Today marks 111 years since the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic on her maiden voyage. The luxury liner left Southampton on the 10th of April 1912 before picking up additional passengers in Cherbourg and Queenstown (now modern-day Cobh). You can visit the Titanic centre in Cobh today, well worth a visit if you are ever in County Cork – a lesser-known centre then the Titanic Experience in Belfast, the city where White Star Line produced the vessel.
With the anniversary of the disaster, I wanted to write this blog post on the aftermath of the sinking, drawing attention to the recovery of the dead and where many were put to rest. The lesser-known vessel, The Mackay Bennett, was instrumental in recovery of bodies for loved ones.
It took the ship over 2 and a half hours to sink, finally submerging in the early hours of the morning of the 15th of April. About 1500 people are thought to have died as a result of the sinking.
The Mackay Bennett
The Mackay Bennett was a cable ship built in the 1880s. The iron ship was chartered by White Star Line once the news of the sinking had broken. The crew opted to stay on board the ship, despite being told they were under no obligation to carry out the task of recovering bodies. The ship went to the Titanic’s last known location from the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, equipped with ice (100 tonnes), coffins 100 wooden), and undertakers who worked for John Snow and Co. Once the crew arrived at the sinking site, they were greeted with a harrowing site. Many of the dead were mutilated, and the Mackay Bennett called to warn other ships to avoid the area. The ship arrived to begin recovery on the 19th of April.
Recovery and Care of the Dead
Captain Larnder of the Mackay Bennett stated that far more bodies then expected were seen in the sea upon arriving, with boats manned by 5 or 6 crew members launched for recovery with room for 8 bodies per small boat. Over 50 bodies were recovered on the first day, fewer were recovered on the second day and 119 were recovered on the third day. Embalming fluid was also brought on the ship so chief embalmer – John R. Snow Jr. – could care for the dead. Once a body was brought aboard, it was given a number that matched a bag with their personal items. Physical characteristics, identifying features and clothing were also noted. Once all the coffins were filled and embalming fluid ran out, the bodies were wrapped in a canvas and placed on ice in the hold. Only embalmed bodies could be brought ashore, so the difficult decision was made to bury some of the bodies at sea – they were weighed down with iron bars and dropped overboard as a minister delivered a service. It was noted that the many of the bodies buried at sea were identified from their clothing as third-class passengers or crew members, with some scholars stating that the bodies ‘worth less’ were returned to the water. Many of the wealthier passengers were chosen for preservation rather than a sea burial as so insurance policies could be paid. Another ship, the Minia, eventually arrived on scene with more embalming fluid so the process of preservation could begin again. 306 bodies were recovered by the Mackay Bennett after 7 days of searching, with 116 buried at sea. The remaining victims were brought back to Halifax. 3 additional ships recovered a further 22 bodies over the following month. It is estimated that around 23% of the dead were recovered.
Reaching the Shore
A temporary morgue was set up at the Halifax curling rink. The same rink was used as a temporary morgue 5 years later when a moored ammunition ship exploded and killed around 2000 people in Halifax. The ship arrived back on the 30th of April to tolling bells and family members looking for their loved ones. Black draped hearses were set up along the dock to retrieve the bodies from the recovery vessel. Around 200 bodies were brought ashore (sources differ on exact numbers), with an area set up for identification in the temporary morgue. To assist with grieving relatives, a nurse was on hand to comfort loved ones. One undertaker collapsed from shock when he unexpectedly came across the body of his uncle amongst the victims.
Around 150 people recovered from the Titanic were buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia – over 50 victims were claimed by relatives and shipped elsewhere for internment. 3 cemeteries are the final resting place for victims in Halifax – Fairview Lawn, Mount Olivet, and Baron de Hirsch. These 3 cemeteries are non-denominational (FL), Catholic (MO) and Jewish (BH). An unidentified baby recovered from the water was exhumed and DNA tested in 2007 – the 19-month-old was finally identified as Sidney Godwin. His whole family perished in the disaster – they were third class passengers.
Eventually the Mackay Bennett resumed its duties as a cable carrier – retiring in 1922. The ship now lives on in the history books at the mortuary vessel for the victims of the Titanic.
Recovering Titanic Bodies: The Grim Task of the Mackay-Bennett