It’s well known that first-class passengers were much better served by the Titanic’s crew than those in third class. After the collision with an iceberg, first-class ladies and gents were led by their room stewards up to the boat deck, while most of third class had to fend for themselves. What’s less well known is that this discrimination continued a week later when bodies were hauled from the ocean onto the Mackay-Bennett, the vessel commissioned by White Star Lines to go out and search for the dead.
The Mackay-Bennett sailed out of Halifax, Novia Scotia on the 17th April, two days after the sinking, and when it reached the area five days later the crew found bodies scattered all over the surface, buoyed up by their cork lifejackets. The men had been braced for it to be unpleasant work but were distressed to find a two-year-old boy and some women among the very first bodies they hauled up on deck. Once on board, victims were stripped and all details of clothes, personal possessions and distinguishing features were carefully noted to aid identification.
However, it soon became evident that the 100 coffins they had brought with them would not be nearly enough, so the ship’s captain made a decision: only those who were obviously upper-class would be given the coffins. If someone was well-dressed, had expensive jewellery or a gold watch, they would be treated by an embalmer and laid in one of the coffins on deck. Second-class passengers and ship’s officers were embalmed then sewn into canvas bags and stacked on deck. Third-class passengers and crew members were put on ice in the ship’s hold. And within a day of this grisly work beginning, it was decided that many of the bodies would have to be given sea burials because the Mackay-Bennett simply didn’t have enough embalming fluid and canvas or enough room to take them all back to Halifax.
Multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor had a gold watch, fancy gentleman’s clothes and $4000 in his pocket, so he was carefully placed in a coffin and when they got back to port, his body was one of the first released to his relatives for burial. However, nineteen-year-old Eileen McNamee from Salisbury had just one shilling and eleven pennies in her purse and her clothes weren’t deemed sufficiently grand so she was sewn into a weighted canvas bag and tipped back over the side. Bodies with tattoos or wearing stewards’ jackets were more likely to be dumped overboard, as split-second decisions were made about an individual’s class. Of the 306 bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, 116 were buried at sea.
Back in Halifax, relatives congregated, hoping at least to have a body to take home and bury, and there was great distress to hear of all the sea burials. Word was released to the press that it was only those who were in an advanced state of decomposition who had been sent to the deep, but that simply wasn’t true. There was very little decomposition because of the salt water and freezing temperatures. One crewman said “I expected to see the poor creatures very disfigured but they looked as calm as if they were asleep.”
For those relatives who did manage to identify a body in the Halifax ice rink that had been turned into a temporary morgue, there was further insult to come: White Star Lines would charge full fare to transport a coffin back to Europe for burial at home. Less well-off families couldn’t raise the cash so their loved ones were laid to rest in cemeteries in Halifax, while John Jacob Astor’s was transported by the family’s private train to his estate on Rhode Island.
Death is often said to be the great equaliser for humanity. Regardless of age, sex, income and position in life, we will all die. But in 1912, after the Titanic sank, there was no equality of treatment for the victims.