Episodes: 7 weird things I learned about the Titanic from reading about it on Wikipedia


Rather than prepare you an Episodes on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (as I had been planning), I somehow got distracted by thoughts of Walter Lord's terrific book, A Night to Remember, which led to me reading lots of things about the sinking of the Titanic on Wikipedia. (My voyage was prompted by digging into the little-known 1950s TV adaptation of Lord's book, about which I'm happy to write if there's interest.) I have no idea if these facts are true, but every single one of them is a poetic enough image that I desperately want them to be so.

I've arranged them in rough order of intrigue.

1) Basically everybody said their ships were unsinkable back then. And they usually used qualifiers to say, essentially, "It's as unsinkable as we can make it! What are you gonna do if it hits an iceberg?!" The "unsinkable" story took hold in the public imagination because of a New York Times article published the day after the sinking, in which the owner of the White Star Line, shaken, said he had believed the ship to be unsinkable. The notion stuck, and it was retroactively applied to the general public opinion about the ship itself before it launched, even though there's no evidence anybody thought this was true. It would be sort of fitting if one of the great symbols of human hubris was, ultimately, completely made up.

2) The famous 1980 stinker Raise the Titanic features footage of the ship sailing past the World Trade Center towers. It is, truth be told, eerie in a way the film doesn't earn whatsoever.



3) A surprisingly large number of people half believe the ship was brought down by a cursed mummy. I don't know if I can do this justice. You may have to read about it for yourself.

4) From roughly the moment it hit the ocean floor onward, everybody wanted to raise the Titanic. Completely impractical methods involving ping pong balls were suggested, and everybody sort of assumed they would find it just sitting on the floor of the ocean, ready to head back up, when the moment arrived. Indeed, the prevailing theory right up until discovery in the '80s was that the ship was completely intact.

5) Titanic will soon be gone completely. It's decaying at an astonishing rate, and Wiki helpfully describes its future as a streak of rust on the ocean floor, with a few heavier pieces (which are not susceptible to the microorganisms devouring the ship itself) laying there to mark the ship's resting place.

6) There are a number of deeply sad stories about the animals onboard the Titanic. Three dogs survived. Everybody else perished, but for, possibly, the ship's cat, who had recently given birth and may have moved her kittens off the ship before it left Southampton. (Nobody's sure on this point, but I'm choosing to believe it.) There are the requisite stories of people refusing to leave their animals behind, a heartbreaking tale of a woman whose dog bit her clothing in an attempt to get her to stay, a bulldog who swam out to sea, and even a (probably apocryphal) tale of a woman whose frozen corpse was found clutching a similarly frozen shaggy dog. But by far the most interesting detail here is that someone opened the kennels containing many of the dogs during the sinking, and as humans were rushing about on deck, trying to get into lifeboats, the dogs were running up and down the rapidly slanting space, having an amazingly good time.

7) The markers of the Titanic's dead are incredibly eerie. There are frequent arguments about whether artifacts should be dredged up from the Titanic, which is, ultimately, a mass grave. Most seem to side with the idea of "let's not do this," but people keep hauling up artifacts anyway. (There are bottles of wine down there, and I won't say I'm not a little bit curious to see how they taste.) A lot of these ideas intersect with television, actually, as in the wake of the ship's discovery, there have been numerous TV specials (including one hosted by Telly Savalas!) pushing people's limits in terms of what they're willing to see happen to, again, a mass grave.

But nobody's going to find actual corpses. As you'd expect, those who sank with the Titanic have long since decayed. Yet Wiki's description of what remains is too haunting and poetic to not quote in full:

The bodies of the passengers and crew once also lay in the debris field, but have since been entirely consumed by sea creatures, leaving only their shoes lying together in the mud.

If that's not enough Titanic excitement for you, watch this interview with one of the last handful of survivors who still possessed a memory of the sinking. It's exceptional. She's also one of the survivors who comes down firmly on the side of the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee," one of those mysteries we will probably never solve, especially since there are apparently three different tunes for "Nearer." Who knew?

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.