FOUND: 1912 Titanic Distress Telegram Suggests Owner Knew About The Iceberg - Atlas Obscura
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FOUND: 1912 Titanic Distress Telegram Suggests Owner Knew About The Iceberg

This newly discovered telegram sent from the Titanic is now up for bidding—and debate. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

“WE HAVE STRUCK AN ICEBERG = SINKING FAST = COME TO OUR ASSISTANCE” seems like a pretty clear distress message. But it came through 103 years too late.

This newly discovered telegram was sent from the RMS Titanic to the White Star Line Steamship Company, the ship’s employer, in the hours before the vessel went down along with 1,523 crew and passengers. When later questioned, Philip Franklin, the head of White Star Line, swore on oath, over multiple days of testimony before the U.S. Senate Inquiry that he hadn’t received any word from the Titanic before it sank. 

This is obviously proof, or evidence, that the Titanic did send a message to the White Star Line in New York,” says Don Ackerman, Consignment Director of the Historical Department at Heritage Auctions, which is now taking bids on the missive. But, says Ackerman, this isn’t necessarily indication of foul play on the part of Franklin. “Either he was lying to the congressional committee, or he never got to see the telegram.”

The RMS Titanic was a Royal Mail Service, and it’s known that they sent out telegrams to the different postal services once they realized that the mail they were carrying would be delayed or undelivered. Ackerman says it’s “sort of a no-brainer” that they would have notified their employer, the White Star Line. But up until this telegram surfaced, there was no evidence of it, since the ledger book that contained a record of the telegrams sent out went down with the ship.

Though what’s odd, adds Ackerman, is that during the congressional hearings, Harold Bride, the surviving telegraph operator, was never asked about the White Star Line. You can even go online and read all of his testimony on the Titanic Inquiry Project, if you want to reconstruct it all for yourself.

Really could have used some extra help. (Photo: WikiCommons/Public Domain)

But before you do that—who’s to say this telegram is even real?

The documentation that came with the telegram only goes back 20 years; it was found in an envelope from 1988 bearing the written message: “This is 86 years old.”

“It’s basically verified primarily by an examination of the telegram itself,” says Ackerman. By looking at the paper, how it was printed, the characteristics of the message, they deemed it consistent with other century-old telegrams. “The paper is old paper, with correct printing, and you can actually see the the texture of the ribbon that’s been transferred over onto the paper.” After examining for anything that didn’t make sense or was inconsistent with 1912, they couldn’t find any discrepancies. 

There’s certainly reason to suspect its authenticity, but as Ackerman says, the telegram’s existence does make sense. He points out that it might have been delivered and then ended up in a pile on someone’s desk unopened, a forgotten email in an overcrowded inbox. Titanic devotees will likely have something to say about it, but in the meantime, the opening bid is $20,000 and you’ve got just one day to make this thing yours. 

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.