The Titanic’s tragic sinking between April 14 and 15, 1912, is probably the most famous maritime disaster in history. It’s generated a huge number of books, movies, and TV shows — and even more myths, fabrications, and outright lies. So how easy is it to disentangle fact from fiction? Did a brave dog really save some of its passengers? Were third-class travelers actually locked in their quarters? Was the ship truly cursed by an Egyptian mummy aboard? We're here to answer all these questions and more.
1. The ship’s canine hero
The Titanic’s first officer Lieutenant William Murdoch was at the liner’s helm when it crashed into an iceberg in April 1912. But joining him on board was his Newfoundland dog Rigel. Murdoch lost his life, but the pup survived. The brave dog swam in the icy North Atlantic waters for three hours alongside lifeboat number four. When the rescue ship Carpathia was about to run over this lifeboat, the ship’s crew was alerted by Rigel’s loud bark — saving the Titanic passengers.
The truth behind the legend
Sadly, this great story is completely unfounded. There’s no evidence that Murdoch owned such an animal. And the man who supposedly told this tale to the press was a Carpathia crewman called Jonas Briggs. Yet there was nobody by that name serving aboard the vessel! Not only that: no one aboard either the lifeboat or the Carpathia came forward to confirm this amazing tale. So, this is a Titanic yarn we can confidently mark down as “fake.”
2. The ‘unsinkable’ ship
It’s become a firmly rooted belief that the White Star Line — the Titanic’s owner — had publicly announced that the liner was “unsinkable.” But researchers have been unable to find any instance when a company representative actually used that word to describe the new vessel. It seems that the word was only bandied about after the ship sank.
The unsinkable truth
Professor Richard Howells of England’s King’s College London told the BBC in 2012 that he believed this was the probably biggest Titanic myth of all. That’s a bold claim — considering the huge number of tall tales that have swirled around the ship’s sinking over the years! Howells added, “It is not true that everyone thought this. It’s a retrospective myth, and it makes a better story.”
3. Crooked cross-dressing
William Sloper — a New York City stockbroker — was publicly accused of dressing as a woman to get aboard a lifeboat. That was in the context of the lifeboats supposedly first being for women and children only. The claim was made in the New York Herald just a few days after the sinking. The newspaper report alleged that Sloper had donned female clothing and boarded one of the first lifeboats to be launched: number seven.
Another Titanic legend
According to Encyclopedia Titanica and others, the reality was that Sloper’s friend — movie star Dorothy Gibson — had insisted he join her in the lifeboat, which he had done with reluctance. What’s more, first officer Murdoch was allowing men to get into number seven as there weren’t enough women present to fill it. So, there was no question of Sloper needing to cross-dress to get aboard the lifeboat. But the painful accusation still plagued him for the rest of his life.
4. Cutting corners in the shipyard
For years, theories have abounded that corners may have been cut when the Titanic was constructed at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, modern-day Northern Ireland. And this claim received fresh impetus in 1985. That was when the wreck of the ship was discovered on the ocean floor some 2.5 miles below the surface. It then emerged that the vessel had broken in two as it sank — raising questions about the way it had been built.
It came down to the rivets
Two 1912 official enquires into the disaster in America and Britain both concluded that the ship’s construction was not to blame for the incident. But in 2008, Tim Foecke of the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave his verdict to U.S. News & World Report. He pointed out, “The ship was just not designed to run into icebergs.” His research with Jennifer Hooper McCarty revealed that substandard rivets were used in the construction of the Titanic.
5. "Nearer, My God, To Thee" — the band goes down with the ship
Days after the disaster, British newspaper The Daily Mirror proclaimed, “Bandsmen heroes of the sinking Titanic play ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ as the liner goes down to her doom.” And it’s been a scene used in several movies featuring the ship’s demise. But did it really happen?
The band played on
Eyewitness reports confirmed that the band did strike up on the liner’s deck after she’d crashed into the iceberg, British Film Institute archive curator Simon McCallum told the BBC. What was the final song they played, then? Some accounts claimed that the band actually performed popular tunes — not a hymn. The people who could have conclusively confirmed what the final song was were not around to testify. Sadly, all eight of the musicians died.
6. The heroic captain Smith
In the aftermath of the tragedy that claimed some 1,500 lives, Titanic’s captain Edward J. Smith was hailed as a hero by the press and the public. His high reputation has been confirmed over the years by his portrayal in some of the many Titanic movies. But closer scrutiny of Smith’s conduct has led some to contradict the idea that he behaved impeccably. In truth, we don’t have any detailed account of the captain’s actions as his ship sank. Yet it’s seemingly not difficult for people to find reasons to criticize the man — even though he went down with his ship.
“Nobody else can take the blame”
Experts say that Smith was given warnings about the hazardous ice conditions on the Titanic’s course. Despite this critical information, he seemingly failed to reduce the liner’s high speed. Also, as commander of the ship, he can arguably be held responsible to some extent for the fact that many lifeboats were launched only partially full. The Titanic Historical Society’s Paul Louden-Brown told the BBC in 2012, “Captain Smith is ultimately responsible for all the failures of the command structure on board. Nobody else can take the blame.”
7. The fabulous Hope Diamond was aboard
The Hope Diamond is an extraordinary gem. With a striking violet-blue color, the diamond was probably extracted at the Kollur mine in Golconda, India. France’s King Louis XIV bought the stone in 1688 and it was re-cut a few years later. It was stolen from the royal jewelry collection during the anarchy of the French Revolution in 1792. Somehow, by 1839, it had come into the possession of one Henry Philip Hope who lent his name to the fabulous rock.
The jewel of the ocean
The Hope family eventually sold their diamond to an American heiress called Evalyn Walsh McLean. She purchased the diamond in 1911 and so was the owner when the Titanic sank a year later. Somehow, a story that the diamond had been aboard the ship when it foundered began to circulate. But McLean was not aboard the liner nor was any of her jewelry. The rumor can be quashed once and for all by the fact that the Hope Diamond is currently safe in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute.
8. Steerage passengers locked down
This tale has it that gates to third-class accommodation were actually locked — preventing those passengers from escaping their fate. It’s graphically portrayed in director James Cameron’s 1997 movie, Titanic. The film’s lead male character — played by Leonardo DiCaprio — breaks down a locked gate to free his fellow steerage passengers. Though the events shown in the film appear to have no basis in fact.
Third-class travelers suffered
The official British report into the sinking found no evidence to support the idea that third-class passengers had been prevented from reaching the upper decks. There were gates separating the steerage passengers from the rest of the ship. But these were to meet U.S. regulations about new immigrants at a time when the fear of infectious disease was high. That said, one thing is true. Of the 710 survivors of the Titanic sinking, only 174 were third-class travelers. They suffered disproportionately more deaths than those from the higher echelons.
9. Sunk by a coal fire that was kept secret
In a Smithsonian Channel documentary broadcast in 2017 called Titanic: The New Evidence, Irishman Senan Molony claimed to have found fresh facts about what caused the liner to sink. He said that a fire in one of the ship’s coal bunkers had gravely compromised the hull’s integrity — causing her to sink after the iceberg collision. And press stories based on the program alleged that the existence of this fire had been hushed up for more than a century.
No smoke, no fire
The idea that a fire in the Titanic’s hold had been covered up over the years bears no scrutiny. That there was indeed a fire in the ship’s stored coal is true. It was revealed by a survivor of the sinking — chief fireman Fred Barrett — at the U.S. Senate’s 1912 inquiry into the disaster, so this fact was hardly hidden. And many experts have rejected the idea that the fire — a frequent occurrence in coal-powered ships then — contributed in any important way to the sinking.
10. A 300-foot gash in the hull sunk the ship
The generally held view had always been that when the Titanic smashed into the iceberg, it ripped a 300-foot-long gash along the hull’s front section. And that seemed a plausible enough conclusion given that the ship was traveling at high speed. But it was dramatically contradicted 11 years after American oceanographer Robert Ballard finally located the Titanic’s watery grave in 1985.
The real damage
In 1986 a team of scientists surveyed the wreck in detail using ultrasound scanning. They found that the ship had actually sustained much less radical — although still fatal — damage. There were in fact six breaches in the hull that ranged from the size of a human hand to 30 feet. But that damage had been enough to allow seawater to gush into six of the ship’s 16 sealed compartments and eventually sink her.
11. Cursed Egyptian mummy
When the Titanic sank, one passenger who met his end was a 62-year-old man called William Stead. The Englishman was an author and journalist of some repute, and he had a taste for the supernatural. Stead apparently believed that a cursed Egyptian mummy had been causing mayhem in London. And during the course of the liner’s voyage, he regaled fellow passengers with his tales of the curse.
A spooky tale
A survivor of the sinking told a reporter about Stead’s spooky yarns. The press then ran with the story and extravagantly embroidered it. A headline in The Washington Post screamed, “Ghost of the Titanic: vengeance of Hoodoo Mummy followed man who wrote its history.” The story was further twisted by some who claimed that there had actually been an Egyptian mummy aboard the ship. But Snopes concluded, “No mummy – cursed or otherwise – was carried as cargo by the ill-fated RMS Titanic on its one and only voyage.”
12. Banker J.P. Morgan’s dastardly plot
Perhaps one of the most bizarre tales in the Titanic’s lurid mythology is a conspiracy theory involving New York Banker J.P. Morgan. The story goes that he planned and arranged the sinking of the ill-fated liner to eliminate some of his competitors from the commercial world. What is true is that various figures from New York’s moneyed elite were aboard the Titanic on its sole voyage.
The unsurprising truth
Important figures on board included fabulously wealthy characters such as Benjamin Guggenheim and Jacob Astor — both of whom lost their lives. The conspiracists cite as evidence the fact that Morgan had originally planned to sail on the maiden cruise, but he’d changed his mind at the last minute. Though the unvarnished truth is that there is not a shred of evidence to support this theory. After all, just how could anyone have placed an iceberg in precisely the right spot to sink the Titanic?
13. Jinxed by a secret message
The Titanic was built in the Belfast shipyard Harland and Wolff in modern-day Northern Ireland. It was a time when much of this part of the country was starkly divided along sectarian lines between Catholics and Protestants. So, when Catholic shipbuilders realized that if the ship’s number “3909 04” was transcribed backward it could be read as “No Pope,” they wondered if the vessel was cursed. At least, that’s what this tale asserted when it emerged in the 1950s.
The secret history
There are a couple of problems with this story. First of all, the Titanic’s number at the shipyard and the one painted on its hull was “401.” Another official number — conferred by the British Board of Trade — was “131,428.” Neither remotely resembles “3909 04.” Secondly, the sectarianism of the time meant that the number of Catholics working at Harland and Wolff was zero.
14. Worst shipwreck ever
The Titanic sinking can probably make a rightful claim to be the most famous maritime disaster in history. But was it the worst? Well, it certainly wasn’t the deadliest shipwreck. When the Titanic went down, some 1,500 of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board lost their lives — a grim death toll indeed. Though there have been several shipping tragedies that involved even greater loss of life.
One even more deadly sinking came in 1865 when the SS Sultana went down on the Mississippi River. A boiler explosion and consequent foundering cost the lives of about 1,800. Then there was the SS Kiangya, which sunk in 1948 – probably by a mine – off Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War. Tragically, up to 4,000 people died. Yet perhaps the worst-ever marine disaster came in 1987. In that year, the Philippines passenger vessel MV Doña Paz collided with the MT Vector oil tanker. Of the 4,400 passengers and crew on the two ships, just 26 survived.
15. The cowardice of J. Bruce Ismay
The president of Titanic’s owner — the White Star Line — sailed on the ship’s maiden and final voyage and was lucky enough to survive. But although J. Bruce Ismay’s life was saved, his reputation was utterly trashed. The press at the time accused him of cowardice and of escaping the stricken liner ahead of women and children. In subsequent decades, movies and TV shows perpetuated the idea of the cowardly company boss. And some even dubbed him J. “Brute” Ismay.
A powerful grudge
Yet the 1912 British inquiry into the disaster found that Ismay had in fact helped others to board lifeboats before himself clambering onto the last one to leave the ship’s starboard side. This, of course, seems an entirely creditable course of conduct. But Ismay had enemies, and one of those was the powerful press baron William Randolph Hearst. It seems that much of the opprobrium suffered by Ismay originated in titles controlled by the grudge-bearing Hearst.
16. Shipyard worker entombed in the hull
One of the more macabre tales that swirled around the Titanic was the rumor claiming that a shipyard worker had met a gruesome fate. As the ship was being built in the Belfast shipyard, the tale ran, a worker had been accidentally sealed into a section of the steel hull. And the trapped man later met his horrible end. Fortunately, there’s no truth in this grisly tale.
An oft-told tale
Experienced hands at the shipyard would apparently tease newbies by claiming that the tapping they would often hear was the lost worker trying to signal his plight. Of course, the truth was that this repetitive noise was the hammering of rivets into the ship’s plate steel hull. Stories of trapped workers have appeared elsewhere, too, according to Snopes. It cites tales of construction workers being trapped in the concrete structure of the Hoover Dam.
17. Champagne bottle omen
One theme of unlikely tales connected with the Titanic is the alleged occurrence of events that were sinister harbingers of the ship’s fate. One such was a story about the ship’s official launch on May 31, 1911 — nearly a year before her maiden voyage. In line with tradition, it’s said, a bottle of champagne was hurled at the ship’s hull. But, ominously, it failed to break — perhaps a sign of future bad luck.
A champagne supernova
This custom of breaking a bottle of champagne over a ship as it was ceremonially launched wasn’t actually that old in 1911. According to the BBC, the first record of the tradition came 20 years earlier when Queen Victoria launched HMS Royal Arthur. Before that, ordinary wine had been used in ship launches. But as for the Titanic, we can’t even be sure she was launched with champagne — far less whether the bottle broke or not.
18. Sunk for a lack of binoculars
One story about the Titanic is that due to an unfortunate chain of events, the lookouts had no access to binoculars. There was apparently a set onboard, but they were seemingly stowed in a locked cupboard. Why was the cupboard locked? The key holder, second officer David Blair, had been transferred off the Titanic just before she set sail. Blair had reportedly forgotten to hand in his key to the binoculars’ locker before he’d disembarked.
The key to a mystery
So, the idea is that if binoculars had been available to the crewmen on duty, they might have spotted the fatal iceberg sooner and avoided it in time. Actually, there’s some doubt about the actual key’s true purpose. When the real thing came up for auction in 2007, it was said that it might have been for a different locker. In any case, how much use would old-fashioned binoculars have been on a dark night in the Atlantic?
19. The man who was sunk thrice
Crewman Frank “Lucky” Tower was one of those fortunate enough to survive the sinking of the Titanic. Though his nickname did not come from that episode alone. Amazingly, it was said that Tower had survived no fewer than three shipwrecks. After the seaman escaped from the White Star Line ship, he went on to cheat death when the Empress of Ireland went down in 1914 consuming 1,000 lives.
Next, Tower was aboard the Lusitania when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915. She sank with the tragic loss of 1,198 lives. Again, though, Tower miraculously survived. But if you think his tale stretches credibility to breaking point, you’re on the right track. There’s no record of a crewman by that name ever serving aboard the Titanic, Lusitania, or the Empress of Ireland.
20. Lifeboat laws flouted
We all know that the Titanic had insufficient lifeboat capacity to accommodate all of her passengers. To modern eyes, that looks like a catastrophic failure on the part of the ship’s owner: the White Star Line. While that’s true enough, the liner did in fact have enough lifeboats to meet the regulations of the day. Actually, it even exceeded them. The Titanic embarked with a total of 20 lifeboats of various types on board. They could hold up to 1,176 people.
There were about 2,200 passengers and crew aboard the liner when she sank. Yet the British laws governing how many lifeboats a ship should carry were based on tonnage. The maximum number laid down was for any ship of 10,000 tons or more, while the Titanic’s gross tonnage was over 46,000. That meant she was required to have 16 lifeboats. She actually had 20 — making her more than legal. Although that did little good for all too many of those who actually sailed on her.