Behind the Numbers of the Titanic Disaster

A New York Times article published on April 19, 1912 said the Titanic was “laden with 2,340 souls,” while the British Board of Inquiry gave the total number aboard the Titanic at the time of the disaster as 2,201. Using records from the White Star Line and passenger lists, the United State Senate put the number at 2,223. Most modern researchers now give the number aboard as either 2,207 or 2,208. Why is there so much uncertainty almost a century later?

The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England to Cherbourg, France, and finally to Queenstown, Ireland before setting across the Atlantic headed to New York. At each stop, passengers got on or off.

Early estimates of numbers did not take into account the following:

  • Some people accidentally missed the trip. In 1927, the New York Times reported that Miss Eva Wilkinson, “mourned for sixteen years as a supposed victim of the Titanic sinking,” showed up at her mother’s house in England explaining that she missed her sailing. She then went to the United States and served as a nurse in the Great War, only to be captured by the Germans. Thomas Hart, a fireman, got drunk and missed the sailing also. His name appeared on a list of the dead and was only corrected when he, too, showed up at his mother’s house on May 8, 1912, almost a month after the accident. Shamefaced, he had been afraid to let anyone know his situation. An unknown person had stolen his papers and boarded the vessel in his place.
  • Some people had premonitions of disaster. Colin MacDonald, Second Engineer, had a “hunch” about the ship and refused to board; he died in 1963 instead of 1912. George Vanderbilt and his wife Edith cancelled their passage because of a superstitious feeling on the part of a relative. Their luggage had already been sent in the care of their servant Edward Wheeler, who died in the disaster. The American Society for Psychical Research found 19 cases of premonition of disaster about the Titanic.
  • Several crew members failed to report, and three brothers named Slade were fired immediately before the sailing for drunkenness. Fireman John Coffey deserted in Queenstown. Their names remained on the list of crew when the ship went down.
  • 50 people cancelled their reservations. J. P. Morgan had booked to sail on the maiden voyage, but business required him to remain in Europe. Alfred Vanderbilt cancelled his reservation on the Titanic only to die in the Lusitania disaster three years later. In many cases, these names were still on the lists of passengers at the time of the sinking, inflating the numbers.
  • The names of the immigrants, unfamiliar to the British authorities, often caused confusion. For example, Frank Carlson was probably an anglicized version of Frans Carlsson, a Swedish boat captain who had the misfortune of being given a first-class ticket on the Titanic when a coal strike kept the ship he was supposed to be on docked in Southampton.
  • Some people traveled under assumed names, like Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon. Luxury liners attracted gamblers and con-artists, many of whom preferred to disguise their real identities, like the gambler George Brereton, who was registered as George Brayton.
  • There may have been stowaways, though there is only anecdotal evidence of this.


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