This month is the 100th anniversary of one of the more storied maritime accidents of all time, the sinking of Titanic. Local maritime history buff and Titanic aficionado Charles Bailey dissects one of the more enduring myths surrounding this event.
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
– John Adams, 1735 – 1826, second President of the United States
John Adams was referring to the common practice of altering the facts of historical and political events to benefit the myth of certain men’s achievements; as long as facts were recorded properly, no matter the stories that were passed down, the truth would always be undeniable.
Many historical facts we believe to be true are often not what they seem; we become accustomed to the legends, myths, and half-truths. I believe that we should embrace our future while respecting our past, and to do that we should know all aspects of the historical event: truth, fiction and the grey area of hearsay.
Much of what we know of history is still speculation. While it’s true we can know solid facts like dates, names, numbers, times and places, to piece all the facts together we need to rely on some speculation.
For example, when Titanic was sinking in April of 1912, it’s a well-known fact that the band played until the end; just before the ship sank the strains of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” were heard by the passengers. Well, not exactly. Although many passengers claimed they heard this song, others were just as confident that the band played the hymn “Autumn.” Others claimed the music played was cheerful, popular, ragtime music. There is even an account that the band stopped playing almost a half an hour before the ship sank.
So what do we believe? This is where the truth stops and the hearsay begins, but first let’s deal with the truth.
Aside from a single account by the ship’s stoker, everyone else agreed that the music of the band could be heard until almost the end. To prove this we need only take into account the evidence of two men: Charles Lightoller, the ship’s Second Officer, and Harold Bride, the assistant Marconi (radio) operator. Both men were on the deck minutes before the ship took her final plunge, and the band had been playing at the base of the forward funnel for most of the night. Lightoller and Bride were part of a group of men struggling to free a collapsible boat from the roof of the officer’s quarters about 25 feet away from the forward funnel. At about 2:10am the ship began to sink rapidly, plunging the bridge underwater and quickly reaching the lifeboat as the men working were engulfed by the water. Both Bride and Lightoller said that the band was still playing, and they said this independently of one another, so it’s probably safe to say that the band did play almost until the end.
As for the hearsay, exactly what was played will never be known. Harold Bride was one of the few who claimed the band played the song “Autumn,” but this song did not appear in the White Star Line’s playlist and it is doubtful that the band, playing together for the first time this night, would have performed it. Also, in 1912 there were two different tunes for the song “Autumn” and Titanic had not one band, but three, who were playing together for the first time on the 15th of April. So it is most likely the case they stuck to the White Star songbook.
The well-known story of the band standing on the boat deck playing “Nearer My God To Thee” while the water swirled around their feet is probably an invention of the press, although a few survivors later claimed that they were sure this was the final song played. It was first reported a few days after the ship sank and the survivors were in New York. Wallace Hartley, Titanic’s Band Master, had once said “Nearer My God To Thee” was the hymn he wanted played at his own funeral; this information had been given to the British press by Hartley’s mother shortly after word of Titanic’s fate was known. It was reprinted in the New York papers and soon after survivors began claiming that this was the tune they heard.
Most Titanic movies and books have used “Nearer My God To Thee” as the final song played as the ship sank, but we’ll never know; none of the ship’s musicians survived the disaster and none of the survivors agreed on anything, except that the music had a soothing effect on the deck and helped keep the passengers calm while the ship sank.
As for fiction…. When it comes to the band, thankfully only one piece of pure fiction has, to my knowledge, ever been presented. It was used in the mini-series SOS Titanic in the 1970s, and that is that the band played using a piano on the boat deck. Although it’s true there were several pianos on the ship, they were grand pianos bolted to the floor. It’s highly doubtful the band unbolted one, carried it up the stairs, and played it as the ship listed sharply forward. This story was attributed to William Carter, one of the Titanic’s first-class passengers, but no one else ever supported the account and it’s generally regarded as a fanciful story he used to divert people’s attention whenever the subject of his own survival came up.
I use the stories of music on board Titanic as it sank as a small example of how historical facts can be twisted and become more myth and legend than fact. Remember: history is often 1% fact and 99% myth.