An Account of the Titanic’s Morgue Ship

Normally I reserve transcribing news articles for Misc. Tidings of Yore, but because of the nature of this piece about the “morgue ship” that recovered bodies from the Titanic disaster, I decided to include it here. Reading the words from the newspaper about the bodies just after they were pulled from the sea and embalmed on board (or buried at sea) gave me a different feeling than from reading or watching more modern accounts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read anything that described the “morgue ship” or the anxious behavior of embalmers waiting on the pier for the ship to dock either, but if you can recommend something feel free to comment.

This feature is from The Washington Times of Washington, D.C. on April 30, 1912.

Says Drowned Victims of Titanic Wreck, Buoyed Up by Life Belts, Resembled Vast Flock of Gulls-Voice Husky With Emotion  as He Describes the Gruesome Task-Many Buried at Sea
     HALIFAX, April 30-Carrying 190 bodies of victims of the Titanic disaster, the Mackay-Bennett made port here today, after having buried at sea 116 bodies, some of which have been identified. Captain Lardner, who commanded the death cruise, with a broken voice, declared that his vessel was unable to bring to shore all of the dead recovered.
     Beside the captain sat the benevolent looking, roundfaced Canon Hinds, worn by the heavy duties that had fallen to him through the cruise.
     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.
Astor’s Body Identified
     The body of Col. John Jacob Astor was identified on board the Mackay-Bennett by the jewelry he wore and a few cards found in a card case in his pocket.
     Capt. Richard Roberts, of the Astor yacht, looked at the body, and after gazing at it for a moment he turned away saying, ‘It is he.’
     After the body of Col. Astor had been positively identified by Captain Roberts, the coffin containing it was loaded into a wagon and sent to the Mayflower Curling Rink with all other bodies. A body identified as George D. Widener was buried at sea.
     ‘Why were those bodies buried at sea?’ Captain Lardner was asked.
     The grizzled old sea captain shook his head sadly and a pained expression swept his weather-beaten face.
‘Most of them were members of the crew,’ he said, ‘and we couldn’t care for them. 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. 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.’

Bodies Sighted.
     ‘We arrived on the scene at 8 o’clock Saturday night, stopped and let ship drift. In middle watch, wreckage and a few bodies were sighted. At daylight the boats were lowered and, although a heavy sea was running, fifty-one bodies were recovered that day.
     ‘Night closed down on us Sunday with bodies still around us.We commenced work again on Monday morning at daylight, but bodies were scarce. We got only twenty-six that day. We searched fifteen miles in and out along the line of wreckage. At night we marked the floating wreckage with a drifting buoy, so we could find it readily in the morning.
     ‘Tuesday morning bodies were numerous again. We picked up ninety before noon. Then the weather came on and in the afternoon we recovered only twenty-nine.
     ‘We found no two bodies together, all floating separately. No two were clasped in each other’s arms or anything like that. In one place we saw them scattered over the surface, looking like a flock of seagulls. They looked like gulls with the white ends of the life-belts fluttering and flapping up and down with the rise and fall of the waves.
Many Injured.
     ‘A great many of those recovered were injured when the Titanic went down. When the water swept her decks many must have been rushed before it and carried against stanchions, against spars, and other parts of the vessel. All of those we picked up wore life belts and they rode upright in the waves, the belts carrying them high above the water.
     ‘All day Wednesday we were in thick fog, and it was blowing hard from the southwest. We saw nothing all day. About midnight the weather eased up and we shaped our course back for the bodies. At 5:30 o’clock Thursdays morning we found one drifting near us. We let her drift until daylight and then commenced work. We picked up eighty-seven bodies that day. Thursday I got a message saying the Minia was coming out to assist us. She arrived about forty-five minutes after midnight Friday.
     ‘At daylight the two ships started searching together. At noon I picked up fourteen more bodies and then started for Halifax, because we had as many on board as we could look after. We experienced bad weather all the way in.’
     Captain Lardner outlined the method of caring for the bodies after they had been picked up.
     ‘We had five men in each small boat,’ he said. ‘When they went to look for bodies they kept within sight of the bridge of the Mackay-Bennett, and we signaled them by wigwag. When the weather was heavy, we would bring them in. If the weather was calm they could handle seven or eight in a boat. The bodies were hoisted on board and when they were searched, the contents of the pickets and their valuables were placed in canvas bags, having on them the same number as that on the body. In this way we made some identifications long after the bodies were taken aboard.
     We brought in the bags of all who were buried at sea, and some of those committed to the deep may yet be identified by the contents of those bags. We covered a square of sea about thirty miles long and thirty miles wide, about sixty miles northeast of the scene of the disaster. All of the bodies found were in the cold waters north of the gulf stream.
Three Burials.
     ‘We had three burial services at sea. One Tuesday night, one Wednesday night, and one at noon on Thursday. The bodies were sent over the side three at a time.
     ‘No bodies that we found contained any bullet wounds.’
     The captain then related the confusion in the identification of George D. Widener, of Philadelphia.
     ‘We thought it was Widener, at first, because the body had letters addressed to Mrs. Widener, but the quality of the underclothing worn by the body was not such as would be worn by first class passengers. His overcoat bore the initials E.K. The head was terribly crushed, and the body would not keep, so we buried it at sea. Mr. Widener’s son, after examining the envelope containing the possessions found on the body, said he was certain that the body was that of Edward Keating, his father’s valet.
     ‘I feel certain that all of the passengers picked up have already been identified, and that the unidentified were members of the ship’s company. I feel sure that those buried at sea were practically all either seamen, stewards, or other employees of the White Star Company.
     ‘I think that there were about eighteen or twenty women among the bodies picked up. We have quite a lot of jewelry taken from both men and women. I don’t know how much cash we took from the bodies.’
     Lardner said that he did not believe the Minia would succeed in securing many more bodies unless ‘he strikes a streak of them.’
Forced to Wait.
     Relatives who have waited patiently for the coming of the Mackay-Bennett, hoping that they would be able to claim the dead within a short time, are sorely disappointing this afternoon, when it was announced that many of the bodies would not be in a condition for examination until tomorrow.
     Many of the recovered forms were in such a terrible condition that three or four hours were required to embalm each of them. It was announced that no relatives would be permitted inside the morgue until late today, when a few of the bodies would be ready for the work of identification by relatives or their representatives.
     Hundreds of curious people thronged the streets leading from the navy yard to the morgue, seemingly fascinated by the constant procession of hearses as they dashed to and from the pier. A few weeping relatives begged pitiably for an opportunity for one glance at the recovered forms, but the coronoer urged them to return to their hotels until the bodies had been embalmed and dressed for burial.
     Undertakers in charge insisted that if they were given plenty of time all of the bodies would be easily recognized.
    Given Clear Track.
     The Mackay-Bennett was given a clear track up the center of the bay. About the government dock, where she was to be berthed, a hundred blue-clad sailors, with mourning bands on their round caps and on the sleeves of their blouses, leaped onto boats and towed out to keep all craft away from the great naval dock where the vessel was to be tied up.
     At the same time a detachment of British bluejackets from the cruiser Niobe marched on the pier and cleared it of every one not holding an official pass. They carried side arms and they were instructed to keep every one away.
     They then placed an awning entirely about the portion of the dock assigned to the Mackay-Bennett and prepared the covered gang plank which was run out as soon as the death ship was berthed.
     Under a white marquee on the deck the view of which was shut off by the awnings that had been arranged, more than 100 coffins and rough boxes had been piled tier on tier. Near them were the undertakers and embalmers who were to care for the bodies. As the Mackay-Bennett came into sight down the harbor by the undertakers, embalmers, and ambulance helpers put on long brown coats and began to arrange the coffins, opening them and laying them out in great long rows.
     Among the undertakers was a Miss O’Neill, of St. John’s, brought over to Halifax to care for any bodies of women who might be aboard the Mackay-Bennett. She was the only woman on the dock just before the Mackay-Bennett hove in sight. The mourners after their long vigil did not hurry to the dock when the whispered word went through the city, ‘She’s coming!’
     Warned by the White Star and government officials that a visit to the dock would be useless, they planned to go to the Mayflower curling rink, where the bodies were taken immediately upon being unloaded.

     A squad of naval Red Cross men mixed a dozen buckets of thick evil-smelling disinfectant, and with it sprinkled the entire dock, the covered gangplank and the pile of coffins. The atmosphere of a morgue pervaded the pier.

Undertakers Impatient.
     As the time for the vessel to approach the dock came nearer the little group of undertakers grew impatient. The nervous tension rose to a high pitch and more than 100 ludicrously gruesome  incidents occurred.  One gray-haired middle-aged undertaker with his accustomed black, hidden under a gray duster, joined two of his friends in ‘jumping rope.’ Two turned a piece of rope while the gray-haired man skipped laboriously. The group laughed nervously at his antics.
     Almost a roar of laughter went up as a little Red Cross man in a navy uniform sprinkling disinfectant with a squirt-gun accidentally turned the stream  on himself, deluging his head and shoulders with the fluid.
     The undertakers strolled nervously about testing coffins and rough boxes time after time and conversing in low tones.
     At 9:30 the Mackay-Bennett, convoyed by a tug hove in sight just about half a mile from the dock yard. Commander Martin of the yard immediately hurried to the pier and took active harge. The curtains about the dock were dropped.
     A dozen black draped hearses drove into the dock yard and lined up behind a coal shed to await their load of death.
     The steamer berthed at the naval pier here at 9:40, and the work of unloading the bodies was at once started.
     As she swung in she looked her part of a morgue ship. She was seaworn and weatherbeaten after her long cruise, and piled high on her after deck were rows upon rows of darkened, dirty white pine boxes. Along her starboard deck amidships were scores of loosely tied bundles of every imaginable color, evidently the clothing taken from the bodies picked up.
Bundles Marked.
     Each bundle was marked with a large square of burlap, on which was printed a number. On board were representatives of the White Star line, who had boarded the vessel at the entrance to the harbor. They warned everyone on the dock against attempting to board the vessel and proceeded with the arrangements for taking off the bodies.
     At that time only two mourners were on the dock. They were the maid of Mrs. William Augustus Spencer, Eliza Loretta, and J.A. Kenyon, of Connecticut, searching for his brother. Mrs. Spencer’s husband was lost on the Titanic.
     Outside the gate of the dockyard a group of mourners had been held up because they had not been given passes. They had passses to the morgue, but the dockyard authorities refused to honor them.
     Besides these there were but few about the place. There was no crowd of idle curiosity seekers clamoring for a glimpse of the gruesome freight. Halifax went on quietly about  its business, passing with averted facts the death wagons that hurried through the streets.
     Within ten minutes after the Mackay-Bennett docked, bodies were leaving the ship at the rate of one a minute. The unidentified bodies were taken off first.”

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