For this month’s mystery, we’re dipping our toes into the world of conspiracy theories. For this first venture into such a….widely varied (and often sinister) topic, I wanted to cover something that is not destructive and somewhat debunked. This month, we’ll look at whether the Titanic was actually the ship that sank on April 14, 1912? Let’s explore.
Before we get into the conspiracy theory, let’s cover some basics for both of the ships involved. The Olympic was an Olympic-Class ocean liner for the White Star line that began her service in April 1911. She had a long life of commercial cruises and was in two major accidents, one of which we will get into in the next section. She was then utilized as a troop ship during the First World War. After the war, the Olympic returned to conducting civilian cruises until April 1935, when she was decommissioned – and subsequently disassembled and sold as scrap metal. The Olympic had a considerably long life for an ocean liner.
The Titanic was also another Olympic-Class ocean liner built for the White Star Line, and was the biggest ship sailing at the time of its maiden voyage. It was only four days into its first trip when the infamous accident occurred. At 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912, the lookout on duty saw an iceberg in the ship’s path. He alerted the bridge and attempts were made to adjust course in order to avoid the iceberg, but to no avail. The bow collided with the iceberg, causing the metal seams in the hull to separate and allow water into the ship’s “watertight” compartments. The Titanic did not have enough lifeboats for all of its passengers, and no one had been trained for an emergency evacuation. It is because of this that somewhere around 1,500 people lost their lives as the ship sank.
This tl;dr of this theory is that after the Olympic was damaged, the White Star Line switched it with the Titanic and purposely sunk it to claim the Titanic’s insurance. So, how did the Olympic receive the initial damage? During its fifth for-profit trip, the Olympic literally had a run-in with the HMS Hawke, off the tip of southern England. Both ships received extensive damage from the accident, though ultimately currents from the Olympic were found to be the fault of the incident. It was out of commission for nearly four months, meaning the White Star Line not only lost money on repairs, but also lost out on the cruises the Olympic could have run during that time.
In comes the sinister theory – executives on the White Star Line decided to rebrand the Olympic as a new ship – the Titanic. They then took out an insurance policy on the “new” ship to get a larger payout than they would have gotten from the damaged “old” ship. So let’s get into why this is ridiculous, and why it didn’t happen.
The ships do visually look nearly identical, which is perhaps the starting point of this bizarre conspiracy theory. All of the Olympic-Class ocean liners at the time had nine decks. Both the Titanic and Olympic only had 20 lifeboats on board, despite the enormous amount of passengers each ship could carry. Each ship also had two pole masts – one at the bow of the boat and one at the stern. The main difference at a glance was the A-Deck Promenade – it was open on the Olympic, but enclosed by windows on the Titanic.
Logically, it doesn’t make any sense that the White Star Line would wait until the maiden voyage of the Titanic to sacrifice the ship. Surely they could have orchestrated a test sail and a subsequent accident that would have satisfied any insurance needs without such a massive loss of life. Plus, wouldn’t the executives have weighed whether any insurance payout would be a) worth 1,500 human lives and b) the negative press doled out in relation to 1,500 people dying because of an incident on their ship (and the stunning lack of lifeboats).
Apart from those ethical holes in the plot, the Olympic showed so much wear and tear after having been used for a year that calling it new surely would have raised eyebrows. Additionally, the insurance coverage for the Titanic would not monetarily cover the loss of the Olympic. And while the ships were nearly identical from the outside, the Titanic boasted far more amenities – especially when it came to dining. Those improved dining rooms were found in the wreckage.
So, after all that, do I think the Olympic sank in some misguided attempt at insurance fraud? Nope.