Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, March 2, 2021


 The Wreck of the Titan by Morgan Robertson (first published as Futility by M. F. Manfield in 1898;  revised in 1912 as "The Wreck of the Titan" and published in Robertson's collection of four stories The Wreck of the Titan; or, Futility)

This week I (again) present more of a novella than a short story, this time a full-blooded adventure tale that was best known for "predicting" on of the greatest maritime disasters in history.  The story features a large and "unsinkable" British passenger liner named the "Titan," the biggest, fastest, and most advanced ship of its time, which is destroyed by an ice berg.  The "Titan," as with the real-life "Titanic" twelve yers later, was not equipped with enough lifeboats to handle the full complement of passengers and crew.  A revised version of Robertson's story was issued in 1914, making the ship's measurements closer to that of the real Titanic.

The Titan has made three crossings of the Atlantic.  Despite being the fastest ship ever built it still had not equalled its projected time of five days for a crossing and the owners and the captain of the ship are determined to do so this time.  Nothing will slow the ship down on its voyage from New York to England.

One of the passengers on the ship is Myra Selfridge, wife of Colonel George Selfridge, the scion of a wealthy family.  Myra and the Colonel are travelling with their young daughter, also named Myra.  The older Myra is startled to see among the crew John  Rowland, a former admirer with whom Myra had cut ties five years before.  Rowland had been a young Navy officer with a good career, but Myra soon spurned him when she discovered her was an atheist.  Worse still, shortly after that Rowland had begun drinking!  Rowland was deeply in love with Myra and went rapidly downhill after they parted.  He became a drunkard and was demoted and then kicked out of the Navy for conduct unbecoming of an officer.  Then he began a series of assignments on various ships as a lowly crew member.  He had been a member of the Titan's crew for all three of its voyages and had been drunk on each.  Now he had come back on the ship drunk and was still feeling the effects as they set sail.  The captain, as punishment, ordered him to sand the ship's stanchions.  That's when he and Myra saw each other, neither knowing the other was on  board.  Myra reported Rowland's presence to her husband, believing the Rowland had somehow followed her onto the ship for an evil purpose.  Rowland had made certain threats (or, rather, remarks that Myra took to be threats) during their breakup five years before.)

Later that evening, little Myra wandered from her parents and went on the deck where Rowland was looking out onto the sea.  Rowland, seeing a young child alone on deck, jokingly told her he would throw her overboard, hoping to frighten the child to go back inside.  Just as that happened, Myra (the other) appeared and quickly grabbed the girl from Rowland.  She and her husband then went to the captain and reported that Rowland was about to throw their child overboard.  The captain, who couldn't be bothered with such a trivial matter while also being concerned of his liabilty, said that he would throw Rowland in the brig, but instead ordered that he be given duties well outside the view of any passengers.  Thus Rowland was assigned to crow's nest duty.  That night, he spotted a smaller ship about to cross paths with the larger Titan.  The captain, determined to maintain a high speed, did not slow down or try to avert the other ship, but instead rammed it, shearing it in two, and the continued on full blast without stopping to rescue its crew.  The Titan ws so massively huilt that its passengers did not feel anything during the collision.

The next day, the captain called all his crew in to meet hi privately, one by one.  He told each person to forget about the collision and gave each an envelope full of money.  Rowland was the last to be interviewed and he refused to go along with the plan.  He said he would have the captain exposed for the murderous man he is.  Rowland knew his stance put him in danger for the rest of the voyage but he stuck to his principles.  The captian and the first mate, knowing Rowland was an alcoholic, decided to drug his drink so that Rowland would begin seeing things and basically act insane -- thus making any statement of his to maritime officials to be disbelieved.

It was a cold, raw, and fog-ridden night and Rowland was stationed as lookout.  The drug in his drink was beginning to do its work and Rowland suffered from severe hallucinations.  Little Myra, meanwhile, had wandered away from her parents again, coming on deck by Rowland.  Seeing her brought Rowland back to sanity and he wrapped the girl in his jacket and she fell asleep before him.

Enter the ice berg (which turned out to be also part ice floe -- a floe is a flat sheet of ice while a berg is a broken off part of a glacier).  The ship hit the flat portion of the ice.  Because of its shape it continued up and onto the ice until one of its propellers was completely out of the water.  Then the ship rolled on its side, smashing parts of it to pieces before sliding back into the ocean and sinking.  The damage happened so fast and was so extensive that only two life boats managed to make it to sea.  One of those life boats contained little Myra's mother -- the only woman to survive the wreck.  Rowland and little Myra, whom he grabbed close to his chest, had slid off the ship onto the ice.  Parts of the ship were strewn over the white expanse, including the bridge and a number of shatter life boats.  Rowland did his best to keep the little girl warm, using some sails as a covering and managing to start a fire from the pieces of the wrecked life boats.  Their situation looked dire.  The Titan was gone and there no sign of any rescue boats.  He relocated the two of them to the ruined bridge, which gave them some additional protectiion from the elements.

The next day Rowland went exploring the ice berg, trying to see any rescue in sight from higher ground (well, higher ice, actually).  Coming back he spotted a figure near their shelter.  Coming closer, he saw it was a polar bear.  The bear had smelled the young girl and was making for her.  Rowland rushed to the scene, taking out the only weapon he had -- a jacknife with a five-inch blade.  He got there just as the giant predator swatted the girl, sending her sliding away and smashing her head on some wood.  Rowland charged the bear with his knife.  The bear got a grip on Rowland's arm, crushing boone with its teeth.  In desperation, Rowland stabbed the bear with the knife.  The bear, now angered, threw Roland down, breaking some of Rowland's ribs.  Despite the pain, Rowland charged the bear again, plunging the knife through the bear's eye and into its brain.  Rowland dragged himself over to the girl.  she had fouor deep wounds on her back where the bear had clawed her.  In pain, he then skinned the bear, taking a layer of fat to use as a compress for the girl's back.  Somehow he mangaed to get young Myra Wrapped up tightly, binding her with rope to restrict her motions, hoping that she might begin to heal within that cocoon.

The two castawys had some shelter, warmth from their fire, fresh water from the melting ice, and food from the bear's meat.  Rowland was not sure how long the pair could live stranded as they were.  Abandoning his atheistic thoughts, Rowland got down and prayed that he might be able to reunite the little girl with her mother, if she still lived.  Then, according to the rules of melodrama, a ship appeared in the distance, attracted by the smoke from the fire.  Rowland and little Myra were rescued, but both were very ill.  Rowland's injured arm had to be amputated.  Eventually, both made it to London, Rowland gaunt and emaciated and the pair of them in rags.  At the shipping company, Rowland encountered the Titan's captain and first mate, both of whom had survived.  There then followed a very painful passage with a stereotypical Jewish Shylock and one of the ship's owners about the insurance payment on the Titan:  the Jew, who had insured the boat knew that he would be ruined if he paid out the insurance; the owner, who happened to be the little girl's grandfather, Mr. Selfridge (coincidence theater here in full force), knew he would be ruined if the insurance was not paid.  Witness to all this was Rowland, who testified to the captain's murderous acts.  Selfridge, on discovering the girl was his granddaughter whom he had feared dead, paid little attention to what was going on until the insurer stated plainly that the policy was void and would not be paid.  Again, true to all the rules of melodrama, Selfridge had a heart attack and collapsed.  The Jew ordered him moved because he did not want anyone dying on his floor.  Rowland then refused to give the Jew the testimony he needed, making the insurance payout available to his old lover and young Myra.

Rowland and little Myra then sailed to new York, where her mother (who had no idea her daughter had survived) was living.  They arrived, both still in rags, but Rowland with $16.50 -- his pay for that fatl voyage.  Rowland took the girl to a dress shop and told the clerk to give young Myra a bath, fix her hair, and outfit her with the best clothes his $16.50 could afford.  Now broke, he brought the girl to her mother's house, but was stopped outside by a suspicious policeman, who accused the vagabond-looking Rowland of trying to kidnap a child of a wealthy family.  Enter Myra the mother, who took the girl in her arms.  Again the mother accused Rowland of kidnapping and of trying to murder the little girl earlier.  (Not having read any of the newspaper accounts anout Rowland and his bravery, she had no knowledge that Rowland had saved her daughter.)  Rowland was beaten and taken to jail, where he was again roughed up.  The next day at the trail, a clerk handed the judge a newspaper account of Rowland and the girl's rescue and of what Rowland had done.  He dismissed all charges and Rowland left, avoiding the slew of newspaper reporters who had come to interview him.

For the next few years, Rowland worked his way up to respectibility, from living homeless iunder a bridge, fishing for his meals and selling the extra fish, to getting enough money to eventually rent a room and purchasing clothes, to using his remaining arm to address envelopes for a mail order company, to applying for a civil service exam, which he easily passed, and finally to a "lucrative position under the Government."  And there they story ends.

Well, except for a coda.  Six months after receiving his new position Rowland got a letter stating, in part, "...Myra will not let me rest.  She asks for you continually and cries at times.  I can bear it no longer.  Will you not come and see Myra?"  And so Rowland went to see -- Myra.

A bit of coincidence made Futility a harbinger for the Titanic, then some judicious after-the-fact editing and rewriting turned "The Wreck of the Titan" into a legend.  Those who follow the legend and have never read the tale have missed out on a fast-paced adventure story.

Morgan Robertson (1861-1950), the son of Great Lakes ship captain, went to sea as a cabin boy and was in the merchant sevice for 33 years, rising to first mate.  For ten years he worked as a diamond setter until his eyes began to fail.  He had been writing occasionally for some time and now turned his attention to writing popular stories of the sea, placing them in many of the popular magazines.  Although he never made much money with his writing he was still able support himself and maintain his friendship with New York's bohemian set.  Robertson was also the self-proclaimed inventor of the periscope, describing it in a 1905 book about a submarine.  The credited inventors of the periscope was Simon Lake and Harold Grubb, who had perfected the instrument three years earlier in 1902.  Robertson claimed that he had "invented" a prototype periscope but that a patent was refused.  The truth of that claim appears to be unsubstantiated.

Both versions of the story, Futility and The Wreck of the Titan, are available to be read online.


  1. Your review is the length of a lot of short stories. What a wild story. It was already wild and then the bear came.

  2. Does the prose justify the reading experience and potential exasperation with coincidence and melodrama you cite? You are definitely sailing into some deep waters...or at least some muddy torpors and sargasso seas!