American inquiry:
Mr. WOOLNER. Then they eventually lowered all the wooden lifeboats on the port side, and then they got out a collapsible and hitched her onto the most forward davits and they filled that up, mostly with steerage women and children, and one seaman, and a steward, and I think one other man - but I am not quite certain about that - and when that boat seemed to be quite full, and was ready to be swung over the side, and was to be lowered away, I said to Steffanson: "There is nothing more for us to do here." Oh, no; something else happened while that boat was being loaded. There was a sort of scramble on the starboard side, and I looked around and I saw two flashes of a pistol in the air.
Senator SMITH. Two flashes of a pistol?
Mr. WOOLNER. Yes.
Senator SMITH. Pistol shots?
Mr. WOOLNER. Yes; but they were up in the air, at that sort of an angle [indicating]. I heard Mr. Murdoch shouting out, "Get out of this, clear out of this," and that sort of thing, to a lot of men who were swarming into a boat on that side.
Woolner’s number of pistol shots matches Rheims number exactly and Collapsible C was lowered away roughly forty minutes before the Titanic sank. Thus Rheims could have been within earshot of this event at the same time Woolner was.
It also begs the question: Could Rheims have seen Murdoch firing his pistol in the air at Collapsible C, during which Murdoch also threw the men in question out of the boat, and somehow came away with a mistaken impression about shootings and, somehow, a suicide?
Unless Rheims’ liability court testimony from the stand is ever uncovered, we will never know for sure.
3. Lightoller only devotes one sentence in his book Titanic and Other Ships to his crossing between the port and starboard sides of the ship before the end came, saying simply:
Hemming and I then, as every single boat was away from the port side, went over to the starboard side, to see if there was anything further to be done there. (Titanic and Other Ships, Chapter 34, page 132)
Lightoller’s memory was off as to one detail in that lamp trimmer Samuel Hemming did not accompany him across the deck house. Hemming having already assisted with Collapsible A and was at the time Lightoller went to try to help Murdoch already making his escape from the doomed vessel.
However, despite this flaw in Lightoller’s memory, his book nonetheless also corroborates his final movement aboard ship.
For those curious to read Rheims’ depostion and Lightoller’s testimony in their entirely, consult the Titanic Inquiry Project website.
Cite this page
Richard Krebes (2008) Rheims, Lightoller, and the Officer's Suicide Enigma Titanica! (ref: #9365, accessed 27th June 2017 07:50:36 AM) URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-officer-suicide-enigma.html
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Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Tuesday 14th October 2008, last updated Sunday 2nd April 2017.