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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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 its 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.

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.