Why did Captain Edward J. Smith, captain of the RMS Titanic, choose to go down with the remaining 1,500 passengers on his ship? It’s not exactly something he could lie about on his resume. This was only one of the lingering questions surrounding the man that captained the most infamous shipwreck in history. Who was he? Why, with his disastrous background, was he trusted with the Titanic? And, most importantly, was there more he could have done to prevent the unsinkable vessel’s untimely end?

Before the night of April 15, 1912, the Titanic was known for being the largest cruise ship on the water. As you may know, the ship was called “unsinkable,” which is just asking for bad luck. Who do you hire to sail such a noteworthy vessel?

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Captain Edward J. Smith had 40 years of sailing experience. Born in England in 1850 to a lower-middle-class family, he dropped out of school at age 12 to work, which was typical for Victorian children. After a short forging career, Smith was inspired by his brother to become a ship captain.

Smith’s mother had two children from her first marriage who were nearly 20 years older than Smith. One was Joseph Hancock, who captained his own ship by his 30’s. Hancock brought Smith onto his boat, Senator Weber, in 1867 when Smith was just 17 years old. From there, his road to captainhood was rocky.

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Smith’s first attempt at passing the navigational exams failed. He tried again at age 38 and finally made the cut, going on to become one of the most beloved captains of his time. And yet, his record wasn’t exactly the greatest. How did he end up with a legendary status? Personality, baby.

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Somehow, Smith ran three ships — the Republic, the Coptic, and the Adriatic — directly onto dry land, yet he was still taken on as captain for the White Star Line company, the organization famously owned and operated the Titanic! There, the captain ran into even more issues.

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Smith was known for captaining ships that were on their maiden, or very first, voyage. Right before his fatal voyage, Smith captained the Titanic’s twin, the Olympic. The White Star Line released the Olympic just one year prior to releasing the Titanic. What happened while Smith was in command? An accident, of course.

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As the Olympic was pulling away from the port, Smith failed to notice a Royal Navy ship and they collided. How could he miss it? We’re not sure. Nevertheless, the White Star Line invited him to be the captain of all their new ships, each vessel growing larger by the year.

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Smith attested to the public that he was a safe and trustworthy sailor. “When anyone asks me how to describe my experience of nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say ‘uneventful,’” touted Smith. And yet, he was accused of ignoring certain on-ship disasters that most captains would acknowledge out of sheer duty.

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Captain Smith didn’t seem that concerned about his workers on the Republic, where a furnace blew in 1889, killing three of his men. In 1907, Smith was quoted saying, “I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about.” Not yet, anyway.

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Eventually, Smith was known as “The Millionaire’s Captain.” The White Line Star put him on duty for all their large passenger ships, which were frequently taken by celebrities. A few travelers even insisted on having Smith as their captain. Some treated him like royalty.

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“[Smith] was the ideal dinner guest and made himself available to passengers and crew,” said writer P.B. Lound. What was it about the captain that made him so pleasant to be around? Seasoned traveler Kate Douglas-Wiggin, who rode with the captain over 20 times, recounts his personality.

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“I can remember certain voyages when great inventors and scientists, earls and countesses, authors and musicians and statesmen made a “Captain’s table” as notable and distinguished as that of any London or New York dinner.“ When unfounded rumors spread that the Titanic could be Smith’s final journey, people came flocking.

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“At such times Captain Smith was an admirable host; modest, dignified, appreciative; his own contributions to the conversation showing not only the quality of his information but the high quality of his mind.” Famous voyagers were among those who went down with the ship. How did the public think of Smith after the disaster?

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One couple said, “We always felt so safe with him, for one knew how deeply he felt the responsibility of his ship and of all on board. He has been a deeply cherished friend on sea and land all these years.” The question remains: Did Smith do enough to save his ship?

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The White Star Line didn’t seem to think so. If the Titanic hadn’t sunk, Smith would be entitled to a no-collision bonus of £200 on top of his £1,250/month salary, equal to about £154,000 today. When he died, his widow didn’t receive that £200 bonus. But was it really Smith’s fault that the ship sank?

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To this day, no one knows exactly what Smith did in his final hours to ensure the safety of his crew and passengers, but there are some clues. After all, before the ship even took off, Smith was experiencing issues keeping control. Not exactly new for the captain, huh?

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Just as the Titanic was pulling out of its post in Southampton, the enormous power of the propellors began sucking in a small ship called the SS New York. As the tiny ship battled furiously against the massive force, Smith needed to think quickly to prevent disaster. At least, this disaster.

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The small ship was getting closer and closer to the Titanic. Smith ordered the crew to reverse the propellors and have the tugboat alongside the ship help prevent drifting. The SS New York managed to just scrap by within 4 feet of the transatlantic beast! A small victory before a giant disaster.

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Perhaps the 62-year-old captain shouldn’t have been in charge of such a mission if he could barely get the ship out of the dock. Smith’s fans were so comforted by his experience and personality that they, along with the White Star Line, ignored his shortcomings. How could this happen? The short answer: money.

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A popular captain who brings in rich guests has serious sway with his employers. He brings in the dough, after all. Some view Smith as a saint and others as a disaster waiting to happen. It’s up to history to decide! First, though, people need to educate themselves about the many myths of the Titanic disaster.

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Really, only 20th-century journalists touted the ship’s safety features. One writer called the ship “practically unsinkable.” This phrase was dramatized across history and became a much stronger sentiment than was originally intended.

As the ship sank, Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux, John Frederick Preston Clark, John Law Hume, George Alexandre Krins, Percy Cornelius Taylor, and John Wesley Howard played music, but no one can agree on what the song actually was.

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In a few eyewitness accounts, passengers claimed to have heard gunshots, allegedly from a male passenger who shot at two men and then took his own life. This story was dramatized in the 1997 Titanic. The sinking was dramatic enough — there’s no need to add fiction.

White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay, below, wanted the Titanic at full speed, but it wasn’t his goal to arrive a day early and break the record for crossing the Atlantic. It would have been impossible to dock the ship if they reached the port before their scheduled arrival window.

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White Star Line spent about £1.5 million and three years to make the ship. Harland & Wolff, Belfast shipbuilders used standard ship construction practices like mixed propulsion engines, and a securely fastened hull. “She was the latest thing in the art of shipbuilding,” J. Bruce said.

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“After all the women and children were in,” J. Bruce said during a testimony, “and after all the people that were on deck had got in, I got into the boat as she was being lowered away.” He never kicked anyone out of a boat.

Third-class guests were not imprisoned to give those in first-class a better chance of escaping. Different classes of passengers were naturally separated by their classes and due to past health regulations, gates were erected to prevent disease spread.

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The accused, William Thompson Sloper, a stockbroker from Connecticut, never dressed as a woman. A first-class passenger, he got a seat in lifeboat 7 because he boarded with his bridge buddy, Dorthy Gibson.

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One of the 10 dogs on the ship was Rigel, First Officer William McMaster Murdoch’s Newfoundland. The officer died in the sinking, but Rigel was loaded onto a lifeboat and survived. No records indicate the pooch saved anyone, however.

Though Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus, and Benjamin Guggenheim, three of J.P. Morgan’s rivals, died in the disaster, the banker wasn’t behind it. There wasn’t any real evidence he was involved, making this yet another story that grew out of hand.


People behind this conspiracy theory suggest the Titanic was switched with the RMS Olympic because the ship was too damaged to be profitable. It’s extremely unlikely an entire company could have remained silent about this large of a conspiracy for so long.

William Stead, a pioneer of investigative journalism, wrote two stories about ships sinking: “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor,” and “From the Old World to the New.” This was likely an unfortunate coincidence and not a prediction of the ship’s fate.


Reality: There were quite a few stories about boat disasters: “The White Ghost of Disaster,” the Wreck of the Titan, and Atlantis. These made for exciting tales of bravery and disaster but didn’t predict anything. An iceberg sunk the ship, not the predilections of a 20th-century writer.

Or maybe it was a mummy? William Stead was a British editor who died on the Titanic, and he claimed there was a cursed mummy using its significant powers to attack London — which was linked to his colonizer-inspired fears against the Egyptians.

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While some suggest David Sarnoff, a pioneer of American radio, was first to hear of the ship’s sinking. But his entire staff at the Marconi wireless station was in the building and would have also heard the message. Even this version can’t be completely verified.

In reality, the Save Our Ship (SOS) was invented at the International Conference on Wireless Communication at Sea in Berlin in 1906 and had been used since 1908. The Titanic was not the first to make the plea for help.

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The number that would have spelled the demonic-ish “NO POPE” phrase (3909 04) wasn’t attached to the liner. The Titanic’s ID number was 401, and this had more to do with the ship-building company having a reputation for only hiring Protestants.

The fan theory saying Jack Dawon and Jay Gatsby are the same person suggests that Jack didn’t actually die in Titanic. He instead survived and gathered wealth and turned into Jay Gatsby. The timelines are close. Hmm.

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Some reports indicate passengers aboard the Norwegian sealer Samson actually witnessed the Titanic sinking. Really, they saw a ship called the Californian in the distance. The opposing theory started in the 1960s.

There are conflicting stories of what the captain spent his last hours doing. Some say he jumped into the water to save drowning passengers, and others claim he locked himself in his room and then refused being put into a lifeboat.