How the Mail Steamer went Down

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How the Mail Steamer went down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, March 22, 1886)

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886 and later in the Review of Reviews following Stead’s death. It is often cited as anticipating the sinking of the Titanic.]

We took in 158 mail bags and 342 passengers at Queenstown, and there was a good deal of confusion as the steamer headed away to the west, for we had shipped 560 passengers in all at Liverpool, and it was a pretty tight fit in the steerage. I stayed on deck till after eleven at night.

“She’s going it,” I said, by way of opening conversation. “Yes, by the hokey, she’s doing sixteens now, and if the wind only conies round she’ll score eighteens like a winking.”

“It’s rather thick to drive her, isn’t it?” “Thick be blowed. We ain’t got to mind that much. We shall slow her down a bit if we blunder into a regular fog, but she can’t spare a yard. Reckon we shall average seventeens right across.” Our talk went on till the curtain of midnight was fairly folded round us, and then I went aft to lend a hand with the log. Sure enough we were going “sixteens,” and our progress was rather like that of a mackerel than a ship. The enormous pulse of the engines sent great tremors from stem to stern, and at every wheeling lash of the propeller the boat thrust her way through the black mountains that came down on her, tossing their savage white crests. In the morning the gale blew harder, and the decks were almost deserted save by the few seasoned hands who came up to smoke in the alleys. It was not till the fourth day we had a fine spell of sunshine, and from the fore hatch to the spare wheel the deck was crammed with jostling lines of pale but cheerful people. I did not much like the appearance of our Liverpool lot. I had an intermediate ticket, but I wandered among the steerage company without much interruption until I happened to stumble against one of the English roughs. I begged pardon, but the surly fellow said: “What be’est moochin’ round here for? Say, Curly, see this blank swine majorin’ round’s zif the place b’longed to’m. I’ll give you my toe, my joker, ‘fore you can say knife if you come that agin!” I said: “I’ve asked your pardon, my man, and I assure you it was an accident. As for your toe, I advise you not to try it on. I have a full allowance of toes and boots.” He was a fellow with that type of snake head which denotes the fighting man; his jowl was vast, the point of his jaw was covered by the strained skin which showed how he was clenching his teeth; and his evil little eyes looked venomous under his rugged, bestial brows. He said: “Do you know who I am? I’m Jim Cormick and I’m going out to spar with the Boston Boy.” I was not much alarmed, though I saw that his fist would mark me if he got home. His friends came round, and I am bound to say that they were as unpleasant a lot as you can meet. There was no sign of discipline among the 560 steerage passengers, though it is fair to say that the foreigners behaved admirably. When a vessel hove up there was a nasty rush to the side where she could be seen, and the women had to get out of the way as best they could. The officers’ uniforms cowed the most offensive of the rowdies, but I don’t think the terror was very deep-seated. The after-cabin passengers were a nice lot, and I particularly admired some of the ladies who came out in their sea rig, and made the deck gay. One Englishman of distinction attracted me strangely. He had his wife and family with him, and a more beautiful group I never saw. The eldest girl was a dark beauty about eighteen years of age, and it was a pretty sight to see the father beau-ing her about. The time went by pleasantly enough with us all, but I did wish that some sort of discipline could have been established among the more blackguardly males, for their games were senseless and offensive.

On the fifth night out the moon shown beautifully, and we were surrounded by a fireworks of silver. I could not sleep for the very delight of living, and I walked up and down crooning over old rhymes under the glad mystery of the night. A sudden freak prompted me to hoist myself up from the alley, and I had a look at four of the boats. The thole-pins were laid ready, water casks made fast forward, oars lashed handily, plugs out. I counted the thwarts, and it struck me that the other four boats must be pretty big, for the four amidships were certainly small enough. At the finish I calculated that, by loading all the eight boats down lo the water’s edge and packing the children along the bottom boards, we might accommodate 390 people. We were carrying 916 altogether.

The next morning at three o’clock I felt restless; so I came up, and found that we were lungeing over a long, true sea, that moved in grey hillocks under a thick haze. It was not really a fog, but it was puzzling. The look-out man sang shrilly,”Vessel away on the starboard bow, sir.” “All right.” We steamed on, and I watched the looming ship. “Shows his green, sir!” “All right.” A minute after the boatswain ran swiftly aft, and said softly to the officer on the bridge: “He’s going about, sir. D—d if I know what he wants to do.” We lost sight of the vessel’s green just as we cleared the big bank of haze, and then I saw that a big barque was standing right across our bows. I glanced at the mate, and saw him compress his lips; then I saw that we were edging away to port, and I knew that our man was going to shoot across the barque’s bows. Distances are so deceptive that I still had no thought of nervousness till the barque suddenly shook out her square mainsail and came surging away till we saw her red light. What could one make of this? The officer yelled of a sudden, with an oath, “Starboard, for Christ’s sake, starboard!” and then, as if by magic, the cloud of canvas seemed to overtop us. I saw the officer hanging to the rail, and as I jumped on the hatches I noticed, with forlorn curiosity, that his knuckles were white. I heard a long scrunch, and then the barque bounded back a few yards, while the steamer trailed on; she came slowly into us again, and I heard her bows crashing, for she had dashed clean against the bulks of the stokehole. One shrill scream came shuddering up from the cabin—only one—then a murmur, then a hoarse burst of yelling; then a man came came up and cried, “Oh, my God!” and then, in a wild, remorseless, ferocious crowd, the steerage men trampled up, struggling, tearing each other’s clothes, cursing, praying. Some of the women battered and screamed as they tried to force the bolts of their door; then the whole crowd broke clear, and soon they were clinging to the men, praying, jabbering with notes of horrible pathos all kinds of incoherences. I ran aft, and saw the barque waver, lurch, and then sink.

I remember now observing how her masts quivered, and I heard a report like that of a heavy cannon as her hatches were thrust up by the air. A green and white mountain gleamed in the grey of the dawn, and then the ship was no more seen. The ladies from the cabin were mostly in their nightdresses, and the men also had taken no time to dress. I saw white, drawn faces, and I noticed particularly my English gentleman and his daughter. She was hanging to his arm, and I thought she was shaking convulsively, but she kept her lips tight, and only the deadly stare of her eyes flashing from the pallor of her writhing face told of her trouble. The captain rushed forward, buckling his belt as he came. He was in his shirt sleeves, and I saw the butt of a Deringer peeping from his Yankee pocket behind him. From below there came a queer sucking sound, with an occasional long gurgle, and I saw that the vessel seemed to “hang” as the seas met her. The second officer, who was a smart man, had passed a spare sail over the side, and I knew he wanted to reeve it under her, but he might just as well have tried to stop the middle arch of London Bridge. The engines were still kept going, but the deck slanted, slanted steadily, and the list to starboard reached an angle that made it difficult to stand at all, especially as the uneasy, staggering lunges of the steamer were taking her anyhow. An awkward rush of men swayed forward; the boxer and his gang made a desperate attempt to get one of the boats clear; cursing and praying, they hacked at the tackles with knives; some of them swarmed up, and stood on the thwarts tearing savagely at the chains; but the boats were made fast to stand heavy weather, and only skilled sailors could launch them. A loud crack, followed by a wallowing noise like thunder, rendered all other sounds insignificant, and a captain who was going out to New York said; “The bulkhead’s gone. We must take our chance now.” The ship stopped nearly dead, and began to tremble curiously, but that was only the river of water pouring aft, and we soon saw the firemen driven up like rats from a burrow. “Stand by the boats!”

The order was given, and the boatswain’s call rose in a long, tremulous screech. The sailors tried to get to their quarters, and I observed that their occasional drills had done them good. But then the drills had been carried on while the passengers stood aloof, so that the sailors were used to having their own way. At this juncture there was a maddened host of cowardly men and hysterical women to be dealt with. I forced my way forward toward one of the starboard boats, and as I thrust my way through the crush, an Irishwoman clung to me with one arm, while she held up a shivering baby with the other. The woman was nearly naked, but she never heeded the cold. “Mother of God,” she cried, “take my little one, and make sure of him.” I shook her off and pushed on. A terrified navvy sought to keep me back, and he scratched at my face like a cat; but I reached the davits. The men had the boat swung round, and the carpenter was about to let her run, when a mixed mob of English and foreigners took possession, and in an instant the little craft was packed with a weltering heap of men who had quite lost their senses. I saw the captain leave the bridge with a flying spring, and I saw also the gleam of the pistol barrels; then I heard on the starboard side the rapid “Smash, smash” of a revolver-shot, and the captain shouted, “You hear what they’re getting on the other side! Out of it, or I take you one after the other.” The sailors were fighting hard, but the men in the boat fought also with the oars and boathooks; one seaman had his head split; another received a wound from a boathook which took his cheek away in one nasty flap.

Still the ruffians did not know how to lower away, and one of them began to lash at the forward fall with an axe. “Come down, you sir.” “You be d—d.” Crack! The man flung up his arms, dropped his axe, and fell headlong into the sea. “Now down with you,” said the captain, livid and half-blind with fury. But no. A furious fool succeeded in letting the boat go by the head and the whole crowd of poltroons were dumped into the swashing sea, where they gasped and struggled till the last two men throttled each other and rolled under. One of the starboard boats was successfully launched, and the chief officer stood, revolver in hand. “Women first here. Thompson, you will steer her. Take four men, and no more. The young English lady was lowered down, although she clung hard to her father and begged him to let her stay. “No, darling, good-bye. Be happy!” he said, and then stood composedly amid the hurly-burly. A pretty actress and two Irish women were next sent down; then four children were put in, and then the sailors sprang over the side and prepared to help others. An Irishman shouted, “Now, boys!” His voice seemed to send an impulse through the crowd, and the roughs tore themselves away from the women, and flung themselves recklessly—some into the boat, some into the water. The officer fire two barrels and missed each time; a sailor shoved off, and we saw an overladen boat lumber heavily away astern.

All this scene of horror took place in less than two minutes, and the ship settled more and more every second. The prize fighter and his gang were not successful in their attempt to steal the boat forward. The purser and the steward armed themselves with firemen’s rods and beat the fellows down; then the baker—a quick young lad, who had learned his business as a seaman in addition to his trade—let the boat slip, and four gallant men withstood the ferocious rowdies until eighteen women had been pitched over the side and carelessly lowered. A seaman took the tiller, four stokers, the purser, and the baker jumped in at the last moment, and this second boat went adrift. Meanwhile the captain had reloaded—alas! what a pity he only had two barrels— and a third and fourth boat went off with half their proper complement. Another boatload might have escaped, but six men sprang from the port side, and actually stove the cutter in. At last, only one light boat remained, and still there were over 700 of us jammed in the narrow space left by the awful list. The captain had dropped his hands; he could do no more. The third mate took a handspike and went smashing among the men who were wrestling around our last hope. One sailor said, “We’ve stood it long enough, Tom. Let’s have our turn.” And he, with three sturdy Swedes, managed to get at the davits. They were just in time, for the steamer began to sway as they floated, and they flung themselves into the water. Then I was left with a great multitude, whose agonized clamour stunned me. I felt a mighty, convulsive movement; then the sea seemed to flash down on me in one mass, as if the wall of water fell from a high crag. Then I heard a humming noise in my ears, and with a gasp I was up amid a blackened, wriggling sheet of drowning creatures. A boat came past me, and I struck out lustily. I raised myself to the gunwale. ” Shall I hit his fingers,” said a man. “No, let him come,” and then I was laid, sick and dizzy, on the bottom boards of a crowded boat. You know that we were picked up after a nasty time, and I am at home minus my kit.

[NOTE.— This is exactly what might take place and what will take place if the liners are sent to sea short of boats.—ED.]