The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

The Shootings on the Titanic

Part IV: The Deadly Rushes

By George Jacub

Confession, Confusion, and Reconstruction

The Location: At the back of the ship. On the left side, what sailors call port.

The Myth: Harold Lowe, the ship's Fifth Officer, fired his gun three times to scare off steerage men who theatened to jump into his boat and upset it. Nobody was hit, but it was these shots that survivors heard and which have been mistaken for officers' shooting and killing passengers who allegedly rushed lifeboats ahead of women and children.

The Truth: Public officials in the United States and Great Britain wanted the public to believe the myth. They guided Lowe through carefully choreographed appearances at two public inquiries to promote the story they wanted the public to accept. They deliberately did not delve deeper into what eyewitnesses saw because they didn't want the truth to be known.

The Facts: There were at least five separate shooting incidents at the aft port boats, in which at least seven men were killed. One of the shooters was Harold Lowe.

Reconstructing the events at Lifeboats No. 12, 14 and 16 has been a greater challenge than uncovering shootings anywhere else on the ship. The reason is that these three boats were all loaded at the same time making it difficult to build a timeline and to separate events between the boats.

For some reason, there was a shortage of crewmen to assist along the port side of the sinking Titanic. While First Officer William Murdoch filled boats on the starboard side of the ship with dozens of sailors, stewards and stokers who were there, Chief Officer Wilde struggled to find enough to man the port boats. Perhaps that's why he chose to load the boats concurrently, to maximize his diminished manpower which would be depleted even more each time a boat left the ship.

Reconstructing the scene

It appears there was no disorder at Lifeboat No. 16.

Bathroom Steward Frank Morris testified to that at the British Inquiry:

5307. You had great trouble in putting them (women) in?
- Yes, we had to push them in.
5308. Did any men try to get in?
- Not in 16; they did in 14.
5309. Fourteen was the next boat you went to?
- Yes.
5310. And in that boat some men tried to get?
- Yes, some third class passengers who were foreigners.
5311. Did they succeed in getting in?
- No.
5312. Was there an Officer in charge of No. 14?
- Well, there was in the last part, when the boat was pretty well full, Officer Lowe came along.
5313. Did you get into boat No. 14?
- After I was called.
5395. Coming up from the saloon that night was there any evidence of confusion on the boat deck?
- None at all.
5396. Or in any part of the ship?
- There was a little confusion round boat 14 with those foreigners, the men. That is all the confusion I saw.

Even that was only part of the story. Seaman John Poigndestre also gave evidence at the British Inquiry...

2965. How did the passengers behave - well?
- Well, they did not where I was.
2966. (The Commissioner.) What were they doing?
- They were trying to rush No. 12 and No. 14 boats.
2967. Men, you mean?
- Yes.
2968. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Did you have to keep them back?
- Yes, to the best of my ability.
2969. Who did that?
- Myself and Mr. Lightoller and the other two sailors who were standing by to lower. They could not lower the boat as it should have been lowered because of the passengers. Men were on the boat falls; they could not get them clear.
2970. Could you tell the Court who those were who were trying to rush the boat?
- Passengers.
2971. What sort of passengers?
- Second and third.
3296. You stated somebody attempted to rush the boats?
- Yes.
3297. Were they English people?
- Foreigners.
3309. (Mr. Laing.) When Mr. Lightoller said that was the boat being rushed or were they trying to rush the boat?
- They were trying to rush the boat.
3310. Afterwards he told you to lower away?
- Well, he did not tell me, he told the other two men.
3311. (The Commissioner.) They were men passengers to rush the boat?
- Yes.

So, no problems at No. 16, but steerage men rushed Lifeboats No. 12 and 14, according to members of the crew who loaded and manned these lifeboats.
The rushes took place just before No. 14 went off, but also earlier, when loading had barely begun.

Able Seaman Joseph Scarrott attested to that at the British Inquiry:
381. Who was taking charge of that boat when you got there - was there anybody?
- When I got there I put myself in charge as the only sailorman there. I was afterwards relieved by the Fifth Officer, Mr. Lowe.
383. Yes, we will come to that. Now having got to boat 14, which was your boat, what was done about that?
- Directly I got to my boat I jumped in, saw the plug in, and saw my dropping ladder was ready to be worked at a moment's notice; and then Mr. Wilde, the Chief Officer, came along and said, "All right; take the women and children," and we started taking the women and children. There would be 20 women got into the boat, I should say, when some men tried to rush the boats, foreigners they were, because they could not understand the order which I gave them, and I had to use a bit of persuasion. The only thing I could use was the boat's tiller.
385. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Did the Fifth Officer assist you in this persuasion?
- He was not there then.
386. Did you get these men out of your boat, or prevent them getting in?
- Yes, I prevented five getting in. One man jumped in twice and I had to throw him out the third time. (This last statement is confusing. I take it to mean the man jumped in twice and he got out on his own when he was ordered out each time, but that the third time he had to be physically thrown out.)

Slowly, a picture emerges. And its a picture that public officials preferred to tell in fragmented form to hide the import of what it shows.

Almost from the start of loading the aft port boats, the ship's men were besieged by male passengers. They rushed No. 14 as a group early and had to be beaten off by Scarrott. But individuals kept jumping into Boats 12 and 14 the entire time and had to be ordered out or thrown out---or, as you'll see--- worse.

The first shooting in this area happened around Boat No. 12. At least, that's where the eyewitness was.

Mrs. Alexander Louch was waiting to get into No. 12. Her account (with her name misspelled) appeared in the New York Times, April 19, 1912.


Forced to Sign Paper, Sailors Shot a Man Dead, Says Mrs. Lurch.

According to the story told by Mrs. Alexander Lurch, one of the survivors to reach this city on the Carpathia last night, a scene of disorder and cruelty took place on the Titanic and was continued on the Carpathia where, she said, she and others were forced to sng[sic] a paper stating that there had been no disorder of any kind, and all had been conducted on board the liner with precision.

Mrs. Lurch told her story to some friends who were taking her to the Junior League at Seventy-eighth Street and the East River, and was corroborated by another woman who accompanied her. She stated that the Titanic ran on to the iceberg at 11:45 o'clock, and was sure of this because her husband had looked at his watch and told her the time. Mr. Lurch then went up on deck to see what was the matter and was told to go back to his stateroom, as nothing had happened.

He returned, but told Mrs. Lurch to dress and after she had done so she came up on deck and saw men passing babies into the lifeboats, which had already been lowered and having great difficulty in lowering others. She said that she saw one woman clinging to her husbands neck and crying to the sailors to save him. Instead of doing this the sailor drew a revolver and pressing it to the man's head shot him to death. Several sailors then picked up the body, tossed in into the ocean and threw the woman into a lifeboat.

A shocking story, indeed. But who was shot? And who was the dead man's wife?

A clue may have appeared 18 days later. The New York Times carried this story:

"Aged Waif of the Titanic"

"Finding Shelter and is Lost After Telling of Lost Sons and Money"

"A Red Cross nurse found an old woman waiting about the White Star Line offices yesterday, and, learning that she was a survivor of the Titanic and penniless, took her to the Leo Hause, a Catholic home at 6 State Street. The old woman said that she came from Baden ,Germany, and was on her way to California, where she had a sister."

"She said that her two sons were with her on the Titanic, one of them having some $12,000, all the savings of the family, in a belt around his waist. When the steamhsip struck the iceberg the old woman said that she was put into a lifeboat and that her younger son tried to follow her. She said he was shot, insisting on it, though stories of shooting aboard the Titanic have been discredited."

"Of her famiy she alone reached this city, and since then has been wandering around trying to get to California. The telling of her story so excited the old woman that she declined supper, but went intead into the chapel to pray.There she became hysterical and a girl took her outdoors when she said she needed some fresh air."

"Presently the old woman sent the girl back as it was raining, saying that she felt much better and that she would return presently. That was the last seen of her and at 10 o'clock last night some one at the home telephoned to Police Headquarters asking that an alarm be sent out for her."

A hoaxer? She wouldn't be the first or the only one. But was she? The Titanic relief fund booklet contains a reference to: No. 373 (German) woman, 63. Two sons, 27 and 21. Hysterical, indicating mental disease.

That's pretty close to the New York Times story, with a few more details.

It wasn't until decades later that reliable lists of passengers on the Titanic were produced. And there was no listing for a German woman with two sons of those ages. However...the dead end suddenly didn't look so dead after all.

Travelling Third Class on the Titanic was a Norwegian woman, Lena Solvang, age 63. Her home was in the village of Skaare. She held ticket No. 65305.

Tickets 65303 and 65304 were held by fellow residents of Skaare, Konrad Hagland, 20, and his brother-in-law Ingvald Hagland, 28. As it happened, the Haglands shared a cabin with Bernt Johannessen, who survived the Titanic and whose story included escorting Lena Solvang to a port boat where he left her to get into a lifeboat as he went over to starboard from where he eventually managed to escape himself.

Was Lena Solvang the 63 year-old-woman at the Leo Haus immigrants home, lamenting the loss of two boys, not her sons but the sons of friends from her home town? Was the person shot by a sailor the younger one of the Haglands?

Perhaps most intriguingly, have we found a lost survivor? Mrs. Solvang was listed as lost, with her body never found. Did she manage to survive the Titanic, only to die alone, perhaps by her own hand, in New York City?

The answers may lie in the registers of Leo House, if they still exist. Originally located in the Battery Park area of New York, Leo House moved to its present location at 332 West 23d Street in 1926 and still operates as "a Catholic, non-profit guest house, dedicated to offering low cost, temporary accommodations to clergy and religious, persons visiting the sick, students, and travelers from the United States and abroad."
The Deadly Rush

The loading of Lifeboats No. 12, 14 and 16 took about fifteen to twenty minutes. The rush on No. 14, which was thwarted by the firm use of the boat's tiller by seaman Scarrott, happened early on when less than half of the boat's final complement had boarded. That means the following incidents happened in a ten-to-fifteen minute window.

Let the eyewitnesses speak for themselves:
>Mrs. Charlotte Collyer (Second Cabin. Off on No. 14) There was a stampede on the ship. The scenes of panic were awful.
The officers drew revolvers and waved the crowd back. At last they had to fire. I covered my eyes as I sat in the lifeboat. Even then I saw them fall. I know they were shot to death. Chicago American, April 22, 1912, as told to M.E. Smith, manager of Waterman Pen Company, Chicago.

Mrs. Collyer. Officers stood by with pistols to keep away the men from the steerage, who on at least one occasion attempted a rush. When occasion warranted the officers did not scruple to fire. Chicago Record-Herald, April 21, 1912

Daisy Minahan ---First Class, No. 14. After making three attempts to get into boats, we succeeded in getting into lifeboat No. 14. The crowd surging around the boats was getting unruly. Officers were yelling and cursing at men to stand back and let the women get into the boats. Affidavit submitted to the United States Senate Inquiry 1912

Emily Rugg ---Second Cabin, No. 12. Two men who were trying to crowd out women were shot by officers...right before my eyes. New York Tribune, April 19, 1912

Laura Cribb-- No. 12. Steerage. -Why I saw one officer who stood on the second deck with his revolver in his hand and threatened to shoot any man who attempted to enter a boat before every woman was cared for. And he shot three. It would have been a horrible sight at any other time, but in that hour of chaos and excitement I don't think there was a single person who didn't inwardly at least glory in his deed. New York Evening Journal, April 19.

Lillian Bentham--No. 12. Second Cabin. The women and children were crowded together and were put over the side into lifeboats. Some of the men bid them good-bye and tried to cheer them up. Other men were crowded together, with some kneeling down in prayer. And some men tried to leap from the sinking Titanic into the lifeboats. When that happened a crew member would fire his pistol at the fleeing man. "I think that as many as a dozen were shot, maybe more," Bentham said. April 25, 1912 interview with The Holley Standard.

Mrs. Peter Renouf---No. 12. Second Cabin. My husband wanted to remain by my side, but the officers would not let him. They said ‘Women and children first"....“Suddenly there was a rush on the part of several men to get into the lifeboats, which were already crowded with women and children. They pushed women aside and became frenzied. It seemed for a while as if they would leap into the boats. Then the officers raised their guns and shot these men down. I don’t suppose there was anything else to do. It was horrible. Newark Evening News, April 19

Emily Badman--No. 12 Steerage. -"I shall never forget the sad scenes on board," Mrs. O'Grady said in recounting her experience to a Hudson Dispatch reporter several years ago. "Wives were torn from their husbands and children from their parents." MEN SHOT "I saw officers shoot some men who tried to get in lifeboats," she said, "and others fall into the water when they attempted to get into the already crowded boats." Jersey Journal, July 17, 1945

Mrs. Mark Fortune---No. 10. First Class. When the ship struck, however, she said, several men of the steerage tried to rush the officers in charge of the lifeboats. At first the officers were able to keep them off by fist blows, she declared, but as the passengers grew more terrified, the officers made use of their revolvers, first to fire in the air and then directly at the men. Toronto Globe, April 20

Nishan Krekorian--No. 10. Steerage - At first we had no idea that anything bad happened and then little by little we began to see ship was sinking. Then everybody got excited, running, shrieking, shouting. I saw little boats and big boats being lowered and I began to feel bad. I saw two men try to get into a boat. (An) officer shot them. Brantford Ontario Expositor – April 26, 1912

Nine survivors who saw officers shoot down passengers rushing aft port boats, yet not a single question was asked of any of them at either the American or British Inquiries.

But, certainly something happened. It attracted the attention of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe.

Lowe's movements immediately prior to arriving at Boat No. 14 are unknown. He drops off the radar for about 15 minutes as you can see here:

His assigned lifeboat in the case of trouble on the ship was No. 11. He never went there. Instead, he somehow wound up on the port side of the ship where he noticed something happening at the aft boats.

He testified in England:
15828. Where did you go then?
- I then went to No. 14.
15830. Why did you go to her in particular?
- Because they seemed to be busy there.
That's all he was asked and all he said about how he wound up at No. 14.
He said next to nothing about his use of a gun.
15855. There is just another thing I want to ask you. Did you use a revolver at all?
- I did.
15856. How was that?
- It was because while I was on the boat deck just as they had started to lower, two men jumped into my boat. I chased one out and to avoid another occurrence of that sort I fired my revolver as I was going down each deck, because the boat would not stand a sudden jerk. She was loaded already I suppose with about 64 people on her, and she would not stand any more.
15857. You were afraid of the effect of any person jumping in the boat through the air?
- Certainly, I was.
15858. In your judgment had she enough in her to lower safely?
- She had too many in her as far as that goes. I was taking risks.

Lowe's Confession

He had been more forthcoming in New York when being questioned by the U.S.Senate Inquiry, even though they waited almost to the last to ask him about using a weapon:

Senator SMITH: One more question and I will let you go. Did you hear any pistol shots?
Mr. LOWE: Yes.
Senator SMITH: And by whom were they fired Sunday night?
Mr. LOWE: I heard them, and I fired them.
Senator SMITH: Where?
Mr. LOWE: As I was going down the decks, and that was as I was being lowered down.
Senator SMITH: In lifeboat -
Mr. LOWE: Lifeboat No. 14.
Senator SMITH: What did you do?
Mr. LOWE: As I was going down the decks I knew, or I expected every moment, that my boat would double up under my feet. I was quite scared of it, although of course it would not do for me to mention the fact to anybody else. I had overcrowded her, but I knew that I had to take a certain amount of risk. So I thought, "Well, I shall have to see that nobody else gets into the boat or else it will be a case" -
Senator SMITH: That was as it was being lowered?
Mr. LOWE: Yes; I thought if one additional body was to fall into that boat, that slight jerk of the additional weight might part the hooks or carry away something, no one would know what. There were a hundred and one things to carry away. Then, I thought, well, I will keep an eye open. So, as we were coming down the decks, coming down past the open decks, I saw a lot of Italians, Latin people, all along the ship's rails - understand, it was open - and they were all glaring, more or less like wild beasts, ready to spring. That is why I yelled out to look out, and let go, bang, right along the ship's side.
Senator SMITH: And as you went down you fired these shot's?
Mr. LOWE: As I went down I fired these shots and without intention of hurting anybody and also with the knowledge that I did not hurt anybody.
Senator SMITH: You are positive of that?
Mr. LOWE: I am absolutely positive.
Senator SMITH: How do you know?
Mr. LOWE: How do I know? Because I looked where I fired.
Senator SMITH: It was a dark night, was it not, to see?
Mr. LOWE: Oh, but I could see where I was shooting. A man does not want to shoot over here and look over here (indicating), or to shoot here and look here (indicating), but to look where he shoots. I shot between the boat and the ship's side, so these people would hear and see the discharge.
Senator SMITH: You shot this revolver through that 3-foot space?
Mr. LOWE: Yes; I think I fired three times. There were three decks.
Senator SMITH: You are positive you did not hit anybody?
Mr. LOWE: I am absolutely positive I hit nobody. If you shoot at a man directly you can only see a round blur of the discharge, but if you shoot across him like that (indicating) you will see the length of it. I shot so for them to know that I was fully armed. That is the reason.
Senator SMITH: What did you do with your revolver after that?
Mr. LOWE: I have got it.
Senator SMITH: Did you put it in your pocket?
Mr. LOWE: I have not got it in my pocket now -
Senator SMITH: You put it in your pocket after you fired those three shots?
Mr. LOWE: Yes; I put in my pocket and put the safety catch on, because it is a Browning automatic. There were, I suppose, four more remaining.
Mr. LOWE: It is an automatic. I think it carries eight.

The picture being painted by the authorities was the polar opposite of the scene described by civilians, and even some crewmen. Desperate passengers rushed No. 14 early on, and were beaten off. Minutes later, there was another rush, this time possibly on No. 12 (where, you'll notice, the majority of eyewitnesses were). That rush ended only after officers shot down two or three men at least. And even then they didn't stop. Individual passengers kept jumping into boats, risking being shot, and scaring the daylights out of the officers like Lowe.

Lowe, himself, gave a skeletal explanation of what happened when he got there. A more complete story is provided by women who were in the same lifeboat.

Charlotte Collyer, Semi-Monthly Magazine, May, 1912:

"The boat was practically full, and no more women were anywhere near it when Fifth Officer Lowe jumped in and ordered it lowered. The sailors on deck had started to obey him, when a very sad thing happened.A young lad, hardly more than a school boy, a pink-cheeked lad, almost small enough to be counted as a child, was standing clsoe to the rial. He had made no attempt to force his way into the boat, though his eyes had been fixed piteously on the Officer. Now, when he realised that h was really to be left behind, his courage failed him. With a cry, he climbed upon the rail and leapt down into the boat. He fell among us women, and crawled under a seat. I and antoehr woman covered him up with out skirts. We wanted to give the poor lad a chance; but the officer dragged him to his feet and ordered him back upon the ship.

He begged for his life...but the officer drew his revolver and thrust it into his face. "I give you just ten seconds to get back on the that ship before I blow your brains out!" he shouted. The lad only begged the harder, and I thought I should see him shot where he stood. But the officer suddenly changed his tone. He lowered his revolver, and looked the boy squarely in the eyes. "For God's sake, be a man!" he said gently. "We've got women and children to save. We must stop at the decks lower down and take on women and children."

"The little lad turned round and climbed back over the rail, without a word..."

"All the women about me were sobbing; and I saw my little Marjorie take the officer's hand. "Oh, Mr. Man, don't shoot, please don't shoot the poor man!" she was saying and he spared the time to shake his head and smile."

"He screamed another order for the boat to be lowered; but just as we were getting away, a steerage passenger, an Italian, I think, came running the whole length of the deck and hurled himself into the boat. He fell upon a young child, and injured her internally. The officer seized him by the collar, and by sheer brute strength pushed him back on to the Titanic. As we shot down toward the sea, I caught a glimpse of this coward. He was in the hands of about a dozen men of the second cabin. They were driving their fists into this face, and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth."

Note that at this point we have evidence of two jumpers---a boy shamed by Lowe into climbing out of the boat and a man who Lowe physically threw out. It was after the second man was removed that Lowe drew his gun, according to witnesses.

Sara Compton (No. 14, First Class) wrote up her account of the her Titanic experience for Archibald Gracie which he cited in his book The Truth About The "Titanic". She wrote:

“Just before the boat was lowered, a man jumped in. He was immediately hauled out. Mr. Lowe then pulled his revolver and said, ‘If anyone else tries that this is what he will get.’ He then fired his revolver in the air.“

The account of Mrs. Esther Hart (No. 14 Second Cabin.) was printed in the Ilford Graphic, May 10, 1912: ( Eva is her daughter and Ben, her husband.)

"Eva was thrown in first, and I followed her. Just then, a man who had previously tried to get in, succeeded in doing so, but was ordered out, and the officer fired his revolver into the air to let everyone see it was loaded, and shouted out, “Stand back! I say, stand back! The next man who puts his foot in this boat, I will shoot him down like a dog.” Ben, who had been doing what he could to help the women and children, said quietly, “I’m not going in, but for God’s sake look after my wife and child.” And little Eva called out to the officer with the revolver “Don’t shoot my daddy,-You shan’t shoot my daddy.” What an experience for a little child to go through! At the age of seven to have passed through the valley of the shadow of death.

Crewman Frederick Scott, one of Titanic's engine greasers, was just approaching No. 14 and No. 12, the only two lifeboats left at the stern of the ship. Note the similarity of what he heard to what Mrs. Hart heard Lowe say.

5657. Tell us what you saw?

- I saw two boats then, and one of the boats was where the Officer pulled a revolver out and shot it between the ship and the boat and said, "If any man jumps into the boat I will shoot him like a dog."

The civilians say Lowe fired in the air, while Scott corroborates Lowe's story that he fired down and between the ship and the lifeboat. But Scott fails to mention what others then saw...a third jumper...who was shot and killed.

Margie Collyer (No. 14. Second Cabin).

"There was one officer in our boat who had a pistol. Some men jumped into our boat on top of the women and crushed them and the officer said that if they didn't stop he would shoot. Another man jumped and he shot him. Leatherhead Advertiser, Epsom District Times and County Post, 18 May 1912.

The young Miss Collyer is clear that the jumper who was shot is not the same as the man who "fell upon a young child, and injured her" of whom her mother spoke.

Mrs. Ida Ball (No. 14, Second Cabin) saw the same incident, as reported in the New York Tribune, April 21, 1912


Jumped Into Boat and Officer Killed Him, She Says.

Baltimore, April 30.--Mrs. Ada Ball, one of the survivors of the Titanic disaster, who came to Baltimore to-day, in an interview relating her experiences said she saw one man shot down. She got a place In the last boat to leave the ship, she said.

"I saw one man Jump Into our boat and was almost seated when he was ordered out. He sneaked back again, and was discovered and put out. Then, as the boat was being lowered over the side, he Jumped back into the boat and was shot by one of the officers."

And Mess steward, C.W. Fitzpatrick, was quoted in the Liverpool Journal of Commerce, April 30, 1912, about the same jumper, only with more details about who shot him:
"As one of the lifeboats was being filled with women and children a foreigner tried to jump on the boat. The officer told him to go on deck. He refused, and the officer fired and the man fell dead on deck. The lifeboat was lowered, and the officer kept on firing his revolver till he was level with the water.

Fitzpatrick's description of an officer firing his revolver "till he was level with the water" fits only one officer on the ship---Fifth Officer Harold Lowe.