The Mystery of a Titanic Telegram

Did the Titanic’s owners know about its collision with an iceberg?


In the months and years after the R.M.S. Titanic sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, Philip Franklin, the man in charge of the company that owned the ship, repeatedly denied that he knew about the disaster when it happened. Now, a telegraph allegedly sent from the ship as it sank suggests he may have actually known, Tao Tao Holmes reports for Atlas Obscura.

The telegram was allegedly sent to White Star Line Steamship Company, which Franklin ran, in the aftermath of its collision with an iceberg. It reads: "We Have Struck Iceberg= Sinking Fast= Come to our Assistance" and includes coordinates for the ship's location. When a U.S. Senate committee later questioned Franklin, though, he denied receiving any communication from the Titanic before it sunk, claiming he first heard of the disaster from Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line's chairman. Ismay was on board the Titanic, but managed to escape, Rossella Lorenzi writes for Discovery.

"This is obviously proof, or evidence, that the Titanic did send a message to the White Star Line in New York," Don Ackerman, Consignment Director of the Historical Department at Heritage Auctions, which is now taking bids on the telegram, tells Holmes. "Either he was lying to the congressional committee, or he never got to see the telegram."

It's possible that Franklin simply never received the telegram. After all, the documented history of the telegram only dates back to 1988, Holmes reports, when it was discovered in an envelope marked "This is 86 years old." Historians have long known that the ship's crew sent 15 distress telegrams. However, the ledger containing telegram records sunk with the ship and all records of the messages were lost—except for what was saved by the telegram operators who received them, Lorenzi writes.

"While it seems certain that the telegram was delivered (or the attempt made), we cannot say for sure whether Franklin saw it in a timely manner, or testified falsely before Congress," Heritage Auctions wrote in the telegram's description. Ackerman says the telegram's age was verified by examining the paper used and the typewriter ink used to print the message, all of which points towards it dating back to 1912.

"The paper is old paper, with correct printing, and you can actually see the texture of the ribbon that's been transferred over onto the paper," Ackerman tells Holmes.

Historians may never know for sure whether Franklin knew his "unsinkable" ship was plunging to the bottom of the ocean. The century-late telegram was put up for auction on Saturday for $25,000, alongside dinner menus from the Titanic and the first ship to reach the doomed vessel, but the macabre message didn't sell.

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