Examining the Fear Factor on the “Titanic”
Posted on 12 April 2021, 20:40
It is difficult to measure the fear factor on the Titanic during the first two hours following its collision with an iceberg, because the preponderance of testimony suggests that very few of the passengers really believed that the “unsinkable” ship would sink. “One of the most remarkable features of this horrible affair is the length of time that elapsed after the collision before the seriousness of the situation dawned on the passengers,” Robert W. Daniel, a 27-year-old first-class passenger from Philadelphia, testified. “The officers assured everybody that there was no danger, and we all had such confidence in the Titanic that it didn’t occur to anybody that she might sink.”
Daniel jumped into the ocean before the ship went down and was picked up by one of the lifeboats. He said that “men fought and bit and struck one another like madmen,” referring to those in the water attempting to save themselves. He was reportedly picked up naked with wounds about his face, and then nearly died from the exposure to the cold before he was rescued.
Since April 14-15 marks the 109th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the great ship, I thought it a good time to revisit the story, as told in more detail in my 2012 book, Transcending the Titanic, specifically to look at the fear factor. As discussed in the book, once it was realized that the ship was going down, four different approaches to one’s fate can be recognized: 1. Dignified Expectation; 2) Stoic Resignation; 3) Controlled Trembling; 4) Panic.
Four survivors reported seeing William Thomas Stead (below) at various places in the 2 hours and 40 minutes that elapsed between the time the floating palace hit an iceberg and the time it made its plunge to the bottom of the North Atlantic. All of them told of a very composed and calm man, one prepared to meet his death with “dignified expectation.”
Stead, a popular British journalist on his way to New York to give a talk on world peace at Carnegie Hall, is remembered by many for his books and articles intended to demonstrate the reality of survival after death as well as to assist in a spiritual revival. In 1909, three years before his death, he published Letters from Julia, a series of messages purportedly coming to him by means of automatic writing, from Julia T. Ames, an American newspaperwoman, who had died some months earlier.
Juanita Parrish Shelley, a 25-year-old second-class passenger from Montana who was traveling with her mother, saw Stead assisting women and children into the lifeboats. “Your beloved Chief,” Shelley later wrote to Edith Harper, Stead’s loyal secretary and biographer, “together with Mr. and Mrs. (Isidor) Strauss, attracted attention even in that awful hour, on account of their superhuman composure and divine work. When we, the last lifeboat, left, and they could do no more, he stood alone, at the edge of the deck, near the stern, in silence and what seemed to me a prayerful attitude, or one of profound meditation. You ask if he wore a life-belt. Alas! No, they were too scarce. My last glimpse of the Titanic showed him standing in the same attitude and place.”
Frederick Seward, a 34-year-old New York lawyer, said that Stead was one of the few on deck when the iceberg was impacted. “I saw him soon after and [I] was thoroughly scared, but he preserved the most beautiful composure,” Seward, who boarded lifeboat 7, recalled.
Certainly, Stead (below) was not the only victim of the Titanic to face death with relative composure and calmness, although in many cases it may not have been easy to distinguish between Stead’s “dignified expectation” and the “stoic resignation” of those of little faith or with a nihilistic view. One likely would have to search the eyes for hope or despair in order to discern the difference. In either case, the person might be described as brave, courageous, or, if aiding others to his own detriment, as heroic. Indeed, the stoic might be considered more brave or more courageous, though more pathetic, since he did not have the support of hope and expectation, as Stead apparently had.
Major Archie Butt, (below) a 46-year-old aide to President William Howard Taft, was praised by several surviving passengers. “I questioned those of the survivors who were in a condition to talk, and from them I learned that Butt, when the Titanic struck, took his position with the officers and from the moment the order to man the lifeboats was given until the last one was dropped from the sea, he aided in the maintenance of discipline and the placing of the women and children in the boats,” wrote Captain Charles Crain, a passenger on the Carpathia, which picked up survivors. “Butt, I was told, was as cool as the iceberg that had doomed the ship, and not once did he lose control of himself. In the presence of death he was the same gallant, courteous officer that the American people had learned to know so well as a result of his constant attendance upon President Taft.”
Benjamin Guggenheim, the millionaire smelter magnate, asked John Johnson, his room steward, to give Mrs. Guggenheim a message if he (Johnson) survived, which he did. “Tell her that I played the game straight and that no woman was left on board this ship because Benjamin Guggenheim was a coward. Tell her that my last thoughts were of her and the girls.” Multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor, 47, is said to have initially ridiculed the idea of leaving the ship in lifeboats, saying that the solid decks of the Titanic were safer than a small lifeboat. However, by 1:45 a.m. he had changed his mind and helped his 18-year-old wife, Madeleine, board the last lifeboat. He asked Second Officer Charles Lightoller if he could also board and was told that no men were allowed. Astor then stood back and reportedly stood alone as others tried to free the remaining collapsible boat.
Lawrence Beesley, a 34-year-old teacher and second-class passenger who later wrote a book about his experience and observations, described an initial calmness or lack of panic. “The fact is that the sense of fear came to the passengers very slowly – a result of the absence of any signs of danger and the peaceful night – and as it became evident gradually that there was serious damage to the ship, the fear that came with the knowledge was largely destroyed as it came. There was no sudden overwhelming sense of danger that passed through thought so quickly that it was difficult to catch up and grapple with it – no need for the warning to ‘be not afraid of sudden fear,’ such as might have been present had we collided head-on with a crash and a shock that flung everyone out of his bunk to the floor.”
The ship’s band, or orchestra, was praised by all surviving passengers. Beesley recalled that they began playing around 12:40 a.m., an hour after the collision, and continued until after 2 a.m. “Many brave things were done that night, but none more brave than by those few men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea and the sea rose higher and higher to where they stood; the music they played serving alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recorded on the rolls of undying fame.”
Although the captain had given the order “women and children only” many men, including Beesley were able to board the lifeboats. Beesley explained that lifeboat 13 was only about half full when he heard the cry, “Any more ladies?” The call was repeated twice with no response before one of the crew looked at him and told him to jump in. After he was in the boat, three more ladies and one man showed up and boarded. “We rowed away from her in the quietness of the night, hoping and praying with all our hearts that she would sink no more and the day would find her still in the same position as she was then,” Beesley continued, stressing that the belief remained strong that the Titanic could not sink and it was only a matter of time before another ship showed up and took everyone aboard. “Husbands expected to follow their wives and join them either in New York or by transfer in mid-ocean from steamer to steamer … It is not any wonder, then, that many elected to remain, deliberately choosing the deck of the Titanic to a place in the lifeboat. And yet the boats had to go down, and so at first they were half full; this is the real explanation of why they were not as fully loaded as the later ones.”
Some women apparently remained on the ship because the risk of boarding a lifeboat seemed greater than that of staying on the ship. “Many believed it was safer to stay on board the big liner even wounded as she was, than to trust themselves to the boats,” Albert Smith, a ship’s steward, was quoted. The lifeboats hung 70-75 feet above the ocean as crew members struggled to lower them in jolts and jerks. “Our lifeboat, with thirty-six in it, began lowering to the sea,” Elizabeth Shutes, a 40-year-old first-class passenger and governess to passenger Margaret Graham, recounted. “This was done amid the greatest confusion. Rough seamen all giving different orders. No officer aboard. As only one side of the ropes worked, the lifeboat at one time was in such a position that it seemed we must capsize in mid-air. At last the ropes worked together, and we drew nearer and nearer the black, oily water.” Shutes added that there was some reluctance to row away from the ship, as it felt much safer being near it, so certain they were that it would not sink.
As the situation became more dire, there were reports of men rushing the life boats, jumping in them as they were being lowered, and even stowing away in them under cover. “Some men came and tried to rush the boat,” crew member Joseph Scarrot, in charge of lifeboat 14, testified. “They were foreigners and could not understand the orders I gave them, but I managed to keep them away. I had to use some persuasion with a boat tiller. One man jumped in twice and I had to throw him out the third time.”
Fifth Officer H. G. Lowe reported that one passenger boarded one of the boats dressed like a woman, with a shawl over his head. As the boat was being lowered he noted a lot of passengers along the rails “glaring more of less like wild beasts, ready to spring.” He said he fired three warning shots and did not hit anybody.
Annie May Stengel, a 43-year-old first-class passenger whose husband, Charles, escaped the ship in a later lifeboat, reported that four men jumped into her lifeboat as it was being lowered, one of them Dr. Henry Frauenthal, a New York City physician, who landed on her and knocked her unconscious.
But the stories of bravery or simple resignation in the face of fear far outnumber those of cowardice. One of the most celebrated cases of bravery reported by the press immediately following the tragedy was that of Rosalie Straus, the 63-year-old wife of New York department store magnate Isidor Straus, mentioned above. She was observed about to enter a lifeboat when she reversed directions and was overhead to say to her husband, “We have lived together for many years, where you go, I go.” Witnesses then saw the two settle in deck chairs. An April 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted Mrs. Samuel Bessinger, a relative, as saying that Mrs. Straus may not have realized the gravity of the situation, but even if she had, she doubted that she would have left her husband, so devoted she was.
Next blog post: April 26
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow Books.
I think you have good insight into some basic instinct genetically programmed into not only humans but all animals generally. It has nothing to do with one’s belief system. It is just the instinct of self preservation. After all, the body is the vehicle in which the consciousness exists in the physical world. How appropriate it is to want to keep it in good working order. And, if running away from danger is a way to do that then that is basic animal instinct at work in your behalf. That instinct has allowed humans to survive through eons of threats that caused other animals to become extinct. Remember the flight or fight response that is built in to one’s autonomic nervous system. That built-in response is what gets some people in trouble today when running from the ferocious tiger is no longer the threat. Threats are more subtle today, sometimes occurring minute by minute just by driving to work each morning. Instinctively responding to the many threats of daily civilized life often results in phobias, anxiety, panic attacks and other so-called mental illnesses. So, be glad and thankful that your biology worked to protect you.
According to Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you. The world will be yours and everything in it, what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.”
I think I prefer the following revision: “If you can keep you wits about you when everyone else is losing theirs, then maybe you just don’t understand the seriousness of the situation.” - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 16 Apr, 17:50
Yes, Ian. Your words bring us humbly back down to earth from whatever spiritual level we may inhabit in our contemplation and imagination. In a moment of crisis, of panic (such as I believe humanity is now facing collectively in this sinister global pandemic), one’s worldview may easily crumble and yield to the survival instinct, the deepest drive of all. Didn’t the disciples flee, with only one trailing behind in cowardly fashion, when the wolves finally came for Him? Schweitzer tells us that the task God gives to each of us to take that survival instinct and, drawing upon His help (and that of His angels), broaden it, deepen it, transform it, ennoble it, into “reverence for life.” Thus, foolishly and futilely, I spend hour after hour trapping and releasing the ants that have now made their homes in mine. Poisoning their entire colonies is something I cannot yet bring myself to do. But had I, the ant-rescuer, been on the Titanic, or as I at this moment hear my adult son coughing with the severe congestion he’s had for several days, that “reverence for life” or belief in God and the afterlife, seems to provide about as much security and tranquility as a life vest in a frigid ocean. Thank you for your comment.
Newton E. Finn, Fri 16 Apr, 14:59
One’s spiritual outlook or beliefs are not a reliable guide as to how you’ll act in the face of death: A few years ago, I was in a situation where I thought I was in extreme, life-threatening danger and I reacted by running away and trying to lock myself inside a room. I acted entirely on instinct and gave no thought whatsoever to some of my closest friends who were with me at the time, something that I’m still ashamed of (it turns out the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and my friends took no offense at what happened). My belief in God, in a spiritual existence, and a continuation of our essence after death was as strong then as it was today, and all of that went out the window when I thought death was literally running towards me; I think it’s safe to say that it was the same on Titanic: Many believers probably panicked and were terrified as they froze to death. Many non-believers probably found themselves calm and accepting of their imminent death, and the terror those trapped below decks felt was no doubt horrific for both believer and non-believer alike.
A belief in God and/or the spiritual does not make one immune to fear, despair, and terror, and I find it elitist to think that how someone reacts in the face of death is an indication of their ‘spiritual development’ or lack thereof.
Ian, Fri 16 Apr, 09:18
Newton E. Finn, Tue 13 Apr, 23:53:
Might I suggest you familiarize yourself with some writings that are skeptical about the Covid panic?
For instance, Michael Fumento of the American Institute for Economic Research writes:
“From early on, coronavirus deaths have been measured not by causation but by association. The overwhelming majority of deaths may have been caused by those morbidities (perhaps over 90% according to evaluations) but since decedents tested positive for coronavirus that’s how they were classified. Indeed, many alleged fatalities weren’t tested at all; they don’t need to be according to written CDC and WHO protocols. Some health agencies, including England’s, even count people who had the coronavirus, recovered, then later died of something else. Anything else. Welcome to the strange world of coronavirus-counting.” (http://www.aier.org/article/how-spreading-covid-19-hysteria-will-backfire-for-the-covid-19-vaccine)
Eric Peters is a libertarian, I am not, but I enjoy his takes on what he calls “weaponized hypochondria”:
Rick Darby, Thu 15 Apr, 17:50
There is one story about the Titanic that is little known – one of unusual heroism. I mentioned it in a 2019 blog and didn’t have space above to repeat it. However, I’ll repeat it here. It was told by Colonel Archibald Gracie, one of the survivors. He called it a “transcendent piece of heroism that will remain fixed in my memory as the most sublime and coolest exhibition of courage and cheerful resignation to fate and fearlessness of death.”
After the ship went down, Gracie managed to crawl onto an overturned raft that was occupied by a dozen or so others. When another swimmer approached the raft, he was turned away by several occupants as it was filled to capacity. In a “deep manly voice of a powerful man,” which Gracie did not recognize, Gracie heard the swimmer reply: “All right, boys; good luck and God bless you.” The man then swam away.
To my knowledge the brave swimmer was never identified. But as I did research for my book, “Transcending the Titanic,” I came upon information suggesting that he was likely Robert J. Bateman, a 51-year-old Baptist minister and physician from Jacksonville, Florida.
A second-class passenger, Bateman had been visiting relatives in Bristol, England and taking part in a revival there. He was returning to Jacksonville with other members of the revival group, including Ada Balls, his sister-on-law. She later recalled: “Brother forced me into the last boat, saying he would follow me later. I believe I was the last person to leave the ship. Brother threw his overcoat over my shoulders as the boat was being lowered away and as we neared the water, he took his black necktie and threw it to me with the words, ‘Goodbye, God bless you!’”
As Bateman reportedly said “God bless you!” to his sister-in-law before leaving her, and the rejected swimmer said “God bless you!” before swimming away, Bateman emerges as the best candidate for the heroic man mentioned by Gracie. Moreover, Bateman was a second-class passenger and Gracie a first-class passenger, which could explain why Gracie did not recognize the man’s voice.
Ten days after the disaster, Bateman’s widow received a letter that her husband had mailed to her when the Titanic stopped for more passengers in Ireland. “I feel that my trip has not been in vain,” Bateman wrote. “God has singularly blessed me. We had a glorious revival… It was the Time of My Life.”
His nephew, Tom, also received a letter mailed from Ireland. “Tom,” he wrote, “if this ship goes to the bottom, I shall not be there, I shall be up yonder. Think of it!”
Bateman’s body was recovered three weeks later by a cable-laying vessel.
Michael Tymn, Wed 14 Apr, 07:14
As I follow the incoming data on the surges of Covid 117 (check out Michigan to see where the rest of the U.S. is likely headed), and then wonder about what is undoubtedly the astronomical level of Covid transmission and mutation in the poorest countries of the world and the poorest areas of the richest countries, and finally factor in the somber concern expressed by a number of leading epidemiologists that some of these more virulent mutations may go end-around all of our latest vaccines and treatments and impact younger people much more seriously, I come to the discomforting conclusion that Michael may have rarely made a more timely post. How many of us are like those Titanic passengers who simply couldn’t imagine the massive, magnificent ship going?
Newton E. Finn, Tue 13 Apr, 23:53
In case you might be interested, I made a Youtube documentary in 2018 entitled ‘Sensational Stead and the Spirit World’ which has now had over 6,000 views. It covers the controversial life of William Stead, his interest in psychical research, his death on the Titanic, and the book he consequently wrote from the afterlife entitled ‘Blue Island’ which describes what he found there. Here is the link:
Keith P in England, Tue 13 Apr, 21:49
Thanks for your thoughts. I fully agree. There are various factors involved, one’s idea of survival being a significant one, but not necessarily the only one. As I pointed out, it would be difficult to tell the difference between dignified expectation and stoic resignation, and even controlled trembling. Panic is the only one that would be clearly distinguishable. I’ve observed the four approaches among dying people not on a sinking ship.
Michael Tymn, Tue 13 Apr, 18:00
A very fascinating account of the various reactions/acts humans have and take under extraordinary and desperate circumstances.
In sharing a spiritual point of view, part of their reactions and acts may relate to the various evolutionary moral and intellectual levels of the spirit of each person on board.
In addition, applicable may be how much each spirit intuitively knew (or was allowed to know, whether as test or trial) about
what they were imminently going to encounter (depending on their spirit’s level of comprehension) on that horrific day in the material world.
As to their individual reactions of possible impending material death, each spirit had their own conscience to contend with.
I provide the following (which can affect how a person may react or act under such circumstances):
From Allan Kardec’s, The Spirits’ Book, item 961:
Kardec asks: What is the predominant sentiment at the moment of death, is it doubt, fear or hope?
Spirits responded: “Doubt with the skeptical, fear with the guilty, hope with the good.”
Taking a guess, those persons (incarnated spirits) who’s conscience and beliefs were skeptical and/or guilty may act more panicked or selfishly, while those who were relatively good in life and/or satisfied with their lives might be more calm, resigned and/or selfless.
Yvonne Limoges, Tue 13 Apr, 17:50
Thanks, Mike, for a thought-provoking survey of the varied responses of passengers on the Titanic during the dawning realization that the ship was doomed and their lives in peril.
Some behaved more helpfully and selflessly than others. (But let’s not get too judgmental. None of us can be sure how we would react if we had been there.)
What made the difference in the ways passengers faced the ocean liner’s, and their own, probable demise?
Courage? Yes, but courage is a label we attach after the fact. It doesn’t say anything about why they behaved courageously.
A desire to go out with a sound reputation intact? In some cases, probably. Reputation doesn’t seem to count for much these days, but honor was still a driving force among the upper classes (as well as others) in 1912.
Men’s love for their wives and vice versa? Again, for some passengers, putting the survival of their closest and dearest ahead of their own mattered.
It is tempting to say that the primary criterion was religious faith or belief in God and (at least for Stead) the afterlife. That may be a reasonable assumption, but can we know? No one interviewed the passengers at the moment of truth. No scientific study can reveal the answer, since we cannot run a controlled experiment by gathering passengers and crew members, testing them on their spirituality, then placing them on a ship and sinking it while recording their words and actions. (At least, I hope we can’t and wouldn’t do such an experiment.)
What makes some people place the good of others ahead of their own must largely be a mystery. It lies somewhere that cameras, computers, and the psychology of ordinary life cannot reach.
Rick Darby, Tue 13 Apr, 01:16
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