Origins: Many of the legendary tales associated with the Titanic's sinking deal with human acts of courage, heroism, and sacrifice in the face of certain death, tales all the more remarkable because most of them were true. One legend stands in stark counterpoint to those chronicles of bravery: the claim that an adult male passenger secured a place in a lifeboat by disguising himself as a woman.
If we imagined a disaster similar to the Titanic occurring today, we would likely picture it as an "every man for himself" free-for-all in which faster and stronger passengers shouldered aside the slow, weak, and elderly to secure places for themselves in the available lifeboats. No such melee took place on the decks of the Titanic, however, even though "women and children first" was not a regulation specified by maritime law.
Back in 1912, "women and children first" was a rule men followed primarily because doing so was a social imperative; it was, as a Titanic officer would later testify, "a law of human nature." In a very real sense, violating this social rule was worse than breaking the law: The criminal who stole money might "pay his debt to society" and rehabilitate himself by spending time in prison or making restitution to his victim, but the man who pushed his way into a lifeboat while women remained on board was an irredeemable coward. (Many men did end up in Titanic lifeboats, but they did so without shame because they did not obtain their seats by displacing women; rather, they were allowed into boats that were ready to be launched but remained underfilled because no more women could be coaxed into them.) To cast a
The man most victimized by this rumor was William T. Sloper of New Britain, Connecticut, who was publicly identified in a New York newspaper as "the man who got off in woman's clothing." Sloper actually left the Titanic in lifeboat
When the rescue ship Carpathia docked in New York four days later, Sloper was whisked away by his father and brother and taken to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Reporters soon gathered outside his room to press him for a story, but Sloper had already promised an exclusive to the editor of his hometown newspaper. According to legend, a reporter for a
J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line (which owned and operated the Titanic) has commonly been portrayed as having dressed as a woman in order to make a cowardly escape to safety aboard a lifeboat, but that depiction was based on nothing more than a resentful rumor promulgated by those who felt he was the person most responsible for the Titanic disaster and should therefore have gone down with his ship rather than displacing an innocent passenger from a lifeboat. (Ismay stepped aboard a collapsible lifeboat which was loaded slightly under its capacity just as it was about to be lowered, so he didn't really take the place of anyone who might otherwise have been saved.)
Two other men, William Carter and Dickinson Bishop, were also spitefully tagged as having disguised themselves as women to escape from the Titanic, and in both cases the rumors were lent additional credence when the men's wives divorced them and cited their alleged less-than-honorable behavior the night the Titanic went down as one of the reasons.
In the case of Dickinson Bishop, there is little support for the accusation. Bishop reportedly "fell into the boat" his wife had entered ("accidentally" falling into lifeboats being a scheme more than few men employed in desperate attempts to secure seats), but Bishop and his wife left the Titanic in lifeboat
William Carter's case may have had at least a little something to it, though. In 1915, Mrs. Carter's testimony from her divorce case (based on grounds of "cruel and barbarous treatment and indignities to the person") was leaked to the press, and a portion of that testimony read as follows:
Whatever the truth of William Carter's behavior, rumors about his dressing as a woman may have been fueled by an incident involving his ten-year-old son,
"No, sir," [Second Officer] Lightoller replied. "No men are allowed in these boats until the women are loaded first."
When Mrs. Ryerson led her son Jack to the window, Lightoller called out, "That boy can't go!"
Mr. Ryerson indignantly stepped forward: "Of course that boy goes with his
Only one verified case of an adult male passenger's using an article of women's clothing to secure a place on a lifeboat turned up in the lengthy inquiries about the Titanic disaster conducted by both American and British authorities. During the American inquiry, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe testified about an incident that took place when he attempted to transfer passengers from his lifeboat
When they jumped, I said I would go too. I went into the boat. Then two officers came along and said all of the men could come out. And they brought a lot of steerage passengers with them; and they were mixed, every way, ladies and gentlemen. And they said all the men could get out and let the ladies in. But six men were left in the boat. I think they were firemen and sailors.
I was crying. There was a woman in the boat, and she had thrown her shawl over me, and she told me to stay in there. Then they did not see me, and the boat was lowered down into the water, and we rowed away out from the steamer.
The men that were in the boat at first fought, and would not get out, but the officers drew their revolvers, and fired shots over our heads, and then the men got out. When the boat was ready, we were lowered down into the water and rowed away out from the steamer. We were only about
So, all in all, the Titanic's lifeboats held a boy in a woman's hat and a young man in a woman's shawl (both items of apparel apparently placed on their heads by others), but the man who allegedly escaped in full female regalia remains a chimera.
Sightings: A memorable episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery ("Lone Survivor," original air date
Last updated: 15 March 2010