In the last twenty minutes of April 14, 1912, disaster struck in the North Atlantic. The RMS Titanic, the largest ship anywhere on the ocean and temporary home to more than 2,200 passengers and crew, collided with an iceberg. More than 300 feet (91 meters) of the boat’s hull was ripped open, and within three hours, the ship had sunk, taking with her some 1,500 lives. It was, and still is, one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
Or was it?
As with so many disasters throughout history, the sinking of the Titanic has spawned numerous conspiracy theories over the years. There’s the one about the ship being cursed by an ancient mummy, for example – or the idea that the whole thing was actually a revenge plot carried out by J. P. Morgan in some kind of weird millionaire-off with business rivals. There’s even one saying that Jack and Rose could both have fit on that door, despite that being evidently ludicrous.
One of the strangest conspiracies out there is quite simple: the Titanic never actually sank at all.
The conspiracy: did the Titanic really sink in 1912?
“It's really one of the only conspiracy theories I put much belief in,” wrote Redditor u/thejumpingtoad in response to the AskReddit prompt “Which conspiracy is so believable that it might be true?”
“What if it wasn't the Titanic that sank?” they posited. “What if it was actually the Olympic? What if it was a ploy to remove a faulty ship that was costing them more money than she was bringing in for White Star Line and cash in on her million-pound insurance policy?”
Here are the facts: the Titanic was one of a trio of ships commissioned and built for the White Star Line shipping company between 1911 and 1914. The first, and namesake of the so-called Olympic-class ships, was the RMS Olympic; the Titanic was completed a year later, and the RMS Britannic completed the set in 1914.
Despite the fanfare surrounding their launches, none of the ships had what you might call illustrious careers. The Britannic didn’t last more than a couple of years: she was requisitioned for the Royal Navy during the First World War, and was eventually brought down by a naval mine in 1916.
But it’s the older two sisters that the “Titanic never sunk” conspiracy concerns. Now, if you believe the standard tale, the Olympic actually had a pretty respectable lifespan: she lasted 24 years in total, before being retired and sold for scrap in 1935. She even served in the First World War, gaining the nickname “Old Reliable” for her steadfast dependability.
In fact, there was really only one hiccup in her record: on September 20, 1911, only a few months before the RMS Titanic was due to set out on her ill-fated maiden voyage, the RMS Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke off the southern coast of the UK.
For the White Star Line, it was a financial disaster. The Hawke had torn two massive holes in the Olympic’s hull, causing the latter ship to take on water and seriously damaging her propeller. She was out of commission for months, with the repairs eating into time and resources that would otherwise have gone to the Titanic.
Of course, the Titanic would eventually fare even worse, sinking on her first-ever voyage mere weeks after the Olympic’s repairs were completed. What a run of bad luck, huh?
Unless it wasn’t.
This is the point at which facts turn into conspiracy. In fact, conspiracy theorists say, all these disasters were part of an insurance scam: the Olympic collision had been such a money sink, the idea goes, that White Star Line simply swapped out the two ships, sending the bashed-up Olympic to sink in the Atlantic while the Titanic stayed safe in the docks.
That way, when the supposedly brand-new liner went down, the shipping company could actually collect a reward: a hefty lump of insurance money. Sure, a couple thousand people might have died – but that’s just the cost of doing business, right?
There are a few clues that proponents of this conspiracy take as their smoking guns. First, for example, is the fact that the Titanic never had a public examination before its voyage – to stop people from noticing it was actually the Olympic, theorists claim.
Others point to the portholes of the two ships, sometimes even offering up photographic “evidence” that the ships had been swapped. “There is no reason why the ship builders would have changed the portholes on the Titanic when they were nearly done building it,” asserts u/ thejumpingtoad. “The only answer is that the ship in the final picture, which is the ship that left port on April 10, 1912, and was met with a terrible fate near Newfoundland, was not the Titanic, but actually the Olympic.”
But do either of these arguments hold up? Not really. The Titanic may not have had a public viewing before she set sail, but she certainly didn’t leave for her maiden voyage without anybody checking her out: not only did the British Board of Trade inspect the ship during and after its construction, but they even made a point of finding the lifeboat situation lacking.
“The surveyors that went over them made the most detailed notes, write down to the last rivet, about repairs or maintenance that needed doing,” maritime historian and author Mark Chirnside told AP News. “You simply couldn’t pass off one ship as another.”
Even if you could, it’s kind of hard to hide a gigantic ship or two. “[The shipyard] was really open air, there were hills around the shipyard where people could see if they were doing that kind of work to the ships,” J. Kent Layton, who has published multiple books about the Titanic, told AP News.
“We also know there were visitors to the shipyard and press who took photos of the ships during that stay,” he added. “They weren’t being kept out of the shipyard like there was something super secret going on.”
The porthole changes, meanwhile, are equally documentable. “The Olympic, like the Titanic, was fitted originally with the same 14-porthole arrangement on the port side of her forecastle,” point out Steve Hall and Bruce Beveridge, Titanic researchers with a slew of published works on the subject.
“But two additional portholes were later fitted” they add. “They were there in March 1912.”
So much for the arguments in favor of the conspiracy – but is there any reason to seriously doubt the idea? Well, Occam’s razor notwithstanding, there’s actually a very major flaw in the idea that the Titanic was sunk as a phony insurance claim: basically, the math doesn’t hold up.
“[White Star chairman] Bruce Ismay confirmed that the Titanic ‘cost $7,500,000’ – and was insured ‘for $5,000,000, I understand’,” Chirnside wrote in a 2005 deep-dive into the conspiracy. “When we compare the value of the insurance to the cost of the ship, then it can be seen that the Titanic was only insured for two-thirds of her cost, so that there was a $2,500,000 difference between any insurance benefit and the cost of building the ship.”
“Deliberately sinking a ship that was under-insured by $2,500,000 hardly sounds credible,” he continued. And not just because it’s unethical or illegal – it’s just bad for business: “if the conspiracy theory were correct,” he wrote, “it is only to be expected that the company would have made sure the insurance policy covered the entire ship’s value.”
If that isn’t enough to convince you – well, the Titanic is right there. We’ve seen it. We have artifacts from the wreck. Artifacts that are, quite often, clearly stamped with a “401” – the construction identification number, or yard number, of the Titanic. The Olympic, on the other hand, was stamped “400” – and we also have items bearing that yard number from when the older ship was scrapped in 1935.
Were the two ships to have been switched, it would mean that “every scrap of paneling, which took months to install in each of those two ships, would have had to have been taken off both ships and switched in just a couple of days, which makes no sense,” Layton told AP News.
So, did the Titanic really go down as the history books and James Cameron would have us believe? Or was it all just a plot to gain some fraudulent insurance money? In this case, the truth seems pretty cut-and-dry: unlike some other conspiracy theories out there, this one just doesn’t hold water.
[H/T Popular Mechanics]