Men Dressed as Women to Get into Titanic Lifeboats

Oh, Buzzkillers, the ways that history myths start and spread are numerous and strange. This week we look at the story that men dressed as women to get into lifeboats escaping the sinking Titanic, which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage to New York close to midnight on 14 April 1912. That famous ship took nearly two-and-a-half hours to sink and remained somewhat stable until the ship broke in two in the early hours of April 15th.

During the emergency, the Titanic’s crew assembled passengers on deck in order to load them into lifeboats and lower them down into the ice-strewn ocean. Although there was no maritime law that stated “women and children first” into the lifeboats, it was the strongly accepted custom of the time both in shipwrecks and in other life-threatening emergencies. The myth that has remained for years is that a man (or men, the stories differ) dressed as a woman in order to get a spot on one of the lifeboats being launched in the immediate aftermath of hitting the iceberg. Various versions of this story include the idea that one man was so haunted by his own cowardliness in cross-dressing to save himself, that he committed suicide years later.

Not only is this a myth, it’s a particularly vicious one, give the strength of the idea of “women and children first,” and, in particular, the emphasis on chivalry in manly behavior at the time. To make a long story short, there is absolutely no evidence that any man disguised himself as a woman in order to escape the Titanic before all the women and children had been loaded into lifeboats. But, the possible origins of this myth show how complicated the overall Titanic escape story is.

In the first place, despite the fact that the Titanic had struck the iceberg and was in peril, many people did not think it would sink. They thought it was damaged and disabled, but that one of the other ocean liners in the vicinity would rescue them long before there was real danger of sinking. Therefore, they didn’t want to leave the relative warmth and comfort of the big ship and risk going out in a smaller lifeboat, and drift among the ice floes. It was difficult, and often impossible, to persuade passengers, including women, to get into the lifeboats.

Some of the early lifeboats were launched only half full. And when no further women would risk getting in the them, some men did, encouraged by the Titanic’s crew. Perhaps the most famous, and most unjustly maligned, of these men was William Sloper from Connecticut. He, somewhat unwillingly and urged to do so by a female companion, got on a lifeboat that was half-full when it was being launched. He didn’t dress as a woman, but, after arriving in New York he was characterized as “the man who got off in women’s clothing” by a hostile newspaper looking for a headline-grabbing story from the Titanic’s sinking. The rumor plagued him for the rest of his life.

A similar thing happened to J. Bruce Ismay, who, although innocent of dressing as a woman to get into a lifeboat, was guilty of being the managing director of the White Star Line (which owned the Titanic). Like William Sloper, Ismay got in a half-full lifeboat when no one else, including some women, would board it. But when the rumors of some men dressing as women to escape the Titanic started flying around, one of these stories got attached to Ismay, probably because he (and other White Star executives) were blamed for the disaster.

Other stories about men dressing as women to save their skins from the sinking Titanic only surfaced many years later. At least two of these stories were included in their wives’ testimony in divorce cases, even though evidence from the time of the sinking indicated that nothing of the sort happened.

Despite the rumors and stories (and depictions in films), customary rescue practice in maritime disasters held during when the Titanic sank. Just to remind you, Buzzkillers, that order of rescue from a sinking ship is:

Women and children first.
Men second.
….leave the Kardashians.

Buzzkill Bookshelf


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