According to folklore, the supposedly clairvoyant W.T. Stead had foreseen his death on the Titanic decades earlier. Subsequently, when the stricken vessel began to sink, rather than try to save himself, he instead spent his last two hours on earth quietly reading a book in the first class smoking room. Or, so the story goes..
Despite widespread belief in this fanciful account of Stead's final hours, its only written source seems to be Walter Lord's quintessential retelling of the tragedy, A Night to Remember, published in 1956 and later made into a movie of the same name. In the latter (which is the only Titanic film to depict Stead) the editor's calmness in the height of the disaster is admiringly observed by the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews. In the book, however, the scene is described by survivor George Kemish, a fire stoker, who escaped in lifeboat no. 9 and later went on to correspond with the book's author about his experience.
Unfortunately, Kemish's story is almost certainly fictional and was probably inspired by later press reports citing Stead's two "sinking" stories, How the Mail Steamer went Down in Mid Atlantic (1886) and From the Old World to the New (1892), both of which are said to have "predicted" the sinking of the Titanic. Moreover, not only does Kemish's story fly in the face of every contemporary account of Stead's character, it also contradicts far more credible sightings of him both during and immediately after the sinking. Survivor, Mrs. William Shelley, for instance, said that Stead attracted attention "even in that awful hour, on account of [his] superhuman composure and divine work", and when he "could do no more, he stood alone at the edge of the deck" in a "prayerful attitude of profound meditation." A later sighting, by survivor Philip Mock, has Stead clinging to a raft with Col. John Jacob Astor. "Their feet became frozen," recalled Mock, "and they were compelled to release their hold. Both were drowned".
Yet, despite such highly credible accounts, it is Lord's fatalistic portrayal of Stead, gallantly resolved to go down with the ship, that endures to this day. Friends and colleagues who lived long enough to see the film, A Night to Remember, undoubtedly took comfort from this portrayal because it represented Stead as being fearless in death as he had been in life. Spiritualists likewise seized on the smoking room scene because it fulfilled their image of Stead as a gifted precognitive fatalist, bravely facing his own foreseen end. Sadly, modern researchers have done little to dispel this myth, with several modern works, including the Channel 4 documentary, Victorians Uncovered: The Virgin Trade (2002) still perpetuating the smoking room story.
Fortunately, serious historians need only glance at Stead's own expectations of his final voyage, as recorded by him in the Review of Reviews, to see that his supposed insight into his own death has no basis in fact whatsoever: "I expect to leave by the Titanic on April 10th and hope I shall be back in London in May."
© Owen Mulpetre 2012