The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

Dogs on the Titanic

Captain Smith photographed with a dog, possibly his own

It is reported that twelve dogs were onboard Titanic, ten of which boarded along with First Class passengers and their families, including John Jacob Astor.

Only three of the twelve boarded at Southampton with the rest boarding at Titanic’s first stop, Cherbourg. Some of the dog breeds included French bulldog, Pekinese, Chow, Pomeranian, Airedale, and Great Dane.

Titanic had excellent kennel facilities with a dog show allegedly scheduled for April 15th. However, out of the twelve dogs onboard only three survived the sinking, a Pekinese and two Pomeranians. The Pomeranians were brought onto lifeboats by their mistreses, Margaret Hays and Mrs Elizabeth Barrett Rothschild (lifeboat 6). A Pekinese named Sun Yat Sen was saved by his master, Henry S. Harper, in Lifeboat 3, which was loaded by First Officer William Murdoch.(source)

Did Murdoch have a heroic dog named 'Rigel'?
The legend: Is it fact or fiction?

In what can only be described as an incredible and heartwarming story, "Rigel", First Officer Murdoch's large black Newfoundland dog that survived the sinking while his master did not, spends three hours in the freezing water searching for him to no avail. However, in seemingly typical Newfoundland-fashion he ends up guiding the occupants of lifeboat no.4 to the safety of the Carpathia. The story was broken to the world thanks to Jonas Briggs, a crewman aboard the Carpathia, who described how the passengers of no.4 drifted under the Carpathia's starboard bow, but were too weak to shout a warning loud enough to reach the bridge. However Rigel's loud barking as he swam ahead of the craft valiantly announced their position and attracted the attention of Captain Rostron who immediately ordered the engines stopped. Afterwards, as the survivors returned to New York, Rigel, apparantly little affected by his time in the ice cold water, stood by the rail and barked until Captain Rostron called Jonas Briggs and asked him to take the dog below. Afterwards Briggs adopted the dog, taking him home.

So how truthful is this moving story? Well, it seems to be completely false for three important reasons: 1. There is no evidence that William Murdoch nor his wife Ada had a dog let alone a black Newfoundland 2. There is no evidence that a "Jonas Briggs" was ever a crew member aboard the Carpathia 3. The account, if true, would have been witnessed by dozens of people in boat no.4 and aboard the Carpathia, but there is no evidence that aynone else, including Rostron, ever reported such a story. And 4. If true, would Briggs have not been under obligation to return the dog to Murdoch's wife Ada rather than simply assuming he could "adopt it" -something that surely Murdoch's fellow crew would have ensured happened (it is not mentioned in Lightoller's private letter to Ada).

Richard Edkins, of the Murdoch of the Titanic Dalbeattie website, states emphatically: "Jonas Briggs, A.B., one of the 'Carpathia' crew, sold a story that a Newfoundland dog named 'Rigel' had guided a lifeboat to the 'Carpathia', after fruitless searching for its master, William Murdoch. This piece of arrant rubbish re-surfaced in 1998 and has been completely disproved, as neither Murdoch nor Ada owned a dog."

Story Origin

It seems to have made a once only appearance in The New York Herald of Sunday, April 21, 1912. Here is a reprint of the original article:

The New York Herald, Sunday, April 21, 1912


Rigel, Whose Master Sank with the Titanic, Guides the Carpathia's Captain to Suffering Passengers Hidden Under Rescue Ship's Bow.

Not the least among the heroes of the Titanic disaster was Rigel, a big black Newfoundland dog, belonging to the first officer, who went down with his ship. But for Rigel the fourth boat picked up might have been run down by the Carpathia. For three hours he swam in the icy water where the Titanic went down, evidently looking for his master, and was instrumental in guiding the boatload of survivors to the gangway of the Carpathia. Jonas Briggs, a sailor aboard the Carpathia, now has Rigel and told the story of the dog's heroism. The Carpathia was moving slowly about, looking for boats, rafts, or anything which might be afloat. Exhausted with their efforts, weak from lack of food and exposure to the cutting wind, and terror stricken, the men and women in the fourth boat had drifted under the Carpathia's starboard bow. They were dangerously close to the steamship, but too weak to shout a warning loud enough to reach the bridge.

The boat might not have been seen were it not for the sharp barking of Rigel, who was swimming ahead of the craft, and valiantly announcing his position. The barks attracted the attention of Captain Rostron and he went to the starboard end of the bridge to see where they came from and saw the boat. He immediately ordered the engines stopped and the boat came alongside the starboard gangway. Care was taken to take Rigel aboard, but he appeared little affected by his long trip through the ice cold water. He stood by the rail and barked until Captain Rostron called Briggs and had him take the dog below.

But the story seems to have struck a chord with many who overlook the fact that it has no basis in fact. Courtney Mroch a dog ethusiast and a writer, wrote that the "story of Rigel brings tears to my eyes. No one pulled him into a lifeboat. He treaded water for three hours until Carpathia finally arrived." (source).

Author Stanley Coren, Ph.D. in Psychology Today goes further, describing Rigel as "a large, black Newfoundland dog" who Murdoch "also had with him when he was serving on the Titanic's sister ship, the RMS Olympic. On that fateful night, Rigel was safely housed in the Titanic's modern kennel facilities since Murdoch needed to focus on the goal of this voyage—to reach New York in record time." He goes on to explain why it was possible Rigel could have survived three hours in the water. He writes:

"The Newfoundland dog was bred to function in the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic. It has webbed feet, a rudder-like tail, and a water-resistant coat that make it a natural swimmer. Its body uses the same mechanisms to combat hypothermia that polar bears possess. This allows these dogs to help retrieve fishing nets off the shores of its home island near mainland Canada-actually 400 miles north of where the Titanic sank. There are also many stories of Newfoundlands rescuing people from the sea and enduring icy conditions for long periods of time. Rigel swam around, at first apparently desperately looking for his master, but after awhile he chose to simply stay close to Lifeboat 4. The dog was too large to bring on board even if there had been space to do so, but the humans, in their exposed lifeboat, apparently suffered more from the effects of the wet and cold than Rigel did from the freezing water."

Most notably Stanley Coren Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, defends the reliability of the account by stating that "the day after the Carpathia reached New York with the survivors, the New York Herald carried a story about Rigel's significant role in the rescue of Titanic's passengers. The reporter noted that, since the dog's owner was dead, one of Carpathia's crew named Brigg had adopted him. This was an error, as "Brigg" was the name of a passenger on the lifeboat. Recent evidence suggests that Rigel was adopted by John Brown, Carpathia's Master at Arms, who, at 62 years of age was the second oldest crewman. Brown retired shortly after and took Rigel with him to his rural home in Scotland. Presumably, this canine hero of the Titanic tragedy finished out his natural life without ever having to face icy water again." (source)

Coren's explanation in itself raises more questions than answers them, as there is presently no record of a newspaper article on Rigel's story "the day after the Carpathia reached New York with the survivors" and there is no Titanic survivor by the name of Briggs either (the closest is a Mrs Florence Briggs Cumings, but she is obviously a woman and her family name would be listed "Cumings"). And the Carpathia's Master at Arms John Brown's home town is Leicester, England (not Scotland).

Consequently I contacted Professor Coren and asked him about this sources. His reply contained the following:

My information about the dogs on the Titanic, and specifically Rigel, comes from a number of sources...the New York Herald seemed much more interested in the human and personal aspects of the sinking and over the weeks that followed published a number of interviews of survivors, many taken immediately after the Carpathia (the rescue ship) arrived. It published one extensive article on Rigel the Newfoundland dog, and in other articles there were statements by several of the survivors of lifeboat 4 (the boat Rigel swam near), and also crew members of the Carpathia which mention Rigel and the other dogs. The fate of the dog, however was apparently erroneously reported and the truth only became clear 50 years later. The new facts emerged when the BBC explored the sinking of the Titanic on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in 1962. This involved an extensive series of radio interviews with some survivors (there weren't many left), but mostly with family members of survivors and victims. In one of these interviews the granddaughter of John Brown, Carpathia’s Master at Arms spoke about her grandfather's recollection of the rescue. He specifically mentioned the barking of the dog which allowed the ship to find the last lifeboat in the mist. According to her interview, Brown, at 62 years of age was the second oldest crewman and he retired shortly after the rescue (I believe without returning to sea again). At that time she claimed that he went to live in his rural home in Scotland and according to her interview he took with him "the great black dog that we rescued from the Titanic." She claimed that her grandfather believed that the dog belonged to one of the Titanic's officers, although he was unsure of whom and didn't do any research on the matter. Apparently he also never knew the name of the dog and simply renamed him "Captain."

Stanley Coren Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus
in the Department of Psychology at the
University of British Columbia,
has research that suggests the
Rigel story could well be true.

"Since I was writing an article for a general audience, rather than a scholarly article for an academic journal I did not keep precise references. I spent a day in the New York Public Library's central branch paging through the New York Herald and several other New York newspapers for the month following the sinking of the Titanic. These were non-indexed microfilm and microfiche reproductions and I simply centered my search on what I thought would be a likely time period and took notes, but not page-date-source information. Access to the historical BBC broadcasts was arranged by one of the reference librarians at the University of British Columbia library and it involved a web link to the BBC archives which I could enter for a limited window of time. These had short, usually one line, descriptions of the content and it was more or less a random bit of luck that caused me to listen all the way through the interview with John Brown's relative since I had no reason to expect that Brown had any connection with the dog Rigel based on the newspaper reports that I had read. This was about two years ago but I am told that the BBC now has provided open web access to a large number of its radio broadcasts."

Above cartoon images: Free itunes app entitled "Titanic Dog To The Rescue"
which describes Rigel as "a water rescue dog" who "searches for his master,
Titanic's First Officer William Murdoch."

Author Margaret Muir questions whether Rigel is fact or fiction but does mention that "the body of one woman was found in the water. She was clinging to a large dog, probably a Newfoundland, but both had succumbed to the elements" -but she does not mention her source for this information. (source)

Jan, a former college English teacher and writer explains how she believes the myth started: "Newspapers of the day were offering money for Titanic stories. Or possibly the reporter wrote the story himself and went on to write fiction which he much preferred doing anyway. Newfoundland lovers swear that their dogs could swim for three hours in the freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic and still have enough strength to alert the Carpathia of their presence and continue to make a nuisance of themselves after they were taken on board. As long as people believe this, the legend of Rigel will live." (source)

And that is certainly what has happened. There are dozens of books and even apps on Rigel. For example Christine Jamesson has written a book "The Legend Of Rigel, Hero Dog of the Titanic" (link) while there is also a childrens book by Lorna Olitch entitled "The Legend of Rigel -Hero of the Titanic" which is written from Rigel's point of view (link). And then to cap it all off there is a free itunes app entitled "Titanic Dog To The Rescue" which describes Rigel as "a water rescue dog" who "searches for his master, Titanic's First Officer William Murdoch." (link)

Excerpt from the book The Legend of Rigel, Hero of the Titanic by Lorna Olitch


The story is quite clearly a myth without any supporting evidence. So what can we learn from this? It is interesting that Briggs, or whoever sold the story to the New York Herald, picked Murdoch as the dog's owner. Maybe this was due to the fact that Murdoch's name was being mentioned as a casuality more than any other officer? Alleging that it was Captain Smith's dog (although there are in fact photographs of Smith with a dog) maybe have been too obvious.

Why do people now keep retelling the story despite the fact that it is completely false? You might think it harmless but passing as historical fact something that is a completely false story is in my opinion simply wrong on so many different levels.

But one interesting point is that despite the enthusiasm for this particular story, so much so that it continues to be repeated, Briggs is the only survivor to have ever mentioned it. Which reveals that gossip becoming fact through a newspaper article is not necessarily so. It has been said that the reports of an officer suicide were simply based on rumour and later given credence in dubious newspaper reports. However if survivors were so willing to create stories that sold newspapers then why didn't anyone else pick up on this one?

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