One of the reasons that I love reading old newspaper articles is because they are a potent reminder that we don’t always know all the important stuff at the beginning of a story. I discussed this in a previous post when I included parts of the original newspaper reporting of the murders that may or may not have been committed by Lizzie Borden.
For old articles, I like to use The New York Times Archives because 1) they are a big city newspaper with a long history, 2) they are available online and 3) non-subscribers are allowed to access a certain number of articles. In this particular case, they were reporting in 1912.
Besides Lizzie Borden, an event that gets a lot of current research and discussion, even though it happened more than one hundred years ago, is the sinking of the RMS Titanic. What we know now comes from many different sources, including the original survivor testimony and the more recent discovery of the actual sunken liner. And although it was not completely historically accurate, and didn’t pretend to be, anyone who has seen James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic, has a sense of what life and the class system was like at the time of the disaster.
The original article on April 15, 1912, in a “Special to The New York Times” reported:
HALIFAX, N.S., April 14 – A wireless dispatch received to-night by the Allan line officials here from Capt. Gambell of the steamer Virginian, states that the White Star liner Titanic struck an iceberg off the Newfoundland Coast and flashed out wireless calls for immediate assistance.
The Virgnian put on full speed and headed for the Titanic.
No particulars have been received as to the extent of the damage sustained by Titanic.
The Virginian sailed from Halifax at midnight on Saturday night, and would probably be 300 miles off this coast when she picked up the calls from the Titanic for assistance.
The Allan liner has only about 200 passengers on board and would have ample accommodations for a large number of persons in case a transfer from the Titanic was necessary. The Virginian is a mail steamer, and so she is not likely to take the Titanic in tow.
So they actually knew very little about the accident itself at this point. They added in some information about the prominent persons who were aboard the ship. They mentioned other ships that were in the area and should be able to lend assistance. Most of the column inches were used to explain and describe the ice field.
The Titanic undoubtedly ran into the same ice field off the Grand Banks that was reported by the Cunarder Carmania on her arrival yesterday. The ice was so thickly jammed that crevices between the pieces could not be seen, and great icebergs, to the number of at least twenty-five, were drifting about in the field. The French liner Niagara, which is due here to-day, encountered the ice, and in making her way through it had two holes stove below the water line. The steamers Kura and Lord Cromer, both of which have arrived in New York in the last few days, were damaged in making their way through the ice packs.
The Captain of the Carmania talked to reporters:
Capt. Dow after the Carmania docked met the reporters with a smile. “Really,” he said. “I never saw so much ice and so little whisky and lime juice in al (sic) my life before. Had the ingredients been handy, there would have been a highball for every man in the world.”
And then spoke more seriously about the ice:
“In three hours,” continued Capt. Dow, “on Thursday afternoon we passed twenty-five bergs. The passengers never saw anything like it before. On the bridge I am seventy feet above the water line, yet there were times when I could not see a thing but ice, and at no time did I see a piece of ice that was smaller than a lifeboat. We passed a full-rigged ship in the field. She was nodding in the swell, bobbing up and down, but apparently was in no danger.”
More information was available the next day in the headlines of the April 16, 1912 “Special to The New York Times”:
Biggest Liner Plunges to the Bottom at 2:20 A.M.
RESCUERS THERE TOO LATE
Except to Pick Up the Few Hundreds Who Took to the Lifeboats
There is boxed information below the headline that is a correction to information in the article:
LATER REPORT SAVES 866
Boston, April 15 – A wireless message picked up late to-night, relayed from the Olympic, says that the Carpathia is on her way to New York with 866 passengers from the steamer Titanic aboard. They are mostly women and children, the message said, and it concluded: “Grave fears are felt for the safety of the balance of the passengers and crew.”
And finally a few more details in that article:
All her boats were accounted for and about 655 souls have been saved of the crew and passengers, most of the latter presumably women and children.
There were about 2,100 persons aboard the Titanic.
The Leyland liner California is remaining and searching the position of the disaster, while the Carpathia is returning to New York with the survivors.
It can be positively stated that up to 11 o’clock to-night nothing whatever had been received at or heard by the Marconi station here to the effect that the Parisian, Virginian or any other ships had picked up any survivors, other than those picked up by the Carpathia.
The story still hasn’t ended. As long as there are unanswered questions, there will be research. Think about that next time you read breaking news.