“TITANIC SUNK: NO LIVES LOST” – The Original Fake News & The Morgue Ship Tasked with Recovering Bodies

The day after the Titanic sank, newspapers around the world reported that all the passengers aboard had been saved. The World declared, “Titanic Sinking; No Lives Lost.” The Evening Sun proclaimed, “All Saved from Titanic After Collison.” The Vancouver Daily Province reported, “The Titanic Sinking, But Probably No Lives Lost.” Only The New York Times hit close to the truth with a lengthy headline which read: “Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceberg; 866 Rescued By Carpathia, Probably 1,250 Perish; Ismay Safe, Mrs. Astor Maybe, Noted Names Missing.”

In reality, 1,514 people lost their lives in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912.

How could so many newspapers get it so wrong? It turns out that during the course of wireless chatter someone asked: “Are the Titanic passengers safe?” An answer came: “The ship is being towed to Halifax and everyone is ok.” The only problem was that the second transmission didn’t refer to the Titanic. When reporters got wind of the story, many of them called folks along the Canadian coast to corroborate details. Misinformation spread like wild fire.

Christopher Sullivan, an editor at Associated Press in New York who researched the origins of this catastrophic error, said: “At the very beginning, when the story is just developing, there’s so much confusion and everyone is doing everything they possibly can to grab any piece of information.” American newspapers had a slight advantage over their British counterparts given the five hour time difference between the United States and Britain, which bought them time to verify facts. Even so, inaccurate reporting persisted on both sides of the Atlantic.

This got me thinking about some of the lesser-known stories involving the world’s most famous maritime disaster. Many people are well-versed in the history of the Titanic. But one story that rarely gets any attention is what happened to the bodies of those who died that fateful morning. Some sank to the bottom of the sea, but not all. Many victims who were wearing life jackets merely bobbed upon the surface of the water: a grisly reminder of the extraordinary loss of life that arose from the accident.

This is a photo [left] of an unidentified victim of the Titanic being embalmed on the deck of the Mackay Bennett, which was one of four ships chartered by the White Star Line to collect bodies shortly after the disaster. The grim task took several days, with one observer describing how he “grew sick of the sight” of dead bodies. Dr Thomas Armstrong, the Ship’s Surgeon on the Mackay Bennett, recalled: “With the exception of about 10 bodies that had received serious injuries, their looks were calm and peaceful.” In the end, the Mackay Bennett and its crew were able to recover over 300 bodies, including that of business tycoon John Jacob Astor, who was identified by the jewelry he wore and a few cards found in a card case in his pocket.

It took two days to ready the ship, and four days to reach the site of the disaster. When it finally reached its destination, the Mackay Bennett was carrying with it 100 coffins, 100 tons of ice, and 12 tons of iron bars which were used to bury badly decomposed bodies at sea. Passenger bodies which were in “satisfactory condition” were embalmed.

Unfortunately, the crew of the Mackay Bennett was unprepared for the sheer number of bodies that they would encounter. Later, the captain explained why so many of those recovered ultimately had to be buried at sea: “When we left Halifax we took on board all of the embalming fluid in the city. That was only enough to care for seventy bodies. It wasn’t expected that we would find bodies in such great quantities.”

When possible, those identified as first class passengers were placed in coffins, while second and third class passengers were wrapped in canvas. Crew members were simply placed into the ice-filled hold or buried at sea. The Captain said: “The undertaker didn’t think these bodies would keep more than three days at sea, and as we expected to be out more than two weeks we had to bury them. They received the full services for the dead before they were put over.” Even in death, people were sorted according to their class.

On 30 April 1912, The Washington Times reported: “As the Mackay-Bennett slowly steamed up the three and one-half miles of the harbor, the bells in the church towers tolled solemnly at minute intervals, and thousands of the city’s inhabitants hurried to points of vantage along the water front to catch the first glimpse of the ship with her cargo of dead.” Relatives of the victims were kept away for several days while the bodies were prepared by undertakers, one of whom had the misfortune of discovering his own uncle amongst the drowned corpses pulled from the sea.

About half of those recovered were buried across three cemeteries in Halifax; forty-two bodies went unidentified. Their tombstones contain a simple number and the date of the disaster. Only twenty-three percent of the total number of people who died during the sinking were ever found.

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By |2019-10-01T19:04:59+00:00October 1st, 2019|BLOG, Casebooks|12 Comments

The Lost Art of Sin-Eating

In 19th-century Britain, it was customary during a funeral to provide biscuits for mourners. They were often wrapped and sealed in black wax. Below, you see an example of a funeral biscuit wrapper from 1828 which is now on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

This strange tradition likely derived from an earlier practice of “sin-eating,” whereby the sins of the deceased were transferred to a person who, for a small fee, consumed food and drink handed to him over the coffin. Mourners would pay the village sin-eater to rid their departed loved ones from all the sins they had accumulated during their lives, thus allowing the dead to enter Heaven unburdened. One early account describes the lost act of sin-eating: “The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given for…taking upon himself the sins of the deceased.”

Originally, sin-eating was performed for those who had died unexpectedly, since these people would have had no time to confess their sins before dying. Over time, however, the ritual was performed for anyone who died. This was done not only to expedite the dead’s passage to Heaven, but also to prevent the dearly departed from wandering the countryside after death and haunting those they left behind.

The sin-eater was often shunned within his own community. Villagers feared the type of man who was willing to “pawn his own soul” for very little worldly gain. People believed that the sin-eater would become more and more corrupt with each ritual he performed since he willfully carried the sins of the deceased for the rest of his mortal life.

The ritual soon became associated with dark magic as it bestowed human powers over spiritual matters. For this reason, sin-eaters were seen to be operating outside the bounds of Christianity, and were often condemned by the Church. The Scottish novelist Catherine Sinclair wrote in 1838 that the men “who undertook so daring an imposture must all have been infidels, willing, apparently, like Esau, to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The last recorded sin-eater was a man named Richard Munslow, who died in 1906 in Ratlinghope, Shropshire. Unlike many of his predecessors who took on the role of sin-eater out of economic desperation, Munslow came from a relatively wealthy family. He resurrected the practice of sin-eating after three of his children died of whooping cough, and some speculate he did it as a form of grieving. Over time, however, he offered to absorb the sins of the recently departed purely out of kindness and love for his fellow villagers.

In 2010, the citizens of Ratlinghope raised over a thousand pounds to restore Munslow’s grave, which had fallen into disrepair over the last century. It was a final act of kindness for a man who had given so much of himself to his fellow man.

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By |2019-12-18T10:14:23+00:00September 13th, 2019|BLOG, Casebooks|6 Comments

Ten Medical Procedures From The Past

For anyone who has ever uttered the words “the good old days,” this blog post is for you. Here are 10 MEDICAL PROCEDURES FROM THE PAST that will make you happy to be alive in 2019.

By |2019-09-01T19:41:41+00:00September 1st, 2019|BLOG, Casebooks|15 Comments

New Events – Tickets now on Sale!

Hello, my long-lost subscribers! My deepest apologies for my radio silence these past few months: I’ve been hard at work on the second book about the history of plastic surgery; as well as other various projects. But I hope to publish a new blog post very soon. In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to some upcoming events I’ll be doing in the US and UK in the next couple of months.


First up is the CHICAGO HUMANITIES FESTIVAL on Sunday, October 28th. I’ll be at the Ryan Center in Evanston talking about the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery, and signing copies of my book The Butchering Art. Tickets range from $20 (general admission) to $33 if you’d like to buy a book as well. The theme of the festival is GRAPHIC, so you know I won’t disappoint on that front! I hope to see you there. Click HERE for tickets.


Next up: I’ll be in Bloomington on Tuesday, October 30th speaking at my undergraduate alma-mater, ILLINOIS WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY.  Spend an evening with me and learn about the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery—a place definitely not for the squeamish. I will discuss how surgeons, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. They rarely washed their hands or their instruments, and carried with them a cadaverous smell of rotting flesh, which those in the profession cheerfully referred to as “good old hospital stink.” The event is FREE but you must register as places are limited. Click HERE. [Painting by Christopher Fisher]


And last, but not least, I’ll be speaking in London on Sunday, December 9th at HISTFEST, is a brand new three-day history festival that will entertain, educate and feature an eclectic mix of talks, panel discussions, workshops and live performances. Come along, learn about the history of Victorian surgery and get a signed copy of The Butchering Art. You can purchase tickets HERE.

As always, you can also find a detailed list of upcoming events on my calendar. I hope to see you out there!

By |2018-10-19T15:59:57+00:00October 19th, 2018|BLOG|6 Comments

My New Book Deal

I’m so excited to announce that the subject of MY NEXT BOOK will be on the birth of plastic surgery told through the incredible story of Harold Gillies, the pioneering and eccentric surgeon who first united art and medicine to address the horrific injures that resulted from World War I.

From the moment that the “Dhak! Dhak! Dhak! Dhak!” of the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: mankind’s military technology at the start of WWI wildly outpaced its medical capabilities. Bullets whizzed through the air at incredible speeds, discharging as much as 7,200 horsepower of energy in a single shot. Shells and mortar bombs exploded with a force that flung men around the battlefield like rag dolls. And a deadly new threat in the form of hot chunks of shrapnel—coated in the filth and bacteria of the battlefield—wrought terrible injuries on its victims. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of one man, these soldiers would have also been condemned to a lifetime of isolation.

My book will follow the story of Harold Gillies [pictured right, copyright: Dr. Andrew Bamji] who was presented with the seemingly impossible task of reconstructing entire faces with no textbooks to guide him, and no mentors to consult for advice. Working closely with a team of artists, Gillies did not just strive to restore function to his patients, many of whom could not breathe, swallow, or eat efficiently because of the damage to their faces. He was determined to give them back their identities as well. Here, you see an incredible example of reconstructive work from this era.

I can’t wait to share this inspiring story with the world.

As with all good news, there is a bittersweet side to this announcement. I’m thrilled to be working with my wonderful publisher FSG again, but sadly my editor Amanda Moon will be leaving next month to begin her own consulting business. She will be sorely missed, though I’m looking forward to working with the brilliant Colin Dickerman on this second project.

By |2018-03-07T14:36:30+00:00February 21st, 2018|BLOG, Casebooks|40 Comments

The Butchering Art – BOOK TRAILER!

With just one week left until the launch of my debut book, it’s my great pleasure to unveil the trailer for The Butchering Art.

A great deal of love, thought and care has gone into the many weeks of its production. As someone who relishes the visual elements of the past, I wanted to see how the sights and sounds of grimy, grisly Victorian surgery would translate onto screen. So, I set out with filmmaker Alex Anstey of Light Arcade Productions to create a short film that thrusts the viewer straight into the brutal action of the era’s operating theaters, in which survival depended as much upon chance as upon the skills of the butcher wielding the blade.

Alex is truly a craftsman of story in film form and has a painter’s eye for detail and light. He used three locations—a small film studio, the Old Operating Theatre in the heart of London, and a Westminster street in the dead of night—to help bring to life a bloody amputation of the era.

We hope you enjoy the trailer, and that it will give you all a feel of what I have tried to achieve on the page. Please share it widely on social media! And don’t forget you can pre-order the book ahead of its launch on October 17th.

By |2017-10-16T18:00:18+00:00October 10th, 2017|BLOG, Casebooks|15 Comments