The Titanic Horror - April 1912
View of the RMS Titanic, 15 Minutes Before She Sank. The Illustrated London News (18 May 1912) p. 748-749. GGA Image ID # 1011850432
The Titanic horror fills everyone with an indescribable sadness. Hardly any great calamity in recent years has been so startling or has exemplified so fully that “in the midst of Life, we are in Death.”
Imagination runs rife, and the scenes that picture themselves on the tablets of our minds are almost too terrible to describe.
Here was the last word in boat construction, a masterpiece from every standpoint—size, convenience, equipment, luxury, and safety. With apparently every known device for protection against every force of the sea, if there was ever an unsinkable boat, the Titanic was the one.
Representing the length and breadth of man's latest knowledge of shipbuilding, the current estimate of this magnificent vessel's fitness to triumph over every danger is shown by the fact that it was insured to the full extent of its enormous value at the lowest rate ever given a transatlantic steamer.
And this by those considered the most critical, most discriminating experts on insurance in the world! Proudly this great floating hotel put out to sea. Manned as she was by officers and seamen picked for their ability and experience, had anyone suggested the possibility of her going to the bottom of the sea in less than three hours, he would have been laughed to scorn.
The Titanic sink? The largest, most durable, staunchest, most elegant ship in the world? Worth over 7,000,000 dollars, with a cargo reaching well over 3,000,000 dollars, a crew of over 900 trained followers of the sea and a passenger list of nearly 1,500, including many of the leading men and women of two continents, such a boat sink? Impossible.
Even the idea was ridiculous. And so she sped along. Making splendid time and with every promise of a quick, delightful trip, one can easily imagine the general admiration felt for the beauties and comforts of this great monster and the satisfaction that arose from having had the good luck to be with her on her maiden trip.
Good luck! What a mocker Fate truly is! With her thousands of twinkling lights, a happy crowd on the deck or in the cabins, hundreds sleeping with all the confidence that they would have had in their own homes, the hand of destiny suddenly struck, without an instant's warning.
With hardly a perceptible shock owing to her enormous size and weight, she received her death blow and probably a large part of her supposedly impregnable double bottom of steel was cut away as with a knife, opening bulkheads and in an instant rendering useless all her elaborate defense against the sea.
For nearly an hour, hardly anyone except possibly the ship's officers had a suspicion of danger. Even when the orders to put on life preservers, and embark women and children went forth, the whole thing was considered somewhat of a lark.
Not a few were delighted at the break in the monotony and eagerly welcomed the situation as an experience to remember. Without a single doubt, hundreds of people went down sleeping peacefully in their cabins with never a warning of their fate.
But soon unmistakable evidence of the seriousness of affairs became apparent to those on deck, and they knew a terrible truth. The Titanic, the unsinkable boat—the ten-million-dollar floating palace—with her population larger by far than that of most of the towns and villages of Great Britain or America—was doomed—she was going down!
Confusion Must Have Reigned
Confusion must have reigned for a few moments. Here were men and women, wealthy and famous, with everything to make life sweet. Husbands were speeding home to expectant families, wives looking forward to a return to their husbands and homes.
Here were men of great affairs, captains of enterprise with thousands in their service. But instantly all proportions were lost. In that last short period, men and women were divested of every material value, and rich, powerful and famous were thrown back to just human beings.
Some unquestionably believed it impossible for the Titanic to sink, and secure in their confidence preferred to remain on board rather than risk their lives in the lifeboats.
But many knew the truth and left a picture of heroism to the world that time can never destroy. Men whose lives and manner of living had been far removed from hardship or conditions ordinarily looked upon as developing fortitude and courage took their stand side by side with soldiers, and sailors trained to meet death bravely.
With heroism that was sublime in its renunciation of self, husbands and fathers kissed their loved ones goodbye and with brave smiles on their faces watched them row away.
No one can read the accounts of the survivors without swelling with pride that manhood and womanhood can ring so true at the supreme moment.
Tears of sadness will fill our eyes, voices will break and anguish almost overpower us, but still there is an exaltation, a sense of inspiration, that comes from thinking of the nobility of the Titanic's heroes, that cannot help but lift and buoy us up in the face of this greatest calamity of modern times.
Let no carping critic of mankind croak again that the flower of chivalry is dead, that men have grown weak or that courage and bravery have been destroyed by our civilization.
Let no pessimist tell us the world is going to the bad, that men and women have lost their instincts of honor and self-denial through the struggle for wealth and position.
Let no one say that mankind has lost any part of its nobility or strength as the years have come and gone.
No, when the traducer of humanity tells us that the days of heroism, devotion and unselfish love are no more, we have only to point to the Titanic and that last scene that will never be blotted from the memory of man—a great ship—the largest in the world—going down, hundreds waving goodbye and throwing kisses to their loved ones, while the band with unbelievable fortitude was playing that grandest of hymns, Nearer, My God to Thee!
In the dark of night, with all the depressing effect of severe cold, over 1,500 souls met their end and went forth to meet their God. The picture of that tragic moment beggars description. No words can do it justice, and each and every one of us must shape it for ourselves in our own consciousness.
But terrible indeed as the disaster surely was and bereft as it leaves the world and countless families, humanity cannot fail to gain from the chastening effect it must have on every sentient being, and the aspiration that every true man must feel that his own end shall be as near as possible to that of those “who died like men.”
As we bring this to a close, we cannot refrain from quoting a verse of Abraham Lincoln's favorite poem which has been in the writer's mind always since the fatal news was received.
“O why should the spirit of mortal be proud
Like a swift, fleeting meteor—a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning—a dash of the wave,
Man passes from life to his end in the grave.”
What is the lesson?
What is the lesson? This is after all the significant problem. Without a doubt we have grown arrogant from our progress. We have felt ourselves conquerors of the sea and the elements with our monster ships.
We have magnified our pigmy strength and minimized the enormous powers of Nature. In our rush and hustle, we have sacrificed safety for speed.
Restlessness and impatience have controlled us. We have subordinated care and precaution for haste and hurry. Without sense or judgment, we have made foolish drafts on luxury, excitement and the sensational.
And now when we have to pay, and the collector appears—we find that it is Death! Is it not time to call a halt, to alter our ideas and readjust our values? Is not safety preferable to size and speed? Is it not infinitely preferable to reach our destination a few hours later—but with life and limb intact?
Are “four-day boats,” “eighteen-hour trains” and countless things of the same character worth the price we are paying?
As Charles M. Hays, a great railroad man and one of the Titanic's heroes said only a few hours before his death “some great disaster is sure to come if the fearful attempts at haste and speed are not curbed.”
Little did he know the prophetic character of his remark. The Titanic was sacrificed to false values, the exaltation of size, speed, luxury and everything appealing to humanity's love for beauty and greatness, at the expense of safety and sensible precaution.
Dashing onward at 21 knots an hour (about 26 miles), the danger of icebergs though fully recognized was never heeded and her pace was never slackened.
She was “to get in on time.” Secure in her great size and with blind confidence in her power to triumph over every accident, lifeboat equipment for less than one in three of her passengers and crew was provided.
To reduce the distance and reach her destination quicker, she was following a course that is known to have its constant dangers of icebergs and floes. Admitting that she was in the usual lane of steamship travel, the fact remains that it was not the safest.
And so we are brought face to face with the grim truth that not the shipbuilders, not the White Star management, not the captain or his assistants are to blame except incidentally for this awful catastrophe.
The culprits are the people at large, those who have encouraged these things—in fact, forced their adoption by turning their backs on the cautious and conservative, and patronizing only the swiftest, most daring and most spectacular. Big business is bound to give the people what they want.
If a premium in the form of patronage is given to safety, conservative methods and common sense, the public will get just these things. But we have given our support and encouragement to the risky, the daring and the sensational.
Consequently we the masses are culpable and common decency should make us realize it. We have ignored the substance for the shadow, and it is wrong, cruelly wrong to curse and condemn those who have given us what we wanted.
It is only human nature to make someone “the goat,” but is this fair? Is it right to make those who do our bidding —the officials and subordinates—bear the burden of our own indifference or neglect?
Surely not and that spirit which we proudly call the American spirit of fair play should enable us to be just and generous in this hour of our anguish and remorse.
Let us investigate and study the situation in all its aspects, and seek as honest, thoughtful men to reach conclusions and decisions that shall correct conditions and prevent a repetition.
But let us take a lesson from our hero dead and with respect for their nobility and unselfishness, refrain from making the small, petty mistake of condemning anyone—or any group of men—without the fullest hearing and consideration for their actual responsibility.
In other words, here is the moment for humanity to rise to new heights of fairness, justice, and generosity. We owe it to our dead—but above all to our own manhood and womanhood.
The psychology of courage is interesting, but the manifestation of this mental attribute is so interwoven with other spiritual or psychic forces that it is tough to place it and give it its actual value.
There are plenty of facts that go to show that courage or bravery in the face of sudden or violent death is most uncertain. Many men who have lived lives and given sufficient reason to lead us to anticipate the highest courage from them have proven at the end, the veriest cowards.
On the other hand, there are plenty of those whose character, temperament and environment have led them to appear weak, vacillating and shameful, but who at the crisis met their fate with the most sublime and splendid courage.
Bravery, therefore, is a most uncertain quantity, and can never be predicated on the usual mental qualities or customs of an individual. Love, pride, trust in God, the psychology of the moment, the surroundings, the physical condition, and many other factors are all woven into the fabric of courage and heroism, just as fear, despair, lack of control, and some of the same factors that under certain conditions give rise to courage, will cause the most arrant cowardice. No man knows just how he will act at such times until they come.
Certain it is, though, that we all hope we can have the curtain rung down at the close and leave behind as clean, noble and uplifting a scene as that enacted by so many men as the Titanic made her last plunge.
The doctors on the Titanic seem to have been faithful to the best traditions of our profession. Medical men with few exceptions have always died well. And after all that is said or done can one have a better or more beautiful epitaph than “Death found him unafraid”?
But we who live have our work before us, and this calamity emphasizes certain vital features. The medical profession is striving with all its strength and knowledge to save and prolong life.
Does it not behoove us while we are driving back the hordes of disease to devote more thought and time to pointing out and urging greater efficiency in preventing needless accidents?
In other words, what is the good of saving countless lives from disease if they are only going to be sacrificed to the Moloch of carelessness and industrial negligence? In all sincerity, we believe medical men should give this matter more thought and devote more attention to arousing humanity from its indifference or ignorance of the physical danger.
"The Titanic Horror," in American Medicine, New York: American-Medical Publishing Company, Complete Series, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, New Series, Vol. VII, No. 4, April 1912, p. 179-182. Edited for Grammar, Spelling, and Clarity by P. K. Gjenvick, 2019.