The more iconic the event, the more likely conspiracy theories and alternate histories are likely to spring up around it. Such was the case with the RMS Titanic, the luxury liner that struck an iceberg and sank in 1912. Titanic mythology abounds, but no part of it captures the imagination as much as the alternate theories of its sinking. Today we're going to look at the three most popular — made so by the perpetual allure of the conspiracy theory: that innate desire to have special insight, a secret glimpse into forbidden knowledge.
The true facts of the sinking are well known and undisputed. After the ship struck the iceberg, water flooded multiple watertight compartments, spilling over the top of each compartment into the next. It was a fatal injury from which there was no hope of recovery, leaving no room for controversy or unanswered questions, at least not about the actual sinking. Yet, in the promotional materials for their 2017 documentary Titanic: The New Evidence, the Smithsonian Channel said:
Well, yes and no. No, no actual historians or naval architects "debate" anything about it; but yes, non-expert Internet denizens flood the web with bizarre claims that satisfy their conspiratorial mindsets. The most recent fringe claim comes from one of our favorite sources: TV networks that bill themselves as educational.
1. A fire sank the Titanic
In early 2017, the Smithsonian Channel's documentary was based on the work of career Titanic author Senan Molony. Molony posits that a fire on board so weakened the structure that it failed and sank when otherwise it might have been saved.
Coal fires were common on all coal-powered ships of the day. Great piles of coal tend to ignite spontaneously; it tends to outgas aerosols that cause heating, and given enough oxygen, there you go. Consequently, coal trimmers of the day (the workers who handle the coal) were well accustomed to handling such fires. First they would dig down to find the burning coal and remove it to the furnaces, using as little water as possible from firehoses, because wet coal would oxidize more and create a further fire hazard.
It's known that Titanic had such a coal fire on board. It was first noticed on April 10, the day she departed Southampton, but had probably been smoldering for several days. It took three days to put out, finally being doused on April 13, the day before the sinking. As some of the firemen and trimmers survived, we do have good information about the fire, as it was certainly part of the inquiry into the sinking.
In Molony's version, the fire caused the sinking in three ways. First, it made them go at excessive speed, because of shoveling all that extra coal into the furnaces to get at the fire. Second, because they had to get to New York quickly to beat the inevitable explosion (inevitable only in Molony's narrative, not in reality). And third, the fire so weakened the structure as to be the primary cause of the structural failings following the iceberg strike. Unfortunately, all three points are most decidedly false.
Following the broadcast of the TV documentary, a team of seven maritime historians wrote a massive 48-page academic paper titled Titanic: Fire and Ice that aptly disassembled Molony's claims. It found fatal faults with each of his significant points, including that the alleged fire damage visible on the ship's hull was at least 50 feet away from the fire, and that the ship was doomed because of the way that it sank regardless of any bulkheads that may or may not have been weakened by a fire. Their paper, which is available online and is recommended reading for anyone interested in a full debunk of the fire theory, concluded:
2. Sunk by a conspiracy to create the Federal Reserve
This one is straight out of the depths of YouTube Conspiracy Theory videos: the famous Rothschild banking family, JP Morgan, and Jesuits conspired to create the US Federal Reserve, so they plotted to rub out their opposition by building the Titanic and getting all the Federal Reserve opponents to sail on it, and sink it. Rube Goldberg himself could not have devised a more elegant plan.
It's become a minor Internet meme, with photos of turn-of-the-century millionaires Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Strauss, and John Jacob Astor IV, depicted as having died on the Titanic, which they all did. Depending which YouTube conspiracy theory video you watch, either Jesuits ordered JP Morgan to build the Titanic, or Morgan ordered the Rothschilds to do it, or the Rothschilds ordered the Jesuits to place a priest on board to order the captain to crash into an iceberg, or all three, or some other variation.
The problems with this theory are myriad. First, none of the three millionaires depicted in the meme ever had anything much to do with the Federal Reserve, or to have expressed any particular opposition to it. Second, the Jesuits had nothing to do with it either. Third, as international lenders, the Rothschilds would have rather not had a US Federal Reserve, as it would stabilize the US currency and reduce their opportunities for profit from US deals. The only part of this that makes any sense is that JP Morgan was indeed a key player in the Federal Reserve's creation, and also held a significant share in the parent company of Titanic's owner White Star Lines. Mustering support for the Federal Reserve had taken decades; it had first become clear that the US needed central banking during the Revolutionary War in the 1700s. Sinking three nabobs a mere two years before the plan was finally concluded would have been far too little far too late to make any difference.
3. Titanic's sister ship Olympic is the one that sank
On to the grandest of the Titanic conspiracy theories: the claim that before the maiden voyage, Titanic was switched with her sister ship RMS Olympic, a feat quickly and easily accomplished because they were essentially identical. Thus it was the Olympic that hit the iceberg and sank, while the real Titanic, wearing RMS Olympic livery, lived out its long career.
Would would White Star Lines do this? The reason, according to the conspiracy theory, was to commit insurance fraud. In 1911, the Olympic had collided with a navy ship, causing extensive damage that would have been expensive to fix. But the insurance company put the blame entirely on Olympic, and so refused to pay, leaving White Star Lines in a bind. The theory goes that they switched the nameplates on the ships, then deliberately ran the damaged Olympic into the iceberg. It sank and was fully paid for by insurance; leaving White Star Lines with a full insurance settlement and a shiny new Titanic.
A surprisingly active Internet community has sprung up in support of this claim. It consists of lengthy forum debates accompanied by photos of the ships with circles and arrows claiming to prove that the ships had traded places. Underwater photos of the actual wreck, taken on expeditions led by Dr. Bob Ballard and filmmaker James Cameron, provide the proof for what's actually sitting on the bottom of the ocean.
Despite the conspiracy theory's claim that the ships were virtually identical, there were in fact a number of significant structural differences between them that are evident at a glance. On Titanic, the forward half of A Deck is enclosed, while it was open on Olympic — this is the easiest difference to spot. Olympic's wheelhouse had a curved front while Titanic's was flat, and both of these differences can be clearly seen in the underwater photos of the wreck. There were many differences between the two ships in the number and arrangement of premium cabins and suites on the upper decks, all resulting in different porthole placements and promenade configurations. The ventilators, fans, scoops, and piping were all different. These differences go on and on. One researcher published a list of 30 such visible variances.
The most compelling individual photo comparison shows three photographs of the same section of windows along the hull: the undersea wreck, plus the same view of the Titanic and the Olympic. The wreck's windows exactly match the Olympic and are very different from the Titanic. The explanation for this is simple: the photo labeled as the Olympic is wrong; it shows the Titanic as it was launched, before its A Deck was enclosed, which is evident from launch photos of the Titanic.
One purported video taken from a submarine shows the Titanic's nameplate riveted to the hull. Part of it has fallen off, revealing the faint letters M P underneath! However actual videos of the wreck look radically different — totally different colors and textures. It was a CGI hoax. White Star Lines etched the ships' names into the hulls; they were not riveted on plates. Excellent photos and video exists of the actual name Titanic still etched on the original steel, and still quite legible.
Olympic was hull #400 and Titanic was hull #401, and these numbers were found throughout both ships. Titanic's 401 is clearly visible on a propeller on the wreck. Some conspiracy theorists explain this with the claim that Olympic was fitted with one of Titanic's spare propellers, but that's impossible as they were built to different specifications because of differences in their propulsion, which is well documented.
Regardless, the insurance fraud theory doesn't work because of simple math, as the Titanic had been, unfortunately, enormously under-insured. Its financiers had spent $7.5 million on it, with total losses from the sinking reported by the New York Times at $9.4 million. It was insured for only $5 million, so the company took an enormous loss. Damage to the Olympic from the collision was less than $200,000 — a tiny fraction of the loss caused by Titanic's under-insurance. This is the true crux of the conspiracy theory's failing: not its hundreds of minutiae of photographs with circles and arrows, but the basic illogic of the whole thing.
Titanic is such a pop-culture icon adorned with so many stories that we often forget it was a real human tragedy, involving the deaths of over 1,500 people. While only a quarter of the female passengers died, 80% of the men died — think of all the families rent asunder. Half the children died. The great city of Southampton was hit hard, losing 724 people who worked aboard the ship, half a percent of the city's population; everyone knew someone who perished. These are the things that matter — not the hull number appearing in a hoax Photoshop in a conspiracy forum. And that's the best lesson to take home from Titanic myths.
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