Unequal in life, unequal in death

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.

Relatives in New York wait to find out if their loved ones have survived.

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.

Did locked gates prevent third-class passengers escaping from the Titanic?

Daniel Buckley, a 21-year-old Irishman, gave rather contradictory testimony at the American Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. First he said he wasn’t aware of locked gates, then he claimed “they tried to keep us down on the steerage deck; they did not want us to go up to the first-class place at all.” He related seeing a sailor throw a third-class passenger back over a gate then lock it, but said his group managed to break it down and escape that way. This tale was repeated in the press and appears in many a Titanic movie – but no one else corroborated it.

The American Inquiry into the sinking

In fact, Berk Pickard, from Poland, told the Inquiry that he managed to ascend to the boat deck, from which lifeboats were being lowered, by walking through doors into second- and then first-class areas. The only barriers were signs saying “Second [or third] class passengers not allowed beyond this point” – but the doors could be opened by anyone.

For the majority of third-class passengers, the overwhelming problem they faced after the collision was negotiating the rabbit warren of passageways, staircases and public rooms to get up to the boat deck, which was mostly in the first-class area of the ship. There was no single staircase leading all the way up through the six to eight decks they would have to traverse to get near the lifeboats, and no handy maps of the ship they could use. Even the staff had trouble finding their way around.

Whereas first- and second-class passengers were guided to the boat deck by their room stewards, there were fewer stewards per head in third class, and only one – John Hart – appears to have fulfilled this role. An outstanding hero of the night, he led two parties upwards via a circuitous route and shepherded them into lifeboats, thus saving the lives of 66 third-class passengers who might not otherwise have made it.

Among the most intrepid third-class passengers were the dozens who scrambled up a cargo-loading crane that towered over the third-class outdoor deck. When they reached the top, they had to shimmy along a gantry to reach the boat deck.

It was survival of the intrepid. The ones who sat obediently below decks waiting for someone to tell them what to do would wait in vain. The many who didn’t speak English were doubly disadvantaged because they couldn’t ask advice or confer with their fellow passengers. There are tales of some seen dragging their steamer trunks and suitcases along corridors as the water level rose, because they had their worldly possessions with them on the ship and could never have afforded to replace them.

A swell of third-class passengers finally found their way to the boat deck at around 1.55am – just as the last lifeboat was launched. By all accounts they looked confused as they gazed at the empty davits from which the lifeboats had been lowered. They had been let down by White Star Lines, to whom they had paid their fares, trusting that they would be transported safely to a new life on a new continent. They were let down by Captain Smith, who could have organised the evacuation of the ship much more efficiently. And they were let down by the Inquiries, who only invited three witnesses from third-class to testify, out of the 178 who survived against the odds.