William McMaster Murdoch, Titanic Hero

“Gray Lady, Elegant Lady, Queen of the Deep
Sad Lady, Silent Lady, are you asleep?”
-Roy Cullimore, Day Ten.’ Expedition Titanic VIII, 1996

Unstuck in time.

Free-fall, bold traveler, in a steel bubble. Free-fall through cloud banks of micro-organisms a quarter mile thick and try not to feel like an intruder from futurity when you glide over a davit-bit still wrapped in rope. Try not to feel it, when you land on the little patch of deck where Jock Hume used his violin to calm the crowds at Boat 8.

On the opposite deck, First Officer Murdoch was giving everything he had to the task of getting the women and children away, against repeated and ultimately violent rushes on Boats C and A. He wore no lifejacket, and though the air temperature was below freezing, his uniform was drenched in sweat. Survivors recalled that even on this coldest of April nights, the steel bulkhead, off to Murdoch’s right side, still smelled of fresh paint. From where Murdoch and Hume stood, the ghosts of the abyss lay neither in their time present, nor in our time past, but in futurity. Over that very same deck upon which the First Officer made his last stand, historians of the future were descending from the heavens in contraptions of steel and blazing light, and voices converted to sonar. They dispatched robots – which passed through the space occupied by Murdoch, and through everyone else gathered round the last boats, passed through them as if they were not even present upon the deck, as if regarding them with contemptuous indifference, on their way to more import concerns in the dining saloon, the crews’ infirmary, the Eastman and Cardeza suites.

Ghosts. Oh, what we can tell you about Ghosts – we of Keldysh and the Mir5.

Ghosts of the future. Ghosts of the past. Ghosts of future-past.

I wish it were possible, as one ghost to another, for me to tell Mr. Murdoch that as an archaeologist looking backward along the stream of time and trying to form, for myself, an image of what happened here (sometimes with the assistance of robotic eyes), I regret that I have gotten only a small part of the picture right, and that I have done him a grievous wrong.

Passengers George Rheims, Eugene Daly, the Duff Gordons and their maid (Miss Francatelli) had all been subjected to a smear campaign against their reputations (and hence against their credibility) – which began on the Carpathia. The targets varied in class, age, education and marital status; but they all had two common denominators: (A) a clear view of Murdoch at Boat A, and (B) they had spoken, aboard the Carpathia, about witnessing an officer respond to a final rush on Boat A by shooting passengers and then, after a pause, shooting himself.

J. Bruce Ismay, Titanic’s owner, had dismissed all such accounts as rubbish.’ When young Jack Thayer testified that he excused and even supported Ismay’s last minute decision to jump into Boat C (because he would have jumped in himself if not for the huge crowd and the pandemonium, including gunshots), Ismay insisted that there had been no pandemonium, and that the people could not have been quieter or more orderly if gathered in a church.

And besides, he added, there was hardly anyone there at all, and especially not Murdoch.

Despite the fact that, had he agreed with the overwhelming multitude of accounts describing panic and gunfire at Boats C and A, Ismay could have saved his own reputation by making his dive into C more understandable, it appears that he would rather have taken the bullet of public ridicule and be counted amongst Titanic’s most remarkable cowards than to admit that the first desperate warning shot might have prompted the dive. Ismay went to the grave denying tales of crowds rushing the last boats, and killing on the deck.

Because the use (or non-use) of Murdoch’s gun became hotly and sometimes angrily debated among historians, I devoted much effort to studying every published and unpublished account, sorting them for credibility, and trying to determine whether the evidence supported the Ismay account or the passengers’ accounts. In the end, I spent an inordinate amount of time (as evidenced in Ghosts of the Titanic) looking at the last three minutes of William McMaster Murdoch’s life, without considering those minutes within the context of the rest of his life, or even within the context of the last three hours leading up to those last three minutes.

Paul Quinn’s book, “Dusk to Dawn “(Fantail Press, New Hampshire, 1999) proved me wrong. Quinn did the much required homework of following, through a thorough study of the British and American Inquiries, Murdoch’s movements throughout the night.

On the Titanic’s port side, Second Officer Charles Lightoller mistook the Captain’s order, women and children first, as meaning, women and children only, and in introduced an element of inefficiency by refusing to let husbands and even boys older than age 9 join the women, with the result that many women refused to enter the boats. Lightoller was also working under the mistaken notion, as he told the British Inquiry, that the Titanic could not sink, and he therefore did not take the loading and launching of the lifeboats seriously until it was all so clearly too late.

Murdoch took the launching seriously from the start, and never once barred a child’s entry, nor even a husband’s when necessary to fill the boats to capacity. His interpretation of Captain Smith’s order was, women and children first, and men when there are no women. He had decided, correctly, that if it’s away all boats, he was not about to send them away half empty. Unencumbered by women refusing to leave husbands and boys behind, Murdoch’s more lenient policy of using men to fill up the boats once he had loaded them with whatever women and children were immediately at hand, added a layer of efficiency, allowing him to launch six of the starboard side’s boats before Lightoller could get his third boat ready. Murdoch’s first six boats went away without heart-wrenching goodbyes, and their attendant launch delays. Lightoller, by comparison to Murdoch, according to Quinn, seemed intent on holding the boats until he could fill them with enough women and children. On average, he could only muster 30 or so for each boat [capacity 65 to 70], and sent the boats away half empty. Two different command styles on opposite sides of the ship yielded two different results.

With more than half the boats on the starboard side launched by 1:10 am, Murdoch began crossing over to the port side, to help launch Lightoller’s four aft lifeboats. Steward Ed Wheelton, who had helped Murdoch with Boat 11 (starboard aft) shortly before 1:10 am, told the U.S. Senate hearing examiners. I would like to say something about the bravery exhibited by the First Officer, Mr. Murdoch. He was perfectly cool and calm.

Murdoch was seen again on the starboard side, attending to Boat 13. As 13 and 15, the last boats on the starboard aft davits, were being loaded, Murdoch returned to the port side, where six remaining boats needed his attention. Steward John Hardy, who knew Murdoch as Chief Officer (apparently unaware of a temporary demotion to First Officer to make way for Chief Officer Wilde, who had come over from Olympic for the maiden voyage), told the U.S. Senate that it was approximately 1:15 am: “Of course I had great respect and great regard for Chief Officer Murdoch, and I was walking along the deck toward him and he said, I believe she’s gone, Hardy, and that was the only time I thought she might sink, when he said that.”

Between 1:20 and 1:30 am, Murdoch saw Boats 14 and 16 loaded to full capacity and lowered from the port side. Mrs. Futrelle encountered him at Boat 16 about this time, and she credited him with saving her life. By now, the slant of the decks was becoming horribly apparent (especially aft, where the same bowed deck design that leveled the floor angle with the horizon in the forward part of the ship, magnified the angle aft). By now, women were becoming increasingly willing to climb into the boats and Murdoch found it necessary, finally, to keep their husbands on the ship. “There was real alarm shown on the faces of the officers now and the boats were being filled hurriedly,” Lily Futrelle wrote in a report for the April 21, 1912 edition of the Boston Sunday Post. She had refused to get into the previous boat, but the officer standing with her husband told her, ‘This will never do,’ and helped Jacques to convince her that she was only endangering his chances of surviving in the sea if he had to watch out for more than just himself. Murdoch had presented this argument to other reluctant wives as the seats in lifeboats dwindled to less than 200 for nearly 1700 still remaining aboard. Captain Smith was later (about 2:00 am) to adopt the argument for Renee Harris.

William Murdoch was also seen at Boat 10, about the same time the last rocket went up, near 1:25 am – which was also when the ship began to develop a decided list to port (owing, probably, to a gangway door Lightoller ordered opened on E-Deck forward, just before the sea reached E-Deck – an action that apparently sank the Titanic an hour early). Able seaman Frank Evans told the U.S. examiners, ‘I then went next to number 10 and the Chief Officer, Mr. Murdoch, was standing there and I lowered the boat – with the assistance of a steward. The Chief Officer said, ‘What are you, Evens?’ I said, ‘A seaman, Sir.’ He said, ‘All right, get into that boat with the other seaman,’ and I got into the bows of the boat, and a young ships baker [Charles Joughin] was getting the children and chucking them into the boat, and the women were jumping. Mr. Murdoch made them jump across to the boat. It was about two feet and a half [the gap, with the boat leaning away from the ship’s port side]. He was making the women jump across into the boat and the children he [Murdoch] was chucking across, along with the baker. He throwed them onto the women and he was catching the children by their dresses and chucking them in.”

Ismay, in trying to establish a kind of launch sequence canon at Boat 1, C and A’s davits, placed the launch of Boat 1 about 12:30 am, but it appears actually to have gone away much nearer the final rush on the forward starboard davits.

Lookout George Symons told the British Inquiry that he lowered away in Boat 1 at approximately 1:50 am, within a half hour of the Titanic’s final plunge. Upon reflection, he decided that a half hour was a long time, and ‘it may have been less.” Unable to explain why Boat 1, like Boat C, left in an apparent hurry and with many empty seats remaining, he upheld the Ismay story of no desperation, no panic, and essentially not even any people present round the davits, despite his own descriptions of men running up and with Murdoch’s permission, jumping in. And then: ‘ I saw Mr. Murdoch running around there. I could not tell why he gave the order [to lower away].” When Symons reached the water, the sea had climbed above the gangway door at E Deck, all the way up to C-Deck forward. By the time Symons had rowed 300-600 feet away, the stern was rising into the air, at an angle of forty-five degrees. Clearly, Boat 1 left just ahead of Boat C, launched at Murdoch’s order less than half full. While trying to stick with Ismay’s no panic scenario, Symons nevertheless described Murdoch ‘running around there,” and then, in contrast to all of his other launch commands, ordering Boat 1 away less than half full. It appears doubtful that he would have done so without good cause.

Another Boat 1 survivor, Miss Francatelli, also describes Murdoch and Boat 1, very late in the sinking, ‘after all the lifeboats had gone, about the time (or just after) she observed the last distress rocket. Number 1 became tangled in it’s own rope and Miss Francatelle wrote, ‘We should all have been hurled into the sea, if not for that brave officer still up on deck [Murdoch].”

At or shortly after 1:50 am, Boat 1 was gone and its davits were swung inboard to receive Collapsible C, Ismay’s boat. By this time, crowds had begun to form around C’s davits, and to become desperate. Those present on the forward starboard deck, those few who survived, heard and saw warning shots fired. Watching from nearly deck level in the relative calm and safety of a departing lifeboat, Miss Francatelli saw the final rush, and the final shots. Of Murdoch, she wrote in a letter dated April 28 th 1912, ‘He . . . poor dear brave fellow, shot himself. We saw the whole thing.”

The first apparent rushes on the last set of boat-beating davits were repelled by warning shots fired into the air (painfully and startlingly close, no doubt, to Ismay’s ears, as he helped with the preparations for C’s launch). Minutes later, Boat C was away (with Ismay in it), and Boat A was filled too and beyond capacity with women. Fully weighted, the boat was snared catastrophically in its own ropes.

The launching of 1 and C in quick succession, filled to only partial capacity while crowds gathered and the forward deck came level with the sea, on the verge of dunking under, is consistent with cool and sensible logic: Get as many people loaded as you can – quickly – and fire the boats off like shotgun shells, before the mobs attack and the boats cannot get away at all. The next logical move was to see the last boat loaded with as many women as could be seen – loaded full – and to keep all others away with examples of deadly force, if requisite.

Boat A, fully loaded with women, was snagged. If a renewed rush did, at this time (as several firsthand eyewitness accounts attest, including Eugene Daly and George Rheims) cause an escalation from warning shots to actual shootings, the situation developing at A was already so hopeless (according to Steward Edward Brown) that the raft was mere seconds from being pulled down with the Titanic’s bow. None of the women seated behind Murdoch, in Boat A, were ever to be heard from again. Yet, given what is known about Murdoch’s character and behavior, a hopelessly snared boat would not have discouraged him from trying to save its passengers, even if the attempt required desperate measures. When a final rush made him shoot to kill, he judged it, almost certainly, a necessary killing; and from all accounts the necessary shock value of the killings (even the stunned silence that followed the military salute before Murdoch allegedly, according to George Rheims, put the gun to his own head) – worked. The crowd stayed back, giving the women at his back a few seconds more to get away, and the crew a few seconds more to cut the ropes. However small a hope those few seconds gave.

Boat A was dragged down with its ropes only partly cut, but cut apparently just enough to snap it loose and let it float back to the surface. In the water, eleven who swam away from the Titanic climbed into the torn and empty wreck of Boat A; and it is probably fair to say they owed their survival to the few seconds more of cutting time bought by First Officer William Murdoch.

All told, nearly 75% of the people who rowed away from the Titanic that night owed their lives to Murdoch. The evidence of this was staring us in the face all along, in every published copy of the official investigations into the ships loss; but only Paul Quinn took a sufficiently close look. Quinn followed the First Officer systematically throughout the sinking ship, saw what no one else saw, thought what no one else thought (and forced me to take a closer look at Miss Francatelli in Boat 1, and its launch time relative to Ismay in Boat C; for Boat 1, presumed always to have been launched an hour earlier, was, on account of being launched more than half empty, miss-cast as a moment of incompetence on Murdoch’s part).

Like Jacques Futrelle, First Officer Murdoch always hoped to be buried at sea. Like Futrelle, he got his wish. His body was never found. Essentially all that remains of him are two letters that he wrote aboard the Titanic, and mailed before setting off across the Atlantic. The first was written to his sister, Peg, on April 8, 1912. The second was written three days later and posted to his parents from Queenstown. In the first, he discussed his enthusiasm for the voyage despite the reshuffling of officers and his demotion to accommodate Wilde’s command as Chief Officer. The second letter describes the near collision of the Titanic with the steamship New York – which was drawn out of its berth by the Titanic’s suction, and missed the liner’s hull by a margin of inches. Would only that the New York had struck the hull and damaged it. The Titanic would have been held back for repairs, held back from the ice field, and Murdoch would have been held back from the Boat Deck, and his mission to destiny at Collapsible C and A.

Such alternative futures, no matter how well-intentioned, are usually dangerous and always rooted in the sin of hubris. Had Murdoch missed his appointment with history, the world might have turned out worse. On a most minor, foreseeable level, there never would have been an international ice patrol, or a Coast Guard with all night radio vigils. More importantly, every eight year-old who dreams of growing up to design the next perfect machine would not have, as an indelible signpost to the future, this legendary warning from the past:


April, 8, 1912
On Board R.M.S. Titanic

My Dear Peg:

The weather is keeping very fine down here but today is very windy. I am still Chief Officer until sailing day, and then it looks as though I will have to step back, but I am hoping that it will not be for long. The head Marine Superintendent from Liverpool seemed to be very favorably impressed and satisfied that everything went on A-1 and as much as promised that when Wilde goes [back to the Olympic] that I can go up [in rank] again. The holidays are on down here and it takes me all my time to get men to work even at overtime rates, but we are nearly ready for the road. I hope that you are having nice weather up north and that you will enjoy your holidays and have a quick journey to Liverpool when you start again. It looks as if the [frequently journey interrupting coal] strike will be ended shortly now. It must have caused lots of distress throughout the country. Ada [Mrs. Murdoch] is on board right now, having a look [about] as one of the officers is taking her around. Glad to hear that there had been lots of news from the folks abroad [and] I think I must owe them all letters just at present. Give my kind love to Mother, Father and Agnes and receipt the same yourself. I will write from Queenstown to let you know how we are getting along, if only a postcard.

From your ever affectionate brother


April 11, 1912
On Board R.M.S. Titanic

My dear Father and Mother:

Only a short note to let you know that we are this length [of the voyage] all right. We have had clear and squally weather since we left and it looks very well now. As we were leaving Southampton and passing the Oceanic and New York – which were moored alongside each other, they ranged so much that the New York broke adrift and it was only very narrowly that we escaped doing both she and ourselves serious damage, however we did not touch her and I don’t think either the New York or the Oceanic had any damage at all. I left Ada [Mrs. Murdoch] quite well yesterday morning. We had [Peg’s] letter on Tuesday and were glad to hear how you all were. We are getting things pretty straight now, but owing to the coal strike we are only going at 19 or 20 knots per hour. I sincerely hope that you are both keeping very well and you, Mother, [are] having a much easier time with your [medical] troubles. I also hope that Agnes and [Peg] are in particularly good form. With fondest love to all and looking forward to hearing from some of you at Queenstown.

From your ever affectionate son

The following letter was written, on the title page of Susanne Stormer’s biography of William McMaster Murdoch, shortly before the submersible Mir-2 lifted off from the roof of the officers’ quarters and landed on the starboard Boat Deck, near the davit for collapsible A.

September 10, 2001; 6:30 pm
On Board R.M.S. Titanic

To First Officer William Murdoch

A wise archeologist named Trude Dothan once told me that we (we who stroll through the cellars of time) are the biggest story-tellers in the world – that we are become speakers for the dead; simply that. Nothing more. Nothing less. But we are more than that and I believe Walter Lord and I have done you wrong, William McMaster Murdoch – done you wrong by focusing on the last 5 minutes of your life without realizing that 75% of the people who got away from this place owed their lives to you. I, especially [dealt you a wrong] – for I painted less than half of your face and asked the world to guess from that the measure of the whole man. [Someday], I will correct this picture. Trude was wrong. It’s not so simple as telling stories about the dead. We must keep faith with the dead – and I’ve a faith to keep with you,

Mr. Murdoch.

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