Day 915: The Titanic Conspiracy

originally published July 3, 2014

We all know the story – the RMS Titanic plows into an iceberg, everyone panics, and Leonardo Dicaprio dies because Kate Winslet isn’t willing to scooch over and give him some room. But that purportedly open-and-shut accident may have a little more squeak in its hinges, depending on how deeply one is willing to invest in conspiracy futures. Theories range from something other than an iceberg thwacking the Titanic upside its hull to the Titanic not even being present when those 1523 souls perished in the Atlantic.

The difference between the Titanic conspiracies and other such shady suspicions is that these would have required no elaborate government cover-up, and its secrets (if there were any at all) would only have needed to be known to a tiny group of insiders, which lends credibility to the possibility that there may be more to the story than that which James Cameron put on film. There’s no vast network of deception at play with any of these theories – this isn’t JFK being assassinated by the Cuban mafia or the mass-hypnosis that allowed Dances With Wolves to beat out Goodfellas for the Best Picture Oscar.

But as with any musings on the shadowy side of commonly-accepted history, it’s always wise to suspend one’s accusatory finger in mid-furl. 102 years have passed, and if there’s any more truth to be known about this tragedy it probably never will be. That said, it’s still fun to dig.

First off, what if there was no iceberg? Captain L.M. Collins published his theory in 2003, asserting that it was a devious chunk of low-lying pack ice that felled the mighty liner, not a big Goliath of an iceberg. Collins points out that the two Titanic lookouts both reported a haze on the horizon at about 11:30 on the night of the sinking. Also, while various witnesses reported that the alleged berg of ice towered 60 to 100 feet above the water, this is apparently a well-known optical illusion when drifting through ice.

Collins believes that an iceberg would have flooded, capsized, and dragged the boat down to its briny grave within minutes. He could be right; my personal experience with icebergs extends no further than lettuce and my knowledge of the workings of large ocean liners is limited to what I saw throughout ten seasons of The Love Boat. I imagine there’s pack ice scattered all over the northern Atlantic, like paprika upon the swooshy tide of a deviled egg. Why doesn’t this happen more often? Again, I’ll defer to the experts.

One plausible-sounding (at least to me) theory comes from Robert Essenhigh, an engineer at Ohio State University. He pointed out in 2004 that fire control teams had been on standby in Southampton and Cherbourg because of a fire in the coal stockpile in early 1912. Those fires have been known to come back to life after having been supposedly extinguished, due to some sciencey stuff that I would happily explain in detail, but for the fact that I’d either be making it up or else I’d have to do way more research than my one-day deadline will allow. It’s summer; cut me some slack, Jack.

Robert Essenhigh’s theory is that the coal aboard the Titanic reignited after the ship left port. To gain control of the situation, and to keep the massive liner from turning into a water-logged fireball, workers shoveled more and more coal into the furnaces. This revved the Titanic up to unreasonable speeds, thus propelling it dangerously into iceberg (or pack ice) infested waters. Sure, why not?

While the above are possible explanations for the Titanic’s demise, I’m far more intrigued by the theory proposed by Robin Gardiner in his 1998 book, Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? Gardiner suggests that the above ship, the RMS Olympic, is in fact the luxury liner currently housing a city’s worth of algae-like organisms just off the coast of Newfoundland. The Olympic was the Titanic’s older sister, having been launched in 1910. The two could pass for one another, apart from the window spacing on their B decks, the number of portholes on the forward C decks, and that part of the A deck promenade that had been enclosed on the Titanic. The two were almost interchangeable.

Seven months before history’s most famous ill-fated voyage this side of the SS Minnow, the Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke, a Royal Navy warship that was cruising the Brambles Channel near Southampton. The Olympic was to blame for the collision, which meant that Lloyd’s of London wasn’t going to fork out a single pence for the damage. This left White Star having to repair its flagship and delay the completion of the Titanic, all while not earning anything off of any functional vessels. According to Gardiner, a plot was hatched over the ensuing winter.

In order to keep a positive cash-flow in the early months of 1912, White Star allegedly – and this is a big ‘allegedly’ – patched up the Olympic and rebranded her as the all-new, much-anticipated Titanic. The actual Titanic was still in dry-dock, awaiting completion. When it was ready, it would be labeled as the Olympic and eased back into service with little fanfare. After all, who was going to count the C deck portholes anyway? No one would ever know.

After all, the sea trials – standard procedure before launching a new vessel – were conspicuously short for the Titanic. Whereas the Olympic had taken two days to execute numerous high-speed test runs back in 1910, the Titanic was only tested for one day, and it never surpassed half-speed. According to Gardiner, this was because the folks in on the scam knew she wouldn’t be able to handle much more.

So why bother? Why not just dispatch the repaired Olympic under the same name? Simple – the sinking of the ship was part of the plan all along.

The plan was to open up the seacocks (they’re valves on the hull of the ship, you sick-minded bastard) and slowly let some water in. There would be numerous ships nearby so that even the limited number of lifeboats could make a few runs to the rescue vessels and everyone would be fine. The “Titanic” would be at the bottom of the ocean and White Star could collect on the insurance. Brilliant!

Except, where were all these rescue ships? Why did the ship sink so fast? Lloyds of London also didn’t offer full coverage back then, meaning that the payout probably wouldn’t have been worth the cost of staging such an elaborate ruse – especially such a disastrous one. This theory is fascinating, but highly unlikely.

That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to speculate though. I could go further, into the supposed mummy-curse of the Egyptian Priestess of Ammon-Ra that was allegedly smuggled on board, or the accusations that a German U-Boat finished off the Titanic – again, for insurance money. But when it comes to picking apart the bones of a disaster, there’s only so much weirdness we should entertain.

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