The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Side Menu: The Mystery

The Effect on the Murdoch Family

  • Ada Murdoch(13.)

    Regarding the loss of William Murdoch, Dalbeattie resident Richard Edkins writes:

    “The Murdochs had already lost four of their menfolk to the sea within five years, so they knew that death was all too possible. The worst impact would be the allegations of murder, bribery and suicide…Even before the Board of Trade Inquiry, the Town Council had looked at the evidence to hand, and the local paper had no doubt of the heroism of William. The Town Council held a meeting that decided to erect a memorial to William, even before the outcome of the Board of Trade Inquiry. The Minutes of the Meeting were to be published in the Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Advertiser not long after Lightoller’s letter. The Council was also to set up the Murdoch Memorial Prize fund paying £4 a year to the school as a prize for the best 14-year-old scholar, later the ‘Junior Dux’.

    “Jeannie Murdoch, William’s mother, died on the 20th January 1914, aged 75 years. Although she suffered from considerable illness in her later years, it is possible that the tragic loss of William was a factor in her decline. Samuel Murdoch died on the 6th March 1917 aged 75…

    “Ada Florence Murdoch probably left Britain before the memorial was erected and stayed for a time in Brittany, possibly to try to overcome her anguish and to be close enough to deal with the sale of her house. The start of the First World War (Great War) in 1914 made Ada leave Brittany and settle in London, where she was visited by some of her New Zealand relatives who were on leave from the fighting in France. In 1918, Ada returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, dying on the 21st April 1941 aged 65 years.

    “To the day of her death, Ada remained bitter at the way in which the White Star Line had ignored her as William’s widow. She never married again. She said to her family that her only disappointment in the marriage was that she and William had never had any children. Her love must have been abiding and very deep.”

    -Richard Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic(1.)

The Mystery: Author's Accounts

Crew of recovery ship the Mackay-Bennett
turning over a capsized Titanic lifeboat to
check if any bodies are trapped beneath
(Thomas H. Raddall collection)

After Titanic disappeared into the Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, nothing more was ever seen of First Officer William Murdoch. Presumed drowned his body was never recovered (for a summary of his life, please refer to the William McMaster Murdoch Time-Line). The effect on the Murdoch family back home was obviously deeply felt (refer to The Effect on the Murdoch Family on the left of this page), but also work mates and friends felt his loss (refer to Ada Murdoch and The Weeping Woman).

Murdoch's cousin of the same age William Black, who he had likely spent time as a child, had by 1912 become the captain of a cargo steamer named the Borderer. By April 1912 their ship was on its way from Calais to New York when on April 13 and 14 she passed near an icefield. The crew saw two large icebergs in Latitude 41.50 North, Longitude 50.01 West. However, the Borderer had no wireless, so Captain Black was not able to warn other ships. It was only when he arrived at New York few days later that Black discovered the sinking of the Titanic, and the death of his cousin. (45.)

Within days of the disaster, several crew members and passengers began to talk of a suicide. Aboard the Carpathia, Titanic survivors, still in shock, spoke at length about what they had seen. By the time the Carpathia docked in New York, rumours of suicide were beginning to get a foothold in Titanic legend. Several names were mentioned, Captain Smith, Chief Officer Wilde among them. Before long, however, rumour of suicide had a recurring name: William Murdoch. It seemed ironical that of all the exciting events in Murdoch’s life, it was his death that would be the focus of rumour, speculation and dramatisation.

The best way to discuss such a controversial issue is to allow all the evidence to be put forward for logical, unprejudiced analysis. To do so, it would first be reasonable to call upon a selection of Titanic researchers and historians to see what they have written about his last moments aboard Titanic:

Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic and Britannic, Tom McCluskie

“2:05am Collapsible boat D is lowered from the port side with 44 people. This is the last boat to be lowered from the deck of Titanic. Some survivors reported that an officer (possibly Murdoch) shot at rushing passengers and then turned the gun on himself.” (p.479 (3.))

A Night to Remember, Walter Lord

“Gradually the full story emerged, but many of the engaging tales born these first few days have lingered ever since –the lady who refused to leave her Great Dane …the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee”… Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch committing suicide…Mrs. Brown running No. 6 with a revolver.” (p.148 (20.))

The Titanic, Geoff Tibballs

“Officers Wilde and Murdoch were last seen trying to free boat B, but after it had fallen into the water upside down, neither man was able to scramble aboard. Two who did manage to reach the relative sanctuary of the upturned boat were Lightoller and Gracie.” (p.83 (5.))

The Titanic, End of a Dream, Wyn Craig Wade

“An immense wave struck the bridge and splayed back over each side of the boat deck…Officer Murdoch was also knocked overboard. Collapsible B over turned.”

Mentioning the rumours surrounding the death of Captain Smith, including one from a boy who had seen “Captain Smith put a pistol to his head and then fall down” (quote from Dr. J.F. Kemp, a passenger aboard Carpathia) Wade states: “The story may also have arisen from passengers’ confusing Smith with the ship’s first officer.

“Stories of Officer Murdoch’s suicide tended to be quite consistent. Thomas Whitely, a waiter, reported that Murdoch ‘shot one man –I did not see this, but three others did –and then shot himself.’ Mrs. George D. Widener claimed, ‘I went on deck and was put in a lifeboat. As the boat pulled away from the Titanic I saw one of the officers shoot himself in the head.’ Steerage passenger Carl Jansen told how he had ‘glanced toward the bridge and saw the chief officer place a revolver in his mouth and shoot himself. His body toppled overboard.’ (Many years later, a novel about the disaster made significant use of this fable).” (p.208/53 (18.))

Sinking of Titanic, Eyewitness Accounts

“Revolver shots, heard by many persons shortly before the end of the Titanic caused many rumours. One was that Captain Smith shot himself, another was that First Officer Murdoch ended his life. Smith, Murdoch and Sixth Officer Moody are known to have been lost. The surviving officers, Lightoller, Pitman, Boxhall and Lowe, have made no statement.” (p.23 (33.))

Susanne Stomer in front of the
Murdoch Memorial in Dalbeattie,

First Officer William McMaster Murdoch -based on "Good-bye Good Luck: The Biography of William McMaster Murdoch", Susanne Stormer.

"William Murdoch was swept off the deck of the 'Titanic' by a wave he had his back to. It took him by surprise, and he found himself plunged into the ice-cold water. He diligently tried to get back to the lifeboat he had started to launch. His last thoughts, perhaps, were of Ada, and till the very end he tried to do his duty.'"

Susanne Stomer is a German historian who was still learning English when she wrote "Good-bye Good Luck: The Biography of William McMaster Murdoch" in 1994 -a much sort-after limited print publication. Her passion and admiration for William Murdoch led her to interview William's nephew, Samuel Scott Murdoch and to photograph the Dalbeattie harbour where Murdoch first learned to navigate. She has recently published a new book entitled William McMaster Murdoch - a Career at Sea which apparently continues to show that Murdoch 'stayed to the end, going down with the Titanic after giving up his life jacket to another.'( (13.) )

Titanic & Her Sisters Olympic & Britannic, by Tom McCluskie

“When the evacuation got under way, Murdoch took charge of lifeboats on the starboard side. He remained cool as the crush to escape became more chaotic, shouting ‘Stand back, stand back…it’s women first’ as his purser and sixth officer fired their sidearms into the air to prevent a stampede of anxious men. The epic film by James Cameron portrays Murdoch as a man who panicked, shot a passenger and then put the gun to his own head. But those who were there say he was a five-star hero who gave his lifebelt and gun to another passenger to help them before being swallowed by the dark, icy waters.” (p.489 (3.))

“William was plucked away from us
the moment he had fulfilled his
purpose here on earth.”- Loreen
Philyaw (pictured with family)

True Heart of Titanic, Loreen Philyaw,

Loreen is a self-confessed “Titanic history buff” and full-time mother whose website is sadly no longer found on the internet. But here is what it used to say:

“I believe the most plausible explanation for what happened to William Murdoch--physically exhausted, without a lifevest, and weighed down by his long watchcoat -is that he was no match for the elements of nature. Perhaps the shock of the icy water took away his remaining strength. We will never know what happened to him, and I am not willing to take liberties with a man's reputation and pass it off as history simply because ‘it’s part of that greater drama’ that a certain Hollywood director wants us to believe.

“For me, the facts and my own feelings about the disaster are drama enough. My faith in God and my admiration for William Murdoch allow me to believe that William was plucked away from us the moment he had fulfilled his purpose here on earth.

“I wonder if William had time to think of his ‘Aid,’ who was waiting in Southampton for the day when they could start a family together. Or maybe he was concerned about his ailing mother and how his parents might suffer because they had lost so many of their own to the sea. Or in those final moments, perhaps he recalled the words of encouragement he had tried to live by: Whatever obstacles control, Go on, true heart, thou'lt reach the goal.” ((23.) )

James Cameron’s Titanic Explorer CD-ROM

“Steerage passenger Eugene Daly is reported to have told two separate stories of gun play in those last desperate moments. To one person aboard Carpathia, he described stewards opening fire on a group of passengers who were breaking through the gate at one of the Third Class stairways. He later told a newsman about an officer on the Boat Deck who killed two men as they tried to force their way into a lifeboat. ‘Afterwards there was another shot,” he went on,” and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him.’

“First Class passenger George Rheims told almost the same story in a letter to his wife. The unnamed officer killed one man, turned the gun to his own head and, before taking his life, heroically told everyone, ‘Gentlemen, each man for himself. Good-bye.’ However, under oath in a civil suit against White Star, Rheims would only admit to hearing gunshots and seeing nothing.

“The officer who allegedly shot himself has been narrowed down to either First Officer William Murdoch, who was in charge of Titanic when she struck the iceberg, or Chief Officer Henry Wilde, who recently suffered a family tragedy. Neither body was recovered, and with no conclusive witnesses, the matter will forever remain a mystery.” ((41.))

Titanic: An Illustrated History, by Don Lynch

“Not surprisingly, rumours began circulating among the survivors –the captain and First Officer Murdoch had shot themselves, passengers had been shot rushing the boats, and the band had played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship foundered….” (p.163 (2.))

Titanic at 2 A.M., Paul Quinn

“By now the water was gurgling just a few feet from where Officer Murdoch stood near the top of the stairway that lead up from the Promenade Deck. Before him stood a crowd in and around Collapsible A, with more steerage passengers arriving every moment. He must have felt responsible for what was unfolding before him. The brand new Titanic, the largest ocean liner in the world, was sinking into the dark, icy cold Atlantic with scores of people still on board –and all because a collision with an iceberg that occurred while he was in charge of the bridge. Murdoch fired the gun earlier, so it felt familiar in his hand now. If he really had gone so far as to shoot one or two men attempting to get into the lifeboat earlier, he may have felt fatalistic at this point. Seeing the water so near now, it was the perfect time for someone considering suicide to go through with it. In the midst of the crowd, did Murdoch lift the gun to his head and fire?” (p.77 (34.))

William McMaster Murdoch, Titanic Hero Unstuck in time, Charles Pellegrino

"Boat A, fully loaded with women, was snagged. If a renewed rush did, at this time (as several firsthand eyewitness accounts attest, including Eugene Daly and George Rheims) cause an escalation from warning shots to actual shootings, the situation developing at A was already so hopeless (according to Steward Edward Brown) that the raft was mere seconds from being pulled down with the Titanic's bow. ... given what is known about Murdoch's character and behavior, a hopelessly snared boat would not have discouraged him from trying to save its passengers, even if the attempt required desperate measures. When a final rush made him shoot to kill, he judged it, almost certainly, a necessary killing; and from all accounts the necessary shock value of the killings (even the stunned silence that followed the military salute before Murdoch allegedly, according to George Rheims, put the gun to his own head) - worked. The crowd stayed back, giving the women at his back a few seconds more to get away, and the crew a few seconds more to cut the ropes. However small a hope those few seconds gave. Boat A was dragged down with its ropes only partly cut, but cut apparently just enough to snap it loose and let it float back to the surface. In the water, eleven who swam away from the Titanic climbed into the torn and empty wreck of Boat A; and it is probably fair to say they owed their survival to the few seconds more of cutting time bought by First Officer William Murdoch."((40.) )

Murdoch of the Titanic, Richard Edkins

Richard Edkins is webmaster of the Dalbeattie website Murdoch of the Titanic. Beginning a website design business in 1997 he continues to "develop the designing, producing and servicing of web pages for pleasure and profit." (source)

“Collapsible A was brought down from its storage point on the officers’ quarters. Murdoch was seen by Lightoller trying to disentangle or cut the forward falls (ropes, halliards) of lifeboat No. 1’s davits, to use them to launch Collapsible A. Jack Thayer claimed that he was trying to cut the aft falls of the lifeboat at this time. The sudden sinking of the forward section made the sea surge and sweep many people from the deck. A. B ’s. [able seamen] French and McGough later stated that Murdoch, then straightening the forward falls, waved to those about him to get further back up the tilting deck. The sea then engulfed them, and Collapsible A was left floating at the davits until it broke loose.

“A dozen people managed to struggle into the half-swamped boat, only to be washed out and mostly drowned when the forward funnel's stays parted [The ‘Four Gun Shots’?] and the funnel itself fell in the water amongst them. Either the first surge, - or the fall of the funnel, - appear to have injured, drowned or killed William McMaster Murdoch. Collapsible A, - now half-full of water, - became the refuge for several survivors, about half of whom died from hypothermia before being rescued.”

"...The matter of William's exact death has exercised many writers over many years. The best I have been able to ascertain is that William was trying to free or rerig the halliards on the forward lifeboat davit when the ship split at the Grand Staircase. William was either swept against the superstructure and mortally injured, or (and this gave me sleepless nights) he may have been so entangled in the ropes that he was dragged down. The lifeboat that he was working on was swept clear, part-flooded, to be used by several people, most of whom died from hypothermia."((1.))

Titanic: An Illustrated History, Don Lynch

“Of all the Titanic issues that will never be resolved, the fate of First Officer Murdoch remains one of the most tantalizing. Various passengers and crew describe seeing Murdoch shoot a man who was trying to get into the last boat. Some claimed he then shot himself. Others such as Hugh Woolner, stated that the first officer had only fired into the air to warn off a crowd just before the boat was lowered. Nellie Becker, who spent each day on the Carpathia discussing the sinking with other survivors, met no one who had actually seen anyone shot. And Second Officer Lightoller testified that he saw the first officer still working at collapsible A just before the bow began to plunge.

“Murdoch had been demoted from chief officer just before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and it was he who stood on the bridge when the Titanic struck the iceberg, so it is tempting to imagine his anguished, suicidal state of mind as the ship sank. Certainly Lightoller’s testimony can be discounted –he may well have been attempting to protect the reputation of a fellow White Star officer, as well as that of his employers. It seems clear that some shots were fired, probably by Murdoch. Whether any were aimed and hit their mark, we will never know. First Officer Murdoch’s body was not among those recovered, nor was any corpse found to have been shot. The only recovered body to yield any evidence of a firearm was that of Michel Navratil, a second class passenger who had kidnapped his two sons from his estranged wife in Nice and was bringing them to America. In his pocket was a fully loaded revolver…” (p.195 (2.))