Concrete facts were hard to come by immediately after the Titanic sank, so the papers of the day often relied on speculation in covering the tragedy.
“Possibly all the passengers of the Titanic are safe,” The Evening Telegram reported April 16, 1912.
The slow, often inaccurate, flow of information continued for days, and newspapers found themselves correcting or trying to verify stories from the previous day, something that’s hard to imagine in this time of instant communication.
For example, The Telegram reported at one point that a liner called the Virginian was supposed to be on its way to St. John’s with survivors.
The next evening, it followed up the report with, “As regards to the statement that the Virginian is coming to St. John’s, Mr. Geo. Shea, interviewed by The Telegram last evening, gives it as his opinion that such is not the case.”
There was a politician named George Shea at the time (he was St. John’s first mayor), however, we were unable to determine if that’s the man interviewed 100 years ago.
The lack of concrete information became a frustration for newspapers. Headline and editorial writers soon chimed in.
“The world still waiting for authentic news,” read a subhead below the Daily News headline April 17.
The paper’s opinion piece that same day stated, “The stupendous horror of the Titanic wreck has appalled the world. The story is, as yet, but partially told, and the messages reaching here have been all too brief. It may be that this is due to the White Star Line adopting a policy of silence, but we agree with The Telegram and the Chronicle that there is cause for complaint and that an investigation is desirable.”
The secrecy frustrated more than newspapers as is evident from documents in a current exhibit at The Rooms. (See story on page 6 of this special section.)
The papers also published local reaction, rumours and opinions about the sinking.
On April 17, The Evening Telegram reported, “Yesterday it was rumoured about the city that at least five residents of this city were on the ship — a clergyman, Christian brother, prominent athlete, a business(man), and a gentleman who had been on board on a health trip. … The general opinion is, however, that there was not the slightest foundation for the report.”
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The Evening Telegram also reported on the 17th that, “The one topic of conversation in the clubs, halls and on the streets last night was the marine horror with the White Star Liner Titanic. … Only the most meagre intelligence, however, was to be gleaned.”
The article continued, “Nautical men here imagine that when she struck the berg tonnes of ice were hurled on her decks and crushed the life out of many, while the unfortunate who were turned in the forecastle must have been killed if the ship collided with the ponderous crystal obstruction bow-on.”
Some local social connections to the Titanic were noted in the papers, too.
Under the headline “Was known here,” The Evening Telegram reported on April 17, 1912: “Capt. E.J. Smith of the ill-fated Titanic was favourably known to Mr. Eric Bowring of this city, and was intimately acquainted with Mr. Frederick Bowring of New York with whom Capt. Smith was dined on several occasions.”
Valerie Burton, a history professor at Memorial University who has expertise in crew lists, is surprised there wasn’t more of
Newfoundland connection than the ones rumoured or noted 100 years ago.
“I can’t understand why there wasn’t a Newfoundlander on the Titanic),” she says.
“It doesn’t make sense. … The number of times I’ve actually found Newfoundlanders in totally unexpected places …”
Burton says there were Newfoundland sailors in Southampton, U.K., around the time the Titanic left the port of call, but she suspects none were on the ship because White Star Line had a closed labour market.