Why do so many conspiracy theories center around monumental tragedies? The Sandy Hook shooting, the terror attacks of 9/11, and even the Holocaust have all attracted under scrutiny for supposedly straying from the truth. But while most conspiracy theories fall apart after any investigation, those surrounding the sinking of the Titanic beg more questions than they answer, especially when one of the most compelling theories proposes that the Titanic never sank at all.
As the infamous tale goes, late in the evening on April 14, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic collided with an iceberg while en route to America. 1,517 of the Titanic‘s passengers and crew perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. In an attempt to place blame for the tragedy, countless speculations on omens and ignored precautions have surfaced, but some wonder if the fate of the Titanic was more fateful than it appeared.
In his book Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank, conspiracy theorist Robert Gardiner points to several uncanny events and coincidences preceding the sinking that could suggest that the ship that sank was actually the Titanic‘s sister ship, the Olympic. Gardiner theorizes that the switch was part of an insurance scam by the ship’s owners, J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Group. In 1911, the Olympic collided with a military ship while sailing from England to New York and required repairs. The following trial deemed that the Olympic was responsible for the crash, resulting in an expensive lawsuit. The conspiracy theory asserts that the Olympic was unable to recover profits, leading to the switch with the plan being to dump the damaged Olympic and collect insurance to bail out the company. Allegedly, the company decided to build a second ship to take the name Olympic, while the older ship would be re-purposed as the doomed Titanic.
At first glance, the ships were nearly identical. Olympic’s exterior differed in only minor details, such as the number of portholes on one of the decks and the spacing of some of the windows. Gardiner notes that the name of the ship was curiously absent from most of the interior, meaning that the ships’ interiors were interchangeable as well. This was done purposefully to aid the switch. It was also convenient that several of J.P. Morgan’s wealthiest enemies were aboard. Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss, and John Jacob Aster all died in the sinking of the Titanic.
Additionally, the ship seemed purposefully doomed to sink: even when it first embarked, passengers noticed the ship had a slight list, and the crew observed the lack of safety precautions. However, the insurance scam did not intend for the catastrophe that followed. Gardiner proposes that the plan had originally been to open the seacocks to slowly flood the ship at a time when planted “rescue” ships would be present to account for the lack of lifeboats. On April 14, First Officer Murdoch supposedly stood on the bridge off-duty to watch for the rescue ships. Instead of an iceberg, Gardiner proposes that the ship actually struck one such rescue ship with its lights shut off. Gardiner’s evidence for this is that a darkened ship would be harder to spot than an iceberg, accounting for the late sighting, and that it is unlikely that an iceberg could inflict such severe damage to a double-hulled ship. Gardiner’s theory concludes that the real Titanic sailed for twenty-five years until being scrapped in 1935.