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The American Congressional inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, in April 1912, very nearly did not take place – and the reasons were legal and economic.


Newspaper illustration of J Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star Line, testifying before the US Senate Committee.

When the world learned, on the morning of April 15, 1912, that the Titanic had struck an iceberg and sunk, Michigan Senator William Alden Smith paid particular attention to the press reports.  Senator Smith had previously met the Titanic’s captain, William J. Smith (no relation) on another vessel, during a trans-Atlantic trip in 1906.  By late afternoon, Senator Smith became more and more disturbed by the details he was seeing in the press reports – not enough lifeboats for all the passengers, the Titanic perhaps ignoring ice warnings, and traveling at excessive speed.  The White Star Line that owned the Titanic, Senator Smith knew, was itself a part of the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM), an American holding company that was incorporated in New Jersey and financed by the American banker J. Pierpont Morgan.  In addition, the Titanic had been traveling to an American port, and most of its passengers were immigrants who were about to become American citizens.  Convinced that the US government had an interest in finding out exactly what had happened, Senator Smith telephoned the White House to ask what President William Howard Taft planned to do regarding the accident, and was told by Taft's secretary that the President intended to let the British Board of Trade handle any investigation.

On April 17, however, after it became apparent that the only survivors had already been picked up by the British liner Carpathia, and that the loss of life on the Titanic had been heavy, Senator Smith introduced a resolution calling for an investigation into the accident by a subcommittee of the Senate’s Commerce Committee.  Smith was named Chairman, and six other Senators – three Republicans and three Democrats – were chosen to serve on the subcommittee.

The next day, the newly-formed panel received word that critically endangered their investigation even before it had begun.  The US Navy informed Senator Smith that it had intercepted a message to the White Star office in New York from someone aboard the Carpathia.  The cable read:

Most desirable Titanic crew aboard Carpathia should be returned home earliest moment possible. Suggest you hold Cedric, sailing her daylight Friday unless you see any reason contrary. Propose returning in her myself.  
It didn’t take a Navy codebreaker to know that “YAMSI” was J. Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of IMM who had been on board the Titanic, and was now approaching the United States, with the rest of the survivors, aboard the Carpathia.  To Senator Smith, it looked suspiciously as if Ismay wanted to quickly spirit himself and all his employees back to England without even setting foot in America, thereby denying any reporters (or investigators) the opportunity to question any of the crew, and placing everyone out of reach of subpoenas for any potential American court hearing (Ismay didn’t yet know that the US Senate had already formed its own investigation of the disaster).

For anyone who was familiar with American maritime law, the reason for Ismay’s anxious desire to avoid any questioning by United States authorities was obvious, and it came down to one word: liability.

In the early days of trans-Atlantic travel, sailing between America and Europe was risky—the North Atlantic was stormy, unpredictable and dangerous.  In order to lessen the financial risk and to encourage trans-Atlantic shipping, the US adopted, in 1851, a doctrine of maritime law known as “limitation of liability”.  In effect, this provision removed most of the liability on the part of a ship-owner for any action over which it had no direct control, including the negligent actions of a ship’s captain or crew at sea. In such circumstances, the owner of the ship was limited in liability to only the value of any cargo lost.

There was, however, an exception to the limited liability doctrine—and it applied directly to the Titanic disaster.   The ship-owner’s liability was no longer limited if that owner had been in contact with the ship’s commander during a voyage and had in any way directed or controlled the actions undertaken by the ship’s captain while the ship was at sea.  

Ismay, the President of IMM and the Chairman of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic, was not merely in wireless contact with the captain during the voyage, however—he was actually aboard the ship.  Ismay’s reputation was already in tatters, since it was widely believed by the American public that he had used his influence as the ship’s owner to obtain a seat in a lifeboat, and thus to save his own life at the expense of the passengers.  Ismay’s presence on the ship, however, as both he and Senator Smith realized, presented a far greater threat to him than merely a reputation as a coward.  If it could be shown that Ismay had exercised any influence over the actions of Titanic’s Captain Smith – in setting the ship’s course and speed in order to make a timely passage, for example—then IMM and White Star, as the Titanic’s owners, would no longer be protected by the “limited liability” doctrine, and could be sued in American courts by all of the 700 survivors and all 1,500 victims’ next of kin.  Ismay, White Star and IMM all faced potential bankruptcy if a US court denied them the limited liability protection.  

For Senator Smith, the news that Ismay wanted to leave the US immediately (and take his British crew with him) raised suspicions that, between the lack of lifeboats and the potential for full liability, the owners of the Titanic had something to hide.  By noon that day, Smith was at the White House asking the Attorney General whether the US had the legal right to subpoena Ismay and the Titanic crew, who were all British citizens.  Upon being informed that the Englishmen could be legally served with a subpoena as long as they were in the US, Smith met with the rest of the Senate subcommittee and, accompanied by Senator Francis Newlands, boarded a train for New York.  Immediately upon arrival, the two Senators served a total of 20 subpoenas upon Ismay and the Titanic officers and crew, requiring them to appear at hearings that were hastily scheduled for the next morning, April 19, at the New York Waldorf-Astoria. Ismay was the first witness to be called. In all, the committee heard from 80 witnesses over a period of almost three weeks.

In the end, the Committee concluded that, although Ismay's presence on board the ship may have influenced Smith's decisions, Ismay had not actually issued any orders regarding the Titanic's normal operations. The limitation of liability remained in effect, and the Titanic's owners were not liable for damages in American courts.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So the oversight investigation (10+ / 0-)

    didn't end up holding the company and it's officers responsible.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:22:07 PM PDT

    •  nope. they couldn't find any evidence that (11+ / 0-)

      Ismay had actually given any directions to the Captain.

      And neither did the British investigation which followed.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:34:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  well, I should correct this---- (17+ / 0-)

        Yes, both the American and the British hearings DID find the owners and the Captain responsible, finding that the ship was traveling at "excessive speed" in a known ice field, and that it was the company's fault that there weren't enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. But neither investigation could find any evidence that Ismay or anyone else from IMM had directed Capt Smith in the operation of the ship--and therefore there was no legal reason to waive the limitation of liability.

        PS, the often-repeated story that the Titanic's lack of lifeboats was illegal, is untrue. The Titanic actually had MORE lifeboats than were legally required under the maritime regulations of the time. The problem was that the regulations themselves were outdated--they had been written years before when passenger liners were much smaller and had far fewer passengers. In addition, the Titanic's watertight compartments convinced both the shipbuilders and the regulators that she didn't NEED enough lifeboats to hold everyone, since it was presumed that even in the worst-case scenario the ship would still stay afloat long enough for the lifeboats to be able to ferry the passengers to another nearby ship (and indeed the Titanic COULD have done that if the Captain of the Californian, only ten miles away, had recognized that the ship he saw off in the distance was in trouble, and had gone to help).

        In the end, reality always wins.

        by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:44:36 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  IIRC, as the regulations of the time required (9+ / 0-)

          Titanic had the same number of life boats as a ship about 1/10 her size.

          One story noted that Harland and Wolff's design team had proposed a design with enough lifeboats for all of the passengers and crew.  H&W management said it made the ship look unsafe and White star pointed out that it had all the lifeboats required by law.

          Another 'safety' feature of the Titanic was a 4th (dummy) smoke stack, as all the steerage passengers knew that a ship with 4 smoke stacks was safer than a ship with only 3.

          “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

          by markdd on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:55:17 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  They did need a scapegoat. (7+ / 0-)

        So they pinned the blame on the captain of the Californian.
        The ship that ignored the rockets and wae 10 miles away.
           But the White Star line did award damages to the Americans and British.
          They did in the end have to pay some money, not nearly enough though.
          Almost the entire town or city of Southampton had a family member that lost their lives to the disaster.
          But it was my understanding that the captain of the Carpathia only allowed messages from survivors to family members be sent. He didn't even respond the president Taft's questions about his military aide Archibald Butt.
          I was also under the impression Ismay was sequestered in the doctors cabin the whole trip.    
          The British tried to flex their muscles to stop an inquiry, but there were American passengers and they going to an American port.
           The hearings were held ironically at the Waldorf Astoria. Which was owned by John Jacob Astor who died.

          I don't believe there was a grand conspiracy to not look into this. American didn't like Ismay anyway. The liners all made their money off steerage passengers, and America needed the work force. What good is it if they all die in another disaster? And how are you going to get them over there if they refuse to go on board?

          The lasting legacy is they moving the shipping lane more south, and they had ships that blew up large icebergs that might create a problem, and of course lifeboats.

          Ismay spent his last years virtually alone. He was no longer welcome in polite society. Captain Lord was also stripped of his standing and rank. The captain of the Carpathia essentially took Lord's place.
          The Duff Gordon's the people who were in the lifeboat with only a few crewmen, and Lucy's maid, were also shunned.
           A rumor arose that the man, Sir Cosmo bribed the crew members to not go back to save people. Weather it was true or not stuck and they also had to live the rest of their lives in obscurity.

        No, it's the coconut oil, got to go, got to go. In today's news, the African country of Somalia has traded places with the U.S. state of Georgia. Said one Georgian resident, "Here we go again. Last time we got free vodka."

        by nellgwen on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:31:30 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  some researchers have concluded after examining (4+ / 0-)

          the weather reports for that night that there was a temperature inversion in the area that distorted the image of objects on the horizon. That was why the lookouts didn't see the iceberg until they were nearly on top of it, and that is why the Captain of the Californian did not recognize what he was looking at as the Titanic.

          Reportedly, the whole Californian event was written into the original screenplay of Cameron's movie, but he dropped it because the movie was already getting long and he wanted to focus instead on the ship itself.

          In the end, reality always wins.

          by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:53:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Also from what I understand (3+ / 0-)

            a the temperature outside was very cold and the lookouts were high above making it colder, and when it's cold outside your eyes begin to water.
              But from what I understand the lookouts did not see an iceberg, they saw a lack of stars in the form of an iceberg.

            No, it's the coconut oil, got to go, got to go. In today's news, the African country of Somalia has traded places with the U.S. state of Georgia. Said one Georgian resident, "Here we go again. Last time we got free vodka."

            by nellgwen on Tue May 13, 2014 at 04:02:15 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Left Third Class Locked Below (4+ / 0-)

        The ship's operators weren't found liable for leaving the Third Class passengers locked below decks, with the grilles designed to keep the lower classes from mixing inappropriately with the worthy classes. They drowned because the staff didn't unlock them after the collision.

        So much for the government interest in them, though "most of its passengers were immigrants who were about to become American citizens."

        "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

        by DocGonzo on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:33:11 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well they did try to go down and (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Penny GC, RiveroftheWest

          bring women and children up. But if you don't speak English and you are afraid to leave your husband, you're not likely to go up.
             Also the deck that had the ice on it after the collision was a steerage deck. And some steerage passengers did get up early.
             Also I thought that the metal gate things were myth. The Titanic didn't have that.
            They did have crewmen, who themselves difn't know what was actually going to happen, they also had "Little Hitler Syndrome."

          No, it's the coconut oil, got to go, got to go. In today's news, the African country of Somalia has traded places with the U.S. state of Georgia. Said one Georgian resident, "Here we go again. Last time we got free vodka."

          by nellgwen on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:43:33 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  that is a common myth, but it's not true (7+ / 0-)

          Although there were a number of gates that separated the first, second and third class areas, there were no gates that prevented access to the boat deck. And indeed, a higher number of third class passengers actually survived than second class.

          What DID happen what that many of the third-class passengers on the lower decks were told to stay below because the crew had fears for the lifeboats. The crew were afraid the wooden lifeboats might buckle or crack on the way down, so they decided to launch them half-empty, then fill them the rest of the way from the ship's gangplank (on the lower decks) after the lifeboats were already in the water--so many third-class passengers were told to stay on the lower decks for that. But for some reason, none of the lifeboats ever went to pick up anybody at the gangplank.

          In the end, reality always wins.

          by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:50:38 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Procedural Liability (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Well, the Wikipedia article about Titanic passengers says so, and cites a 2009 French book published by WW Norton & company:

            Ship's regulations were designed to keep third class passengers confined to their area of the ship. The Titanic was fitted with grilles to prevent the classes from mingling and these gates were normally kept closed, although the stewards could open them in the event of an emergency. In the rush following the collision, the stewards, occupied with waking up sleeping passengers and leading groups of women and children to the boat deck, did not have time to open all the gates, leaving many of the confused third class passengers stuck below decks.[26]

            26. (French) Piouffre, Gérard (2009). Le Titanic ne répond plus. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 317. ISBN 978-2-03-584196-4.

            Do you have a citation that proves that's just a myth?

            In any case, the alternate scenario you described also leaves the crew responsible for failing to get those passengers into lifeboats. Whether they failed to follow their training, or whether the training was defective; whether the lifeboats deployment was botched or not properly planned/trained - it's all the crew and White Star Line responsibility. Yet no liability for it was assigned by the Congressional inquiry. More reason to believe the "aspiring Americans" weren't the interest of the Congressional inquiry.

            "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

            by DocGonzo on Wed May 14, 2014 at 09:16:14 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  You do offer a (11+ / 0-)

    certificate of advanced studies, right?  

    Thanks Lenny.  Another really interesting diary.

    " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:22:49 PM PDT

  •  coming up tomorrow: The Day the Cops Bombed (16+ / 0-)


    Upcoming history diaries:

    The Conch Republic: When Key West Seceded From the Union

    Blackbeard and the Golden Age of Piracy

    Thomas Paine: America's Most Radical Founding Father

    Stay tuned.  :)

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 02:48:16 PM PDT

  •  for all the visits that have taken place to the (4+ / 0-)

    Titanic wreck site, somehow i wish they could have brought back the captains log.
    paper then was100% cotton and that log should have been somewhat preserved. might have answered some of the few lingering questions

    im sure the log is history now

  •  Great diary (6+ / 0-)

    I love these little windows into history.

    (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
    Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

    by Sparhawk on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:23:44 PM PDT

  •  1%ers Drowned (4+ / 0-)
    In addition, the Titanic had been traveling to an American port, and most of its passengers were immigrants who were about to become American citizens.  Convinced that the US government had an interest in finding out exactly what had happened,

    I expect the First Class roster of British nobility, American millionaires and industrialists, a congressmember and a presidential military aide were more of interest to Senator Smith and the US government than were a hold full of foreigners, even if they aspired to become (mostly poor) Americans.

    "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

    by DocGonzo on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:28:34 PM PDT

    •  I believe it had more to do with commerce. (6+ / 0-)

       The Titanic was a huge deal.
         Actually it stirred up social conscience in America and Britain.
        Also with the loss of Guggenheim, Astor, the Levi Strauss guy. If something official hadn't happened they would have all gone after J.P. Morgan with a vengeance.

        Take a look at the show Titanic: Blood and Steel. It's interesting because it deals all about the lives of the people who built it. From the lowliest worker on up.
        There was already strife, discontent, and talks of strike in the air.

      No, it's the coconut oil, got to go, got to go. In today's news, the African country of Somalia has traded places with the U.S. state of Georgia. Said one Georgian resident, "Here we go again. Last time we got free vodka."

      by nellgwen on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:53:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I suspect otherwise (6+ / 0-)

      To the owners of the ship, it was the third class passengers who were the most vital---the rich billionaires may have gotten all the headlines and all the photos, but it was the third-class steerage crowds who actually paid all the ship's bills. The very purpose of trans-Atlantic ships was to take the huge wave of immigrants to America.  That was their bread and butter.

      And the US was in vital need of a safe, rapid and reliable transport system across the Atlantic--because US industry was utterly dependent upon the huge wave of desperately poor people coming to the US for jobs.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 03:58:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Another great diary Lenny (3+ / 0-)

    You have been posting some great ones lately.

    I'd just like to point out what if.

    What If the Titanic disaster happened today.

    The GOTP would...

    1) Claim the Titanic is unsinkable, so your claims are impossible

    2) Deny the existence of icebergs.

    3) Blame it on Obama

    4) Pass a massive bailout for the TBTF White Star Line

    5) Launch a war against Newfoundland

    •  my very favorite Titanic CT tale was told to me (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BusyinCA, Hey338Too, RiveroftheWest

      by some nutjob at a rally in DC backl in the 90's who was selling anti-Semitic pamphlets for somebody or other. As near as I could figure from his ranting, the idea is that the Jews in America wanted to form the Federal Reserve System so they could take power from the Jews of Europe (who, ya know, ruled the world and all) but the Jews in Europe were opposed to the creation of the Fed, so the American Jews decided to kill the European Jews by paying Captain Smith to deliberately ram the iceberg and sink the Titanic while the European Jews were aboard. And the American Jews ruled happily ever after.

      My second-favorite CT (and now I don't remember where I heard it) was that it wasn't really the Titanic that sunk, it was the Olympic. See, a short time before the Titanic sailed, the Olympic was damaged in a collision with another ship in port (that part is true, at least). So the owners of the White Star line decided to commit insurance fraud by secretly switching the Olympic with the Titanic (which was still being built), repairing the Olympic under the guise of building the Titanic, then pocketing the insurance money.

      It has always fascinated me how virtually every significant event in history seems to attract its share of cranks, nutballs, crackpots, and tinfoil-hat kookers.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 06:37:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Or 6) blame it all on a plot hatched (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BusyinCA, Lenny Flank

      in Benghazi....

  •  One item stood out in the Titanic exhibition. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lenny Flank, RiveroftheWest

    The artifact exhibition, which toured in 2012, included over 300 artifacts, a number of which were displayed in humidity controlled cases. A man's light grey suit, including some fine hand stitching, was almost perfectly preserved; small, darkened areas occurred as the suit was in a leather satchel, and the tannic acid used to cure the leather stained it, while preserving it from bacteria. Laid out in the display case as though the owner would momentarily dress for an evening stroll, it seemed to me to uniquely bring home the tragedy.
    However, the Grand Staircase, reproduced for the exhibit, on close examination included Formica, a somewhat disturbing economy.  

    •  many people were adamantly opposed to bringing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      willrob, MRA NY

      those artifacts up from the wrecksite, much less to putting them on public display.

      My own view is that the Titanic is disappearing--in another hundred years, perhaps less, it will be nothing more than a big red stain in the ocean mud.

      Before then, we should bring up as many artifacts as we possibly can so we can preserve them for the future.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Tue May 13, 2014 at 07:33:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  great historical tidbit - thx! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, where did I leave my torches and villagers?

    by FrankSpoke on Fri May 16, 2014 at 09:13:31 PM PDT

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