The Titanic Funeral Ship: 1912

The cable repair ship Mackay Bennett, the “funeral ship” which put out from Halifax and picked up dead bodies near the scenes of the Titanic disaster. The ship carried a large supply of coffins, ice and embalming fluid, an undertaker and a staff of embalmers. The Rev. Canon K. Hinds (on left) was on board to perform funeral services for such bodies as were unrecognizable and too far gone for embalming. The other portrait is of Capt. [Frederick H.] Lardner, the ship’s commander.

The Evansville [IN] Press 23 April 1912: p. 1

190 BODIES BROUGHT IN,

116 BURIED AT SEA

Captain of the Morgue Ship Tells of the Picking Up of Corpses Which Floated Upon the Waves.

ALL WORE THE LIFE BELTS OF SHIP

Ninety Bodies Were Picked Up in One Morning, Being Found All at Once and Looked Like Gulls.

[United Press Leased Wire Service.]

His Majesty’s Dock, Halifax, April 30. Loaded down with 190 bodies of victims of the Titanic disaster, the Mackay-Bennett made port today, after having buried at sea 110 bodies, some of which had been identified. Captain Lardner who commanded the death cruise, with a broken voice, declared that his vessel was unable to bring to shore all of the dead recovered.

Beside the captain sat the benevolent-looking round-faced Canon Hinds, worn by the heavy duties that had fallen to him through the cruise.

 “Why were those bodies burled at sea?” the captain was asked.

The grizzled old sea captain shook his head sadly and a pained expression swept his weather-beaten face.

“They were members of the crew,” he said, “most of them, and we could not care for them. When we left Halifax we took on board all of the embalming fluid in the city. That was only enough to care for seventy bodies. It was not expected that we would find bodies in such great quantities. The undertakers didn’t think these bodies would keep more than three days at sea, and as we expected to be out more than two weeks, we had to bury them. They received the full service for the dead before they slid over the rail.”  

Buried at Sea.

Fifty-seven identified victims of the Titanic disaster were buried at sea from the Mackay-Bennett. They had been crushed between huge cakes of ice and were wholly unrecognizable. Identification being possible only by means of names sewed in the pockets. A list of those who were consigned to the deep follows:

Mauritz Adahl, Pedro Ale, Thomas Anderson, Ragozzi Abele, Rossimore Abbott, John Adams, W. Butt, A. Boothby, G. Butterworth, E. T. Barker, Patrick Connors, Yosep Drazenouf, J.J. Davies, James Farrell, Leslie Gelinski, J.S. Gill, Anvers Gustafsen, A. Hayter, G. Hinckley, Henry D. Hansen, Reg Hale, W. Hinton, Adolph Humblein, A.C. Hell, T. Hewitt, Eric Johansen, Edward Keating, Valet of George D. Widener; James Keller, R. W. Leison, Charles Louch, Edward Lockyer, D. Lily, Jaen Mouros, Mrs. Mack, Mrs. N. McNamee, Mary Mangan, M. Mays, Moussor Novel, Blank Olsen, E.W. Petty, C.G. Ricks, J.M. Robinson, J. Stone, Fred Sutton, W. Saunders, Wm. Sage, Philip J. Stokes, Ernest P. Tomling, F. Tamlyn, Thomas Theodaid, Catavelos Vassilios, W. Vear, Leslie Williams, W. Watson, O. S. Woody.

“Those who were buried at sea,” continued the captain, “were mostly badly mutilated and the undertakers said they would not keep. They had bean struck by spars or floating wreckage. “Night closed down on us Sunday night with bodies still around. We commenced work again on Monday morning at daylight, but bodies were scarce. We got only 26 that day. We searched 15 minutes in and out along the line of wreck. At night we marked the floating wreckage with a drifting buoy so we could find it readily in the morning.

Ninety In One Morning.

“Tuesday morning bodies were numerous again. We picked up ninety bodies before noon. Then the weather came on thick and in the afternoon we recovered only 29.

“We found no two bodies together. All. were floating separately. No two were clasped In each other’s arms or anything like that. In one place we saw them scattered over the surface looking like a flock of gulls. They looked just like gulls with the white ends of the life belts fluttering and flapping up and down with the rise and fall of the waves.

“A great many of those recovered were injured when the Titanic went down,” said Captain Lardner, when he was asked why so many of the bodies brought in were bruised and broken.

“When the water swept her decks many must have been rushed before it and carried against stanchions, spars and others parts of the vessel. All of those picked up wore life belts and they rod upright in the waves, the belts carrying them high above the water.”

Then the captain continued his outline of the cruise, consulting the log before him from time to time.

“All day Wednesday we were in thick fog and it was blowing hard from the southwest. We saw nothing all day. About midnight the weather eased up and we shaped our course back for the bodies. At 5:30 Thursday morning we found one drifting near us. We let her drift until daylight and then commenced work. We picked up 87 bodies that day. Thursday I got a message saying the Minia was coming out to assist us. She arrived about 45 minutes after midnight Friday.

“At daylight the two ships commenced searching together. At noon I picked up 14 more bodies and then we started for Halifax because we had as many on board as we could look after. We experienced bad weather on the way in.”

Captain Lardner outlined the methods of caring for the bodies after they had been picked up.

Five Men In a Boat.

“We had five men in each small boat,” he said. “When they went out to look for bodies they kept within sight of the bridge of the Mackay-Bennett and we signalled them by wig wagging. When they picked up four or five bodies, if the weather was heavy, we would bring them in. If the weather was calm, they could handled seven or eight in a boat. The bodies were hoisted on board and when they were searched, the contents of the pockets and their valuables were placed in canvass bags having on them the same number as that on the body. In this way we made some identifications, long after the bodies were taken aboard.

“We brought in the bags of all who were buried at sea and some of those committed to the deep may yet identified by the contents of these bags. We covered a square of sea about thirty miles long and thirty miles wide, about

sixty miles northeast of the scene of the disaster. All of the bodies found were In the cold water, north of the gulf stream.

“No bodies that we found contained any bullet wounds.”

The captain then related the confusion In the identification of George D. Widener.

“We thought it was Widener first, because the body had letters addressed to Mr. Widener but the quality of the underclothing worn by body was not such as would be worn by a first class passenger. His overcoat bore the Initials E. K. His head was terribly crushed and the body would not keep so we burled him at sea. Mr. Widener’s son after examining the envelope containing possessions found on the body, said he was certain that the body was of Edward Keating his father’s valet.

“I feel certain that all of the passengers picked up have already been identified and that the unidentified were members of the ship’s company. I feel sure that those buried at sea were  practically all either seamen, stewards or other employes of the White Star company.

“I think there were about 18 or 20 women among the bodies we picked up. We have quite a lot of jewelry taken from both men and women. I don’t how much cash we took from the bodies.” Lardner said that he did not believe that the Minia would succeed in securing many more bodies, unless she ‘strikes a streak of them.’

“The Minia had seven bodies aboard when the Mackay started for Halifax.”

UNLOADING CARGO OF DEAD, PICKED UP OUT AT SEA

Mackay-Bennett Arrived at Halifax This Morning With Decks Piled High With Corpses.

MOST GRUESOME PICTURE EVER SEEN

Astor’s Body in a Plain Wooden Box Just Like That Used for the Other Bodies of Victims.

[United Press Leased Wire Service.]

Halifax, April 30. The pitiful few of the Titanic’s victims retrieved from the broad waters of the Atlantic reached port today. The Mackay-Bennett, with the bodies on board, was reported off the first buoy at the harbor entrance at eight o’clock (Atlantic time), and immediately afterward, at signal from the bells in the churches, the flags on every building in the city were dropped to half staff.

As the Mackay-Bennett slowly steamed up the three and one-half miles of the harbor the bells in the church towers tolled solemnly at minute intervals and thousands of the city inhabitants hurried to points of vantage along the water front to catch the first glimpse of the ship with her cargo of dead.

All shipping under orders immediately cleared from the harbor channel. The Mackay-Bennett was given a clear track up the center of the bay with nothing to impede her progress. About the government dock, where she was to be berthed, a hundred blue clad sailors, with mourning bands on their round caps and on the sleeves of their blouses, leaped into boats and rowed out to form a patrol to keep craft away from the great naval dock where the vessel was to be tied up.

At the same time a detachment of British bluejackets from the cruiser Niobe marched on the pier and cleared it of every one not holding an official pass. They carried side arms and they were instructed to keep everyone away.

They then placed an awning entirely about the portion of the dock assigned to the Mackay-Bennett and prepared the covered gang-plan which was run out as soon as the death ship was berthed.

Under a white marquee on the dock, the view of which was shut off by the awnings that had been arranged, more than one hundred coffins and rough boxes had been piled tier on tier. Near them were the undertakers and embalmers, who were to care for the bodies. As the Mackay-Bennett came into sight down the harbor, the undertakers, embalmers and ambulance helpers put on long brown coats and began to arrange the coffins, opening them and laying them out in great long rows ready for the silent occupants who could already be seen piled on the decks of the approaching cable repair ship.

Only Woman Present.

Among the undertakers was a Miss O’Neill of St. Johns, brought over to Halifax to care for any bodies of women that might be aboard the Mackay-Bennett. She was the only woman on the dock just before the Mackay-Bennett hove in sight.

The mourners, after their long vigil, did not hurry to the dock when the whispered word went through the city: “She’s coming!” Warned by the White Star and government officials that a visit to the dock would be useless, they planned to go to the Mayflower curling rink, where the bodies were to be taken immediately upon being unloaded.

A squad of naval Red Cross men mixed a dozen buckets of thick evil smelling disinfectant and sprinkled the entire dock, the covered gang-plank and the pile of coffins. The atmosphere of a morgue pervaded the pier.

As the Mackay-Bennett drew into the dock a boat already manned hung from the starboard davits. It was dropped and a line brought ashore. Within five minutes the vessel was safely docked, with heavy hawsers holding her stern and bow. As she swung in she looked her part of: morgue ship. She was seaworn and weather-beaten after her long cruise and piled high on her afterdeck were rows upon rows of darkened dirty white pine rough boxes. Along her starboard deck amidship were scores of loosely tied bundles of every imaginable color, evidently the clothing taken from the bodies picked up. Each bundle was marked with a large square of burlap on which was printed a number. On board were representatives of the White Star line who had boarded the vessel at the entrance to the harbor. They warned everyone the dock against attempting to board the vessel and proceeded with arrangements for taking off the bodies.

At that time only two mourners were on the dock. They were the maid of Mrs. William Augustus Spencer, Eliza Loretta, and J. A. Kenyon, Connecticut, searching for his brother. Mrs. Spencer’s husband was lost on the Titanic. As the undertakers boarded the death ship, the dead for whom no coffins had been provided could be seen lying on the deck amidship.

Like Mummies.

Some of the bodies were wrapped close as mummies in burlap and canvas and bound with heavy twine. Others lay uncovered in long rows, a heterogeneous mass of arms and legs and heads. These bodies the undertakers began to remove at once, carrying them on stretchers to the waiting wagons. A huge tarpaulin was lifted from amidship and another great group of dead were uncovered.

Evidently no care had been possible for them. They lay stretched beneath the big canvass with arms and legs in cramped positions, soaked with sea salt and with sea stains like red-brown wine stains on every face. Distorted features twisted out of all shape and giving each face a horrible grimace marked every face and staring, unseeing eyes leered from the death group as the undertakers prepared to move the bodies.

Outside the gate of the dock yard group of mourners had been held because they had not been given passes. They had passes to the morgue, but the dock yard authorities refused to honor them. Besides these there were but few about the place. There was no crowd of idle curiosity seekers clamoring for a glimpse of the gruesome freight. Halifax went on quietly about its business passing with averted faces the death wagons that hurried through the street.

A long double row of bare headed sailors, dressed In dirty blue overalls, was stretched from the group of dead amidship to the covered gangplank. The undertakers lifted a body, placed it in a loose canvass stretcher and the sailors lifted it. It was passed down the row from hand to hand until it came to the gangplank. There undertakers grasped it, placed the body in a rough pine box. lifted the box to a wagon, and it was off to the morgue.

Within ten minutes after the Mackay-Bennett docked bodies were leaving the ship at the rate of one a minute, The unidentified bodies were taken off first. They were in a big group that lay amidship uncovered and unembalmed.

The body on board the Mackay-Bennett supposed to be that of George D. Widener may not be the Philadelphia millionaire.

Captain Richard Roberts of the yacht of John Jacob Astor, after a conference with Captain Lardner of the Mackay-Bennett, declared he was satisfied that the body of Astor was on board but that it was possible that the body identified as Widener may be that of his valet.

‘Valets often wear their master’s clothes without removing the name tags,” said Captain Roberts, ‘and the body on board was identified as Mr. widener by the name on the clothing, The head Is badly crushed and it would be impossible to identify the features.

“From the description given me,” continued Roberts, “I am satisfied that Colonel Astor’s body is on board. I did not see the body as it is nailed up in a rough coffin on the after deck.”

A coffin pulled from the pile on the after deck of the Mackay-Bennett was opened and Captain Richard Roberts of the Astor yacht looked at the body it contained. After gazing at it for a moment he turned away saying:

“It is he.”

Captain Roberts had made certain that Colonel John Jacob Aster’s body was in the coffin. Among the unidentified dead was the tiny figure of a baby girl, apparently about two years old. The child’s body had been picked up by one of the crew of the Mackay-Bennett. It was floating on a bit of wreckage. By no means could the little body be identified..

The rough crew of the Mackay-Bennett took charge of the body and It will be buried In Halifax at the expenses of the sailors.

For two hours the work of removing the bodies went on with the regularity of clock work. The wagons gave out and the hearses of all the local undertakers were pressed into service. At 11 o’clock (Atlantic time) no move had been made toward getting off the huge pile of coffins that reared high on the after deck of the ship.

Captain Lardner gave out the following statement regarding the death cruise: 

“We were commissioned to bring all the bodies found floating, but owing to the number found and weather conditions it was impossible to carry out instructions and some were committed to the deep after service by Canon Hind.

“We left shortly after noon on Wednesday, the 17th of April; fog and bad weather delayed us on the run out and we did not arrive until Saturday night at 8 o’clock. On Sunday, at noon, having asked all ships to report us if they passed any wreckage or bodies, we received a communication from a German steamer Rhine to the effect that in latitude 41.20 north longitude 49.30, she had passed some wreckage and bodies. The course was shaped for that position north SS4 east. Later in the afternoon we spoke to the German ship Bremen and they reported they had passed three large bergs in latitude 42 north, longitude 49.20 west.

“We arrived on the scene at eight o’clock Sunday night, stopped and let ship drift. In middle watch, wreckage and a few bodies were sighted. At daylight the boats were lowered and although a heavy sea was running, 51 bodies were recovered that day.”   

The Daily Gate City [Keokuk IA] 30 April 1912: p. 1

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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