As the Carpathia was heading for Pier 54 in New York, to reunite the 705 survivors aboard the Titanic, another ship, The MacKay-Bennett was headed toward a more grisly destination in the North Atlantic. It was her task to retrieve as many bodies as she could of the 1,523 passengers who perished that fateful night of April 15, 1912.
The White Star Line began to make arrangements for the grim task of retrieving the victims as soon as the loss of life was verified by a number of wireless messages received from the R.M.S. Carpathia.
White Star's agents in Halifax, chartered The Commercial Cable Company's cable ship the Mackay-Bennett. The crew was all-volunteer, under the command of Captain F.H. Lardner. The commander and his crew would receive double wages for this difficult task. They would leave as soon as the ship could be loaded for her journey.
The undertaking firm of John Snow and Company, Ltd. of Halifax, was requested to handle the funeral arrangements. Along with Snow and Company an additional 40 members of the Funeral Directors' Association of the Maritime Provinces agreed to help embalm and prepare the dead for burial. By Wednesday, April 17, 1912, more than a hundred coffins, tons of ice, embalmer's tools, and canvas and burlap bags were loaded aboard the Mackay-Bennett at her Halifax pier. She left at noon for the last known location of the Titanic. Along with her crew, Canon Hind of All Saints Cathedral and an embalmer made the journey to the disaster site. Soon, The Mackay-Bennett's job would be one of heartbreak and sorrow.
Captain Lardner was aided by other ships in finding the disaster site as the Mackay-Bennett drew closer to where most of the wreckage and bodies would be found. Few ships, after the Titanic went down, chose to navigate in or around the area where the Titanic sank. Those that did, came upon hundreds of bodies and wreckage. Most ship captains considered this site a graveyard and chose to not subject their passengers to the grim sight in that area.
As cautious as some captains were about subjecting their passengers to such sights, some ships could not avoid the wreckage area. Even after the search for victims by the Mackay-Bennett had concluded, ships continued to sight victims of the Titanic. Some Scandinavian immigrants en route to Minnesota related an incident so heartbreaking and ghastly a transcription of it was sent to President Taft. "In several instances," the immigrants reported, "bodies were struck by our boat and knocked from the water several feet into the air."
One of the Bremen's first class passengers saw a body of a woman in her night dress, and clasping a baby to her breast. Close by was the body of another woman with her arms around a shaggy dog. Other passengers saw the bodies of three men in a group, all clinging to a chair. Floating by just beyond them were dozens of bodies, wearing life belts and clinging desperately together as though in their last struggle for life. The entire surface of the ocean around them formed a wreath of deck chairs and wreckage.
The North German liner Rhein reported bodies and wreckage in latitude 42.01° N, 49.13' W. The Bremen wired to the Mackay-Bennett that she had passed more than a hundred bodies at latitude 42.00° N, 49.20' W. The crew and her ship were almost there.
The Mackay-Bennett arrived at the site on Saturday, April 20, 1912 at 8 P.M. The next morning, around 4:30 a.m. the crew members climbed into their boats and began the task of retrieving the water-logged corpses.
Fifty-One bodies were recovered that first day, two children, three women and forty-six men
As each body came aboard, a square of canvas with a stenciled number on it was attached. Personal property were placed in canvas bags bearing the same number. Many of the bodies were in poor condition. Many were indistinguishable. Some showed signs of damage sustained during the sinking. Other bodies were disfigured by either sea creatures or from the corpses smashing against ice flow or wreckage. For these bodies, a full description of the victim including hair color, height, weight, age, birthmarks and scars were methodically entered into a ledger, on the corresponding page number. These details, it was hoped, would permit accurate identifications to be made even if the body had suffered great trauma.
At 8:15 P.M. on the first day of the body retrieval, burial services were held on the Mackay-Bennett's forecastle deck as thirty bodies wrapped in canvas and weighted down with iron weights were recommitted to the sea. The remainder, (all first class passengers no matter what the condition of the body, were embalmed) placed in a coffin for the return to Halifax.
One of the cable engineers, Frederick Hamilton, kept a diary of the voyage and below is a portion from that diary:
April 21, 1912:
The ocean is strewn with woodwork, chairs and bodies, and there are several growlers about, all more or less dangerous, as they are often hidden in the swell. The cutter lowered, and the work commenced and kept up all day, picking up bodies. Hauling the soaked remains in saturated clothing over the side of the cutter is no light task. Fifty-one we have taken on board to-day, two children, three women, and forty-six men, and still the sea seems strewn.
Unidentified bodies were buried at sea:
8 P.M. The tolling of the bell summoned all hands to the forecastle where thirty bodies are to be committed to the deep, each carefully weighted and carefully sewed up in canvas. It is a weird scene, this gathering. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us, as the ship lays wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Reverend Canon Hind, for nearly an hour the words "For as much as it hath pleased...we therefore commit his body to the deep" are repeated and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles. Splash, splash, splash.
April 22nd...All around is splintered woodwork, cabin fittings, mahogany fronts of drawers, carvings, all wrenched away from their fastenings, deck chairs, and then more bodies. Some of these are fifteen miles distant from those picked up yesterday.
8 P.M. Another burial service.
April 24th: Still dense fog prevailing, rendering further operations with the boats almost impossible...Noon. Another burial service held and seventy-seven bodies follow the others. The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hind, all combine to make a strange task stranger. Cold, wet, miserable and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy.
Names of the bodies that could be identified were wired ashore. The rest would have to wait until a family member or loved one could make a positive identification.
One of the first of the Titanic's illustrious passengers to be found was multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor. His body was badly crushed and covered in soot, indicating that he was killed when the Titanic's funnel collapsed. Astor's body was the first to be claimed. After it's return to Halifax, it bore the body number of 124. Identification had been easy in Astor's case. His record noted that he wore a blue serge suit, a blue handkerchief with 'A.V.' on it, a belt with gold buckle, brown boots with red rubber soles, and a brown flannel shirt with 'J.J.A.' in its collar. Astor's effects included a gold watch, gold cuff links with diamonds, a diamond ring with three stones, £225 in English bank notes, $2,440 in American bank notes, £5 in gold, 7 shillings in silver, 50 francs, a gold pencil and a pocketbook.
Another notable Titanic victim was that of Wallace Hartley, the bandleader.
His music case was still strapped to his side when he was pulled from the Atlantic's icy water. The band's violinist, John Law Hume, was also found and buried in Halifax, his body was listed as Number 193.
One of the first class passengers whose body was recovered was Walter Chamberlain Porter
Walter Chamberlain Porter
NO. 207. - MALE. - ESTIMATED AGE, 40. LIGHT MUSTACHE AND - HAIR.
CLOTHING - Green overcoat; dark suit; blue cardigan; blue silk pajamas.
EFFECTS - Gold ring on right hand; gold with diamond on left; glasses in case; 2 fountain pens; silver match box; diamond pin; knife; keys; diamond ring; glasses; memo with pocket book; tie clip; 2s. 6d.; letter case; gold wedding ring.
FIRST CLASS PASSENGER.
NAME - WALTER C. PORTER.
Two days later on April 23, 1912, the Mackay-Bennett had 80 bodies on board and had received additional supplies of canvas and burlap from a liner passing through the area. The search operation began again and continued for 14 straight hours. An additional 87 victims were recovered, searched and tagged. Another burial took place that night and at noon on the 24th., seventy-seven more bodies followed the others.
Captain Lardner quickly became aware of the fact that they would be overwhelmed with bodies.
He contacted the White Star's New York office for help. On April 21, the company's Halifax agents chartered another ship, Minia, a cable ship owned by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, Ltd. A shortage of coffins delayed her departure, but fully stocked with ice, iron weights, coffins and embalming supplies, Minia left at midnight on April 22nd to join the Mackay-Bennett.
At 6:15 a.m... on Friday, April 26th. the Minia and the Mackay-Bennett began their joint search. Fourteen more bodies were found by noon, and these were placed aboard the Mackay-Bennett which filled her to capacity. Her crew had found 306 bodies. Of these, 116 had been buried at sea. The cable ship now returned to Halifax with 190 victims on board, a hundred in all the available coffins, the rest in canvas bags on her forecastle deck.
The Minia remained searching, but bad weather and strong gales made retrieval of additional bodies almost impossible. Captain W.G.S. DeCarteret advised the White Star Line that the gales had swept the remaining bodies into the Gulf Stream. The Minia did recover some bodies and returned 15 to Halifax on May 6th.
As the Minia left for Halifax a third ship had been dispatched by the White Star Line to continue the search. The Canadian Ministry of Marine and Fisheries'Montmagny left Sorel, Quebec. The Montmagny's search had not been fruitful. A dense fog still covered the area and only 4 additional corpses were recovered. On Monday, May 13th., the Montmagny crew off-loaded 3 coffins at Louisburg, Nova Scotia, for shipment to Halifax, and within a day returned to the Titanic site to pick-up where she had left off. On her return, only small pieces of wreckage were found, scattered to the east of the disaster site. Reaching the edge of the Gulf Stream, the Montmagny left the area and headed for home with no additional victims.
The White Star Line made one more furtive attempt to locate additional victims. On May 14th the Bowring Brothers' Algerine, which departed from St. John's, Newfoundland, one day later. During their voyage, one more additional body was recovered, that of saloon steward James McGrady. Grady was thought to be the final victim of the Titanic to be recovered. However, another grisly discovery was found in mid-May.
A full month after the sinking, 200 miles from the Titanic's last position, the Oceanic came upon collapsible boat "A." There were three bodies in it, a passenger from Chicago and two crew members. The canvas sides of the boat had never been raised and there was a foot of water in the bottom. A crew of volunteers rowed over from the ship and prepared the bodies for burial. Passengers on the Oceanic watched the scene in grisly fascination. The luncheon bugle was ignored until the last canvas-wrapped body was returned to the sea.
In the years following the retrieval the Mackay-Bennett's crew would reveal many stories of those horrifying days of body retrieval in the North Atlantic. However, there was one victim that the crew, even years after the incident, had a difficult time talking about. They would remember this victim for years to come.
During the early stages of the recovery process the crew of the Mackay-Bennett retrieved the body of a young boy floating amongst the wreckage. The child was about two years of age. His entry in the ledger of victims simply stated: "No identification. No effects." He was one of two children found and the only child that had not suffered great trauma to his body. Even the toughest of crew members wept openly over the discovery of the Titanic's smallest of victims.
The Mackay-Bennett arrived in Halifax on April 30, 1912. The crew off-loaded the bodies at HM Naval Dockyards, north coaling wharf number 4. Close by were twenty sailors from the Canadian cruiser Niobe. It was their duty to keep the curious and photographers from interfering with the off-loading of bodies. Halifax officials followed a strict pattern of decorum and respect toward the dead and their survivors.
The first of the bodies to be taken ashore were the Titanic's crew members for whom there had been no embalming or other preparation. After that came the second and third class passengers wrapped in canvas bags. Finally the bodies of the first class passengers all embalmed, most identified, and all in coffins were taken from the stern. Hundreds of horse-drawn hearses pulled up to pick-up one of the wrapped bodies or coffins. All the victims were taken to The Mayflower Curling Rink in Halifax. The curling rink had been turned into a temporary morgue where embalming, storage and identification took place. The corpses were to be kept at the rink for two weeks. Where faces were distinguishable, photographs of the deceased and additional descriptive details were taken for future identification after burial.
After the two week holding period mass burials would take place. A great deal of guesswork took place regarding burial procedures and as to what cemetery the victims should be placed in. Some of the decisions were based solely on the victim's last name. Catholics were to be buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery, Jews at the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery and for the remainder, these bodies would be buried at the non-sectarian Fairview Cemetery.
White Star Lines deposited $7,500 into a Royal Trust account for the perpetual care of the graves. Cunard Line, which merged with White Star in 1934, continues to assist in the upkeep.
Baron de Hirsch
The burials began on Friday, May 3, 1912 at all three cemeteries. At Fairview, 121 coffins were buried in long trenches. Individual graves were dug at the other two cemeteries where an additional 29 coffins were placed in the ground.
As sad as all of these funerals were, no amount of mourning could surpass the following day. Saturday was the day for the funeral of the unidentified little boy found by the Mackay-Bennett's crew. Hundreds of mourners from Halifax and the surrounding area packed St. George's Anglican Church to pay their last respects to this little unknown victim. People around the world embraced this little boy and mourned this loss of innocence which was cut short at such a young age.
Prior to his funeral The White Star Line had been inundated with offers to sponsor the child's funeral costs, but only one request was granted and that request came from Captain Lardner and his crew of the Mackay-Bennett. Six of her crew members carried his little white coffin, covered in flowers, to the hearse for burial at Fairview Cemetery. The young boy was laid to rest with the other casualties from the Titanic. His tombstone, made of granite, bears the inscription: "Erected to the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the Titanic, April 15, 1912."
The six weeks of searching by four ships had recovered 325 dead, of which 116 had been buried at sea. Of the 209 returned to Halifax, 59 were claimed and shipped to other locations, which 150 were buried in the city's three cemeteries. Of all the 325 recovered dead, 128 remained unidentified.
In all this is how the three classes were treated regarding the return of bodies and burial at sea:
Third Class: 63 bodies were identified as Third Class. 29 were buried at sea.
Second Class: 30 bodies were identified as Second Class. 6 were buried at sea.
First Class: 32 bodies were identified as First Class. None were buried at sea. (Even in death it paid to be a First Class Passenger.)
First Class Servants: 3 bodies were identified as First Class Valets. One was buried at sea.
Crew: 110 bodies were identified as Crew. 34 were buried at sea.
87 bodies were listed as unidentified. 46 were buried at sea.
For the 1,500 passengers that perished on April 15th 1,175 of them, would have the sea as their final resting place, 1,000 miles due East of Boston which will be as close as they will ever get to the land of hope and promise. Beginning on April 15, 1912 their hope rested 13,000 feet below on the ocean bottom, on a gently sloping alpine-like countryside overlooking a small canyon with the "unsinkable"Titanic as their only companion.