The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

John Collins
Assistant Cook

“There was a collapsible boat being gotten out… the situation was chaotic, and that there were three officers trying to control the situation… an officer shot the two men, and then turned the revolver on himself.”

For 17 year-old John Collins, of Belfast, Titanic was his first ship. Working in the Scullion as an assistant cook he received £3 10s per month (8.). In the United States Inquiry, he stated his residence as “No. 65 Bally Carry Street, Belfast.” During the sinking, he went to where lifeboat No.16 was being launched, No.16 being his assigned lifeboat. However, seeing there was no hope for him there, he leaves for the starboard side. In the United States Inquiry, he testified:

“Then the word came around from the starboard side there was a collapsible boat getting launched on the starboard side and that all women and children were to make for it. So me and another steward and the two children and the woman came around on that side, the starboard side, and when we got around there we saw then that it was forward. We saw the collapsible boat taken off of the saloon deck, and then the sailors and the firemen that were forward seen the ship's bow in the water and seen that she was intending to sink her bow, and they shouted out for all they were worth we were to go aft, and word came there was a boat getting launched, so we were told to go aft, and we were just turning around and making for the stern end when the wave washed us off the deck - washed us clear of it - and the child was washed out of my arms; and the wreckage and the people that was around me, they kept me down for at least two or three minutes under the water.”

Mr. Collins finally escapes the sinking by climbing aboard collapsible B, although it is clear from the above account that he is referring to the launch of collapsible A. In this description, said under oath, he makes no mention of a suicide. That came later, in the 1930s, when he related his experiences to a Mrs. Alice Braithwaite, an acquaintance of his (when he would have been aged between 35 – 45). Mrs. Braithwaite was between the age of 13 –22 at the time, later repeating Collins’ story to Dr. Arun Vajpey, of Wiltshire, England, in 1985:

“Collins came to Lifeboat # 16, and noticed ‘that one of the officers on the scene was ‘the senior mate, the one next to the captain.’ Collins wasn't allowed in this boat, and ‘he then headed for the starboard side, where he heard there was a collapsible boat being gotten out.’ …By that time Collins said that the ‘ship was nearly gone, with water round our feet, and only the one collapsible left,’ and it was being dragged across the deck by some ‘Swedes.’ Collins also remembered that the situation was chaotic, and that there were three officers trying to control the situation, including the one whom he had seen at Lifeboat # 16. Suddenly a number of people tried to rush the lifeboat and board it, even though it was not free of its lashings. At that point, according to the Collins’ story, an officer shot the two men, and then turned the revolver on himself. Collins believed that the officer was the same one who he had earlier seen at Lifeboat # 16. Then, Collins, the woman and her children, and everyone else on the deck were washed off by a wave as the bow plunged under. Collins lost his grip on the child he was carrying, and later struggled to Collapsible B.” (courtesy of Bill Wormstedt and Alan Hustak, Shots in the Dark) (12.)

Bill Wormstedt writes that the above account “agrees with Collins testimony at the US Inquiry, with the one difference being that he said nothing about any shots being fired at the Inquiry.” In his testimony, though, he did make some interesting observations regarding the forward starboard area:

Senator Bourne: How do you account for this wave that washed you off amidships?
Mr. Collins: By the suction which took place when the bow went down in the water.
Bourne: And the waves broke over the deck and washed you off?
Collins: Washed the decks clear.
Bourne: How many were around you at that time that were washed off?
Collins: There were hundreds on the starboard side.
Bourne: And you think every one of the hundreds were washed in the water?
Collins: Yes, sir; they were washed off into the water.

From this we can attain that there were “hundreds on the starboard side” where Murdoch was attempting to launch collapsible A. Another interesting facet of the information gained by Alice Braithwaite is that Collins saw “three officers trying to control the situation, including the one whom he had seen at Lifeboat # 16.” Since Lightoller and possibly Wilde were on the port side at this time launching collapsible B, these three officers could be Murdoch, Moody and Purser McElroy. As for the identity of the officer who committed suicide, Collins believes it was the same officer he saw at lifeboat No.16 who he described as “the senior mate, the one next to the captain”. It is accepted that Wilde was generally more involved in the port side evacuation and hence he fits the description well, although since Murdoch was “senior mate” or Chief Officer before Wilde and he was seen on the port side “at times,” it could also refer to him.

I have also received a note from Titanic researcher and author Inger Sheil who mentions that she has a "a fuller version of the Collins account, in which it becomes fairly clear from the way in which the officers are described that the suicidal officer is Wilde (that is, if this story with its tangled provenance is to be believed)."

One may wonder what knowledge a 17 year-old assistant cook –first time on a ship- would have of the senior crew, knowledge only related 15-20 years after the disaster. Nonetheless, his evidence at the Inquiry, with clear, specific details, does not contain any glaring errors or exaggerations that would betray a man prone to fantasy or conjecture.