Conspiracy theories often emerge in the wake of tragic events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the death of Princess Diana. It’s no surprise, then, that the most famous shipwreck in history—the sinking of the RMS Titanic on its first voyage in 1912, in which an estimated 1500 people died—has its fair share of conspiracy theories. Here are 10 theories that dispute the widely accepted facts about the Titanic tragedy.
1. A German submarine fired on the Titanic.
Although the start of World War I was still two years away, some people believe that a German U-boat torpedoed the Titanic. During the official inquiry into the sinking, multiple people reported hearing explosions after the collision with the iceberg, leading theorists to suggest that a submarine fired on the ship. A mystery vessel was also supposedly spotted between the Titanic and the Californian; some believe it to have been the alleged U-boat, while other theories propose that it was the Samson, a Norwegian ship that was illegally hunting seals, or the Mount Temple, a Canadian cargo ship.
But those noises had nothing to do with a torpedo: When Third Officer Herbert Pitman was questioned about hearing “noises like explosions,” he explained that they “appertained to the bulkheads carrying away.” These explosions being related to the breaking up of the ship was also confirmed by passenger Charles Stengel, who reported hearing “four sharp explosions” when the bow and stern ripped apart.
2. An Egyptian mummy’s curse sunk the Titanic.
The misfortune that was supposedly unleashed upon those who disturbed King Tut’s tomb in 1922 may be the best-known example of a mummy’s curse, but it isn’t the most dramatic. Ten years earlier, it was alleged that a mummy’s curse took down the Titanic and around 1500 of its passengers and crew.
The details of the story are inconsistent, but the broad strokes are that in the latter half of the Victorian era, four Englishmen were traveling in Egypt when one of them bought the mummy-board—a highly decorated coffin lid—of the princess (or priestess) of Amun. Everyone who came into contact with the board apparently suffered death or illness, and eventually, the cursed object made its way onto the Titanic.
There are a few factual errors with this story, though: While the mummy-board is a real object that was acquired by the British Museum in 1889, it wasn’t on the Titanic’s cargo manifest—in fact, it didn’t even leave the museum until 1990, when it started being temporarily exhibited around the world. The mummy it belonged to is also a mystery.
The initial story of the curse was crafted by a man named Douglas Murray and journalist William Stead. Stead later became a passenger aboard Titanic, where he spread his spooky tale among the other passengers. They, in turn, related it to the newspapers, and, as Snopes puts it, “eventually the ghost story Stead and Murray invented, Stead's presence aboard the Titanic, and reports of Stead's having related the mummy tale to Titanic passengers became jumbled together, producing a new legend about an actual mummy aboard the Titanic.” The Titanic became another notch in the princess/priestess’s belt, a tale that Stead couldn’t spread or refute: He perished in the disaster.
3. A fire weakened the Titanic’s hull.
It’s long been known that a fire was burning in one of the bunkers where Titanic’s coal was stored when it set sail. In the 1912 book The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters, John Dilley, one of the ship’s firemen, testified that “The stokers were beginning to get alarmed over it, but the officers told us to keep our mouths shut—they didn’t want to alarm the passengers.”
In the 2017 documentary Titanic: The New Evidence, author and journalist Senan Molony advances the theory that this fire was instrumental in Titanic’s sinking. Two rarely examined photographs taken of the ship before it left Belfast reportedly show 30-foot smudges on the starboard side, which Molony believes are burn marks. He proposes that the smoldering coal made the hull and one of the bulkheads brittle. “The fire was known about, but it was played down,” Molony claims. “She should never have been put to sea.”
However, no other photos of the ship show this mark. As for the fire itself, Maurice Clarke, Titanic’s safety officer, told the official inquiry that “it is not an uncommon thing to have these small fires in the bunkers.” Edward Wildling, one of the ship’s architects, said that the fire “would have to be a much more alarming fire than anything that has been described to destroy the watertightness of the bulkhead.”
Although Molony’s theory holds more water than say, a mummy’s curse, the prevailing belief is still that the iceberg did enough damage on its own to sink the ship. “A fire may have accelerated this,” Dave Hill, former honorary secretary of the British Titanic Society, told The New York Times in 2017. “But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyways.”
4. The Titanic was speeding in an attempt to set the transatlantic speed record.
The Titanic was traveling at roughly 21.5 knots—close to its top speed—when it struck the iceberg, and this fast speed was judged to be a contributing factor to the disaster. Some have speculated that Captain Edward Smith set this pace under the encouragement of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, in an attempt to beat the speed record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
But even if Titanic was traveling at top speed, it simply wasn’t fast enough to beat Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania. The latter ship nabbed the westbound record in 1909 with a top speed of 26.06 knots and held the eastbound record from 1907 to 1924 (on one these crossings it reached a speed of 26.25 knots). Titanic was built with size and luxury in mind, not speed.
5. J.P. Morgan orchestrated the sinking of the Titanic.
Floating around the internet is the theory that the Titanic was deliberately sunk by financier J.P. Morgan because he wanted to kill Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Straus, and John Jacob Astor, who were said to have opposed Morgan’s plan to create the U.S. Federal Reserve. According to this theory, once they were out of the way, Morgan was free to establish the centralized banking system the very next year.
While it’s technically possible that Morgan had the chance to tamper with the ship—he owned the International Mercantile Marine Company, which in turn owned White Star Line—there is no evidence of this, and his supposed motivation to do so makes no sense. Guggenheim and Astor were publicly silent on his idea, while Straus was actually in favor of it. Other versions of this theory pin the sinking on the Rothschild family (speculation that is steeped in antisemitism) or the Jesuits.
6. It was Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, that actually sank.
Another inside-job theory suggests that the ship that sank that freezing April night was actually the Olympic disguised as the Titanic. The Olympic was built before the Titanic, and in 1911 it collided with a British warship. The theory goes that while the Olympic was having repairs done at the shipyard in Belfast, it was swapped with the Titanic so that it could be deliberately sunk, allowing White Star Line to collect the insurance money.
The insurance scam switch doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, though. Titanic cost $7.5 million to build, but was only insured for $5 million, meaning White Star Line actually lost money when the ship sank.
Plus, although the two ships look alike, they were sisters, not twins—so there are a few noticeable differences between the ships that disprove this theory. Olympic’s A deck was open, for example, while the forward half of Titanic’s A deck was enclosed—a feature that can be clearly seen in a recent 3D digital scan of the sunken ship. Further proof comes from the parts of each ship that were stamped with the hull number: Olympic’s was 400, while Titanic’s was 401. Whichever ship now rests on the seafloor (hint: it’s the Titanic) bears the number 401 on its propeller.
7. The Titanic’s propeller spelled NO POPE backwards.
Evidence of the number 401 also disproves the myth that the hull was stamped with 3909 04, which according to one theory spelled NO POPE when viewed backwards and was allegedly viewed as a bad omen by the shipbuilders, who were said to be Catholic. Except, according to the BBC, Catholics at that time were “a minority in a mainly Protestant workforce.”
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8. The Titanic hit pack ice, not an iceberg.
Although it’s generally accepted that an iceberg was involved in Titanic’s sinking, Captain L.M. Collins disagrees. Using his knowledge gained from working as an ice pilot, Collins asserts that Titanic actually hit pack ice—large pieces of floating ice that have frozen into a mass. This type of ice was present on the night of the sinking, with Titanic receiving a warning at 9:40 p.m. that gave the location of “heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs” that never made it to the bridge.
In his 2002 book The Sinking of the Titanic, Collins argues that the “slight haze” seen by the lookouts on the water was pack ice. He believes an optical illusion created by the cold weather and calm sea led to witnesses mistaking the ice for a tall berg. As for the reports of ice on the deck and the photograph of the iceberg streaked with red paint, he says ice chunks from the pack were “flipped upwards” and asserts that “paint does not adhere for any length of time to ice.” Most Titanic historians remain unconvinced.
9. The Titanic was accidentally steered the wrong way when the iceberg was spotted.
To coincide with the publishing of her Titanic novel Good as Gold (2010), Louise Patten, granddaughter of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, revealed a family secret which, if true, pins the blame of the Titanic’s sinking on a steering mistake.
When the iceberg was sighted, First Officer William Murdoch told Quartermaster Robert Hichens to steer the ship “Hard-a-starboard.” There were two steering systems in use at the time depending on the type of ship, and they required the wheel to be turned in opposite directions. Patten claims that “Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg … the steersman, Robert [Hichens], had panicked and turned it the wrong way,” costing vital minutes before the mistake was corrected.
Lightoller wasn’t actually on duty that night and supposedly heard about the mistake during the final meeting between the officers before the ship went down. He deliberately withheld this information during the inquiry, Patten says, because “It was made clear to him by those at the top that, if the company were found to be negligent, it would be bankrupted and every job would be lost.” The cover-up would have had to have involved other crew members too, including the lookouts, because no one mentioned turning the wrong way during their testimony.
Sally Neillson, great-granddaughter of Hichens, disputes this story, saying her relative “had 10 years experience, seven of those as a quartermaster. He sailed the Titanic for four days before the accident, during which he did shifts of four hours on, four hours off. He would have steered the vessel during these times, so been familiar with the systems.”
10. The Titanic never sank.
If you spent any time on TikTok in 2023, you probably came across videos claiming that the Titanic didn’t actually sink at all (or peddling several of the other conspiracy theories on this list). “It becomes kind of deflating to see a lot of this junk coming out,” Charles A. Haas, a founder of the Titanic International Society, told The New York Times. “I feel like one of the very few voices crying out against the sound of a hurricane.” The numerous visits made to the wreck since its discovery in 1985, the artifacts that have been retrieved, and the impressive 3D scans recently taken of the deteriorating ship should lay at least this conspiracy theory to rest.