Titanic, Olympic and Myths

The distribution of myths and misinformation about the Titanic, and their perpetuation is a situation we uncover ad infinitum. Thirty-five years of publishing in the Commutator, including Don Lynch’s survivor archives, Ken Marschall’s knowledge of Titanic’s structure, information from George Behe, Ray Lepien, Eric Sauder, Paul Louden-Brown and many more authors, make a lengthy list of talent.

Books, reprints, new and old material that the THS or 7C’s Press offers are a convenient resource. It is not for a lack of material but more like the proverbial bringing a horse to water… how do you get him to drink it?

Titanic survivor Mrs. Edith Haisman’s death on January 20, 1997 and a telephone call from the San Diego Union-Tribune prompted this piece. Although the stories aren’t really connected, the subject of getting information correct could not have been made any clearer.

Alma Cesena of the Union-Tribune staff received phone calls from readers who saw an error. They informed her that a photograph (in a story about the making of James Cameron’s film in Mexico) labeled Titanic was the Olympic. Anxious for a clarification, she consulted the THS. Since the image was a file photo from the Associated Press, she asked how could such happen — that even today, file photos of “Titanic” are actually Olympic. Most THS members know there were few available pictures of the Titanic at the time of the disaster and many of the Olympic. In the rush to get the story of the events of April 14-15, 1912 in print, Olympic photos were used and labeled Titanic. It is reasonable to think most people assumed the ships were identical. At the time of the disaster, how would most reporters or editors know the difference which escapes the casual observer — an enclosed promenade had been added only weeks prior to Titanic’s maiden voyage. The substitution of Olympic photos for Titanic were mainly innocent mistakes. Other contemporary liners (as long as they had four funnels) employed for illustrative purposes were more disingenuous. The San Diego Union-Tribune, to its credit, published not only a correction but also a separate article the next day, “The reappearance of a Titanic error” by Gina Lubrano, the reader’s representative.

Another example due to editing was White Star Line’s advertising Titanic as “practically unsinkable” — the word “practically” omitted leaving only the word “unsinkable” perpetuating another myth.

The case of Mrs. Haisman is unfortunate because one does not like to speak ill upon the death of a friend. In her obituary appearing in newspapers here and abroad, many errors appeared. To the general reader, it makes little difference but for history’s sake, myths should be separated. Misinformation appearing in her biography, “My Life On the Titanic” was repeated in newspapers; this in turn was duplicated in magazines. As recently as March 1997, Memphis magazine rehashes the folklore as factual and others using recent media for a resource will guarantee its perpetuation. Some of this could have been avoided, the advice went unheeded — selling a book was more important. The publisher of “My Life…” sent a proof copy the to THS and was informed the Titanic narrative left out important archival material, contradicting his version. The publisher did not want the added expense of changing the text. 1995 press articles add to the legend. Mrs. Haisman’s story was employed to promote the Titanic salvage exhibition in England. Information provided by the exhibitors featured a watch attributed to have belonged to her father. The tale of the happenings on the Titanic in her last hours are poignant and full of human interest which must surely have enhanced Greenwich’s ticket sales. However, her mother’s interviews published in late April 1912 don’t resemble the contemporary accounts.

The speed of communications contribute to the mix for either good or bad. The Titanic Historical Society is in the position of David versus Goliath in the distribution of factual material and touches only a fraction of the people that newspapers, television and other mediums reach. A couple of generations make a difference because memories fade with time and if these errors are continually repeated, however innocently, untruths are perpetuated.

Garbage in — garbage out.

“History is what happened, not what we wish had happened.” — Thomas Sowell