First class passenger
“While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing else for him to, the officer told us, ‘Gentlemen, each man for himself. Good bye.’ He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head.."
Triumph and Tragedy has him listed as “Rheims, Mr George Lucien” (p.346 (7.)). In The Wall Chart of the Titanic: “Mr. George Alexander Lucian Rheims” (38.) . His residence was Paris, France and his destination New York and he boarded at Cherbourg, traveling in First Class, his ticket number 17604 costing £39 12s (Triumph and Tragedy p.93, 346 (7.)). He was also travelling with his American brother-in-law, Joseph Loring (Illustrated History, p.82 (2.)). Also according to the above source and his letter, Mr Rheims made his final escape in collapsible A, which fits into the location and time-frame to see the alleged suicide.
His eyewitness testimony is in the form of a letter to his wife, dated April 19, 1912 (it has been printed in full in this document):
“While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing else for him to, the officer told us, ‘Gentlemen, each man for himself. Good bye.’ He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head. That’s what I call a man!”
While the officer is not specifically named, Mr. Rheims makes the connection that after firing a shot resulting in death to prevent a stampede, “there remained nothing else for him to do” but to take his own life. Also of interest, Rheims wrote the letter only four days after the disaster and does not look upon the suicide as a negative episode but of a heroic man who gave a military salute, dying in dignity. He also refers to the incident taking place “while the last boat was leaving,” placing it within the time-frame of the launching of collapsible A.
Triumph and Tragedy has some further evidence from Mr George Rheims, including a simple sketch of the iceberg which he saw as he stepped “out of an A deck bathroom, forward, and looks aft as the berg slides by” (Triumph and Tragedy p.140, 141 (7.)). Illustrated History contains an interesting incident involving Rheims and his brother-in-law that took place on the night of the disaster. Both had been attempting to determine the speed of the ship when an elderly steward approached and directed their attention to a vibration in the passageway just outside the smoking room, indicating that they were making faster speed than the men were anticipating. “Rheims, who had spent every evening in the smoking room, had never felt such vibration before either.” (Illustrated History, p.82 (2.))
According to Richard Edkins of the Dalbeattie web-site, Rheims evidence is inaccurate due to the fact that he was “in sea beside ship”(1.) though the evidence in his letter is against this notion, suggesting that he was in the crowd surrounding the collapsible, since he said “the officer told us…” and then later he makes a decision to jump overboard. George Behe is certain that “Rheims was standing just a few feet from the unnamed officer and heard him bid a quiet farewell to the bystanders around him before using his revolver to end his own life.” (George Behe, First Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’ (11.) ) It must be noted, though, that collapsible A was partially flooded and that one eyewitness alleges Murdoch had water swirling around his feet when he committed suicide. To be in the sea, then, does not rule out his testimony.
As noted in James Cameron’s Titanic CD-ROM, “under oath in a civil suit against White Star, Rheims would only admit to hearing gunshots and seeing nothing.” (41.). The deposition to the Limitation of Liability Hearings in New York includes the following:
DEPOSITION OF GEORGE RHEIMS.
Q. Did you hear any particular noise?
- Yes I heard two pistol shots.
Q. About how long before the ship sank?
- About 40 minutes before she sank.
Frustratingly, he was neither asked or cross-examined on the reference of the two pistol shots, although he was asked in great detail and even drew a picture to show the location of the lavatory in his cabin, which had seeminly little bearing on the case. Is there an explanation as to why Rheims did not make a reference to what he described in his earlier letter? Yes. Later in his disposition he said:
Q. Did you suffer from these injuries after you returned to Paris?
- Yes, suffered quite a lot of pain.
Q. Did you suffer. anything else?
- I lost my memory for about two months; that is, my memory was not as good as it usually was.
His loss of memory, inconjunction with not being asked about the pistol shots or the behaviour of the officers, could well explain why he did to repeat the officer suicide account.
Of course, the absence of a reference to the shooting/suicide does not necessarily invalidate his first observation. Interestingly, Second Officer Lightoller did something similar. At the British Inquiry he was adamant that there was perfect order at the launching of collapsible D. Later, he told Colonel Archibald Gracie that he had to fire his revolver to make men get out of the boat (Illustrated History, p.132 (2.)). Very often a sanitised view of events is portrayed at official inquiries, especially when image and prestige of individuals and/or large companies are at stake, while private letters contain a more honest portrayal. It was likely that the suicide (which Rheims perceived as heroic) would be irrelevant material to bring up in a civil suit against the White Star Line.
Private letters do not have the advantage of having their accuracy explored in the public arena and so they may contain an element of exaggeration. However, Rheims’ letter, although written when he was a “little tired” contains no indication of a man entering into hyperbole or conjecture. Other details in his letter are generally correct, such as the number of lifeboats (“16”, with four collapsibles), time it took to load the lifeboats (“one and a half hours”), that “a few of them [lifeboats] were only half full,” that after the launching of the lifeboats “1,500 people [were] left on board,” the “pitiful pleas” after Titanic had sunk of “those who were able to float crying for help” that “lasted for half an hour, then all was quiet.”
His accurate description of collapsible A is as follows:
“…about 20 men and women, with icy water up to our thighs. We had to balance ourselves to avoid capsizing. I stayed six hours in my underwear, shaking with cold… we had to push back about 10 poor people who wanted to climb aboard. We were filled to the limit. During the night eight people died from cold or desperation… At 8.00 in the morning a lifeboat from the Titanic came to pick us up and took us aboard the Carpathia. They took marvelous care of us.”
The Titanic lifeboat that Rheims mentions lending assistance is lifeboat No.14, under the command of Fifth Officer Lowe, who transferred passengers from swamped collapsible A. Written only four days after the disaster (the day after getting back to New York) his letter hence reveals enough reliability to make his statement regarding an unnamed officer worthy of attention.
Although Rheims’ evidence is possibly the most well know source of the suicide rumours, it should also be noted that he was not the originator of the allegations. “George Rheims was not responsible for the many press stories which told of Murdoch’s suicide, either, because the only two places he ever mentioned the incident were in an April 20th newspaper interview and in a private letter to his wife Mary; in neither document did Rheims *name* the officer who shot himself.” (George Behe, First Officer Murdoch and the ‘Dalbeattie Defense’ (11.) ).
It seems that Rheims' account contains accuracy but, like in the case of Eugene Daly, discredited due to another reason, as noted in Gunshots on the Titanic by Earl Chapman
"It is interesting to note that both Daly and Rheims were the subject of vicious rumours which were circulated in the morning tabloids shortly after the Carpathia landed. Both were depicted as cowards who had survived only by sneaking into a lifeboat. The rumours concerning Rheims were particularly vicious as they had him dressed in women's clothing. Obviously, there was an attempt to discredit their statements about the shooting and in particular, the reports of an officer's suicide. It is supposed that Rheims had tried to relay this information to the press shortly after his arrival in New York (as discussed earlier, the Daly account was forwarded to the Chicago Tribune by Dr. Blackmarr. Daly and Rheims were never cleared of these unfounded charges. Rheims stuck by his story to the end, but his credibility was destroyed beyond repair. Daly simply sought anonymity and obscurity...Unfortunately both Daly and Rheims were not invited to testify at either the Senate or British Inquiries. Also, both were discredited as being cowards in newspaper accounts, which was likely the reason they were not invited to testify." (Encyclopedia Titanica: Titanic Research Articles: Gunshots on the Titanic by Earl Chapman(27.), refer to Gunshots on the Titanic and Suicide Witnesses -Eugene Daly)
George Rheims' full letter is as follows:
19 April 1912
I dined with Joe Sunday evening and went up to my cabin to go to sleep around 11.00 P.M. I felt, being in the front part of the ship, a strong shock and heard a noise that sounded like steam escaping, it was dreadful. I thought we had an accident in the engine. After one fourth of an hour there was an announcement informing us that we had collided with an iceberg but that there was no danger and we should all go back to sleep!!! Since I noticed that the ship wasn't listing I thought nothing of it. Soon after Joe came to join me and we stayed together until the end. Around 11.30 all passengers left their cabins. The ship tilted more and more. An officer came to tell us to put on our life jackets. You can well imagine how this news affected me!
I went down to my cabin to put on some warm clothing and my life jacket. Joe did the same and rejoined me on the boat's deck, where by now a crowd of people gathered. We started lowering the lifeboats down in the ocean – 16 lifeboats for 3,000 people. The men were forbidden to use the lifeboats. A few men – traitors – did not hesitate to jump into the lifeboats just the same. In general the people's attitude was admirable. It took one and a half hours for all 16 lifeboats to be lowered. A few of them were only half full. While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it. As there remained nothing more to do, the officer told us, "Gentlemen, each man for himself, good-bye." He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head. That’s what I call a man!!!
We were about 1,500 people left on board without any means of escape. It was death for us all. I can not convey how calm everyone was. We said goodbye to all our friends and everyone prepared himself to die properly. Joe took both my hands and said, “George if you survive look after my babies. If I live you will not have to worry about Mary.” I did not lose one second of composure and had decided to jump overboard to save myself by swimming. I can not describe the unbelievable things I saw at that moment. Suddenly the ship started nosediving and I was thrown to the deck by an explosion. I found myself entangled in chairs and ropes. I was able to free myself. Joe wanted to go back in the rear of the ship. I told him it would mean death and that he should follow me. He told me that he could not swim well enough. Then I took my momentum and jumped overboard.
Then I took my momentum and jumped overboard. The fall seemed endless, then suddenly icy cold and a long plunge down into the ocean. When I came up again I started swimming vigorously to get away from the ship fearing that I would be dragged down with it. It was frightfully cold. Suddenly I saw the Titanic going straight down with horrible explosions and piercing screams. All the passengers were pressed against the railing like flies. There was a big whirlpool swirling movement, then silence. Suddenly there were pitiful pleas that I will never forget. It was all those who were able to float crying for help. It was atrociously grim, mysterious – supernatural. This lasted for half an hour, then all was quiet. The poor people went down. I swam alone in the night, when at a distance I noticed a raft, half sunk and filled with men. It took me I suppose 15 minutes to reach it. At first they refused to let me come aboard, but I was able to persuade them after all. I stood up on the raft. We were about 20 men and women, with icy water up to our thighs. We had to balance ourselves to avoid capsizing. I stayed six hours in my underwear, shaking with cold. Twice I thought of throwing myself into the ocean and each time the thought of you held me back. I regained courage and resumed – I don't know how – my efforts to stay on the raft. What a horrible night! We had to push back about 10 poor people who wanted to climb aboard. We were filled to the limit. During the night eight people died from cold or desperation. I am sparing you the details for they are too frightful. I had the pleasure to be able to save a poor man, father of nine children, who asked me to give him a picture of myself with a dedication fit for the King of England. At 8.00 in the morning a lifeboat from the Titanic came to pick us up and took us aboard the Carpathia . They took marvelous care of us.
I had some trouble walking, my feet being frostbitten. Here I am settled at Harry's and I think that a little rest of a few days will do me a lot of good.
I affirm that I am a little tired. You must not hold it against me for ending this letter so abruptly.
It goes without saying that Rheims suicide account is probably the most famous but also the most convincing as there is no reason to believe he was fabricating an account as it is in a private letter written shortly after the event. Rescued aboard collapsible A he was in the vicinty to witness the alleged suicide.