The Dead of the Titanic

On the afternoon of April 20, 1912, passengers on the German ship Bremen were told they were passing by the iceberg that had sunk the Titanic five days earlier. Those who rushed to the rails were horrified to realize that the hundred or so white dots in the ocean were frozen bodies, held aloft by life vests. “We saw one woman in a nightdress with a baby clasped closely to her heart,” Mrs. Johanna Stunke recalled, and “another woman fully dressed with her arms tightly clutching the body of a shaggy dog.”

The morgue ship MacKay-Bennett arrived on the scene several hours later and found “as far as the eye could see, the ocean was strewn with wreckage and debris, with bodies bobbing up and down in the cold sea.” Loaded with embalming equipment, 100 coffins, and canvas body bags, the ship was quickly overwhelmed by the numbers of corpses. After noting distinguishing characteristics, clothing, and contents of pockets, 116 of the most damaged bodies were committed to the deep.

After seven days of the grisly work, the MacKay-Bennett headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, the nearest harbor, with 190 bodies aboard. Undertakers from all over Canada had assembled and a mortuary was set up in the Mayflower Curling Rink. The first body identified was that of John Jacob Astor, whose net estate the New York Times estimated at $85,340,919.86, a few thousand of which was in his pocket. He was identified by not only the initials on his shirt, but also by his diamond cufflinks and ring. Astor was covered in soot as his body had been crushed by the falling of a funnel.

The Minia was the second ship sent out by the owners of the White Star Line to recover bodies. By the time it arrived, the weather—and the fact that the Gulf Stream was sending the bodies far away from where Titanic lay on the ocean floor—made retrieval more difficult. The Minia picked up only 17 bodies, 16 of which had died from hypothermia, only one from drowning. The Montmagny found only four bodies, as it was hampered by dense fog. Two other ships recovered a single body. More than a month after the sinking and 200 miles away, the Oceana found three men in Collapsible Lifeboat A, one of four boats with canvas sides. One was identified, and all were buried at sea. The medical officer discovered bits of cork from the life vests in their mouths, eaten in a delirium of starvation.

Using numbers from the hearing conducted by the United States Senate and the list of the 328 bodies found by the four Halifax-based ships, the odds the body of a Titanic passenger or crew member was recovered at sea are 1 in 4.56.

Only some passengers even had a chance to be recovered—dead or alive. The deck crew and band, along with many members of the first class whose cabins were nearby, were more likely to have donned life vests. Those at the bottom of the ship, including the engineers and passengers in steerage, had less of a chance. Many were drowned below deck, or crushed by compression as the ship dove for the bottom.

As in life, many passengers who perished were handled according to class:

  • First class passengers were put in coffins.
  • Second and third class passengers were put in canvas bags.
  • Crew members were put on ice in the hold.

But there were also many, including the 116 most grievously injuried, who were simply surrendered to the ocean. The odds a dead body from the Titanic was buried at sea are 1 in 2.78.

Although the White Star Line offered to ship bodies home free of charge, only 59 victims were claimed. Halifax cemeteries contain 150 bodies, 49 of them without identification. One of them, “the Unknown Child,” was identified in 2002 through DNA testing as Eino Panula.

His mother, Maria Panula of Finland, had been traveling with her five children. Offered a place in the lifeboat for herself and her youngest child, 13-month-old Eino, she refused, unable to leave the other four children who were in another part of the ship. Magda Schleifer, a retired bank clerk still living in Finland, is the great-niece of Maria Panula. In November, 2002, she visited the grave of the child called by the crew of the Morgue ship Mackay-Bennett “our Babe.” Asked if she wanted to move the child to Finland, Ms. Schleifer answered: “He belongs to the people of Halifax, who took care of him for 90 years.”

Click here for more on the numbers behind the Titanic.

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