FATE June 1990
Was the fate of the mighty Titanic predicted in a novel?
Many mysteries surround the death of one of the world’s most famous ships.
She has lain in dark silence for three quarters of a century now, lost in her memories, a prisoner of the ivy blackness that surrounds her. But she is not alone, for she did not die alone. Her death throes claimed the lives of two-thirds of her passengers and crew—1,500 people whose presence was felt by the explorers who finally discovered her resting place. Torn in half, she now lies on the seabed, her innards scattered around her in the desolation.
Once she was a queen, the largest and most beautiful ship in the world. A few lucky people can still remember viewing her magnificence with their own eyes. Fewer still are those who sailed on her and were lucky enough to survive. But everyone, even today, recognizes her name.
She was the Titanic.
The month of April 1912 was a high point in the annals of the White Star Line, one of Britain’s leading steamship lines. RMS Titanic, the newest addition to their stable of thoroughbreds, was about to enter service as a carrier of passengers and mail. She was the largest moving object ever created by the hands of humans—882 feet long, 92 feet wide, 46,000 tons. A double bottom had been built into her hull, with transverse watertight bulkheads spaced along her length dividing her into sixteen watertight compartments. These, it was felt, would be more than enough to ensure the ship’s safety in the event of a mishap. Any water that somehow managed to get through the double bottom and enter the hull would be contained in one of these compartments, allowing the rest of the ship to continue normal operations.
An Accident? Unthinkable!
The mere sight of the Titanic was enough to inspire total confidence. Her four great funnels towered into the sky, a symbol of the final mastery of humankind over Nature. A serious accident to the ship was unthinkable. Indeed, her master, Captain Edward J. Smith, has been quoted as saying, “Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
The British Board of Trade seems to have complacently agreed with him; their lifeboat regulations, long out of date, required that any ship of 10,000 tons or more must carry only sixteen wooden lifeboats. The Titanic, at 46,000 tons, was carrying the required sixteen boats, with an additional four Englehardt “collapsible” boats thrown in for good measure. Its total lifesaving capacity was 1,178 people. The Titanic was certified to carry a maximum of 3,000 people, but no one seems to have given much thought to this enormous deficiency in lifesaving equipment. Word of mouth had it that the great vessel was unsinkable, so what was the use of cluttering up the deck with more lifeboats?
A single look at the sumptuous public rooms on the great vessel made one almost forget that they were even on a ship. What could possibly go wrong?
Predictions of Doom
Yet, there were people who became absolutely certain that something was going to happen to the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Although a few of these people had no direct connection with the ship, others were among those who had booked their passage on the great liner. Of the latter, several people actually canceled their passage, preferring to take any other ship rather than sail on the Titanic. Others, in spite of grave misgivings, retained their bookings for the maiden voyage of the great vessel. Many paid for that decision with their lives when the Titanic foundered after striking an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic.
The best-known “premonition” of the Titanic disaster was probably not a premonition at all. It occurred in 1898, fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and, on the surface, bears striking similarities to what actually befell the great liner.
This “premonition” came in the form of a novel by Morgan Robertson titled Futility, which told the story of the Titan, the largest ship in the world. Her dimensions were roughly comparable to those of the real Titanic; her equipment was the most modern, her crewmen the best. The Titan set sail one April day with a full complement of passengers, but with insufficient lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board.
To help ensure a record crossing, great triangular sails had been hoisted on each of the Titan’s two masts. Her master was so intent on making a speed record that, when his vessel accidentally rammed a windjammer, no effort was made to stop and pick up survivors. One of the doomed sailors in the water shouted up a curse, calling on God to avenge the heartless behavior of the departing steamer.
Later, on a foggy but moonlit night, the Titan encountered an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic and was unable to turn in time to prevent a collision. The big steamer ran up onto the sloping shelf of an iceberg, sliding forward and upward onto the ice until she was almost completely out of the water. The vessel toppled heavily onto her starboard side, her machinery smashing down and rupturing her side plates. The Titan then slid back down the ice slope into the sea, her starboard lifeboats being smashed in the process. Only a handful of people survived when the vessel sank.
The above story about Robertson’s fictional Titan is usually the first one trotted out by authors discussing psychic aspects of the Titanic disaster. Several bogus stories have arisen concerning the circumstances under which Robertson’s novel was written. These usually claim that the author either dreamed the details of his novel or that he “went into a trance” and “saw” the events of the novel unfold, later writing the details down in the form of fiction. These tales are untrue. Robertson’s novel was written in the same mundane manner so well understood by all authors as the “seat of the pants technique.”
The similarities between Robertson’s novel and the sinking of the Titanic are obvious, and many authors have played up these parallels through the years. Tables have even been compiled comparing the specifications of the two vessels and the circumstances of their sinkings. The similarities seem uncanny at first, but, when considered in a broader context, they are really perfectly understandable.
Morgan Robertson had wished to write about the greatest ship in the world, but he did not want his literary creation to be rapidly overtaken and outdated by new advances in shipbuilding. To avoid this, he simply projected the dimensions of his fictional ship a couple of steps ahead of the technology of 1898. By postulating a ship of a certain length, he could roughly calculate her tonnage, carrying capacity and other specifications. Although it thus becomes obvious that physical similarities between the Titan and the Titanic would be almost automatic, one glaring difference between the two ships is immediately apparent: Robertson still envisioned the continued use of auxiliary sail in steamers of the future, a characteristic which the Titanic did not possess.
As to the insufficient number of lifeboats on the fictional Titan, Robertson was utilizing a trend which was visible even in 1898. He knew of the lack of regulations governing an increase in the number of required lifeboats as ship sizes increased. The author merely projected this trend to its extreme, but logical, end result—namely, a huge liner foundering with too few boats to save her passengers.
The plot of Robertson’s novel required that the Titan be destroyed very suddenly, with only a handful of survivors escaping the disaster. The author ruled out a storm at sea as being his instrument of destruction, since any storm capable of destroying the largest ship in the world would also destroy her lifeboats (along with the survivors necessary for the novel’s conclusion). A collision with another ship was also ruled out, as was a shipboard fire, as these disasters would not have destroyed the Titan quickly enough (and would have introduced more lifeboats and survivors into the story, interfering with the ending which Robertson had planned for his novel).
It appears that a spectacular collision with an iceberg was the only mishap that Robertson could envision which might simultaneously destroy the Titan and still fulfill all of his plot requirements. Robertson himself was a seaman, and he knew how dangerous an iceberg in the shipping lanes could be. Indeed, this danger was merely confirmed in 1912 when an iceberg claimed the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
The most outstanding similarity between the Titanic and Robertson’s fictional ship was the author’s choice of the name “Titan.” If he had instead christened his ship the Neptune, it is unlikely that many people would have recalled his novel fourteen years later when the Titanic went down. Indeed, this fortuitous choice of names is probably the only thing which rescued Robertson’s novel from complete obscurity.
Although many odd coincidental occurrences (including the above novel) can be cited in relation to the Titanic disaster, other cases have origins which do not seem to be rooted in coincidence.
During the writing of my book, Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy, I was able to compile a list of twenty-nine cases which I felt were possibly psychic in nature. I felt that an additional thirty-five accounts contained enough detail to be classed as probable psychic phenomena, with many of these cases being of a precognitive nature.
A Real Premonition
The remainder of this article will be devoted to the examination of one of these latter cases—a very poignant story involving the death of the percipient herself. The incident in question took place in Kirkendbright, Scotland, on the night of April 14,1912.
W. Rex Sowden was the captain in charge of the city’s Salvation Army Corps, which had taken on the responsibility of caring for a little orphan girl named Jessie. The child was lying in bed dangerously ill, and it was necessary for someone to remain with her at all times to monitor her condition. Sowden knew this, and, on the night of April 14, he went to bed confident that the little girl was being properly looked after.
Shortly before 11:00 p.m. someone knocked desperately on Sowden’s bedroom door, calling, “Will you please come at once, Captain? Jessie is dying.”
Captain Sowden immediately got out of bed, dressed and hurried to the room of the little orphan girl. He sat at her bedside for a few minutes until, at exactly 11:00, Jessie suddenly sat up in her bed. When she saw Sowden sitting beside her, she begged him, “Hold my hand, Captain. I am so afraid. Can’t you see that big ship sinking in the water?”
Sowden thought that the girl’s mind was wandering, and he attempted to comfort her, telling her that she had been having a nightmare. Jessie knew better.
“No, the ship is sinking,” she told him. “Look at all those people who are drowning . . . Wally is playing a fiddle and is coming to you.”
To humor her, Captain Sowden looked around the room without seeing anything out of the ordinary. He gently laid the little girl back onto the bed, covered her again, and then watched as she lapsed into a coma.
Several hours went by while Captain Sowden sat faithfully by Jessie’s bedside, but the child lay almost motionless beside him. Then, unexpectedly, Sowden heard the latch on the bedroom door move. Assuming that someone was coming to check on the little girl, the captain arose from his seat. Opening the bedroom door he was surprised to find the hallway empty, but then, quite suddenly, he had the eerie feeling that someone had moved past him and entered the bedroom.
Captain Sowden rushed back to Jessie’s bedside and saw that the moment of crisis had arrived. Death was only a few moments away. The heartbroken man stood looking down at the little girl when she again opened her eyes and looked at him.
“My mother has come to take me to heaven,” said Jessie quietly. Captain Sowden held her hand for a few moments, and the little girl then died peacefully.
As Captain Sowden rose slowly from the child’s bedside, he again heard the latch on the bedroom door being lifted. Once again he found no one visible when he stepped into the hallway. Captain Sowden felt certain, though, that little Jessie and her mother had left the bedroom together.
The vision of the sinking ship which Jessie had experienced took place at 11:00 p.m. in Scotland. Allowing for the difference in longitude, this was about three and a half hours before the Titanic struck the iceberg. It seems clear that the little girl’s experience was precognitive in nature, but what of her mention of the man named Wally who was playing a fiddle?
Captain Sowden soon learned that the leader of the Titanic’s band had been Wallace Hartley, whom he had known well as a boy. However, he had long ago lost track of Hartley and didn’t know that “Wally” had gone to sea as a ship’s bandsman. Therefore, it would seem that little Jessie’s vision was clairvoyant as well as precognitive, for she had somehow known Hartley’s first name.
Wallace Hartley and his fellow bandsmen on the Titanic had played their music to reassure the passengers around them. The musicians made no effort to save themselves, and they every one of them died. Somehow, little Jessie knew that Wally would not survive the catastrophe.
Later, in relating his account of little Jessie’s vision, Captain Sowden made it very clear that he was deeply impressed by what he had witnessed.
“What I thought was hallucination,” he said, “was a vision that stamped itself indelibly on my brain and changed my whole spiritual outlook.”
If an impossible event actually does take place, we should expect very few people to have predicted that event before its occurrence. The exact opposite seems to have taken place concerning the historical event we have just discussed. Dozens of instances are on record concerning people who felt certain that something would happen to the “unsinkable” Titanic on her maiden voyage.
One or two correct predictions of this impossible event might conceivably be attributed to chance. But how many such predictions of an impossible event must come true before coincidence can be ruled out and foreknowledge accepted as a more likely explanation? You must decide that for yourself.
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