Few events lead to sensational and speculative newspaper headlines quite like unexpected disasters. One such disaster covered by the papers in our collection is the sinking of the Titanic which occurred April 15th 1912, just hours after the ship struck an iceberg on its starboard side. There are many reasons why this particular disaster is so cemented in public memory, including the public perception that the ship was “unsinkable,” the death toll due to lack of space in escape boats, and even claims that the disaster had been eerily predicted in a work of fiction. In his book Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth, Paul Heyer states that beginning with the San Francisco earthquake in 1908, sensational disaster reporting increased dramatically. This was due, in part, to rapidly advancing communication technologies including “transcontinental telephone linkups, which increased the information flow beyond what would have been possible using the telegraph alone” as well as the “new mass journalism pioneered by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the last decades of the nineteenth century.”(5) Despite Florida’s physical distance from the sites directly affected by the disaster, news of the Titanic, the fate of her passengers, and the political inquiries that followed nonetheless were front page news in Florida papers in the days, weeks, and years following the disaster.
Prior to the disaster, news about the Titanic, an engineering marvel, appears sporadically in our papers. While a search for the word will yield many results, because the name of the ship is a common word, most instances of the word prior reports of its demise beginning April 15, 1912 are not related to the ship. However, when the ship is featured in our newspapers during its construction, the accompanying stories are primarily about its immense size. One such story can be found on the front page of the January 8, 1910 edition of The Daytona daily news. Covering the construction of “The World’s Largest Vessel,” the story features an “architectural picture” and demonstrates the immensity of the ship’s 860 feet reported length by juxtaposing its size to that of the Washington Monument (555 feet) and Christopher Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria (60 feet.) Other examples of similar stories can be found in the Pensacola journal and The Ocala evening star prior to its maiden voyage.
News about the disaster trickled in slowly and relied predominantly on wireless radio aficionados picking up signals from boats at sea, relaying them to newspapers, and those papers subsequently being published. Because of this delay, much of the initial news of the incident was speculative and optimistic. According to John P. Eaton and Charles A. Hass, authors of Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, it wasn’t until “16 April’s evening edition” that papers begin to report that the ship had sunk around 2:20AM on the 15th (203). In the same book, a caption of a newsboy selling papers reads “the city’s (New York) newspapers find it difficult to keep up with the rapidly changing developments in the North Atlantic.” (208). We can see an example of this confusion in the April 16th 1912 edition of The Ocala evening star. The front page story on the Titanic is titled simply “Titanic is in Trouble” and says that the “greatest steamship afloat” is likely “being towed presumably toward Halifax.” Meanwhile, on the second page of the paper is a story with the headline “All the World Stands Aghast” about the sinking of the great ship which speculates that “more than 1500 persons, it is feared, sank to death.” Likely, the front page had been proofed before the paper received definitive news of the ship’s sinking.
Paul Heyer states that “news about the plight of the Titanic circulated with a rapidity unmatched by any previous event” And that from “15-19 April, the primary goal of the newspapers covering the sinking of the Titanic was to gather and present all possible information pertaining to what had happened. After the Carpathia’s arrival and launch of the American Senate’s inquiry, the burning question became why” (91). That being said, newspapers approached reporting the facts of the Titanic disaster from a variety of different angles from the pragmatic to the social to the conspiratorial to the sensational. In our collection, there exists a smattering of each type of news.
On a practical level, papers reported the facts about the disaster, including the number of lives lost, photos of the ship, maps showing where the incident was thought to have happened, and the oft repeated story that women and children were taken off first. However, as with any media event of this scale, there were a fair number of more sensational stories about heroism, graphic descriptions of the panic that ensued during the rush to fill lifeboats, as well as reports of “embalmers work all night” on the unidentified bodies of Titanic dead in a morgue in Canada. In the midst of trying to cover the disaster, it seems like no tidbit of information related to the Titanic was unfit to print.
The predominant human angle that emerges in our papers following the sinking of the Titanic are not tales of the immigrant poor who disproportionately perished in the wreck, but rather stories of well-known members of American and European society. Steven Biel offers an explanation for this in his book Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster saying, “with its interest in celebrity, the commercial press tended to represent the disaster exclusively as the story of the first cabin.” The reason for this, of course, is that like today, tabloid stories of the wealthy and famous sell papers. Of the newspapers in our current collection, The Pensacola journal, whose society pages we’ve discussed in previous pieces, contains the most news on this topic in the days and weeks following the disaster. Before the start of May 1912, no less than three pieces, complete with pictures, had run about the “noted,” “well known,” and “prominent leaders” of society who had been traveling on the ship during its ill-fated maiden voyage.
One of the more conspiratorial headlines after the sinking of the Titanic pertained to the eerie similarities between the 1912 disaster and the fictional disaster that took place in Morgan Robertson’s 1898 short story Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. In this story, the Titan, a ship of comparable size to the later Titanic, sinks after hitting an iceberg on its starboard side in the North Atlantic. In the story, the Titan, who had also been described as “practically unsinkable” also lacked an inadequate number of lifeboats which lead to the death of over half the passengers and crew. While people interested in the Titanic disaster attribute the short story to psychic phenomenon, Heyer explains that it was a speculative work by a “former seaman and student of maritime developments who, in becoming a pulp fiction writer, applied that expertise to sea adventure stories” which can account for “prediction of the design features that might characterize future ships.” (143)
Sensation, speculation, and conspiracy however, sell newspapers. Because of this, between May 4th and 18th 1912 The Ocala evening star ran the entirety of the Wreck of the Titan as a serial manner. The day preceding the first installment, an advertisement for the story filled most of the front page of the paper. It is described as “a wonderfully prophetic story” and implores readers to “read how a famous author described, over a decade ago, how the S.S. Titanic would sink and drown hundreds of souls.” During this time period, serialized literature was a common feature in newspapers because a hit serial could help grow circulation. Given the immediate impact the Titanic disaster had on American society and culture, it is not surprising that The Ocala evening star would run this particular piece.
Over 100 years later, the Titanic disaster still holds a significant spot in our collective social memory. One reason for this may be because, as Heyer explains it, the disaster was “our century’s first collective nightmare” and, in many ways, it represents the tension between the progress of humanity and the unpredictability of the natural world (ix). Whether your interest is in the factual, sensational, social, or conspiratorial, many facets of the Titanic disaster can be found in our Chronicling America papers.
Citations and Additional Sources
Biel, Steven. Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Eaton, John P. and Charles A. Haas. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy Second Edition. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 1998.
Heyer, Paul. Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1995.
Library of Virginia Online Newspaper Exhibit on the Titanic http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/titanic/titanic1.htm
Chronicling America Titanic Topic Page https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/titanicsinking.html