The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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The guns issued to senior officers were MkIV, .455 calibre, short-barreled and nickel-plated revolvers. Hatched plaques of composite material are applied to either side of the butt which has a rounded end and a lanyard ring fitted. The frame is solid with the barrel. The cylinder is chambered for six rounds. Double action. The barrel is rifled and fitted with a blade foresight. The calibre is 0.455in.
Date made: c.1899 Artist/Maker: Webley & Scott Revolver & Small Arms Co. Place made: Birmingham, West Midlands, England Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London Measurements: 160 x 280 x 30 mm
Guns on Titanic
Master-of-Arms and Mutiny
When William Murdoch joined the White Star Line flag ship the Oceanic as second officer from November 1904 this ship had the unwanted distinction of becoming the first White Star Line ship to suffer a mutiny, which according to a New York Times article printed on October 12, 1905, resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 35 stokers open their arrival in Liverpool. The crew were apparently upset with the officers over working conditions and the standard of their accommodation (source). At present there is no information on Second Officer Murdoch's role in this. However it is interesting to note that the White Star Line ship's carried firearms on board locked up and in the control of the ships Master-at-Arms. They were intended for use in the event of piracy, mutiny or uncontrollable misconduct. We do not know if they were used in this instance.
In his book Titanic and Other Ships senior surviving officer Charles Herbert Lightoller described the storage, purpose and use of guns aboard Titanic in the following passage:
"All the navigation instruments fell to my lot, as also did firearms and ammunition. These latter are looked on mostly as ornaments in the modern ship. Revolvers, rifles and bayonets in the Merchant Service, are rather superfluous. A man governs by accepted discipline, tact, his own personality, and good common sense. We have no King’s Regulations to back us up; neither do we need them; nor yet do we require firearms, except on the rarest occasions. Curiously enough, the Titanic was to prove the only occasion at sea that I have ever seen firearms handed out, and even then it was not Britishers they were used to influence." (47.)
That moment during the evacuation of Titanic when Lightoller went into First Officer Murdoch's cabin to retrieve the guns is described later in his book:
"The Chief Officer came over from the starboard side and asked, did I know where the firearms were?
As I pointed out before, it was the First Officer’s responsibility to receive firearms, navigation instruments, and so forth. I have also said firearms on merchant ships are looked on as ornamental more than useful, and as First Officer I had simply hove the lot into a locker, in my original cabin, a locker that was of little use owing to its inaccessibility.
Then, later on, had come the “general post,” whereby Murdoch who was now First Officer, knew nothing about the firearms, and couldn’t find them when they were wanted—I say wanted, rather than needed, because I still don’t believe they were actually needed.
I told the Chief Officer, “Yes, I know where they are. Come along and I’ll get them for you,” and into the First Officer’s cabin we went—the Chief, Murdoch, the Captain and myself—where I hauled them out, still in all their pristine newness and grease.
I was going out when the Chief shoved one of the revolvers into my hands, with a handful of ammunition, and said, “Here you are, you may need it.” On the impulse, I just slipped it into my pocket, along with the cartridges, and returned to the boats. The whole incident had not taken more than three minutes, though it seemed barely worth that precious time. (47.)
Later in his book he goes on to mention an occasion he used the gun to remove "Dagoes" from a lifeboat:
Arriving alongside the emergency boat, someone spoke out of the darkness, and said, “There are men in that boat.” I jumped in, and regret to say that there actually were—but they weren’t British, nor of the English speaking race. I won’t even attribute any nationality to them, beyond saying that they come under the broad category known to sailors as “Dagoes.” They hopped out mighty quickly, and I encouraged them verbally, also by vigorously flourishing my revolver. They certainly thought they were between the devil and the deep sea in more senses than one, and I had the satisfaction of seeing them tumbling head over heels on to the deck, preferring the uncertain safety of the deck, to the cold lead, which I suppose they fully imagined would follow their disobedience—so much for imagination—the revolver was not even loaded!" (47.)
In an article entitled "Gunshots on the Titanic" written for Encyclopedia Titanica, Earl J.Chapman of Canada explored references
to the use of guns aboard Titanic in her final hours:
"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.... 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. ... 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"... 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...."
"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.. One or more warning shots, attributed to Second Officer Lightoller... 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."
"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..." (Encyclopedia Titanica: Titanic Research Articles: Gunshots on the Titanic by Earl Chapman)
"I will go down and get my gun"
First class passenger Mr Charles Emil Henry Stengel saw his wife Mrs Annie May Stengel (née Morris) off in lifeboat no.5 (while he departed later in no.1). During the American Inquiry he made mention of the officer's behavior and also the use of guns:
My judgment about the officers is that when they were loading I think they were cool. I think so far as the loading of the boats after the accident was concerned, sir, they showed very good judgment. I think they were very cool. They calmed the passengers by making them believe it was not a serious accident...I saw two, a certain physician in New York and his brother, jump into the same boat my wife was in. Then the officer or the man that was loading the boat, said "I will stop that. I will go down and get my gun." He left the deck momentarily and came right back again. Afterwards I heard about five shots; that is while we were afloat. Four of them I can account for in this way, that when the green lights were lit on the boat they were lashed to my wife's boat - the man shot off a revolver four times, thinking it was a vessel. The man in charge said, "You had better save all your revolver shots, you had better save all your matches, and save everything. It may be the means of saving your life." After that I heard another shot that seemed to be aboard the Titanic. It was explained to me afterwards that that was the time that one of the men shot off his revolver - that is, the mate or whoever had charge of the boat shot off his revolver - to show the men that his revolver was loaded and he would do what he said; that any man who would step into the lifeboat he would shoot.(25.)
Who was the officer who said "I will go down and get my gun"? Murdoch/Pitman oversaw the loading of no.5 that Stengel's wife was in, while Murdoch/Lowe loaded no.1 in which Stengel himself departed, so this can either refer to Murdoch or Lowe, as Pitman never mentioned having a gun. According to some descriptions when Lowe woke up after the iceberg collision he immediately got dressed, grabbed his Browning automatic revolver. However it does seem more likely, as Stengel describes, that Lowe grabbed his revolver once he saw the potential for trouble, and that this happened at no.5.
Gunshot Wounds - Oral Evidence
Despite the number of accounts indicating gun play in the final hours of the evacuation, no evidence has ever been found to indicate injury or death resulting from a gun shot. However, some interesting information has been revealed in Steve Santini's book Titanic Touchstones of a Tragedy, which chronicles the disaster from the perspective of the Titanic collection of the Manitoba Museum. In his book he mentions an "undertaker named Thad Stevens who was called to Halifax to work on the bodies of reclaimed Titanic victims. Stevens would later claim that John Snow, a Halifax undertaker, had personally told him that he had seen evidence of gunshot wounds on the bodies of some of the recovered victims." (Titanic Touchstones of a Tragedyby Steve Santini, p.34/35)
This quote elicited a heated debate on the Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board on January 10 and 11, 2001, between the author, Santini, and Jason Bidwell, who severely criticises the remark. Nonetheless, it allowed Santini an opportunity to expand on the comments made in his book:
"Many years ago, when I lived in Nova Scotia, I met a man named Sep Bonner who had at one time lived in Hampton, New Brunswick. Bonner told me that one of his next door neigbours had been a man named Thadeus Stevens ("Thad" for short). As it turned out, Bonner and his children sort of "looked after" Thad prior to his placement in an extended care home. As the friendship between Bonner and Stevens developed, Stevens told Bonner he had all his life been an undertaker. In 1912, he had just finished his apprenticeship when a call went out from John Snow and Co. of Halifax summoning all Maritime undertakers to Halifax to work on the recovered bodies of Titanic victims.
Bonner told me that Stevens had told him this was in fact his first serious work in his trade and it was very deeply engraved in his memory. Stevens went to Halifax and helped prepare bodies for viewing in Halifax's Mayflower Curling Rink where they were laid out for possible identification by visiting relations. Stevens went on to tell Bonner that he had a personal experience (as well as oral history related to him by undertaker John Snow) of bodies which bore the evidence of gunshot wounds. He went on to say he was "advised" not to mention this to anyone or to talk about it at all. This promise he kept until over almost 70 years later. We do know that Stevens was there as a New Brunswick newspaper story about his life that came out many years later mentioned his involvement in the work on Titanic victims. As well, Stevens kept a copy of the telegram summoning him to Halifax and he also kept a White Star Line uniform button he says he personally removed from the uniform of a victim as a sort of "souvenir" of the event.
Many years later, this button was "purchased" by a dealer in ocean liner memorabilia named Denis Cochrane. Cochrane bought it from the family that Stevens had willed it to. I have personally been in contact with surviving relations of Stevens who also recall his tales of gunshot wounds on victims. It is also of interest to note that following Ballard's discovery of the wreck in 1985, an article appeared in a Halifax newspaper which featured Stevens and his story of the shootings. The article, titled, "Were Titanic Victims Shot?", told of Stevens' involvement in the preparation of recovered victims and also contained his mention of hearing John Snow tell him that he had personally seen evidence of gunshot wounds on some of the victims picked up by the Mackay Bennett. Stevens went on to say that Snow told him that these victims were "among those shrouded and sent back to sea" i.e. (buried at sea). The same article contains comments by both an "expert" from the Halifax Maritime Museum of the Atlantic as well as THS President Ed Kamuda. Both men say they doubt such claims... I recall that one of the late Stevens' relations told me that he later claimed he had also seen evidence of gunshots; not just John Snow. She went on to add that Stevens should know what a gunshot wound looked like because in World War 1 he served as a medical assistant overseas." (Steve Santini, Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board, January 10, 2001)
In response to this, Jason Bidwell doubts the evidence and adds:
"Just so I don't give the wrong impression, I'm one of those who believe an officer probably did commit suicide, perhaps after shooting two others. However, the statistical odds against even one body with a gunshot wound being recovered, let alone "bodies", is enormous. If 3 people out of 1500 went into the water with gunshot wounds, then there's only a .2% chance of a gunshot victim being recovered. Since only 328 bodies were found, that brings the odds even smaller." (Jason Bidwell, Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board, January 10, 2001)
However, according to Steven Leather, a correspondent who wrote to this site (28 May, 2003) he questions Jason Bidwell's calculations. He wrote: "If 3 people in 1500 had gunshot wounds, you would have to pluck 1498 bodies from the ocean before you could be 100% certain that at least one of these bodies had gunshot wounds. Since only 328 were recovered, the probability that at least one had gunshot wounds is: 328/1498 * 100% = 21.9%. That is, a little better than a 1 in 5 chance." (Nonetheless, Leather does question his maths here -so any additionally calculations welcome).
Additionally, Tad Fitch posted an extra piece of information:
"In a press article that appeared in several papers right after the Carpathia arrived in New York, one Carpathia passenger claimed that one of the bodies brought onboard the ship after the survivors were rescued, was a fireman who had a bullet wound on him. He stated that he had been "shot by one of the officers for disobeying orders" and pushing into the last boat ahead of the women and children. While nothing has been found to support this man's assertions about a body such as this being recovered by the Carpathia, and I do not place much credence in the story, it is not true that there were no contemporary reports of bodies being recovered with bullet wounds." (Tad Fitch, Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board, January 11, 2001)