Titanic conspiracy theories, from mummy’s curse to insurance scam as reasons for sinking

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Every historic human tragedy has conspiracy theories clinging to it like barnacles on a ship's hull.

The John F. Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 terror attacks, the bombing of Pearl Harbour; they all nurture enthusiastic speculation about alternative versions of what took place and why.

The Titanic disaster is no different. There are at least a half-dozen theories that something more than incompetence and hubris led the supposedly "unsinkable" liner to plough into an iceberg April 15, 1912, taking more than 1,500 lives. Two official inquiries at the time of the sinking and more than two decades of investigation of the actual wreck since it was found in the mid-1980s haven't deterred those who believe the real reasons were supernatural, some covered up technical problem or even a massive insurance fraud.

Novelist Paul Byers, writing in the Ballard News-Tribune says the most interesting theory to him is that the Titanic was doomed by an ancient Egyptian curse.

An American businessman, the story goes, smuggled the coffin of a cursed mummy hidden under his car aboard the ship. He was supposedly heard bragging about it to companions. "But the unlucky mummy would have the last word because the ship sank the next night," Byers wrote.

A variation of this story, recounted by Russia's Novosti news agency, has the cursed sarcophagus in the hands of a British nobleman. Supposedly, its evil influence clouded Capt. Edward Smith's judgement so that he sped carelessly through the iceberg-prone stretch of the North Atlantic.

Byers then heads into Da Vinci Code territory with a theory that the sinking was contrived by the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate opposition to its master plan for world domination.

Capt. Smith, this theory goes, was a secret member of the Jesuit order, which wanted to set up a U.S. federal reserve bank to control money and, therefore, politicians. The Jesuits coaxed the plan's opponents to sail on the Titanic's maiden voyage, then ordered Smith to run the ship full-speed through the ice field.

Then there's the theory that an uncontrolled fire in the ship's massive coal bunkers caused an explosion that damaged the ship and sent it into the iceberg.

Novosti's summary says Ray Boston, who's researched the disaster for 20 years, claims the fire started before the ship left for New York. U.S. financier John Pierpont Morgan, who owned the White Star Line, ordered that the ship's sailing not be delayed and that the fire be put out once it reached New York. Boston theorizes that's why Smith steamed at full speed even though the ship received warnings that there were icebergs along its path.

Another theory blames one of Imperial Germany's new submarines, sent to sink the Titanic for the insurance reasons. Supposedly the U-boat's commander was involved in a plot with the White Star Line. But as Novosti notes, no one aboard the ship reported seeing a torpedo hitting the ship.

The U-boat attack idea connects with another elaborate theory that the ship resting more than two miles down on the Atlantic seabed is not the Titanic at all but its sister ship, the Olympic.

British author Robin Gardiner has written three books suggesting the White Star Line switched vessels because the Olympic had been involved in a collision with the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke the year before.

The warship's captain and crew were held blameless for the accident, which voided White Star's insurance on the Olympic, money that was needed to repair the ship, recounts Toronto Star columnist Bill Taylor.

So White Star conspired to stage the iceberg collision and sink the damaged Olympic but it didn't count on the ensuing panic in its evacuation, causing the massive loss of life. Prearranged rescue ships didn't arrive in time.

One theory has the benefit of being propagated by a descendant of the disaster's best-known hero, Titanic Second Officer Charles Lightoller. His granddaughter Lady Louise Patten wrote a novel suggesting the sailor at the helm of the ship at the time of the collision panicked when the iceberg was first sighted and turned the wheel the wrong way, according to Novosti.

Patten also contends the ship failed to slow down immediately after the collision, causing much larger volumes of water to flood through the hull gash and accelerating its demise. She says Lightoller never revealed this information to the U.S. and British inquiries into the sinking because he feared White Star would go bankrupt and he and his colleagues would lose their jobs. He confided in his wife, Sylvia, who in turn told her granddaughter about the initial steering mistake.

There is one coverup related to the Titanic that turns out to be true.

When Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985, he was actually on a top-secret mission for the U.S. government.

In an interview with ABC's Good Morning America in 2008, Ballard revealed he was hired to use his advanced robotic submarines to check on the status of two sunken U.S. nuclear subs, the Thresher and the Scorpion, which went down in the 1960s.

"The Navy didn't want the Soviets to know they were looking for these subs," Ballard said on the show.

So his publicized search for the Titanic provided a perfect cover for an intensified presence of U.S. ships in the Atlantic. In a deal with Ballard, the U.S. Navy agreed to fund that search after his real mission was concluded.