Fist Of History

September, 2010Archive for

Questionable History Alert – Titanic

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

As of today a new story is making, literally, the rounds across the whole of the globe, of claims made by the granddaughter of the Titanic’s Second Officer, that her grandfather concealed critical information about the sinking of the Titanic to protect his employer and his fellow crew members of the Titanic from blame.  Apparently his family concealed his secret till now to protect the reputation of former Titanic Second Officer Charles Lightoller from shame or harm, doubly so because Mr. Lightoller was a war hero.  However his granddaughter, Ms. Louise Patten, is writing a new book and includes this information in her book.

In summary Ms. Patten testifies that her grandfather, Second Officer Lightoller, told his family members that the truth was the officer at the helm of the Titanic panicked and steered the ship the wrong way, one Robert Hitchins.  Furthermore this error was due to the fact that “sailing ships had one sort of steering system while steamships used another” and one had to spin the wheel in opposite directions on the different types of ships to gain the same effect.  In addition Ms. Patten testifies that her grandfather was present at a final meeting of the ships senior officers in which it was revealed/discussed that the Titanic had kept sailing forwards after the collision at the request of the White Star Line’s owner, Mr. Bruce Ismay, which lead to the Titanic sinking faster then it would have if it had remained still.  Ms. Patten further claims had the Titanic remained still after its impact with the iceberg, it would have remained afloat till the rescue ships arrived.

What I find particularly frustrating about this tidbit now flying around the globe is how no one writing about it has taken the time for reasoned commentary.  First and foremost is there any evidence of Mr. Lightoller’s change in testimony, perhaps another family member who recalls these statements, a written note to family, a final confession?  Furthermore does Ms. Patten offer an explanation for why no other witnesses who gave testimony to the boards of inquiry on either side of the Atlantic mentioned either of these chains of events?  In particular I find the first the claim that Mr. Hitchen’s panicked and caused the Titanic to strike an iceberg by steering the ship incorrectly due, possibly, to his unfamiliarity with how steam ships steered incredible.  Mr. Hichen’s (his actual name, apparently though official records spell it both ways) had served on many ships prior to the Titanic, including steamships, and from his testimony Mr. Hichen’s is highly firm that he steered the ship correctly according to orders.  Now, since no one else on the bridge at the time survived and I can assume safely few would boldly admit a major panic induced error that lead to the death of over a thousand people, Mr. Hichen’s testimony must be carefully considered and weighed.  But any error in steering would have been due solely to panic and not some mythical “unfamiliarity” with how steamships handled.

More critically though, and far more annoying, is the additional comment about how the Titanic was kept under steam after the impact at the request of Mr. Ismay, according to Ms. Patten.  This ignores completely the testimony of several other people, including critically Mr. Frederick Barrett, Mr. George Beauchamp, and Mr. Thomas Ranger, the first two men being on duty in the engine rooms the night of the collision and the last being in the electrical repair shop above the engines.  The first two testified that right after the impact of the ship they personally witnessed the order transmitted to the ships engine rooms to stop the ship, an order both testified was executed immediately.  Mr. Ranger testified from his position above the engine rooms he saw the ships engines halted within moments of the collision.  Ms. Patten offers no explanation for how her grandfather convinced these men to lie under oath as well.  Furthermore this also ignores the testimony of countless other individuals throughout the ship who testified to hearing the roar of steam being released from the boilers through the ships funnels.  The Titanic was a steam powered vessel, if the steam from its boilers was being vented right after the impact that would preclude the ship from having the power to proceed.

This is an example of poor historical work on the part of journalists, doubly irritating because every resource I described here is online, easily accessible to the general public, and can be found in a matter of thirty or so minutes of light reading.  I have a mild interest in Titanic lore personally and the skills of a semi-professional historian at my disposal but this only took a few moments of reading online resources to make the first revelation of Ms. Patten questionable and the second requiring a vast conspiracy of an abundant number of witnesses.

History, to some degree, requires the same diligence as any hard science, the checking of multiple sources of information, cross checking sources, and weighing various sources of evidence for validity before reporting a verdict.  These journalists did none of that and it shows in their slapdash reporting style and quick urge to jump to foolish conclusions.


The Titanic Inquiry Project

Testimony of Robert Hichens

Biography of Robert Hichens

Overheard Misuse of History – Opinion

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Yesterday while walking around the city I overheard two young students engaged in a debate over their ideal visions of the role of the US government in the lives of its individual citizens.  What struck me in this classic debate was the comment made by one student, a young man dressed in sweat pants, sweat shirt, and ball cap, that in his ideal vision of the United States: “the federal government would let me live my life they way I wanted to live it, let me do what I wanted, like in the 19th century, before the US government became all Socialist in the 20th century.”  It is a rare moment in my life when I want to walk up to a fellow human being and smack them on the nose with a rolled up newspaper while exclaiming “Bad human, tell me who taught you this drivel so that I may strike them as well.”

The problem with this young man’s outlook on the role of the federal government in the 19th century is that it is, quite simply, incorrect on many levels.  First off there is no ideal period in the 19th century in which the US government on a federal level did not pass legislation that directly impacted or curtailed elements of an individual citizens “freedoms” – doubly so if that citizen was from a minority segment of the population or female in gender.  A simple examination of the major ideological battles of this period refutes the young man’s argument, the controversy over slavery, in fact the very institution of slavery, negates the idea of minimal federal involvement in the lives of individual citizens.  (For example the admission of new states to the Union was fraught with controversy and federal action to maintain the Free/Slave balance of power.)  The institution of the National Bank of the United States, in its various incarnations, was seen as a direct force intervening in the daily lives of citizens across the nation and was directly linked to the US federal government.

Even the “golden” period of non-intervention in private lives by the federal government from the late 1860s through the 1890s, the Gilded Age, actually featured regular federal statues regulating immigration, interstate commerce, and direct intervention by the federal government in numerous labor disputes and moments of civil insurrection.  In fact this period featured a US effort to suppress anarchists movements and insurrections throughout the United States, as well as federal regulations prohibiting the distribution of pornographic or dangerous materials through the US mail system, a direct assault on freedom of speech and publication by the federal government.  (To remind people this was the period in which the US government directly prohibited the distribution of educational material on contraception and the distribution of contraceptive devices through the US mail.)

Never mind the fact that the period of late 1860s through the 1880s was also the height of Reconstruction, a period of incredible direct intervention by the federal government in the lives of southern US citizens.  When Reconstruction ended the Progressive movement was gaining influence among the citizens of the United States, leading to reformist (or probably for this young man “Socialist”) legislation such as the various Anti-Trust Acts, Food and Drug Purity Acts, and regulations to curb the abuses of industry throughout the United States.

But from other comments that I overheard this young man making I quickly gathered that his comment centered upon the institution of federal income tax, collected by the federal government and redistributed/spent by the federal government.  This young man wished to return to period when the US government did not directly tax the personal income of its citizens, and in that regard he is mostly correct.  Efforts by the federal government to impose an income tax in the 1860s to finance the Civil War were ended in 1872 and future efforts to impose federal income tax in the 1880s through the 1910s were blocked by the Congress or the Supreme Court, on the grounds the power to impose such taxes was not Constitutionally permitted to the federal government.  This argument ended in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th amendment.

But this young man fails, in his understanding of history, to understand the system by which the US government raised revenue from the 1860s through the 1910s, excise taxes and import tariffs.  Excise taxes are taxes imposed upon the consumption of items by private citizens and import tariffs are taxes imposed upon items imported into a nation that are manufactured abroad.  Import tariffs are particularly critical to this equation because they artificially raised the cost of imported items that were cheaper to manufacture then US domestically produced items to give US produced items an artificial market parity or even edge over cheaper foreign imports.  What this meant was that the federal governments tax structure directly impacted your fiscal freedom in the 19th century in a manner incomprehensible to most modern Americans – imagine going to a store and finding that each pair of shoes, made in the US or abroad, cost roughly the same amount.  No competitive forces to lower costs and allow your money to go to the most efficient producer, instead efficiency in manufacture is not rewarded, the ability to bribe legislatures to impose duties is rewarded.  This issue was highly controversial in the 19th century and remains highly controversial today.  Excise taxes hold the same bane today, we argue about taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, in the 19th century citizens argued about taxes on recreational facilities, chewing gum, and heavy taxes on alcohol.  As well in the 19th century it was felt that excise taxes and high import tariffs hurt the poorer members of our citizen base more then the rich and a fairer system of revenue collection was needed.

What our young man sought was a system that simply did not exist in the 19th century and, honestly, has never existed in US history.  The nature of personal intervention into average citizens lives held by the US government has changed over the last two centuries, as well as the level of direct intervention, but there has been no time in which the hand of the federal government of the United States has not directly touched some or all of its governed population.

Source: US Treasury Department Fact Sheet on Income Tax History