The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

The Shootings on the Titanic.
The Definitive Story

Part I

By George Jacub

Actors dramatise a scene of an officer shooting steerage passengers, standing over the body of a man he has shot. (Denver Post File -source)

It's the deepest, darkest, best-kept secret of the Titanic disaster. And it was reported on the front page of every newspaper in North America the day the rescue ship Carpathia reached New York a hundred years ago. How can those two statements be reconciled?

Newspaper readers in 1912 were shocked, outraged, and more than a little bit titillated at reports that officers on the sinking Titanic shot and killed steerage passengers who tried to board lifeboats ahead of women and children. In the days and weeks after the Titanic sank, the story of shootings was repeated by newspaper syndicates and in individual survivor accounts published in daily papers in towns and cities across the U.S. and Canada.

The tale reached a crescendo in the public hearings into the sinking held in the U.S. and England. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, one of only a handfull of officers who survived, was questioned in public over whether he shot at passengers. It's true, he said, but the shots were fired in the air to warn off anyone thinking of leaping into his lifeboat as it was lowered to the ocean, and not at anybody in particular.

And with that, the story of shootings lost steam. For the next four decades, the Titanic story was nothing more than a curiosity to be dredged up at anniversaries of the disaster. Then, in 1955 came the book A Night To Remember which introduced the dramatic tale of the sinking ocean liner to a new generation.

As amateur historians tracked down the survivors who were still alive, held reunion conventions and published newsletters, interest in the Titanic grew and with it, the stories of shootings of passengers. A consensus developed that the shooting stories were bogus, invented by yellow journalists of the day to spice up their Titanic coverage.

But...then some personal letters of survivors surfaced, relating the story of officers shooting passengers shortly before the Titanic took its final plunge. And the consensus shifted a bit to include the possibility that there might have been one incident where two frenzied men might have been shot down. Maybe. The new consensus is just as wrong as the old one.

More than 50 survivors saw with their own eyes passengers shot to keep them from swamping lifeboats. As well, at least two of Titanic's crew were shot dead, one by a passenger.

An estimated 27 men were shot in at least 16 different incidents. Remember, the Titanic covered an area of four city blocks square and the sinking took two and a half hours.

I can hear it now. How could this be? How could such a historical fact be missing from the history books? Well, it's not.

Each of the shooting incidents was reported somewhere, or else how would we know they happened? It's just that nobody---until now---collected them all, correlated them with lifeboats, and pieced together when and where they happened.

Here, then, for the first time ever, is the true and full story of the men who were shot and killed during the evacuation of the Titanic. You will learn the circumstances of each shooting, the names the men who did some of the shooting, and the identities of many of the men who were shot.

First Blood

No way. Too early. It's impossible.

My sentiments exactly when I first discovered the story. But the harder I looked, the louder the evidence spoke until it couldn't be denied any more.

Nobody wanted to leave the Titanic when the loading of the first lifeboat started. Officers cajoled, pleaded with, instructed, encouraged, and begged women and their male companions to enter Boat No. 7. They did everything but hurl them in bodily, until, finally, they convinced honeymooning couple Helen Bishop and her husband Dickinson Bishop to step in. The precedent set, other couples began to climb into the boat and the loading began.

The loading of the next boat, No. 5, went smoother. People who passed on getting into No.7 were now eager to climb into a lifeboat. But--- the first signs of disorder on the ship broke out unexpectedly---and it wasn't from steerage passengers.

While First Officer William Murdoch begged men to get into No.7 with the women, at No. 5 the men were getting mixed signals. Seven men were allowed in---most to accompany their wives or sweethearts---but others were held back. First cabin passenger Charles Stengel testified at the Senate Inquiry:

After my wife was put in a lifeboat she wanted me to come with them, and they said, "No; nothing but ladies and children."

The boat was nearly filled to Murdoch's satisfaction when men started jumping into the boat. First ,Edwin Kimball jumped in to be with his wife. Then, Norman Chambers, whose wife was also in No. 5. But it wasn't until Dr. Henry Fraunthal and his brother Isaac Fraunthal leaped into the lifeboat to join their wives that Murdoch became agitated.

Bedroom steward Henry Etches described the scene to the Senate Inquiry:.

"There was a stout gentleman, sir, stepped forward then. He had assisted to put his wife in the boat. He leaned forward and she stood up in the boat, put her arms around his neck and kissed him, and I heard her say, "I can't leave you," and with that I turned my head. The next moment I saw him sitting beside her in the bottom of the boat, and some voice said "Throw that man out of the boat." But at that moment they started lowering her away, and the man remained."

That stout gentleman was Dr. Henry Fraunthal who weighed about 250 pounds. He not only remained in the boat, but his brother Isaac jumped in after him. Crewmen who survived the sinking of the Titanic said they worried that the lifeboats would buckle if they held too many people while still on the davits, so you can imagine their reaction to the sudden strain of two men, one huge, suddenly added to the boat.

First class passenger Charles Stengel again:

"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"."

But Murdoch, "the man that was loading the boat", would have to wait to be armed.

The ship's firearms were under the control of the First Officer, who Murdoch was. But there had been a reshuffle of senior officers before the Titanic started its maiden voyage. Surviving officer Charles Lightoller explained it in his book 'Titanic and Other Ships' published in 1935:

"Owing to the Olympic being laid up, the ruling lights of the White Star Line thought it would be a good plan to send the Chief Officer of the Olympic, just for the one voyage, as Chief Officer of the Titanic, to help, with his experience of her sister ship. This doubtful policy threw both Murdoch and me out of our stride; and apart from the disappointment of having to step back in our rank, caused quite a little confusion. Murdoch, from Chief, took over my duties as First; I stepped back on Blair's toes, as Second..."

Murdoch had to go to Lightoller, who was now the keeper of the weapons, to get a gun. But Lightoller was busy loading Lifeboat No. 6, so Murdoch would have had to wait. He saw that No. 5 was lowered, then began loading No. 3.

The first rocket went off. Robert Hichens, who would be sent off in charge of No. 6, told the Senate Inquiry the first signal rocket went up before his boat left the ship. This confirms that Murdoch started loading No.3 even as No. 6 was still being loaded on the port side.

Henry Sleeper Harper and his wife were first to get in, it seems. In Harper's Weekly, April 27, 1912, Sleeper Harper told his story:

"Presently a number of stewards and other men of the ship's company began to fuss with the tackle of a couple of life-boats near where we were on the upper deck...We took a look at both boats. My wife thought the one farther off was better because there would be hardly a dozen people left to go in it after the big boat beside us was filled. I looked them both over, saw that the farther boat had no watertight compartments in it while the one near had; so I said," No, let's take this. It will float longest."

"With that I handed my wife down into the nearer, bigger boat and she comfortably seated herself on a thwart."

There was no reluctance to climb into Lifeboat No. 3.

Daisy Spedden's Diary,
April 10 - 18, 1912
There was a little group of men gathered on the deck at this time, and they were ordered by Chief Officer Murdoch to wait while Burns, Alice, D., F. and I were put in the boat. It was so dark we could hardly see where we were stepping, and as the boat was clear of the ship by a few feet, the short legged people had to be practically thrown in. I was placed up on the side of the boat, while B. and D. were on the middle seat, the latter stretched out with a rug over him and his head on B's lap, while F. and Alice were standing near me...

The diary refers to F, her husband Fred Spedden; D, her son Douglas; their nanny, Margaret Burns; and their maid, Helen Alice Wilson.

Mrs. Vera Dick, of Calgary, was asked by a reporter for the Saskatoon Daily Phoenix (April 20, 1912) "How was it so many men were saved?"

"They were permitted to get into the first two lifeboats as no one seemed quite to realise (sic) the danger. Then officers began to reserve the places for the women..."

Mr. Charles Hays assisted his wife and her maid into No. 3 and his son-in-law Thornton Davidson assisted his wife. Both men then stood aside. Edith Graham was interviewed by the Trenton Evening Times (April 20, 1912) about how she, her daughter and Elizabeth Shutes, her daughter's governess, escaped:

"Mr. Roebling and Mr. Case bustled our party of three into the boat in less time than it takes to tell it. They were both working hard to help the women and children. The boat was fairly crowded when we three were pushed into it. A few more men jumped in at the last moment, but Mr. Roebling and Mr. Case stood at the rail and made no attempt to get into the boat."

Thomas Cardeza told the New York Sun (April 27, 1912):

"... we went back to the forward part of the starboard side and found a boat that was being loaded and they were calling for women to get in. My mother got in with her maid.The officer called for other women, but there were none thereabout. Then he called for men passengers. There were only about six just there, of whom I was one, and we got in."

The men climbed eagerly into the boat. Thomas Cardeza and his valet Hammad Hassab. Col. Alfons Simonius, Max Stahelin, Harry Anderson, Adolf Saalfield. Gustav Leseur, Henry Sleeper Harper's valet, "made himself quite at home," according to his employer.

A hundred years after the sinking, Walter Hawksford's granddaughter recalled a family legend for the local Weymouth, England, newspaper, the Dorset Echo.

Said Bridget Penney, “He was standing near lifeboat number three and they were a rower short. First officer William Murdoch turned and said ‘Is there anyone here who can row?’ “He put his hand up."

Even then, said Cardeza, there was room for more.

"The boat was still not filled, so the officer put in some of the crew."

Henry Sleeper Harper watched the boat fill up.

"Four or five stokers or some such men came along and jumped into the boat at the forward end. The sailor who seemed to be in charge of the boat laughed a little."

"Huh!" he said, "I suppose I ought to go and get my gun and stop this." But he did not go and get any gun and neither did he order the stokers out."

"Everybody seemed to take what was happening as a matter of course and there wasn't a word of comment. I stepped in and sat down among the stokers. There was no one in sight on the decks... I had on my arm a little brown Pekingese spaniel we had picked up in Paris...nobody made any objection."

The "sailor in charge", apparently AB George Moore who was in charge of No. 3 when it was launched, was clearly mocking Murdoch, for his comment is almost word for word what Murdoch said at Boat No. 5 (above).

As this was happening, Mrs. Dick and her husband stood off to one side of the boat deck. Three times Mrs. Dick had been called to get into the lifeboat and each time she declined. Then something happened to change her mind. Her husband told the Calgary Daily Herald ("Mr. and Mrs. Dick Reach Home And Tell, Over Again, Story of Escape From The Titanic", April 30, 1912, P.1):

"After the sixth boat had been lowered from where A.A. Dick and his wife stood and there were no more women in sight, some men in the crowd attempted to jump into the boat. This action on the part of the men angered the officer so that he called out: "If I had a gun I would fix those fellows."

"Immediately a sailor said "Here is a gun, sir" and handed the officer one."It was not till then," said Mr.Dick, "that I was absolutely convinced that we were in really extreme danger." Then he told his wife that she had better get aboard, but she said "I will not go without you" and clung to him..."

Mrs. Dick finished the story ("Mr. and Mrs. Dick Reach Winnipeg On The Way Here", Calgary Daily Herald, April 29, 1912):

"Mr. Dick stooped to kiss me goodbye and I just held on, and the officer shoved him into the boat."

Mr. Dick revealed even more to the Toronto Star ("Mr. Dick, Calgary, Owes His Life to Wife's Devotion", April 20, 1912):

"When my wife and I got into the boat there were no women left near it, and the men who remained began to fight for places. An officer drew a revolver and threatened to shoot, and that reduced them to order, yet our boat was nearly upset."

"The sailor who seemed to be in charge ordered "Lower away," said Henry Sleeper Harper in his account.

That was the story preserved for posterity.

But Helen Alice Wilson, the Spedden family maid, had a piece of the story, that never made the history books.

"While we were being put into the boat there was a mad rush of some foreigners to get in, and two Italian men were shot dead before my eyes."("Sister of Plainfield Man Saved Little Boy", April 22, 1912, unidentified newspaper, posted on the Encyclopedia Titanica website. Plainfield, New Jersey, had only one newspaper in 1912, the Plainfield Daily Press.)

Daisy Spedden's diary (excerpted above) says that Alice Wilson was standing in the lifeboat. That would have given her a vantage point nobody else in the boat had.

The names of the men who were shot will never be known. Who fired the fatal shots? Fifth Officer Harold Lowe was helping load the boat with First Officer William Murdoch. Lowe put his own gun in his pocket when leaving his quarters. As he told it to the British Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic:

6301. Now, what did you do after you went out on the deck and ascertained the position of the ship in the water, and saw what had occurred?
- I first of all went and got my revolver.
6302. What for?
- Well, sir; you never know when you will need it.

Murdoch, on the other hand, would have needed the loan of a gun.

He didn't get his own revolver until after No. 3 left the ship. Second Officer Lightoller told that story in his memoirs. He had just lowered Lifeboat No. 6 when he was approached about arming the ships' officers.

"It was about this time that the Chief Officer came over from the starboard side and asked, did I know where the firearms were?"

"...Murdoch, who was now First Officer, knew nothing about the firearms and couldn't find them when they were wanted..."

"...into the First Officer's cabin we went---the Chief, Murdoch, the Captain and myself where I hauled them out, still in their pristine newness and grease."

"The whole incident had not taken three minutes..."

Henry Stengel was one of only five passengers in Lifeboat No. 1, the next boat after No. 3 to leave the Titanic. As a single man (his wife went off in No.5) he kept a close eye on who was allowed into the lifeboats and who wasn't. In what appears to be his first account of the disaster (Newark Evening News, April 19, 1912, Stengel Tells Tragedy Story) he said:

"Some boats that could hold fifty were lowered with only twenty-five and even though there was room for men none was allowed to go. A mate said that only women and children could go after oars were manned and he said he would shoot any man who tried to get in. He fired a revolver off in the air to show it was loaded and that he meant business."

The nautical definition of a "mate" is more than just a member of the ship's crew. One definition, especially in British usage, means a deck officer just below the master. That would fit Murdoch perfectly at Boat No.3.

The big question is why three starboard-side boats were lowered in the time it took only one portside boat to be launched. The answer is less complicated than it appears.

As I discovered, the order to load the lifeboats was given by Captain Smith about 12:10 a.m. the morning after the Titanic hit the iceberg. This was roughly half an hour after the collision. (

The Titanic's lifeboats, at the bow at least, had already been cleared, and lowered in their davits even with the boat deck. But the officers at the opposite ends of the ship had quite different ideas of how to load the passengers.

On the starboard side, Murdoch was in charge. He loaded the boats sequentially from the boat deck. That is, he filled No. 7 first, lowered No.7, then filled No. 5, lowered No. 5, then did the same with Nos. 3 and 1 boats.

On the port side, Chief Officer Wilde was in charge under the ultimate supervision of Capt. Edward Smith. Smith intended to load the boats from A Deck. To that end, he had Boats 4, 6 and 8 lowered one deck further to A. At the same time he separated the women on his side of the boat from the men and sent the women down the stairs to A Deck to wait for the order to climb into the boats.

Wilde, it would appear, intended to load his forward boats concurrently, just as he later loaded the aft boats (Nos. 12, 14 and 16) under his command.

First Class passenger Helen Candee was one of the women following orders. She wrote a detailed memoir for her family about her experience on the Titanic. You can read it here:

In her account, she wrote:

"Captain Smith’s big voice called out an order:- “Lower all life-boats to the promenade deck, the deck below. Passengers will take the boats there!” My impulse was to remind him of the plate glass which would prevent passengers. But a Captain is to be obeyed, not informed..."

"... Woolner and I descend to the promenade deck. It was no surprise to see life-boats hanging unreachable on the outside of the unbreakable plate-glass. We sought the Captain. [going back the way we came.]"

"[Woolner]: “Beg your pardon, Sir, but the plate glass is too heavy to break and boats cannot be reached.”
“My God! I forgot it!” said Captain Smith in anguished humility. Then in the same breath -- an order. “Raise the life-boats! The passengers will take life-boats from this deck.”

Note her mention of lifeboats, plural. If the order to load the boats was given at approximately 12:10 a.m., Wilde would have spent about 10 minutes (at 3 minutes a boat) lowering three lifeboats to A deck and getting all the women in the vicinity down the stairs and ready for loading. Murdoch, on the other hand, would have spent that time loading No. 7 and getting the boat off the ship.

Ten minutes is also the estimated length of time that Capt. Smith was away from the bridge to visit the engine room. When he returned, he was informed that A Deck was enclosed by glass and the women couldn't be loaded from there until the glass was removed. This was exactly what Mrs. Candee said and her companion Hugh Woolner confirmed separately.

It appears Wilde then ordered Boats 8 and 6 to be raised to the boat deck, but left No. 4 at the level of A Deck. By the time he actually began loading No. 6, Murdoch had finished seeing off No. 5 and had turned to No.3.

No. 6 launched, No. 3 gone, Lightoller picked up the story with Murdoch approaching Wilde for a gun and Wilde coming to Lightoller.

In the next chapter of the story, Capt. Smith, Wilde, Murdoch, Lightoller and Lowe all have guns. But only one of them almost sparked an international incident.