Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, The Californian, and the Night the Titanic Was Lost


Rating: 4 Stars

I wanted so badly to give this book five stars because I agreed with much of it, right up to nearly the end at 82% when Butler flat out calls Stanley Lord (captain of the Californian) a sociopath. He very well may have been, but we can never know for sure. All we do know is that night, as the ocean swallowed up the grandest ship ever built, two men made very different choices. One chose to rush headfirst into danger in the hopes his ship could arrive in time to save the passengers of Titanic. The other simply ignored the information from his crew and went to sleep - and in the aftermath changed his story countless times.

Okay, so yes, when you put it that way, he sounds pretty sociopathic.

Another issue with the book was Butler's obvious bias. This did not really bother me, because I pretty much hold the low opinion of Lord that he does, but I can see how this would come across to someone who is a little more in-between or holds no strong opinion either way (except how can you not have a strong opinion about this? His ship was close enough to have rescued nearly everyone!)

This text is a contrasting study of two men, Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia and Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian. Both men were informed early on of Titanic's precarious situation when they received the distress signals from the two brave young men who kept sending out signals until the very last possible moments when they too, finally had to try to save themselves.

This is a fresh perspective I believe, because Titanic is not the focus. Instead, the author looks at the actions of each captain, what those actions meant, and the aftermath of their decisions that night. While you often can get sections dedicated to this very sub-topic in books focusing on Titanic directly, this provides so many more in-depth details about what went on on either of the other ships as Titanic foundered. Butler does not spend time going over the timeline of events as they occurred for Titanic, as there are already a plethora of books that do just that (including another the author has written, called Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, which is fantastic. But even better would be Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, which remains the number one book about the tragic event of April, 1912). Instead, the perspectives are strictly that of the two ships, what went on during the course of the evening on the Carpathia, and likewise the Californian. And believe me, they could not have been more opposite if they tried.

Throughout the book Butler gives his analysis of the two men, their leadership styles, and how they ran their ships. I think his insights are valuable and his arguments clear. I don't feel like he went after Captain Lord because the story needed a villain - we already have plenty of those; mainly the men who decided that fewer lifeboats (cough*Ismay*cough) were necessary because they would crowd the deck. I think his criticism is justified because Lord chose to ignore a ship in distress. Whether he was actually a sociopath and didn't care, or he truly feared ramming an iceberg himself, we can't really know. However, given documentation about his leadership tendencies recorded for posterity, I personally do not think he was afraid of anything that night. Many arguments have been made that it was not Titanic that Lord's officers and crew saw that night, but even if this is true, so what? The bottom line remains that there was a ship in distress nearby, and Lord did nothing to come to their aid. Again, I think it is difficult to declare someone a sociopath decades after their death, perhaps he really was just a coward. Or lazy. Or all of the above. Lord's actions were pretty telling. There are two logs kept by officers. One log is the official one, where final entries are made regarding the goings-on of the ship. Then there is the scrap log, where the notes and such are first jotted down, before becoming part of the official log. Captain Lord had those scrap logs destroyed before anyone could see them. Doesn't sound like the actions of a man who did nothing wrong, to me at least. The author goes into a bit of detail about these two logs, again showing why Lord's actions are so questionable:

"It is a captain's responsibility to review the contents of the scrap log daily and approve, amend, pr correct entries, after which they are entered into the ship's formal log. The scrap log is kept as a back-up, though, and rarely disposed of during a voyage...The Californian's scrap log for the night of April 14-15, 1912, had vanished, and (that) the formal log contained no references whatsoever to the ship seen by three of Lord's officers, the rockets that ship fired, or Lord's order to attempt to contact the ship by Morse lamp - glaring omissions under any circumstances" (65%).


"The duplicity went even further, of course, including the inexplicable disappearance of the Californian's scrap log, for example, or the impossibly innocuous entries in the formal log for the morning of April 15, 1912. Falsifying a log entry is one of the most egregious offenses which any captain can commit, yet only someone truly credulous would believe that Stanley Lord was not responsible for the alterations and omissions found in the logbook of the Californian" (82%).

Given the packed ice field that the ships found themselves in, it would have taken the Californian a bit to reach Titanic, there is no dispute there. Estimates say even if Lord had given the directives to reach Titanic, perhaps only another 400 or so would have been saved. But I am struck by that word, 'only'. Only? That's a further FOUR HUNDRED MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN! That's lives saved, families relieved, what a world of difference Lord's actions would have meant to those people. This quote I think illustrates the whole situation quite tragically perfect:

Standing on an overturned lifeboat, less than fifty yards from the Titanic, Second Officer Lightoller heard a sound that would haunt him for the rest of his life: as the ship began her final plunge, he could hear people - husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children - crying out to one another, "I love you."

Quite a difference, indeed.

We see quite the opposite reaction from Captain Rostron. Immediately upon receiving the distress calls he orders the ship to change course, full steam ahead, and goes through such a thorough check list, one must wonder if he has prepared for just this situation throughout his entire career. While keeping their passengers calm, the crew of the Carpathia followed every directive, finding blankets, clothing, all manner of everyday items that someone would need if they had just lost everything in the most famous shipwreck in history and were completely and utterly in shock. So many stories have come from this night, how Carpathia passengers gave up their rooms for the survivors of Titanic, and also helped in any way they could. It is just the light needed in a story otherwise full of selfish men who thought of nothing but the bottom line. Captain Rostron took significant risks in order to arrive as soon as they did (which still took a few hours). Carpathia was pushed to her limits. Designed to travel at a maximum speed of 14 knots, she maintained an average speed of 17 knots, slipping around the icebergs that dotted her path. This could not have been an easy decision to make, to put his own ship in danger. But Rostron knew there was no other choice. Another ship was in trouble and it was his duty to provide aid in any way possible. Though Carpathia would arrive roughly four hours after Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean floor, it was not for nothing. 700 passengers were scattered across a few miles of ocean, bobbing along in their lifeboats, waiting for a rescue they had no idea might even come. Side note about the life boats: When Carpathia arrived in New York, the crowds were puzzled when Rostron passed by the Cunard Line's berth and headed instead for the White Star Line one instead. At the dock, Carpathia's crew returned the life boats to the White Star Line, all that remained of Titanic. What a sight that must have been.

There is so much damaging information here that the author has taken from the contemporary sources. Lord was apparently a very difficult captain to work for and it seems to make sense why none of his officers or crew pushed too hard for what actions they should take when they informed him of the white rockets they saw exploding in the sky. It seems like his men were afraid of him - easy to see why when one considers the fact that it was apparently at gunpoint that they wrote affidavits of what happened that night, according to Lord's wishes.

Okay, okay, the sociopath part is becoming a little more obvious, even if I still think there is danger in diagnosing someone from an earlier time period - even if that period is not too far removed from our own.

Here are a few more quotes that I found particularly interesting:

"Yet somehow, despite Stone's report, from this moment onward, Lord never appeared to consider the idea that the rockets seen by Stone and Gibson were actually a distress signal - in fact, his actions (or more correctly, his inactions) appear as if Lord deliberately refused to entertain the idea. How or why he refused to do so would never adequately be explained, by himself or anyone else, for nearly a century" (35%).

More interesting then, that this follows:
"...The preface to the Board of Trade regulations publication was clear: 'Note - if these signals are used in any other place, for any other purpose than stated, they may be signals of distress, and should be answered accordingly by passing ships...' In other words, when it doubt, take no chances - investigate" (35%). And yet Lord didn't. The flares were going up, bright and white against the sky, and he chose to do nothing.

The Californian's crew realized what was going on, and discussed it among themselves, but none had the courage to question Lord, as he comes across as kind of a tyrant who had to have things his way, with no input from his officers. Two officers, James Gibson and Herbert Stone, reported what they saw to Captain Lord, and agreed within their own private conversation that "A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing" (36%). Both came to the conclusion that something was wrong with whichever ship they had seen. Yet Butler goes on to explain their own inaction as well:

"Gibson, a mere apprentice officer, lacking the authority to take any action; Stone, possessing such authority, but personally insecure, hesitant, and vacillating despite his experience as a watch-keeping officer; and Lord, autocratic, overbearing, passionately concerned with his own self-protection, his oppressive personality a brooding presence on the bridge that effectively crushed any initiative the two junior officers might have shown" (36%).

I do want to again return to the idea that Captain Lord was a sociopath, as Butler has boldly claimed. As I said, I think it is dangerous to apply labels to those from the past, even though Lord is in the not-so-distant past. I have discussed this so many times, particularly when current historians try to diagnose Henry VIII with all kinds of afflictions, when it really is entirely possible that he was just an asshole (either way, he was). BUT, I can appreciate the way in which the author does this, for the most part. The author goes to great lengths using testimony from the hearings to let Lord's words speak for him, as they literally should. His answers given to the Board clearly show his guilt, though he would never take any responsibility or show any remorse. I have so many quotes I could use, but this review would then grow exponentially, and I think it is best to wrap up here shortly. Still, this diagnosis is important, because it potentially caused hundreds of deaths that did not have to occur, if only Lord had done what was required of him as a merchant steamer captain. He chose to do nothing, and as a result earned a place in the immortal 'Lousy Person Hall of Shame'.

Butler explains in his analysis that Lord's "sociopathic behavior revealed itself in a number of subtle but distinct ways" (82%) and goes on to list them as first and foremost, his reaction to when Stone reported seeing the rockets fired; Lord knew he was required to do all he could to investigate those rockets, yet he did...nothing. He also knew that his officers would not question him, given his supposed overbearing and oppressive leadership style. As mentioned before, Herbert Stone could have, but chose to do nothing, perhaps out of fear of his captain's reaction, and this is exactly what Lord counted on. Then, at 83%, Butler directly addresses the idea that Lord showed no remorse for the remainder of his life about the night Titanic sank. "At no time did Lord ever express the slightest remorse or regret for his inaction in the early hours of April 15th, 1912. Not one word of condolence for the families of those lost on the Titanic ever passed his lips. Never once was there recognition, however belated, that he might have - should have, could have - done things differently that night...It was not simply a case where Stanley Lord did not believe himself to be guilty of the actions of which he was accused; to him, it was simply inconceivable that he could have done anything wrong." Butler then at the end goes on to describe how he came to the conclusion that Captain Lord was in fact a sociopath. At 98% he expresses thanks to a multitude of clinical psychologists who he discussed the information with. He lists several, as well as where they practice. He states that they all came to the conclusion that sociopathy was at work within Captain Lord, and did so independent of one another.  would be curious to know how Butler went about presenting the information, and perhaps he does address this within the notes, or an appendix somewhere that I simply missed. I would hope that he presented the behaviors, words, and actions as anonymously as he could, so as to not create a bias immediately from any of the respondents.

I will finally end with this because, though Captain Rostron, his crew, and the Carpathia passengers must be given all the praise for their heroic efforts on that traumatic night in April, it can not be denied that Captain Lord's behavior and inaction were completely unacceptable.

"For the simple truth is that on the night of April 14-15, 1912, somewhere on the North Atlantic, within sight of the steamship Californian, someone was firing white rockets into the night sky, in a desperate hope that some ship - any ship - would respond in time. The crime of Stanley Lord was not that he may have ignored the Titanic's signals, but that he unquestionably ignored someone's cry for help. This is a cold, hard truth that, no matter how much the partisans of Stanley Lord might wish to deny it, they are unable to do so. Nothing can make those eight white rockets go away; nothing can make Lord's frank acknowledgement - then and subsequently - that the signals were white rockets go away; and nothing can make Lord's refusal to respond to them go away. The chilling reality is that Lord's inaction probably cost those unfortunate people, whoever they were, their lives" (81%).

Highly recommended.


  1. The use of 'sociopath' seems too sensational for me, and the idea of psychoanalyzing someone from a century distant, based on scraps of written history, is ..problematic, to say the least. Sociopathy has a precise definition, after all. His lack of remorse could be counted down to defensiveness -- he completely rationalizes his behavior to himself so that the reproach of others can't affect him. That said, this book sounds worth reading just to revisit the valor of the Carpathia, her crew, captain, and passengers.

    1. That exactly how I feel about it, sensational is quite the right word. But at the same time, during the Hearings he was already dismissing the idea that he pointed a gun at any of his officers to get them to write affidavits - when none of the officers had even yet said he did so. I still highly recommend it though, also for the reason you stated, about the Carpathia. Their attempts to reach Titanic in time can not be overstated, Rostron and his ship truly deserves all the recognition we can give. Butler is a really decent writer and his books make for a smooth read. Check out Unsinkable also, if you haven't yet.

  2. I'd love to have more time to read this kind of thing as the didaster has always fascinated and horrified me in equal measures. I loved the film A Night To Remember.

    1. I've never seen the movie but I loved the book, and his second one, The Night Lives On. Butler does a great job writing about Titanic, so if you have a chance I definitely recommend both this one his other one titled Unsinkable, that I mentioned in the post. Both are very well-done.

    2. LOVE that film... But then I'm a BIG Kenneth Moore fan too.

  3. I understand your concerns here. I have lately come to the realization that even while good history writers do excellent research, every writer has an agenda. It sounds like this one did a lot of careful work to support his conclusions, but it also sounds like he did have an agenda. Not all leaders of men have the best qualifications to lead and that is an ever present danger for us all. It is a good thing that this author presented a case for that danger. What a great job you did on your review!

    1. Thank you so much, I appreciate anyone who reads my loooooong reviews when I go on and on because it is a topic near and dear to my heart. So sorry I missed your comment the first time around, not sure how that happened!

      I still think Butler is a good writer and very thorough, despite my concern over the 'sociopath' diagnosis. Anyone seriously interested in Titanic has an opinion of Lord and his actions/inaction that night (though most I have talked to view him unfavorably). I wouldn't necessarily say he had an agenda, but the bias is clear. I think the book would also stand up as it did without him going so far as to labeling Lord as such.

  4. This is on my Amazon Wish List along with a few others:

    Titanic on Trail by Nic Compton
    Titanic Hero: The Autobiography of Captain Rostron of the Carpathia

    Rostron was a REAL hero here. The way he turned the Carpathia towards Titanic and went flat out towards her *in an ice pack* was a breathtaking act. Bloody dangerous, indeed rash, in other circumstances but heroic in this case. I get a lump in my throat every time that scene comes up in the movie.

    1. I've added both of those books to my TBR - I was kind of amazed that I did not have them already, given how many Titanic books are on my list or that I have read. It really makes me tear-up when reading about all that he did to try and make it to Titanic in time. This book is especially good in contrasting then him with Lord. Such an absolute and complete night and day difference between them. Though it is a given that even had Lord responded, they could not save everyone. But think how many would have had a chance to survive!

    2. Sorry about your TBR pile... [grin]

  5. BTW - No doubt you know about the short story by American author Morgan Robertson "The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility" — a tale of an "unsinkable" ship's deadly collision with an iceberg, written 14 years before the real-life Titanic disaster.... The ship involved was even called the *Titan*... How WEIRD is that!

    1. Yes, I have heard of this! I have to find a copy. I have also read that in editions printed after Titanic sank, addition details were added that made the wrecks even more similar. I would love to find an edition from before 1912 (or at least a copy of the original) but I don't think that will be possible at this point!

    2. I had heard that the original edition (which should be available actually) had the 'Titan' sink on her 3rd voyage where the post-1912 editions had it happen on the maiden voyage for a more dramatic effect. Interesting that the 'Titan' was sailing *from* New York to England and wasn't carrying enough lifeboats for everyone.

      Did you also hear about the weird radio reports apparently picked up about Titanic when she was lost - reporting that she'd hit an iceberg but was still proceeding to New York damaged and asking for assistance?

    3. Interesting. Perhaps I have not looked hard enough. The copies I have come across don't clarify if it is the original version or the one published after Titanic sank.

      YES! Those reports have always stuck with me and there was so much misinformation that for a while it seemed like the New York offices really did believe she was being towed to I think it was Halifax? I thought I read some where that the confusion came from other ships asking one another if that was happening, and that it became reported as fact, which is why so many papers ran the story that she was crippled but still afloat.

      Or maybe it was phantom calls from Titanic as a ghost ship, which I would not rule out either!


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