The Novel That (Seemingly) Predicted the 'Titanic' Disaster

Fourteen years before 'Titanic' sank, a novella featuring an eerily similar disaster was published.
Fourteen years before 'Titanic' sank, a novella featuring an eerily similar disaster was published. / SolidMaks (book), Zdenek Sasek (ship) // iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s a scene of visceral horror that probably sounds familiar to nearly every contemporary reader: On an April night, a majestic ocean liner plows through the North Atlantic, traveling between England and New York. The ship, which takes its name from a family of giants in Greek mythology, is “the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men,” boasting every imaginable luxury. It’s a steel behemoth with two masts, three enormous propellers, and more than a dozen supposedly watertight compartments that can be quickly sealed off in the event of an emergency.

But “emergency” doesn’t even begin to describe what happens. Sometime near midnight, while traveling at what would prove to be an unsafe speed, the ship grazes an iceberg on its starboard side. The terrible extent of the damage soon becomes clear, and anyone unlucky enough to be on board might hear the “bee-like buzzing of nearly three thousand human voices, raised in agonized screams and callings from within the inclosing walls” of the doomed ship. Since the craft has been described as indestructible, it carries “as few [life]boats as would satisfy the laws.” It’s one of the deadliest disasters in maritime history.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this grim episode, though, is that it has nothing to do with the R.M.S. Titanic. The scene above is taken from a novel known as Futility: or, the Wreck of the Titan, written by Morgan Robertson and first published in 1898—14 years before the sinking of the Titanic, and 11 years before construction began on the White Star Line’s now-infamous ship.

Robertson’s potboiler is one of the most hair-raisingly prescient novels of the 19th century. His imagined ship is nearly a mirror image of the Titanic: Both vessels were marvels of engineering, meant to set new standards for luxury travel. Each had a capacity of around 3000 people, making it the world’s largest passenger ship at the time of its construction, and each was equipped with state-of-the-art safety features meant to protect it from sinking. The ships were remarkably similar in size—Robertson’s Titan was 800 feet long, while the Titanic measured 882.5 feet. Both ships set sail in April; disaster struck each ship around midnight. (The Titanic sank in the early-morning hours of April 15; Robertson didn’t mention a specific date.) The Titan was traveling at 25 knots at the time of its collision. When Titanic struck an iceberg, its speed was 22.5 knots.

Thankfully, the similarities stop short of the death toll. Robertson’s Titan was filled to capacity, while the Titanic carried well over 2000 passengers and crew. Rescuers were able to save 705 people from the Titanic, but only 13 people survived the sinking of the Titan. The stories also diverge wildly in terms of what happens after the shipwreck. In Robertson’s tale, the hero, having survived the wreck, goes on to encounter a polar bear, which he fights, kills, and skins with his teeth. (OK, he also uses a knife.)

In the 110 years since the Titanic plunged to the ocean floor, a body of lore has sprung up around it, including tales of people who supposedly predicted the disaster. Most of these stories are vague and probably apocryphal, and few are supported by any kind of evidence. Robertson’s novella is different, though—it’s well documented, extraordinarily detailed, and chillingly accurate. And even if you’re a skeptic, the similarities between Robertson’s story and the fate that eventually befell the Titanic are even eerier in light of some of Robertson’s beliefs.

“Some Spirit Entity”

A photo of Morgan Robertson.
Morgan Robertson. / George G. Rockwood, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Morgan Andrew Robertson was born in Oswego, New York, in 1861. According to a 2011 interview with Oswego County historian Justin White, Robertson, whose father was a ship captain, often spent summers sailing the Great Lakes. He joined the Merchant Marine when he was just 16 years old and spent nearly 10 years working on ships all over the world. He retired from the service in 1886 and became a jeweler, supposedly after a phrenologist evaluated the “bumps” on his head and told him he should learn a trade. That work lasted for about a decade, until problems with his vision forced him to give it up.

According to Robertson’s autobiography “Gathering No Moss,” published in a 1914 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, he tried his hand at writing when he was 36 years old, after noticing several mistakes in a Rudyard Kipling sea story. “If a man who has never worked at sea can write a story like that … and get money for it,” Robertson wrote, “why couldn’t I?” Robertson authored more than 200 stories over the next 17 years, and there’s no indication that Futility made more of an impression than any of the others when it was first published. But the novella became something of a sensation in 1912, when it was reprinted as The Wreck of the Titan (or Futility; or The Wreck of the Titan) in the wake of the Titanic disaster.

How in the world did Robertson manage to write such a disturbingly prophetic story? Given the striking parallels, it’s understandable that so many people have defaulted to a supernatural explanation. Spiritualism was still thriving in 1912, and millions would have readily accepted the idea that Robertson’s pen had been guided by some nebulous force beyond the realm of ordinary perception. A close look at Robertson’s life might have even lent credibility to that theory—according to an essay by journalist Henry W. Francis that appeared in a 1915 book of remembrances called Morgan Robertson, the Man, the author of Futility believed that “some spirit entity with literary ability, denied physical expression, had commandeered his body and brain for the purpose of giving to the world the literary gems which made him famous.”

These notions were further amplified in the 1970s and ’80s, writes Martin Gardner in his book The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?, when a renewed interest in paranormal phenomena put Robertson’s story back in the spotlight. And to make matters even stranger, Futility wasn’t Robertson’s only brush with literary precognition. In 1914—the year before his death—he published a story called “Beyond the Spectrum,” where the United States Navy endures a sneak attack by Japanese forces somewhere near Hawaii.

But as tempting as it might be to wonder if Robertson was receiving transmissions from the ether, history offers a different explanation.

Too Many Icebergs, Not Enough Lifeboats

Titanic Lifeboats
Titanic Lifeboats / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

As a former sailor and an author of sea stories, Robertson kept abreast of developments in maritime culture and technology, and was known for his commitment to scientific and technical accuracy in his stories. According to an essay by Robertson’s friend Bozeman Bulger, Robertson once spent several weeks studying physics in order to get the science right in one of his short stories. Robertson is thought to be the first writer to mention periscopes in a work of fiction, and he even claimed to have invented the device, only to be denied a patent because a similar instrument had already been described in a French magazine. 

It’s not hard to imagine, then, that Robertson might have seen one of the many references to a new ship being designed—like this one from an April 23, 1897 edition of The Practical Engineer, which described a ship with technical specifications that were remarkably similar to those he would assign the Titan just a year later:

“The White Star Line has arranged with Harland and Wolff, of Belfast, for the construction of a steamer 704 ft. long ... The Oceanic, as the boat is to be called, will be propelled by three screws driven by three sets of engines aggregating between 45,000 and 50,000 horse power ... It is said the boat is to have a speed of 27 knots.”

As for the name Robertson gave his fictional ship, White Star had already built liners called the S.S. Britannic, the Teutonic, and the Majestic, and in 1892, The New York Times mentioned a ship the White Star Line had commissioned called the Gigantic. According to Gardner, it was pretty much inevitable that the company would eventually get around to naming a ship Titanic. Gardner suggests that Robertson simply got there first, dropping the terminal “ic” to avoid any explicit association with White Star.

That still leaves the matter of the chilling similarities between the Titan’s demise and the horror that befell the Titanic. Even here, though, it’s likely that Robertson wasn’t so much psychic as just well informed. Icebergs were a known danger in the late 19th century, and Robertson, a veteran sailor, would have known this.

“During the advent of transatlantic passenger service, specifically steamships, the possibility of fatal collisions with icebergs was not uncommon,” says maritime historian David Perry.

It also seems ships with names similar to Titanic had a habit of sinking in the years leading up to the writing of Futility; according to Titanic researcher Senan Molony, three ships called Titania sank in the North Atlantic between the years of 1865 and 1882. (One of them went down near Newfoundland after hitting an iceberg—a pair of circumstances that would be mimicked by both the Titan and the Titanic.)

View From The 'Carpathia' Of A Lifeboat From The 'Titanic' Brought Alongside 15 April 1912
View from the 'Carpathia' of a lifeboat from the 'Titanic' brought alongside. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

As for the location and timing of Robertson’s disaster, history would have helped him there too. The stretch of ocean where the Titan and the Titanic sank is known as “Iceberg Alley,” and early spring is a notoriously treacherous time to sail it.

According to MarineLink, “iceberg season” runs from mid-February to early June, with the months of March, April, and May being the most dangerous months for ships traveling the North Atlantic shipping lanes. The year before Futility was published, a French brig called Vaillant sank after colliding with an iceberg off the southern shore of Newfoundland on April 13, killing 78 people. Nearly 50 people died in April 1849, when the Hannah sank in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence after an iceberg ripped a hole in its hull. Before that there was the William Brown, which sank after hitting an iceberg on April 19, 1841, about 250 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The ship took 31 passengers with it, but many of the survivors who did make it onto one of the ship’s two overcrowded lifeboats didn’t fare much better; when one of the boats began to take on water, crew members threw 16 passengers overboard to their deaths.

And speaking of lifeboats, there’s nothing unusual about Robertson’s Titan, like the Titanic, having too few of them. At the time, Perry tells Mental Floss, lifeboat requirements were based on a ship’s weight, not its capacity. “Every ship over 10,000 tons was required to carry 16 lifeboats,” Perry notes, so it was common for large passenger ships to have far too few lifeboats for everyone on board. In his 1986 book The Night Lives On, Walter Lord writes that, of the 39 British liners that topped 10,000 tons at the time of the Titanic disaster, 33 of them didn’t have enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. Many of those ships were operational when Robertson wrote Futility.

Robertson was mostly silent about the strange journey of Futility, and he didn’t mention it all in his 1914 autobiography. When he did address the phenomenon, he didn’t claim to be a prophet, but he didn’t exactly dispel the notion that there was something supernatural afoot either. In 1912, American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was aboard White Star’s Olympic when she heard the Titanic had hit an iceberg. After arriving in England, Wilcox came across Robertson’s novella. According to her 1918 autobiography The Worlds and I, Wilcox was so rattled by it that she wrote to Robertson.

“I merely tried to write a good story with no idea of being a prophet,” Robertson replied. “But, as in other stories of mine, and in the work of other and better writers, coming discoveries and events have been anticipated. I do not doubt that it is because all creative workers get into a hypnoid, telepathic and percipient condition, in which, while apparently awake, they are half asleep, and tap, not only the better informed minds of others but the subliminal realm of unknown facts.”

If Robertson did have access to some “subliminal realm,” he was never able to monetize it. Though his adventure stories were popular, he struggled financially for most of his life, and died standing up in an Atlantic City hotel room in March 1915. His cause of death has alternately been cited as a drug overdose, heart disease, or suicide.

A Strange Micro-Genre

Robertson’s novella isn’t the only piece of fiction that supposedly predicted the sinking of the Titanic. There’s a strange micro-genre of literature that seemed to anticipate the horrific accident.

There was Thornton Jenkins Hains’s “The White Ghost of Disaster,” published under the pseudonym Mayn Clew Garnett, which appeared in a pulp magazine that went to press just before the sinking of the Titanic. Hains’s story centers on a fictional, 800-foot-long ship called the Admiral that, like the Titanic, strikes an iceberg while travelling at 22.5 knots. Since the ship doesn’t have enough lifeboats, nearly all of its passengers die.

There was also Celia Thaxter’s poem “A Tryst,” collected in an 1896 volume of Thaxter’s work, which tells of a passenger steamer that collides with an iceberg and quickly sinks, killing everyone on board. Thaxter compares her ship to “some imperial creature” sailing “with matchless grace,” so it’s not hard to see why some have interpreted it as a Titanic omen. Really, though, these works are indicators of just how common it was for ships to hit icebergs in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how a fear of such disasters hung over maritime travel.

Strangest of all, though, might be the case of journalist, newspaper editor, and spiritualist W.T. Stead, who published two works—“How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic” in 1886 and "From the Old World to the New" in 1892—that contain details that would be echoed in the destruction of the Titanic. In the former, a sinking ocean liner is equipped with too few lifeboats; in the latter, a ship is felled by an iceberg in the North Atlantic. These coincidences are general enough that they might never have become part of the Titanic’s macabre legacy if it weren’t for one hair-raising postscript: Stead died on April 15, 1912—as a passenger on the Titanic.