The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

The Shootings on the Titanic

Part VI: The Final Shootings on the Titanic

By George Jacub

Webley .455 calibre “pistol” No. 1 Mark VI

The story of the final moments of the Titanic---and the last shootings of frantic passengers--- cannot be told as a straightforward narrative the way the rest of the story was laid out. The final shooting incidents are so inextricably entwined with the movements of the ship's senior officers as they struggled to load the remaining lifeboats that you can't tell one story without the other.

The problem is that the best witnesses, Chief Officer Henry Wilde and First Officer William Murdoch, did not survive. So we're left with a historic connect-the-dots exercise where we have to fill in the gaps between incidents which were reported by others.

But with a strong application of logic and common sense, the exercise is not as hard as it appears at first blush.

Using eyewitness accounts of where Titanic's officers were seen, the few time references that are available, and the known responsibilities of the senior officers it is possible to reconstruct how the loading of the last lifeboats progressed---and where problems arose.

To start this story properly, I needed to rewind the clock a bit.

* First officer William Murdoch ordered Lifeboat No. 13 lowered from A Deck. He then crossed over to the port where Chief Officer Henry Wilde was in charge of loading lifeboats. It's not hard to see why.

Murdoch had only one aft starboard boat left to load (No. 15). What then?

He needed to discuss the next course of action with his superior officer.

The situation facing them was clear. There were still 7 lifeboats left on the ship---more than a third of the ship's complement---and the Titanic was sinking fast. They may even have been informed by Capt. Smith that the boiler rooms were flooding and about to be abandoned. Read:

Wilde and Third Officer Charles Lightoller were handling the loading on the rear port boats while Murdoch and Sixth Officer James Moody were doing the job with the aft starboard boats. But Wilde's ability to go forward to start loading the remaining lifeboats was hampered because of his decision to load the rearmost port boats (Nos. 12, 14 and 16) simultaneously instead of one after another as Murdoch had done with the starboard boats.

Because of a lot of disorder during the loading of the port boats, resulting in the shooting of a number of passengers, it would be risky to leave Lightoller behind to lower them alone while keeping panicky men at bay at the same time.

The likely consensus was that the first senior officer to finish loading the boats on his side of the ship would go forward and get started loading the last boats.

* Murdoch returned to starboard, only to find that No. 13 was still on A Deck. It hadn't been lowered, as he had ordered, because straggling passengers had been showing up and delaying its departure. He ordered it down immediately. He then turned his attention to Lifeboat No. 15.

* While this was going on, Sixth Officer James Moody arrived at the port boats. He was last seen helping load the starboard boats from A Deck. But once No. 13 was ordered down, his job was done. There were no more women on A Deck that he could find; he had sent search parties looking for any, and they returned empty-handed. We'll never know if he was ordered to port by Murdoch because Moody, along with Murdoch and Wilde all died in the disaster.

But Moody's presence at port would have given Wilde the opportunity he needed. Moody would take his place supervising the lowering of the aft port boats, while he, Wilde, went forward to get the lifeboats there loaded.

* After Wilde left, Fifth Officer Lowe showed up. He testified at the Senate Inquiry that he spoke with Moody and they agreed that an officer should go with one of the port lifeboats. Lowe never mentioned seeing Wilde, so it's obvious he arrived when Wilde was already gone. He, Lowe, finished loading No.14 while Moody did the same with No. 16. Lightoller, who had been helping passengers into No. 16 returned to No.12, and was spotted by Lowe passing by.

* Wilde would undoubtedly have first spoken with Capt. Smith. We know the next thing he did was to order the men who were firing rockets to stop and to get started clearing Collapsible C to get it ready to take passengers.
* At the rear of the ship, Murdoch loaded No. 15 at the boat deck, then ordered it lowered to A Deck.
* As No. 15 loaded on A Deck (there were at least 5 people waiting to get on), No. 16 was lowered by Moody. He then went over to No. 14. Although Lowe was in No. 14, preparing to leave with the lifeboat, an officer was still needed on the boat deck to make sure the craft was lowered evenly.

* Murdoch ordered No. 15 lowered from A Deck. He then left the supervision to someone else---the master-at-arms perhaps---as he went forward. Remember, that's what he did at No. 13---ordered the boat down under someone else's supervision while he went to port. By this time he would have been in even a greater rush to get forward.

* As both lifeboats No. 15 and No. 14 were being lowered, a shout "Stop lowering No. 14" was heard. For details see:

* Murdoch, in charge of starboard boats, would have proceeded first to Collapsible C, only to find it wasn't ready to take passengers. He most likely would have crossed the bridge to find either the Captain or Wilde to discuss what to do next. We know he started loading Lifeboat No. 2.

* Moody, after seeing No. 14 down, would have gone to No. 12. There, Lightoller would have left him in charge of lowering the boat while he, Lightoller, went forward. There would be no reason for two officers to stand around to lower one lifeboat.

Arriving at the forward port boats, he, after speaking with the Captain or the superior officers there, likely was ordered to start loading No. 4. The loading would take place on A Deck just as Lightoller originally intended more than an hour earlier only to realize A Deck was enclosed by glass windows, these having been removed since.

In going forward, Lightoller bypassed No. 10, which suggests he, too, was aware of the urgent need for officers at the front of the ship.

* Moody lowered No.12. Murdoch was loading No. 2 when he was ordered to go aft and see that a lifeboat was being properly loaded, an order that could only apply to Lifeboat No. 10. Wilde took over the loading of No. 2 with the help of the Captain.

Boat No. 10 was not ready to load. Read:

* Murdoch arrived at No. 10 shortly before No. 12 reached the sea. The crewmen who lowered No. 12 testified that went they went to No. 10 they found Murdoch there already. He had them attach the falls, and lift the boat on the davits.

* No. 2 was lowered. Where I once thought Wilde then went to No. 10, where one witness testified he saw the Chief Officer, I'm now of the opinion that witness was mistaken, and Wilde more likely stayed forward and turned his attention to getting Collapsible D into the davits vacated by Lifeboat No.2. It makes more sense.

* No. 4 was lowered. Lightoller testified he then went immediately up to Collapsible D. With the additional manpower, the lifeboat was lifted over the railing and made ready for loading.

* Murdoch got No. 10 off the ship, then went to Collapsible C. There he fought off a rush by desperate men, before loading the lifeboat and ordering it down. Wilde crossed over from Collapsible D with Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, in tow and pushed him into C before it left the boat deck.

* At Collapsible D, Lightoller stopped a rush of men, then ordered members of the crew to form a cordon to stop all male passengers from approaching the boat.

* Collapsible D was lowered under Lightoller's supervision. It was the last boat to get off the ship.

With that preamble done, we can pick up the story of the final shootings on the Titanic.

Many passengers had gathered at Lifeboat No. 10 after failing to find places in other aft boats. Read:

One of them was Margaret Murphy. She was quoted in the New York American (April 29, "Women and Children Locked in Steerage of Sinking Titanic"):

"Just as the davits were being swung outward a Chinaman pushed a woman out of the boat and took her place. Sailors grabbed him and handed him back to the deck. Then someone shot him and his body tumbled into the water," she said."

But that doesn't make sense. When the davits were swung out there would have been nobody in the boat; loading hadn't started until the lifeboat was secured level with the boat deck. She obviously meant that when the boat was full and about to be lowered, she saw the incident she described. Should we believe that a 24-year-old shopkeeper's daughter would know the relevant nautical terms? Or did a reporter try to "clarify" her account only to wind up making it even more obtuse?

In any case, Margaret Murphy's main point is clear---she saw a man shot as the boat was filled with passengers and about to be let down to the ocean.

In this case, First Officer Murdoch is not a suspect in the shooting. The witness notably fails to say the passenger was shot by an officer. And shooting accounts from other rear port boats blamed sailors or stewards for the gunplay.

In addition, the crewmen loading No. 10 were, by many survivor accounts, more aggressive than ever in loading women and children into the boat. They didn't just help them in any more; they were literally tossing women in. Children were thrown into the boat like footballs. The shooting of one man cowed most of the male passengers who might have considered jumping into the boat to save themselves, but others didn't rule out what might be their only opportunity to live.

Before the lifeboat cleared the ship, both Armenian immigrant Neshan Krekorian and Japanese passenger Masabumi Hosono took their chances and leapt into the boat, hiding among the women to prevent being tossed out. The sight of grown men jumping into fully-loaded boats could have stiffened the resolve of crewmen still on the Titanic to prevent a repeat on the few boats left.

After loading No.10, Murdoch made his way across the ship to Collapsible C, the only boat left on the starboard side of the ship.

The boat was in the davits when he arrived, but had been sitting there unattended for a while because there was no officer to load it.

"There was a terrible crowd standing around." recalled Irishman Eugene Daly in a letter to his sister. ( The letter was published in the London Daily Telegraph, May 4, 1912.)

Murdoch had barely arrived when there was a rush on the boat.

"At the first cabin [deck] when a boat was being lowered an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in, he would shoot him on the spot. I saw the officer shoot two men dead because they tried to get in the boat." wrote Daly.

"Two men tried to break through and he shot them both. I saw him shoot them. I saw them lying there after they were shot. One seemed to be dead. The other was trying to pull himself up at the side of the deck, but he could not. I tried to get to the boat also, but was afraid I would be shot and stayed back."

Walter Hurst, a greaser, witnessed the same incident and wrote about it in a letter years later to Walter Lord.
"...all the boats were gone now except No. 9 (from the context of the rest of his letter it's clear he's referring to Collapsible C) and there was a bit of trouble there the Chief Officer was threatening someone and fired two revolver shots shouting now will you get back. I was not near enough to see if anyone was shot..."

The commotion at Collapsible C was loud enough to be heard on the other side of the ship by men helping load Collapsible D. Passenger Hugh Woolner, for one, was drawn to the noise and turned the corner of the bridge in time to see Murdoch shoot his gun.

"We saw the first officer twice fire a pistol in the air ordering a crowd of the crew out of the boat. We ran in and helped bundle the men onto the deck and then we got a lot, about ten, Italian and other foreign women into that boat and when we saw it was being safely lowered we went away and made a final search on the deck below." said Woolner. (Extract from Mr. Woolner's letter written on board the S.S. Carpathia.)

He said they were warning shots fired in the air so as not to hit anyone. But did Murdoch fire four shots or only two? Note that Woolner says the shots were fired as Murdoch ordered crewmen out of the lifeboat.

Daly and Hurst saw him shoot to prevent men from climbing into the boat. This suggests two sets of gunfire.
But the shots did the trick. Murdoch was able to load Collapsible C without any more problems and see it off before the Titanic sank.

That left Collapsible D as the only lifeboat remaining. It truly was the "last boat."

Shortly after C went down, officers around Collapsible D ordered the men gathering there to go to starboard to try and counter the heavy list to port that the ship had developed.

Not all the men were willing to abandon the only lifeboat left. There was a rush on D.

Survivor Archibald Gracie told the story to the U.S.Senate Inquiry:
Mr. Gracie. As to what happened on the other side during our departure, the information I was given by the second officer was that some of the steerage passengers tried to rush the boat, and he fired off a pistol to make them get out, and they did get out."

"Senator SMITH.
Who fired that pistol?"

Lightoller. That is what he told me. He is the second officer."

Lightoller, himself, said he only waved his gun to ward off the mob. But there is confirmation from another passenger that a shot was fired.

Still Playing As Water Creeps Up
Worcester Evening Gazette
Saturday 20 April 1912
New York, April 19- Mrs. John Murray Brown of Acton, Mass, who with her sister, Mrs. Robert C. Cornell and Mrs. E.D. Appleton, was saved, was in the last life-boat to get safely away from the Titanic.


When asked if she had heard any shots on the Titanic as she was leaving
the vessel, Mrs Brown said "I heard nothing of the kind. When were (sic)
leaving the steamship, an officer did display a revolver and threatened
to shoot anybody who dared to try to leap into our boat. He did fire one
shot into the air to back up what he said. But there was no actual
shooting then or at any other time that I know anything about."

Lightoller proceeded to load the boat, but as he told the Senate Inquiry, it was harder than any other boat he worked on.

Senator SMITH.
Did you have any difficulty in filling it?
With women; yes, sir; great difficulty.
Senator SMITH.
But you filled it to its capacity?
I filled it with about 15 or 20 eventually mustered up. It took longer to fill that boat than it did any other boat, notwithstanding that the others had more in them. On two occasions the men thought there were no more women and commenced to get in and then found one or two more and then got out again.

Finally, though, he gave the order to lower the boat. There was no more time left. The boat deck was already barely 10 feet above the ocean.

First class passenger George Rheims described what happened next in a letter to his wife.

"As the last lifeboat was leaving I saw an officer kill a man with one gun shot. The man was trying to climb aboard that last lifeboat. Since there was nothing left to do, the officer told us, “Gentlemen, each man for himself, goodbye.” He gave us a military salute and shot himself. This was a man!!

Some researchers have conflated what Rheims saw with the shootings seen by Eugene Daly and Walter Hurst. But the details of what Rheims saw disprove that idea.

The shootings at Collapsible C were to prevent men from rushing the boat before it was loaded. The shooting at Collapsible D was to stop one man from leaping into the boat as it was being lowered.

Daly said that after seeing Murdoch shoot into the crowd of men, he (Daly) fled the area and crossed to port where he tried to get another collapsible (A) ready. While there he heard another shot and saw the body of an officer in the water flowing over the boat deck. He believed the officer who fired the gun at C was the one who shot himself later.

Rheims, on the other hand, saw an officer shoot a man and then, immediately afterward, shoot himself. There was no delay between the shooting and the suicide, compared to Daly's account.

But the shooting seen by Rheims was still not the end of the story.

Irish steerage passenge Annie Jermyn made it into Collapsible D at almost the last minute. To the trauma of escaping a sinking ship was added the horrible sight of a man shot to death in front of her eyes.

Source Media:
Titanic.182 - 1912Apr30p2.pdf
Original Publish Date: April 30, 1912
Terrifying Experience of Miss Annie Jermyn, Not at Her Sister’s Home in Lynn, Mass.

APRIL 29, 1912

BOSTON, April 29 – Annie Jermyn, a pretty 22-year-old girl Titanic survivor now staying with her sister at 21 Webster Street, Lynn, told last a story of her experiences. She declared that hundreds of steerage passengers were trapped in the third cabin, and never reached the boat deck; that there was panic and fierce struggling below decks and that on the lifeboat she secured – she believes it was the last to leave the vessel – one man was shot by an officer and fell overboard.

Miss Jermyn comes from County Cork, Ireland, on a visit.

“When the Titanic struck the iceberg,” she said, “there was tumult in the steerage. A crowd gathered about the high iron gates barring the third-class from other parts of the ship, and beat madly against the locked gates.”

“‘The ship is sinking. The floor is covered with water!’ shouted someone. Looking down, I found that water was indeed beginning to creep across the floor. From then on there was panic unrestrained.”

Miss Jermyn was in the front of the crowd at the gate. She saw a man lean up, grasp the top of the gate, pull himself up and drop down, others followed and she herself finally got over.

She ran up flight after flight of stairs and then dashed out on the boat deck. Then she leaped and landed in a lifeboat, injuring her side severely.

Before she could pick herself up, she says she received a terrific blow on the back as if a man had kicked her. She turned her head and saw a man almost directly over her.

Then she caught the gleam of steel in the hands of an officer in the stern. There was a flash and a report. The man who had struck her, or leaped down upon her – she never found out which – uttered a little cry and then slumped overboard.

Chicago American, Friday, April 26, 1912, p . 2, c. 2:


Lynn, Mass., April 26—Third cabin passengers aboard the Titanic were made prisoners by a heavy gate ten feet high which was locked, according to a story told here by Annie Jermyn, twenty-two years old, who came over third class in the Titanic. Miss Jermyn says it took her two hours to get over the gate, which barred the only exit. Nobody asked her to get into a boat, she asserts, although she stood on the deck near the davits in her night dress and bare feet.

“The last boat was about to start from the ship with only about fifteen aboard,” she said. “Realizing that it was my only chance, I sprang from the upper deck of the vessel into the boat, falling nearly thirty feet and landing on my chest. A second later a man fell beside me, but he had no sooner got up and taken a seat in the boat than an officer drew this revolver and shot him in the head. I fainted as they pitched the lifeless body of the poor fellow into the sea.”

The identify of the man who was shot will never be known. But at the Senate Inquiry, Steward John Hardy identified the "officer in the stern" who fired the final shot:

Yes; there were two firemen in the forward end that could row, myself and a passenger rowed from the middle, and this quartermaster was at the stern to keep her head on. The sea got up early in the morning.

There was only one quartermaster in the boat---Arthur Bright.

The Titanic was only minutes away from sinking. Frantic efforts failed to get two collapsible lifeboats ready to take what passengers they could. The two ship's wireless operators beat a stoker to death when he tried to steal a lifebelt from them, but his death is separate and apart from the shootings explored here.

A few intriguing shooting stories are still floating out there, but they weren't incorporated in this series because there just too many problems with them to judge them credible.

The Minneapolis Morning Tribune carried a story dated April 20, headlined "Mr. Snyder Tells of Ship Disaster, Thee Men Shot".

The story was "related by John Pilsbury Snyder, of Minneapolis, at the Waldorf Hotel", said the paper.
"Three of our passengers were shot by the crew and thrown overboard," continued Mr. Snyder. "I did not see the act committed, but I heard the shots and afterward saw the bodies dumped over the side of the boat. Perhaps the crew thought the men were rocking the boat too much and were crazed---with fear. There was no reason for the shooting."

But the Minneapolis Journal carried its own interview with Mr. Snyder April 19, 1912, also conducted "(i)n the apartments at the Waldorf" where "a dozen or more friends awaited to shower congratulations upon them."

"Bronzed and robust, Mr. Snyder showed no trace of the ordeal he had gone through." He also made no mention of any shooting. Not until days later when he specifically denied the story.

"The story that three men in our lifeboat were shot and their bodies thrown overboard was untrue," Mr. Snyder said. "The only authorized interview that I gave out was given to the Journal representative and printed in The Journal of last Friday. There were no men shot."

Snyder escaped in Lifeboat No. 7. Also in the boat was Alfred Nourney, 20, travelling under the pseudonym of Baron von Drachstedt. Nourney was armed with a handgun and did fire shots, supposedly to attract the attention of rescuers. Snyder couldn't have missed those shots which were indeed fired in his lifeboat, yet he doesn't mention them.

And, as a news reporter, I notice how Snyder carefully mentions he only gave one "authorized" interview. Could the Morning Tribune story be based on an overheard private conversation or an interview of one of those wellwishers transposed into a first-hand interview with Snyder?

At the same time, nobody else in the lifeboat mentions anyone being shot by crew members. Surely someone would have let something that big slip out. Could the bodies pushed overboard have been suicides, of which society people were loath to discuss? Too many "ifs" to include this story.

There was the story, reported widely, quoting "Jack Williams and William French, able seamen" who saw a mass shooting right in front of them.

"When the first of the 56- foot lifeboats were being filled," explained Williams, "the first stampede of panic-stricken men occurred. Within a dozen feet of where I stood I saw fully, ten men throw themselves into the boats already crowded with women and children.

"These men were dragged back and hurled sprawling across the deck. Six of them, screaming with fear, struggled to their feet and made a second attempt to rush the boats.

"About ten shots sounded in quick succession. The six cowardly men were stopped in their tracks, staggered and collapsed one after another. At least two of them vainly attempted to creep toward the boats again. The others lay quite still. This scene of bloodshed served its purpose. In that particular section of the deck there was no further attempt to violate the 'women and children first' rule."

The first problem was that nobody named Jack Williams or William French were listed as members of the crew of the Titanic. The incident they describe was obviously based on the rush at Lifeboat No. 13 which I discussed here

I was even prepared to say I had identified "William French". Among the crewmen who survived in No. 13 was fireman George William Beauchamp. Beauchamp. French, get it? It's not uncommon for a reporter to identify someone he's interviewed by a characteristic if he didn't get a name. French for someone, well, French. Red Shirt. Fat Guy. You're always thinking you'll come back and get the name, but sometimes that doesn't happen.

And Jack Williams? There was a fireman named William John Murdoch. William John. Jack Williams. Surviving firemen would hang around together. But why use false names? Because shooting was still a sensitive topic.

But too many details were too fuzzy. The "source" of the story might have been using a false name. They were identified as "able seamen"; the possible suspects were firemen. Williams was supposedly 36; William Murdoch was 34, close but no cigar. Williams was quoted saying "French and I stood by as the two emergency boats---those that are always kept ready for rescue purposes at sea---were made ready." But Beauchamp got off on Lifeboat 13 at the back of the ship (although William John Murdoch said he helped lower Collapsible D from the davits of Boat 2, one of the emergency boats). Still, too many points that couldn't be nailed down. Pass.

And finally there was the Page One story in the St. Paul Dispatch on April 23, 1912: "Saw 4 Men Shot on The Titanic".

"Iian (sic) Cavontina, an Austrian miner from Hibbing, sole survivor of a colony of thirty-six Austrians who engaged steerage passage on the Titanic to come to this country, today related a dramatic story of the wreck of the big steamer to an interested crowd at the Union Depot, among them being Detective J.P. Williams and Officer J. Dailey, on duty at the station. He left late this morning for Hibbing where he will work."

"A German who had his wife and three children with him, all steerage passengers, begged one of the crew to make room on one of the boats for the latter. He said he was willing to take his chances on the Titanic. The officer replied by shooting the German and three other men, declaring 'Certainly, I'll make room for them'."

An Austrian miner headed for Minnesota? Nikola Lulic, obviously. Why the false name? The "German" would have been one of the Austrian/Croatians in Lulic's party. But shooting him for his query sounds extreme. Was it a holdover sentiment from the Boer war between England and Germany which only ended a decade before?

Apart from deciphering Cavontina's true name, all the rest is speculation. So, out went this anecdote, too. But while it couldn't be substantiated, the eyewitness accounts of the vast majority of people who saw shooting on the Titanic could.

In conclusion, more than 50 people stated publicly that they saw officers and crewmen of the Titanic shoot passengers, and in some cases other crew members, who tried to get into lifeboats ahead of women and children. By correlating the accounts, it's possible to determine where the shootings took place. By building timelines, when. And by mining the accounts, it's often possible to determine who did the shooting, and occasionally who was shot.

The fact of the shooting was never in doubt. Interviews with survivors who saw shooting were printed in newspapers throughout North America. But until now nobody collected the accounts or analyzed them in detail.

The journalism of the day was quite different from now.

Even if a reporter wanted to follow up the story of passenger shootings, how would he go about it? The passengers were scattered to the wind and not around to be interviewed, even if you spoke whatever language they spoke or could find an interpreter you could trust. And who were you looking for? Strange names, strange spellings, frightened immigrants who didn't want to offend anyone. Relying on trains and telegraphs, how to track people down? And why? Nobody knew the people who were allegedly shot. They were nobodies. Worse, they were foreign nobodies. Why bother?

Today, there's a simple answer. We're interested in the lives of immigrants. We're fascinated by historical disasters. And news stories don't get any bigger than the sinking of the Titanic.