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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad


No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Victorian Women Worked Out, Too—They Just Did It Wearing Corsets

Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
ivan-96/iStock via Getty Images

The next time you’re gasping for breath in the middle of a cardio routine, try to imagine doing the same thing while decked out in a flowy dress and corset. That’s what female exercise enthusiasts faced in the 1800s.

According to Atlas Obscura, tailors weren’t churning out loose leggings or stretchy tracksuits for women to don for their daily fitness sessions, and workout guides for Victorian women were mainly written by men. To their credit, they weren’t recommending that ladies undergo high-intensity interval training or heavy lifting; instead, exercises were devised to account for the fact that women’s movements would be greatly constricted by tight bodices and elaborate hairstyles. As such, workouts focused on getting the blood flowing rather than burning calories or toning muscle.

In his 1827 book A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises, Signor G.P. Voarino detailed dozens of options for women, including skipping, walking in zigzags, marching in place, and bending your arms and legs at specific angles. Some exercises even called for the use of a cane, though they were more geared towards balancing and stretching than weight-lifting.

To Voarino, the light calisthenic exercises were meant for “counteracting every tendency to deformity, and for obviating such defects of figure as are occasioned by confinement within doors, too close an application to sedentary employment, or by those constrained positions which young ladies habitually assume during their hours of study.”

Nearly 30 years later, Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister) published her own workout guide, Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families, which encouraged educators especially to incorporate exercise programs for all children into their curricula. Beecher was against corsets, but the illustrations in her book did still depict young ladies in long dresses—it would be some time before students were expected to change into gym clothes at school. Many of Beecher’s calisthenic exercises were similar to Voarino’s, though she included some beginner ballet positions, arm circles, and other faster-paced movements.

Compared to the fitness regimen of 14th-century knight Jean Le Maingre, however, Victorian calisthenics seem perfectly reasonable. From scaling walls to throwing stones, here’s how he liked to break a sweat.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]