No one knows exactly where Captain Edward Smith was on the fateful day of April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., but witnesses said he appeared on the deck of the Titanic moments later, asking what hit the ship, which was making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.
“An iceberg, sir,” replied Officer William Murdoch. Thus began the worst night of Edward Smith’s otherwise glorious life. In his more than 40 years at sea, he had rarely been involved in accidents and had never been held responsible for one.
Now, however, he was about to be at the center of one of the worst maritime disasters of all time. In just a few hours, more than 1,500 passengers and crew members would die.
Smith’s body was never recovered, and his final moments remain a mystery due to several conflicting accounts, including one that said he jumped ship while holding a child.
As Wyn Craig Wade writes in the book “Titanic: The End of a Dream”, “Captain Smith had at least five deaths, from one heroic to one shameful.” There have also been some rumors about the survival of…
Conflicting damage reports
At first, it looked like luck was on Smith’s side. Officer Joseph Boxhall made a quick survey of the ship and returned to the deck to report that he found no damage. But any relief Smith might have felt at the time was quickly dashed.
Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s chief designer, reported that at least five of Titanic’s 16 watertight compartments had flooded. The ship could have remained afloat with up to four compartments flooded, depending on their locations, but the flooding of five of them led to a catastrophic situation.
Around midnight, Andrews told Smith that the Titanic could hold out for another 60-90 minutes. Smith understood then that the vessel was doomed.
He also knew that the ship’s 20 lifeboats had a total capacity of 1,178 people and could not even come close to supporting the more than 2,200 passengers and crew on board.
Ghost Rescue Ship
The captain still had one hope of avoiding total disaster. Shortly after the collision, he and other officers saw the lights of a nearby ship, estimating it to be no more than 5 miles away.
At 00:05, Smith gave the order to uncover the lifeboats and alert the passengers. Meanwhile, he told the ship’s two radio operators to prepare to transmit distress signals.
Ten minutes later, according to the surviving operator’s estimates, the captain returned and ordered them to send a CQD, the universal distress call that was soon replaced by an SOS.
The ship they spotted in the distance did not respond, but others did. The nearest one, the RMS Carpathia, replied that she would change course and rush to Titanic’s position. Unfortunately for the men on the Titanic, the Carpathia was 58 miles away, so about four hours away. It was already a little after 00:30.
Still hoping to attract the attention of the nearby mystery ship, the captain ordered flares to be launched at 00:45. At the same time, Boxhall tried to contact her with a beacon, sending out a call for help in Morse code. He received no response.
Did the captain of the Titanic go into shock?
Also, around 00:45, crew members lowered the first of the Titanic’s lifeboats into the water. Although Smith had already ordered the boats to be discovered about 40 minutes before, he did not give the order to begin loading and lowering them until Second Officer Charles Lightoller reminded him, asking, “Wouldn’t it be better to get the women and children into boats, sir?”
This was one of several incidents that led some historians to wonder if Smith had gone into a state of shock.
In another instance, Smith ordered a lifeboat to be lowered from the boat deck to the promenade deck so that passengers could board more easily.
“Haven’t you forgotten, sir, that all those glass windows are closed?” a passenger gently reminded him. “God, you’re right!” Smith replied. He apparently mistook the partially enclosed promenade deck of the Titanic for the fully open one of his sister ship, the Olympic, which he had previously commanded.
Since then, Smith’s actions are increasingly unclear. He did not give up on the mystery ship, ordering the crew of at least one lifeboat to row out to the lights, drop off the passengers, and then return to the Titanic to pick up the others.
Smith also periodically checked in with the radio operators until, around 02:00, he relieved them of their duties and told them to try to save themselves.
On the face of it, Smith seems to have kept up a brave, true-captain facade to the end, at least to most observers.
“I saw Captain Smith get emotional; the passengers wouldn’t have noticed, but I did. I knew then that we would soon die,” May Sloan, a surviving stewardess of the Titanic, would write shortly after the disaster.
Captain Smith’s many deaths
At 02:20, the last leg of the Titanic disappeared beneath the waves. Smith’s final moments are unknown, and accounts of the circumstances vary widely.
Some early newspaper accounts, purportedly backed by eyewitnesses, say he shot himself with a pistol, though few historians believe them. Radio operator Harold Bride, a more reliable witness, said he saw Smith “plunge into the sea”. Others said that it was swept away by a wave, or that after being swept away it returned to the Titanic, going down with the ship.
Several witnesses also claimed to have seen him in the water. In an account attributed to Titanic fireman Harry Senior, Smith jumped from the ship with “a child held tenderly in his arms”, swam to a nearby lifeboat, handed the child over and swam back to Titanic, saying, “I’m going with the ship.”
Others still believe he made it to an overturned lifeboat, but sank when one of the Titanic’s huge chimneys broke loose and crashed into the water nearby.
Did Smith really die the night of the shipwreck?
Much stranger are the reports – widely publicized – that Smith survived the shipwreck. For example, three months after the Titanic disaster, in July 1912, a Baltimore man named Peter Pryal reported seeing Smith on the streets of that city.
Pryal was not a “terchea-berchea” but a respected businessman who had been an officer on board the White Star Majestic some 30 years before when Smith was the ship’s captain. In addition, Pryal’s doctor testified that he was “absolutely healthy and not hallucinating.”
In fact, Pryal stated that he saw Smith twice, once on a Wednesday and again the following Saturday when he returned to the same location to look for him. After an hour of waiting, he said he saw Smith coming, approached him and asked him how he was doing. “Very well, Pryal, but please do not detain me. I have work”, the man allegedly replied.
Pryal said he followed Smith to the station. Just before he boarded the train to Washington, Pryal reported, the man smiled at him and said, “Be good, comrade, until we meet again.”
“There is no way I could be wrong. I would recognize him even without the beard,” Pryal told a reporter.
Smith returned to the news in 1940, when a letter in Life magazine suggested that the former captain had died in Lima, Ohio, where he was known as “Silent Smith”. Among the evidence: the man had arrived in the city three years after the Titanic disaster, gave only the name Smith, was about Smith’s age and height, and had sailor tattoos.
However, immediately after Silent Smith’s death in 1915, the Lima News identified the man as one Michael McKenna.
The verdict on Captain Smith
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, newspapers portrayed Smith as a hero, the brave captain who sank with his ship. Bruce Ismay, White Star’s president, was shown as the villain, who went down in a lifeboat and was accused of pressuring Smith to maintain a reckless speed.
In the subsequent British and American inquiries, a somewhat more complicated picture emerged. Smith was accused of ignoring warnings from other ships about icebergs and failing to reduce the ship’s speed to adjust to the prevailing conditions.
The British inquiry exonerated him, saying that Smith had done nothing that other captains would not have done. The American investigation was only slightly tougher. Senator William Alden Smith, who chaired the US Senate’s investigative committee, charged that “Captain Smith’s indifference to danger was one of the direct causes of this needless tragedy.”
But the senator also gave him credit for his “manly bearing and tender concern for the safety of women and children,” as well as his “determination to die with the ship.”