When the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on the night of April 14 to 15, 1912, the disaster dominated headlines around the world. Stunned by the loss of the purportedly “unsinkable” ship, observers soon found themselves shocked by the similarities between the real-life tragedy and a fictional magazine story that had appeared on newsstands a week earlier.
“The White Ghost of Disaster”—published in the Popular magazine and attributed to an author named Captain Mayn Clew Garnett—seemed eerily prophetic. In the short story, Garnett describes a seemingly invincible ocean liner, its fateful encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and the horrific loss of life that follows. Numerous details, large and small, could have come straight out of news reports of the Titanic disaster—except for the fact that they were already in print when the ship sank.
Despite the sensation it caused at the time, “The White Ghost of Disaster” is now little more than a footnote in Titanic history. Approximately 110 years after the disaster, however, the tangled tale of murder, intrigue, sex and revenge behind the enigmatic Garnett is worth revisiting.
The ship in Garnett’s story, the Admiral, is 800 feet long to the Titanic’s 883. It’s filled with “a thousand and more souls” and “millions in cargo values.” Like the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage, the Admiral is a new ship, described as having “the shortest of lives.”
A few pages into the tale, the Admiral plows into an iceberg off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland while ignoring warnings of ice and moving too fast for the weather conditions. The ship’s captain, who is responsible for this reckless speed, ultimately kills himself with a pistol—one of the ways in which the Titanic’s captain, Edward. J Smith, was theorized to have died, though nobody knows for sure. (Interestingly, the Admiral’s second officer is also named Smith.)
Garnett offers a verbal picture of the ship hitting the iceberg that echoes some Titanic survivors’ accounts—and will probably be familiar to anyone who has seen movies like James Cameron’s Titanic or A Night to Remember:
With a grinding, smashing roar as of thousands of tons coming together, the huge liner plunged headlong into the iceberg that rose grim and silent right ahead, towering over her in spite of her great height. The shock was terrific, and the grinding, thundering crash of falling tons of ice, coupled with the rending of steel plates and solid planks, made chaos of all sound.
The story also dwells at some length on the captain’s thoughts, which may well have been something like those of the Titanic’s Smith:
[Captain] Brownson gazed back over the decks. He watched the crowd impersonally, and it seemed strange to him that so much valuable fabric should go to the bottom so quickly. The paint was so clean and bright, the brass was so shiny. The whole structure was so thoroughly clean, neat and in proper order. It was absurd. There he was standing upon that bridge where he had stood so often, and here below him were hundreds of dying people—people like rats in a trap.
In his final moments, Brownson worries about the damage to his reputation. As it turns out, however, an ironic twist ending leaves his good name intact: Second Officer Smith, who had tried to prevent the accident and dies heroically in its aftermath, is mistakenly blamed for steering the ship into the iceberg. The story ends aboard the rescue ship, where the manager of the steamship line expresses bafflement over Smith’s “crime,” as he calls it. “The truth,” he says, “... is mighty hard to fathom in maritime disasters.”
Newspapers across the United States immediately picked up on the parallels between Garnett’s nautical tale and the tragedy. “Fiction Story Seems Uncanny,” noted the San Francisco Call in an April 16 headline. The New York Press reported a rumor that the idea had come to Garnett while he was a passenger aboard the Olympic, the Titanic’s slightly older sister ship.
Some papers reprinted “The White Ghost of Disaster” in its entirety. An advertisement in the Buffalo Times credited the author with “the shivery powers of a seer, and with a pen guided by the hand of Fate.” A book publisher rushed the story out in hard cover, padded with some additional Garnett tales, the following month. In 1913, a silent movie adaptation (now lost) marketed as “a $1,000,000 film marvel” premiered.
Garnett wasn’t 100 percent prophetic. The Admiral sinks in 15 minutes, while the Titanic took nearly three hours. The Admiral is also sailing from New York rather than to it. But the writer came pretty close. And he left readers pondering another mystery: Who, exactly, was he?
“The White Ghost of Disaster” made its author famous for a time. But few knew that Captain Mayn Clew Garnett was actually a pseudonym. The author’s real name was Thornton Jenkins Hains, and he was once a well-known byline in major magazines.
Hains was also famous for other, darker reasons. In 1891, at the age of 24, he shot a friend through the heart while the two were out rowing near Hampton, Virginia. Because witnesses were some distance away and disagreed about what had happened, Hains’ lawyers were able to make a plausible case for self-defense.
The not guilty verdict angered the local community, and Hains quickly found himself ostracized from the social circles where, as the son of a prominent general and grandson of an admiral, he had once been welcomed.
Hains “realized he was a social outcast, and this so preyed upon his mind that he became morose and practically lived the life of a recluse,” according to the New York Times. “After a time, the feeling against Hains became so pronounced,” the Times added, that he and his wife decided to leave their home in Baltimore, fleeing to Florida on a small yacht. Another paper reported that Hains had left the U.S. “forever” and was headed to South America.
Wherever he went in the meantime, by the early 20th century, Hains’ reputation had recovered enough for him to publish several books and begin contributing tales of the sea to Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, McClure’s and other prominent periodicals. His writing career sailed along smoothly until 1908, when he found himself at the center of another murder case—one that was even more sensational than the last.
On August 15, 1908, Hains accompanied his younger brother, Army Captain Peter C. Hains, to the Bayside Yacht Club in Queens, New York, to confront a magazine executive named William Annis, whom they suspected of having an affair with Peter’s wife. While Hains held the crowd back with his own pistol, Peter fired an eight-shot Colt automatic at Annis, who was returning from a sailboat race and was still dressed in his swimsuit.
Surgeons who tried to save Annis later testified that he’d been hit by five bullets, leaving some 20 wounds in total. One bullet alone made six separate wounds, piercing both of his legs, as well as his groin. He died several hours later in the hospital.
On the witness stand, Claudia Hains, the alleged adulteress, denied having an affair with Annis and offered a different motive for the murder. She testified that her brother-in-law, Hains, had “threatened to injure me for refusing his advances. He endeavored several times while my husband was away to make advances, going so far as to enter my room. I repulsed him and he declared that he would be revenged.”
The prosecution referred to Hains as the mastermind of the crime and proposed sending him to the electric chair for his role in it. But the jury sided with his lawyers and, after a night of deliberation and a total of 15 ballots, acquitted him on January 15, 1909. The New York Times called the verdict “a shocking failure of justice.”
Much of Hains’ defense hinged on what was then called the “unwritten law.” In laymen’s terms, it basically meant that if a husband discovers his wife is having an affair with another man, he is free to shoot him. Apparently, the unwritten law also applied to siblings who came along to assist.
Energized by his acquittal, Thornton told the Times he planned to start a new novel that he hoped would be his “masterpiece.” The novel’s theme, he suggested, would be the unwritten law.
Even before the trial ended, Hains managed to squeeze in another front-page scandal when it emerged that he had fathered a child with his family’s French maid a year earlier. As for Peter, he was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree on May 11, 1909, and sentenced to serve 8 to 16 years at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. In 1911, however, he was pardoned by New York Governor John Alden Dix.
While the jury verdict kept Hains out of the hot seat, it didn’t sit well with the editors of Harper’s and other esteemed journals. One newspaper reported that he was now “persona non grata with the publishers. ... Men who were once eager to get stories from him and be received by him as his friend avoided him after his trial.”
Hains’ many ill-wishers went even further. “They began by writing anonymous letters to him, embellished with rude sketches of a skull and crossbones … threatening to ‘get him yet,’ and expressing the belief that he should have gone to the electric chair,” another paper reported.
And so Mayn Clew Garnett was born.
By 1910, Hains was writing for the Popular magazine and other titles that were a decided step down from his previous markets in both prestige and pay. But the Garnett gig also proved to be short-lived.
According to a 1914 Brooklyn newspaper account, “it was not long before Hains’s tormentors discovered that he and M.C. Garnett were one and the same person.” Recognizing Garnett’s familiar writing style, his antagonists “addressed letters to the magazines which have been buying his stories, denouncing them for publishing the literary productions of a ‘near-murderer,’ and threatening to use their influence to injure these periodicals unless they ceased printing the material Hains had to offer.”
Unable to sell his stories, the newspaper added, Hains was now fishing and collecting driftwood for a living. Indeed, very little of his alter ego’s work appears in magazines after 1914.
In addition to the writer’s personal unpopularity, accusations of plagiarism dogged his most famous work, “The White Ghost of Disaster.” In all of the attention surrounding the Titanic sinking, the resemblance between the story and an 1898 novel titled Futility didn’t go unnoticed. Its author, Morgan Robertson, had conjured up a big ocean liner, packed it with fancy rich people and rammed it into an iceberg on a chilly April night. The ship’s name? None other than the Titan.
One newspaper writer denounced “The White Ghost” as “palpable plagiarism,” charging that Garnett’s story had simply been “shortened and changed in spots” from Robertson’s original.
Titanic expert George Behe—author of Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy, which covers dozens of strange premonitions, odd coincidences and outright hoaxes associated with the disaster—is skeptical of the plagiarism claim. “Short of an outright admission from Garnett, nobody will ever know for sure,” he says. “Novelists sometimes use similar basic plot lines (e.g., ship strikes iceberg) and then permit their chosen dramatic plots to branch off in different directions from that point onward.”
Hains never denied being Garnett. But he never stepped forward to take any bows as the true author of “The White Ghost of Disaster” either. If he had anything to say about the Titanic disaster or his brief fame in its wake, those thoughts are lost to history. As prolific as he was earlier in his career, Jenkins’ output slowed in the 1920s and, at least as can be ascertained from online sources, seems to have come to a halt by the 1930s. He signed his later stories T. Jenkins Hains, having by then left Garnett far behind.
For the remainder of his life, Hains kept a low public profile. The 1920 census gives his occupation as merchant marine officer. In 1930, he is listed as an author and magazine writer. The 1940 census shows no occupation at all, suggesting that by age 73, he’d retired.
Hains lived into the next decade, dying in 1953 at the age of 86. He never delivered the “masterpiece” he’d promised in 1909—unless, of course, it was “The White Ghost of Disaster.”