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The Wild Conspiracy Theory That the Titanic Never Sank

Believers say one gigantic boat was swapped for another for insurance money. Here’s the truth.

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Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

When the Titanic sank in 1912, it shocked the world. The limits of human innovation were cruelly displayed with the destruction of such a technically remarkable ship.

But a conspiracy theory that has crept up online in recent years asks the question, most recently on Reddit: Was it actually the Titanic that sank?

We know. It sounds bonkers. But bear with us.

Everyone seems to agree on one fact: A ship really did sink in the icy waters of the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, and approximately 1,500 passengers aboard that ship died. The conspiracy simply suggests the Titanic wasn’t actually the technical marvel the ship's parent company, the White Star Line, had promised.

Rather, the White Star Line swapped ships for the voyage from Southampton to New York and the ship billed as the top-of-the-line Titanic was actually an older ship: the Olympic.

What’s more, the conspiracy theory suggests, the entire crash was an insurance scam gone wrong.

J.P. Morgan and the Heyday of Big Ships

The British White Star Line had stiff competition in England and across the globe. Locally, it had a fierce rivalry with the Cunard Steamship Company, Ltd., which in 1906-07 had sent on its maiden voyage the world's then-largest passenger ships, the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

To compete with the Lusitania and its mate, White Star Line entered into a giant ship war. The company was no stranger to such battles, but Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania had out-gunned White Star’s so-called “Big Four” ships in terms of top speed. This time around, the company had some extra backing.

old photo of the construction of two giant ships

The Olympic and Titanic being built side-by-side. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In 1902, White Star had become a property owned by the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), a holding company bankrolled by famed financier J.P Morgan. With Morgan’s permission, White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay began work on what came to be known as Olympic-class ships. If they couldn’t match the Lusitania's speed, Olympic-class ships would outclass Cunard ships: they’d be even bigger, and more luxurious. Three ships were commissioned: the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic.

The Olympic was the first to be built, and as the line’s namesake, it was considered the lead ship. Its maiden trip was widely heralded, and its first few voyages were unqualified successes. But on just its fifth voyage, the vessel ran into serious trouble.

On September 20, 1911, while passing a military vessel, the Hawke, the Olympic made an unexpected turn. Caught off guard, the two ships crashed. The Olympic was able to limp back to port, badly wounded. A trial would later hold the White Star Line responsible for the incident.

old photo of a large ship with a tear in the hull

The tear in the hull of the Olympic after the Hawke incident. Kirk and Sons of Cowes/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Conspiracy Begins

Everything above is generally agreed to be fact. The Olympic crash is where paths diverge.

After the crash, conspiracy theorists claim, the Olympic was an economic disaster. The lawsuit meant repairs would not be covered by insurance, and it was drawing no money while sitting around the docks. So the company made a switch: Its newly built second ship would take on the name Olympic, while its damaged older ship would be re-purposed to be the Titanic.

Eventually, the true Olympic (now secretly operating as the Titanic) would be scuttled in an accident from which the White Star Line could collect an insurance payment befitting a brand new ship—all while the ship originally built as the Titanic would have lived on. The only thing that ruined the plan was an iceberg.

Other conspiracy theorists claim a more nefarious reasoning for the sinking: J.P Morgan was behind the switch, eager to use an inferior ship to drown his enemies onboard.

old photo of men in conversation

The Titanic’s powerful owner, banking magnate J.P MorganPhoto by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Proponents of either theory point toward a number of clues: the Titanic didn’t allow for a public examination before its voyage, out of fear it would be found out by experts as Olympic in disguise, theorists claim. And then there are portholes. A recent popular Reddit post examines pictures of Titanic under construction and Titanic on its first voyage, and finds the second picture suspiciously changed and close to the Olympic.

There are a plethora of other details. For example, separate claims point toward the argument the Olympic lies at the bottom of the sea instead of the original Titanic.

The Conspiracy Doesn't Add Up

Titanic researchers Steve Hall and Bruce Beveridge have published a book on the subject, Titanic or Olympic: Which Ship Sank? They've also helped to write other books of Titanic history, including Titanic: The Ship Magnificent. The two take the porthole argument straight on.

“The Olympic,” they write, “like the Titanic, was fitted originally with the same 14-porthole arrangement on the port side of her forecastle, but 2 additional portholes were later fitted; they were there in March 1912.”

Historian Mark Chirnside has also devoted serious time to the question of why, exactly, the switch would be made. In 2005, he examined the insurance argument—that the ship would be intentionally sunk to claim the insurance benefits. Quoting Ismay, “the Titanic ‘cost $7,500,000’ – and was insured ‘for $5,000,000, I understand.’” This is backed up by the IMM's American Vice-President, Philip A. S. Franklin, who confirmed that the insurance policy was $5 million.

“Were there a conspiracy, one would expect that the insurance policy would have been changed to cover the entire value of the ship,” Chirnside writes. “As it was, White Star could only expect to recoup two-thirds of the ship’s value.”

Closely examined, none of the Olympic/Titanic claims can hold up to the phenomenal effort that was needed for the switch: the two ships were not exactly identical. The Titanic had a “unique café and enlarged á la carte restaurant," Chirnside writes, and was modified based on the company's earlier experience with the Olympic.

That’s not all. It “is simply impossible to pass off a one-year-old ship for a new one,he says, pointing to a number of small differences between the two, including “additional steel plates that were fitted to the bedplates of Olympic’s engines” added in 1911 and still there in further inspections in the 20s and 30s. When the Titanic was investigated by the British board of trade, no such plates were found.

It’s not that the Titanic or owner J.P Morgan were above suspicion—Morgan demonstrated phenomenal power over the U.S. during his lifetime, resolving the Banking Crisis of 1907 almost singlehandedly. (As it happened, the Titanic’s sinking would prove to make IMM the rare Morgan financial failure, going bankrupt 2 years later.)

But in that incident, there was physical evidence that Morgan was altering the monetary system. No concrete evidence of the Titanic conspiracy stands up to the evidence presented by the historians.

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This post originally appeared on Popular Mechanics and was published December 18, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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