8 Twisted 'Titanic' Myths, Debunked
By Jake Rossen
The tragic end of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912 led to a lengthy international period of mourning for its fallen passengers and crew and ignited a fascination that has yet to abate even 110 years later.
Sometimes, that intrigue has allowed a number of myths, conspiracies, and urban legends about the doomed ship to surface. As you'll see, they typically fail to hold water. Take a look at some of the more enduring misconceptions surrounding history's most famous vessel.
1. Myth: The Titanic was advertised as ‘unsinkable.’
It’s easy to seize upon the irony inherent in a vessel that was proclaimed to be “unsinkable” winding up submerged in the North Atlantic on its very first trip. While there is some substance to the idea people thought the Titanic was infallible, it wasn’t often used as a marketing tool. And when the word unsinkable did find its way into newspaper or ad copy, it usually came with a qualifier like "practically” or “nearly”—that is to say, almost unsinkable, not absolutely unsinkable. In one ad excavated in 1993, White Star Line circulated that sister ships Titanic and Olympic were “as far as it is possible to do ... designed to be unsinkable.” Subsequent to the disaster, the “possible” and “practically” and “designed to be” were usually left out, leaving the impression the Titanic had been unequivocally sink-proof.
There was one seemingly iron-clad statement made by White Star Line and International Mercantile Marine Company’s Albert Franklin, who said that “There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”
But the timing of this statement doesn't quite validate the myth. Franklin was quoted in newspapers on April 15, 1912 in the hours following the disaster and just as word was beginning to circulate about its fate. Franklin didn't know it yet, but his rare mention of the ship being unsinkable beyond doubt was made after it had already sank.
2. Myth: The Titanic sank because of a mummy’s curse.
While the notion of a cursed artifact prompting the sinking of any ship is too fantastic to take seriously, this urban legend could use clarification for a simple reason: There was no mummy, cursed or otherwise, on board Titanic.
As the story goes, Egyptian Princess (or Priestess) Amen-Ra was laid to rest in a coffin circa 950 BCE and covered with a “mummy board,” or lid, that depicted Egyptian iconography. Over time, the lid passed through a series of caretakers that each suffered injury, bad luck, or death as a result of their proximity to it. With such mishaps making it hard for the mummy to find a permanent home, it was brought aboard the Titanic so it could eventually find a resting place in New York under the care of a pragmatic and not-very-superstitious archaeologist.
Unless the mummy’s curse extended to changing the cargo manifest, the story isn’t true. No mention of a mummy was made in the itemized list. The story likely dates to the imaginings of two men, William Stead and Douglas Murray, who helped circulate a haunted tale at the dawn of the 20th century about the Priestess’s vengeance on the living. But the lid—which was never confirmed to even be connected to a priestess—was and continues to be under the care of the British Museum, which insists the artifact has not been tied to any misfortune.
There is one slight twist, however. Stead was a passenger on the Titanic, and reportedly related his yarn to other passengers. Once it sank, the legend of the Priestess converged with the true story of the tragedy, and an urban legend was born.
3. Myth: J.P. Morgan plotted the sinking of the Titanic.
If you take Facebook memes at face value, you’ve probably considered the possibility that powerful banker and White Star Line money man (via ownership of his International Mercantile Marine Company) John Pierpont Morgan orchestrated the Titanic’s sinking. According to the myth, he wanted to eliminate three passengers who opposed his notion for the U.S. Federal Reserve and centralized banking.
While it’s theoretically possible that Morgan could have somehow gained access to the ship and arranged for some kind of sabotage (like removing flare guns or, in the more outlandish tellings, sealing passengers inside), there are no facts to support it. Morgan was scheduled to be aboard the ship and it’s alleged he canceled abruptly, but that isn’t borne out in any records. Instead, it’s more likely Morgan was concerned with new laws in France that would prevent the export of art to the United States, something that would have affected his own purchases. That, not the maiden voyage of the Titanic, took precedence, and so he skipped the trip.
Additionally, the three men who are said to have been opposed to the Federal Reserve—Isidor Straus, John Jacob Astor, and Benjamin Guggenheim—never appeared to take a public stance against it. Straus, in fact, voiced support for it.
4. Myth: The Titanic’s Catholic workers were spooked by a secret message on the hull.
Some believe that after working hard to get the vessel seaworthy, the Catholic workers toiling on the Titanic in the Belfast shipyard were shaken by what seemed to be a secret message appearing on the hull. Its number, 3909 04, could be interpreted as “NO POPE” when viewed backwards. The workers considered it a sign of impending doom and later deemed it a bad omen once the ship sank.
Reality tells a different story. The number 3909 04 doesn’t appear anywhere on the ship’s hull, and the workers were mostly Protestant.
5. Myth: There were no binoculars aboard the Titanic.
One of the enduring misconceptions about the Titanic was that no one on the ship was in possession of binoculars, which may have helped the lookouts in the “crow’s nest” spot the iceberg that sealed their fate. During a United States Senate inquiry of the disaster in April 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet said that “glasses” (binoculars) were available from Belfast to Southampton—but not from Southampton to New York.
Unknown to Fleet was that the binoculars were indeed on board the entire time. They were recovered from the wreckage site in 1994. Unfortunately, they were locked away, and the key wasn’t present. Second officer David Blair kept it when he was relieved by another officer. If anyone was aware the binoculars were still available, they wouldn't have had the means to retrieve them.
When asked if the binoculars would have made a difference, Fleet was blunt. “We could have seen [the iceberg] a bit sooner,” he said. “Enough to get out of the way.”
6. Myth: The band on the Titanic played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship sank.
One of the most poignant moments of director James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic is the band on board the ship playing a melody for the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” as the vessel sinks—a valiant attempt to soothe the nerves of anxious passengers in what would be the final moments of their lives.
Although this belief isn’t demonstrably untrue, there’s plenty of reason to doubt its veracity. For one thing, none of the band members survived the sinking to confirm what song they were playing. One surviving passenger, wireless radio operator Harold Bride, named the tune as “Song d’Automne,” or “Autumn,” a British waltz popular at the time.
Other survivors named “Nearer My God to Thee,” but there’s an asterisk to such claims. Different melodies exist for the hymn, making it unlikely passengers could recognize all versions. It’s more likely they were told the band played the hymn and then repeated the information when asked about it.
7. Myth: The Titanic was attempting to set a speed record.
In an era of commercial travel boasting of bigger, better, and faster accommodations, it’s easy to imagine the Titanic running into trouble in an attempt to set some kind of speed record. But nothing about the ship supports such an assertion. For one thing, its maximum speed was 21 to 24 knots, less than the 26 knots achieved by the earlier Cunard liners. Going as fast as the Titanic could move wouldn’t set any records. The ship was about size, not speed.
In addition, not all of the ship’s boilers were active at the time of the collision, and the route taken in the Atlantic was not the most expedient. Nothing indicates its speed was a contributing factor in the disaster.
8. Myth: The Titanic never actually sank.
It takes a complete separation from all logic to believe the Titanic never really sank, but occasionally you can find an argument that the vessel sailed off to safety in an insurance scam gone awry.
The story lays out a theory that White Star Line switched out the Titanic for its sister ship, the Olympic, during the journey. The Olympic, one of the line’s other massive ships, had been damaged during a collision in 1911. Hoping to recoup the expensive repair costs not covered by insurance, White Star Line launched the similar (though not identical) Olympic in place of the newer Titanic, which would then be purposely sunk to collect an insurance payout.
While it’s true the Olympic was damaged, insurance coverage for the Titanic makes the plan nonsensical: Titanic had an estimated value of $7.5 million, but White Star Line’s insurance was capped at $5 million.