The sinking of the RMS Titanic 74 years ago, with the loss of at least 1,500 lives, was quickly etched into the consciousness and history of Western civilization. In a matter of days, schoolchildren were singing songs in honor of the lost ship, books offering lurid firsthand accounts of the disaster flooded the market, and -- most of all -- a large collection of myths sprang into the world's lore.
Interest in the Titanic was revived last year with the discovery of the ship's North Atlantic grave by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The team returned to the site this month to photograph the Titanic in detail.
Historians have called the sinking, which occurred on the ship's maiden voyage in 1912, the end of an era of ostentatious wealth. And what a last hurrah the Titanic represented. First-class passengers paid as much as $4,350 each for deluxe suites for the scheduled six-day transatlantic voyage. By comparison, first-class fares today on the Queen Elizabeth II begin at less than $3,000; despite 74 years' worth of inflation, the highest single fare on the QEII is about $6,850.
The 190 families in the Titanic's first-class cabin were accompanied by 23 maids, eight valets and uncounted nurses and governesses, in addition to the hundreds of stewards and stewardesses among the crew of 860 employed to cater to the passengers' every whim. To prevent any social embarrassments, a separate lounge was operated for the servants.
It was a time when John Jacob Astor -- who was returning from a trip to Egypt with his 19-year-old bride and who, as head of the Astor family, was said to possess a fortune of $150 million -- was eager to pay $800 for a lace jacket when the Titanic stopped briefly in Queenstown, Ireland. The purchase was cited by Walter Lord in his 1955 account of the sinking, "A Night to Remember."
Others lost on the Titanic included financier Benjamin Guggenheim, whose fortune was put at $95 million; Isador Straus, a part-owner of R.H. Macy & Co. and Abraham & Straus, said to be worth $50 million; American painter Francis D. Millet; President William Howard Taft's military aide, Maj. Archibald Butt; the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge and the president of the Grand Trunk Railway.
As the facts about the Titanic's sinking have faded, the legends have grown.
Probably the greatest myth concerns the ship's first-class passengers, who represented the cream of American and British society and industry. Men were said to have politely stood by and helped women and children into the few lifeboats, many women were said to have chosen to remain with their husbands (three did), couples in evening clothes were described as dancing the night away as the ship's orchestra played song after song, culminating with "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
"In that hour, when cherished illusions of possible safety had all but vanished, manhood and womanhood aboard the Titanic rose to their sublimest heights," wrote the author of the 1912 book "Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters."
But the facts do not support these tales.
A greater percentage of male passengers from first class survived the disaster than did children from what was politely called third class, but was more commonly known as steerage. The third-class passengers suffered an inordinate number of casualties, mainly because the crew kept them locked below deck until the end. Only the most resourceful, and the luckiest, even managed to get on deck before all the lifeboats were lowered.
Of 179 women known to have been in third class, 81 died, compared with four of 143 women in first class (including the three who chose to remain on board) and 15 of 93 women in second class.
Only one child of the 29 in first and second class was lost; 53 of 76 known to have been in steerage went down with the ship.
Much was made of the crew's abilities, and every account portrays Edward J. Smith, the Titanic's captain, as a hero. While many crew members did display bravery and competence, these traits were far from universally held, and many members of the crew abandoned their posts.
That Smith was not portrayed as the villain of the disaster, if not its cause, is testament to the strength of the Titanic legend. Smith, the story goes, after directing the ship's evacuation, did the honorable thing: he went down with his ship, spurning offers of assistance from those in lifeboats.
The fact is, Smith was pushing what was then the largest movable manmade object on Earth at near top speed in the dark (in pre-radar and sonar days), despite having been repeatedly warned by nearby ships that icebergs were in the area. The historical assumption is that Smith was pushing for a transatlantic speed record, and thus disregarded the warnings.
A year earlier, Smith was blamed by a British naval court of inquiry for a collision involving the Titanic's slightly smaller sister ship, the RMS Olympic, which he commanded, and a British cruiser.
In addition, the Titanic came close to a having a collision on her maiden voyage before she had even cleared her home port of Southampton on April 10, five days before she sank. As Smith guided the ship out, the suction of her propellers tore an American passenger liner, the New York, from her moorings. Only the speedy intervention of two tugboats prevented the New York from smashing into the Titanic.
Even what the orchestra was playing as the Titanic slipped beneath the waves has been questioned. Soon after the disaster, most writers agreed that the last offering was not "Nearer, My God, to Thee." The next candidate, and the one that Lord embraced in his book, was the hymn "Autumn." However, in a new book Lord has decided that the band actually played a popular song of the day known as "Autumn."
The casualty total from the disaster is imprecise because there has never been agreement on the number of passengers who boarded, particularly those in steerage. Estimates range from 1,490 to 1,635. All accounts agree that there were 705 survivors.
Much of the legend of the Titanic was created by the eastern penny press. In the effort to attract readers, no headline was too sensational, no angle too absurd to warrant front-page coverage. Illustrated books were available almost overnight to a public that couldn't get enough.
In a preface to his 1912 "Memorial Edition, Sinking of the Titanic," Jay Henry Mowbray called the sinking "appalling. The world is full of mournings for the dead. Nature has conquered again, destroying with ruthless hand the most marvelous ship that ever floated on the bosom of the deep."