The Grim Story of the Mackay-Bennett, the Titanic's Mortuary Ship

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg about 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The supposedly unsinkable ocean liner was four days into her journey from Southampton, England, to New York when the call to abandon ship rang out. All too soon, more than 2200 souls aboard the Titanic realized the odds of survival were stacked against them: The ship’s lifeboats, launched into the icy Atlantic, had space for only half the passengers and crew.

The first ship to reach the scene of the disaster, the RMS Carpathia, arrived at about 3:30 a.m. After half an hour of searching in the dark, a crew member spotted a flare from one of the drifting lifeboats, and the rescue mission commenced. By 8:30 a.m., all survivors—705 women, men, and children—were brought up from the lifeboats, and the Carpathia steamed for New York.

Now, the task became recovery of the dead.

Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, was the closest major port to the site of the disaster. A Halifax-based cable ship, the CS Mackay-Bennett, was quickly fitted out as a “morgue ship” and dispatched to where the Titanic had sunk two days earlier, more than 800 statute miles away. The Mackay-Bennett carried all the embalming fluid available in Halifax, approximately 100 wooden coffins, 100 tons of ice, and 12 tons of iron bars to weigh down bodies to be buried at sea. But it wouldn't be enough to cope with the huge number of Titanic victims.

The Mackay-Bennett arrived on the evening of April 19. By the next morning, the crew was ready to start recovering bodies. Captain Frederick Harold Larnder found far more victims in the icy waters than he expected. “We saw them scattered over the surface, looking like a flock of seagulls,” he later told The Washington Times. Boats with five or six crew and room for eight bodies were lowered into the water to begin the recovery.

On that first day, 51 victims were retrieved; most were wearing life-jackets and floating upright. Their heads and shoulders showed bruises from the chaotic sinking of the ship.

The rescue mission had to pause at nightfall with the sea still dotted with bodies. The following day, April 21, fewer were recovered, but 119 were hauled aboard on April 22. Captain Larnder said that “We found no two bodies together, all floating separately. No two were clasped in each other’s arms.”

Chief embalmer John R. Snow, Jr., of Nova Scotia’s largest undertakers, took care of the bodies to be transported back to Halifax. Each one pulled from the water was given a number, and their personal effects were placed in a small canvas bag marked with the same number. After Snow ran out of embalming fluid and caskets, he began wrapping victims in canvas and placing them on ice in the hold, but they quickly filled the available space. Larnder made the difficult decision to begin burying some of the victims at sea—regulations required that only embalmed persons could be brought ashore. Most of the bodies to be buried at sea could be identified by their clothing as the Titanic’s crew or third-class passengers.

“The undertaker didn’t think these bodies would keep more than three days at sea, and as we expected to be out more than two weeks, we had to bury them,” Larnder told The Washington Times. The bodies selected were wrapped in canvas, weighed down with iron bars, and dropped over the side three at a time as an Anglican minister delivered the service.

On April 23, another steamship, the Minia, arrived on the scene and delivered more embalming fluid so bodies could once more be preserved for burial on land. After seven days of searching, the Mackay-Bennett had recovered 306 Titanic victims, and 116 were buried at sea (only 56 had been identified); the remaining 190 were transported to Halifax.

Hearses and coffins for Titanic victims in Halifax
Attributed to William J. Parker or William Mosher, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The ship arrived on April 30 while church bells tolled at minute intervals. Curious locals and desperate relatives rushed to the docks. Undertakers lined up on the jetty while their black-draped hearses stood ready to take the bodies away to the temporary mortuary set up at Halifax’s Mayflower Curling Rink. While the bodies were dressed for burial, workers brought a covered gangway up to the deck of the Mackay-Bennett and began unloading its grim cargo as Red Cross volunteers sprayed disinfectant.

Three other ships were also tasked with recovering victims of the Titanic sinking: the Minia, CGS Montmagny, and SS Algerine. The Minia found 17, two of which were crew members who were then buried at sea; the Montmagny retrieved four bodies in May and buried one of them at sea. The final victim, identified as saloon steward James McGrady, was found by the Algerine at the end of May. In Halifax, all were processed at the temporary morgue with the Mackay-Bennett’s victims. Fifty-nine bodies were eventually taken elsewhere for burial, and 150 were interred across three cemeteries in Halifax—121 at the nondenominational Fairview Lawn Cemetery, 19 at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, and 10 at the Baron de Hirsch Jewish Cemetery. Forty-three remain unidentified. Their simple granite gravestones bear a number and the date of the disaster: April 15, 1912.

A diary kept by one of the Mackay-Bennett’s crew, 24-year-old Clifford Crease, is preserved in the Nova Scotia Archives. The account by the craftsman trainee is mostly factual, recording the weather and number of bodies found each day. On April 21, he noted, “Bodies in good state but badly bruised by being knocked about in the water.”

His granddaughter, Rabia Wilcox, told Global News in 2012 about Crease’s shock after recovering the body of a child. “He never fully recovered. He told our father it was the worst thing that ever happened to [him],” she recalled. Moved by the tragedy, the crew of the Mackay-Bennett placed a brass plaque, engraved with the words “our babe,” on the unidentified toddler’s coffin when he was buried in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery with 120 other Titanic victims. In 2007, DNA testing identified the unknown child as 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin, a third-class passenger who drowned with his parents and five older brothers and sisters.

The Mackay-Bennett soon returned to its regular job carrying cable for maintenance work on the France–Canada cable link. The vessel was retired from service in 1922, and finally scrapped in 1963. The name might be little remembered, but history preserves the Mackay-Bennett’s role in the Titanic’s sad aftermath.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.