107 #82: First Officer Murdoch shot one or two passengers before shooting himself

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Murdoch Titanic

TRUE, probably. At about 1 a.m., all Titanic’s officers had been issued with Webley revolvers, as Lightoller recalled in his memoirs Titanic and Other Ships:

‘It was about this time [the launching of lifeboat No. 6] that the Chief Officer came over from the starboard side and asked, did I know where the firearms were? I told the Chief Officer, “Yes, I know where they are. Come along and I’ll get them for you,” and into the First Officer’s cabin we went—the Chief, Murdoch, the Captain and myself—where I hauled them out, still in all their pristine newness and grease. I was going out when the Chief shoved one of the revolvers into my hands, with a handful of ammunition, and said, “Here you are, you may need it.”’

Later, as he was struggling in the water, Lightoller noticed the weight of his revolver was dragging him down:

‘For a time I wondered what was making it so difficult for me to keep my head above the water. Time and again I went under, until it dawned on me that it was the great Webley revolver, still in my pocket, that was dragging me down. I soon sent that on its downward journey.’

Fifth Officer Lowe was the first to use his gun that night, at about 1.15 a.m., firing several warning shots between lifeboat No. 14 and the side of the ship, in order to stop a group of men from rushing it. Greaser Frederick Scott saw this incident:

5657: ‘And one of the boats was where the Officer pulled a revolver out and shot it between the ship and the boat and said, “If any man jumps into the boat I will shoot him like a dog.”’

Lightoller also threatened passengers with his gun at about 1.45 a.m., when a group of men tried to get into emergency lifeboat number 2, as he recalled in his memoirs,Titanic And Other Ships, though he said it was not loaded at the time:

‘Arriving alongside the emergency boat, someone spoke out of the darkness, and said “There are men in that boat.” I jumped in, and discovered that there actually were… They hopped out mighty quickly, and I encouraged them verbally, also by vigorously flourishing my revolver. They certainly thought they were between the devil and the deep blue sea in more senses than one, and I had the satisfaction of seeing them tumbling head over heels, preferring the uncertain safety of the deck, to the cold lead, which I suppose they fully imagined would follow their disobedience—so much for imagination—the revolver was not even loaded!’

There is evidence that at about 2.15 a.m., as the forward part of Titanic’s starboard boat deck dipped under the water, there was a rush for the last lifeboat, Collapsible A, which Murdoch was preparing for lowering. Several eye witnesses state that they saw an officer shoot one or two passengers at this point and then shoot himself.

The following is an extract from a letter written to his wife, on April 19th, 1912, by First Class passenger Mr. George Rheims, who escaped in Collapsible A:

‘As the last lifeboat was leaving I saw an officer kill a man with one gun shot. The man was trying to climb aboard that last lifeboat. Since there was nothing left to do, the officer told us, “Gentlemen, each man for himself, goodbye.” He gave us a military salute and shot himself. This was a man!!’

On the same day that he wrote this letter, he gave the same story to the New York Herald, who printed it with the following quote from Mr Rheims under the headline ‘Officer Kills Man, Ends Own Life’:

‘The majority of men passengers did not attempt to get in the boats. The men assisted the women. But when the boats began to be lowered some men lost their heads. From the lower deck men jumped into crowded boats and others slid down ropes. One officer shot a man who attempted to get into a crowded boat. Immediately afterward the officer said: “Well, goodbye,” and killed himself.’

This incident at Collapsible A was also witnessed by Third Class passenger Eugene Daly, who eventually escaped on upturned Collapsible B, as reported by the Daily Sketch on Saturday 4th May, 1912:

‘“We afterwards went to the second cabin deck,” he continues, “and the two girls and myself got into a boat. An officer called on me to go back, but I would not stir. They then got hold of me and pulled me out. At the first cabin, when a boat was being lowered, an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in he would shoot him on the spot. I saw the officer shoot two men dead because they tried to get into the boat. Afterwards there was another shot, and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him. I was up to my knees in water at the time. Everyone was rushing around and there were no more boats. I then dived overboard and got in a boat.”’

Third Class passenger Edward Arthur Dorking, who also ended up in Collapsible B with Eugene Daly, told a very similar story to the Bureau County Republican, which was printed on 2nd May, 1912:

‘An officer stood beside the life-boats as they were being manned and with a pistol in hand, threatened to kill the first man who got into a boat without orders. The rule of “women first” was rigidly enforced. Two stewards hustled into a lifeboat that was being launched. They were commanded to get out by the officers and on refusing to obey the command, were shot down.’

Additional details of Dorking’s story had been reported in the April 19th, 1912 edition of The New York Herald:

‘Almost at the moment I climbed on the raft I could hear pistol shots sounding from the Titanic. The sounds of shots had been distinct during all my swim. I don’t know how many were fired, but they kept on during all the time I was within hearing distance. I saw an officer, it may have been the captain or it may not, shoot himself before I got away from the ship.’

Another Third Class passenger who also ended up in Collapsible B, Victor Francis Sunderland, confirmed the shooting of a passenger in the April 26th, 1912 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, although he did not notice the officer shoot himself afterwards:

‘In one boat, partly filled with women and children, sat—I think he was a Russian. An officer told him to get out, but he wouldn’t. The officer fired his revolver in the air once or twice and still the man sat there. The officer then shot him and he dropped back in his seat. He was lifted up and dropped overboard.’

But other passengers on this part of the deck at this time do mention an officer’s suicide. For example, Carl Jansson, who ended up in Collapsible A with George Reims, as reported in the Chicago American on Thurday 25th April, 1912:

‘Shortly before the last boat was launched I glanced toward the bridge and saw the chief officer place a revolver in his mouth and shoot himself. His body toppled overboard.’

First Class passenger Mrs. George D. Widener also observed an officer commit suicide from Lifeboat No. 4. Although this was on the port side of the ship, lifeboat No. 4 remained very near and picked several people up from the water; and Titanic’s list was to port, revealing her decks to boats on this side, and lifeboat No. 4 may have been far enough forward of Titanic to see the boat deck on both sides of Titanic’s bridge. Mrs Widener gave the following account in the New York Times of April 20th, 1912:

‘I went on deck and was put into a life boat. As the boat pulled away from the Titanic I saw one of the officers shoot himself in the head, and a few minutes later saw Capt. Smith jump from the bridge into the sea.’

Finally, the following evocative account of seaman Jack Williams, which appeared in the 1912 memorial books, Titanic and Other Great Sea Disasters, and Sinking of the Titanic, is intriguing, not least because his name is not on the official White Star Line or disaster inquiry crew lists:

‘The report that it was Murdoch and not Captain Smith who shot himself on the bridge just as the forward section of the Titanic sank is true. I still have before me the picture of Murdoch standing on the bridge as the waters surged up about him, placing the pistol to his head and disappearing as the shot that ended his life rang out.’

Although none of this evidence is proof positive that it was Murdoch who shot himself, it does seem that an officer did shoot himself and Murdoch seems the most likely candidate. As Titanic experts Bill Wormstedt and Tad Fitch point out in their excellent website Shots in the dark, Murdoch was the man directly in charge of the ship in the hours leading up to the collision with the iceberg and he was therefore responsible for the ship and all its passengers during that time. His career at sea was effectively over, even if he survived the disaster, and if ‘the’ iceberg was not the first to be spotted that night, as brought out in George Behe’s Titanic: Safety, Speed and Sacrifice, then Murdoch was also responsible for not slowing down, in direct violation of the posted orders from the White Star Line, that ‘Time must be sacrificed or any other temporary inconvenience suffered, rather than the lightest risk should be incurred.’ He also may not have followed Captain Smith’s orders (passed on from Lightoller): ‘If in the slightest degree doubtful, let me know at once.’

Certainly, it seems that this is what Dining Room steward Thomas Whitely said he overheard lookouts Fleet and Lee discussing, possibly on the Carpathia:

‘The two men talked freely in his hearing and expressed wonderment that their attempts to get the officer to slow up or take other precautionary methods to avoid the bergs had failed. Mr Whiteley says he carefully marked every word they uttered. “I don’t recall the exact words of the men, but I am certain of the sentiment they expressed. They were very indignant. I was particularly astonished when I heard one of them say:—No wonder Mr Murdoch shot himself.”’

Nevertheless, given that none of this evidence is conclusive, it is worth bearing in mind what Lightoller said about Murdoch’s last moments, in the following extract from a letter to his widow:

‘I was practically the last man, and certainly the last officer, to see Mr. Murdoch. He was then endeavouring to launch the starboard forward collapsible boat. I had already got mine from off the top of our quarters. You will understand when I say that I was working the port side of the ship, and Mr. Murdoch was principally engaged on the starboard side of the ship, filling and launching the boats. Having got my boat down off the top of the house, and there being no time to open it, I left it and ran across to the starboard side, still on top of the quarters. I was then practically looking down on your husband and his men. He was working hard, personally assisting, overhauling the forward boat’s fall. At this moment the ship dived, and we were all in the water. Other reports as to the ending are absolutely false. Mr. Murdoch died like a man, doing his duty.’

However, it seems that Lightoller may have dived into the sea just before Murdoch shot himself and thus been unaware of his suicide. It is also possible that Lightoller may have wanted to conceal the suicide, if it occured, from Murdoch’s widow.

Second Officer Lightoller and Chief Officer Wilde were both 38 years old, First Officer Murdoch was 39.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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