The Titanic Disaster: A Tragic Accident or Devious Insurance Scam?

The entire world fell into shock when news broke of the Titanic tragedy in 1912. It shed light on the limits of human innovation displayed by the destruction of a remarkable and dubbed “unsinkable” ship. However, a conspiracy theory about the disaster has been circulating around the Internet, with some compelling evidence. Just to be clear, this theory does not discredit the events of that fateful evening. Nor is anyone denying that hundreds of innocent lives were lost.

The Titanic on the left and the Olympic on the right, both under construction / Newspaper boy selling papers about the sinking of the Titanic 1912 / A newspaper headline about the Titanic sinking

Photo by Granger, Shutterstock / Source: Shutterstock / Photo by Granger, Shutterstock

There is one fact we all agree on: Approximately 1,500 people died on April 15th, 1912, when a ship sank to the bottom of the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That said, there might be more to the story than what they taught us in school. The conspiracy simply suggests that it wasn’t the boat we thought it was: It wasn’t White Star Line’s Titanic that sank. According to this theory, it was actually its identical sister ship, The Olympic, which essentially became one of the biggest secret insurance scams in history.

White Star Line

White Star Line was the famous British company that built the Titanic and other leading ships at the time. But the competition was increasing in England and across the globe. It had a fierce local rivalry with the Cunard Steamship Company. In 1906-07, Cunard sent off the (then) largest passenger ships, the Lusitania and the Mauretania, on their maiden voyages.

The RMS Olympic cruise ship of the White Star Line

RMS Olympic of White Star Line. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

To compete with these impressive boats, White Star Line entered a huge ship competition. Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania exceeded White Star Line’s “Big Four” ships in terms of speed. But this time, White Star had some extra backing.

Olympic-Class Ship Line

In 1902, White Star Line was owned by the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), a holding company bankrolled by the famed financier J.P. Morgan. White Star chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, started to work on what would eventually become known as the Olympic-class ships, with Morgan’s permission.

JP Morgan leaving the White House circa 1915

J.P. Morgan. Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

If these ships couldn’t match the Lusitania’s speed, they would at least outclass Cunard ships, as they were larger and more luxurious. Three ships were commissioned: the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic. These were going to be the new lavish ships that everyone would dream of sailing. Unfortunately, not everything went exactly according to plan.

The Beginning of the End

The first of the ships to be built was the line’s namesake, the Olympic, and was considered the lead ship. A massive crowd of people watched it sail off onto its maiden voyage, and her first few trips were very successful. But it was during the fifth voyage that the remarkable ship ran into some trouble.

RMS Olympic leaving the port

RMS Olympic leaving Southampton 1911. Photo by Tony Davies / Shutterstock

On September 20th, 1911, the Olympic made an unexpected turn and got into a collision with a military ship called the Hawke. After the boats were caught off guard and the two vessels crashed, the Olympic managed to limp back to port, but it was badly damaged. A trial took place and held White Star responsible for the accident because of the sheer power and size of the Olympic.

The Conspiracy Begins

Everything we just spoke about is public knowledge based on facts that everyone agrees on. It’s what occurred after the accident where people have split opinions. But this background information is necessary to explain the theory. According to conspiracy theorists, the Olympic was an economic disaster. Since White Star Line was deemed responsible for the collision, insurance was paying for repairs, and the ship certainly wasn’t making any money for the company while sitting at the dock.

The RMS Titanic under construction

The RMS Titanic under construction circa the early 1910s. Photo by Everett / Shutterstock

After investing so much money into this ship, the company was about to lose it all. So, White Star decided to make a little switcheroo: Its newly built ship (the Titanic) would take on the identity of the Olympic, and the damaged Olympic would be re-purposed as the Titanic.

Switching Places

This is where it gets a little confusing but stay with me. The real Olympic was now secretly operating as the Titanic. The plan was for the ship to get into an accident so White Star Line could collect insurance money befitting a brand-new ship. Meanwhile, the real Titanic lived on in superb condition. Sounds like a clever insurance scam, right?

The RMS Olympic sitting at the dock

The RMS Olympic. Photo by ANL / Shutterstock

The Olympic was a financial obstacle for White Star Line. Since they weren’t making money off of it, they didn’t have enough money to build the rest of the boats for the Olympic-class line. It was worth more to the company if it sunk to the bottom of the ocean. But it should be noted that nobody was supposed to die…

The Sneaky Plot

So, how did White Star Line think they were going to pull this off? Sure, the Olympic was clearly unprofitable, but getting caught would do even more damage to the company. So, they made sure that they would never get caught. The first step was getting Captain Smith on board. It wasn’t going to be easy to get a captain to purposefully sink his ship.

The RMS Majestic docked on the east coast of America

The RMS Majestic (left). Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

However, the White Star Line had a lot of power over Captain Smith. He had worked for the company for years and served as the master for various White Star Line vessels, including the Majestic, which he commanded for nine years. Unfortunately, he was sailing the Olympic when it collided with the Hawk and this whole mess started.

Captain Edward Smith

According to this theory, the company managed to manipulate Captain Smith into believing that this entire situation was his fault, and he had to sail the ship when it went down. They told him of their plan to switch the ships with him sailing the damaged Olympic, posing as the new, safe, “unsinkable” Titanic.

Captain Edward Smith standing next to a lifeboat on the deck of the RMS Baltic

Captain Edward Smith standing on the deck of the RMA Baltic. Photo by Bournemouth News / Shutterstock

But Captain Smith never agreed to sink 1,500 passengers along with the boat. That was never part of the deal. Joseph Bruce Ismay (White Star Line’s chairman) assured him that all they wanted was insurance money for the boat and that they had arranged for another ship, the Californian, to come to rescue all the passengers.

The Twin Ship Switch

Once they had the captain on board, it was time to proceed with their plan. Since the Olympic and Titanic were virtually identical, it wasn’t so hard to switch them. While the Olympic was being repaired in Belfast, the Titanic was also there getting its final touches before its maiden voyage. During the two weeks that both ships were docked, the switch took place.

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The Titanic (left) being built and the Olympic (right) being fixed up circa the early 1910s. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

They mostly needed to change the menus and lifeboats since they were custom made with each ship’s name. Everything else was pretty much the same. So much so that the pictures of the Olympic were used as a promotion for the Titanic. This switch likely involved a small crew who just moved everything from one ship to the other.

The J.P. Morgan Theory

As we know, J.P. Morgan practically owned the White Star Line with the amount of money he invested into the company. According to the conspiracy theory, he was fully aware of the plan. J.P. Morgan was actually scheduled to board the ship, but he canceled last minute, claiming he was sick. However, he was reportedly seen playing golf. He was too sick to sail a luxurious boat, but had energy for sports?

J.P. Morgan photographed sitting in a chair

J.P. Morgan circa 1908. Photo by Everett / Shutterstock

The only reasonable explanation for canceling his trip is that he knew what was about to go down. Other conspiracy theories go as far as to say J.P. Morgan was the brains behind the operation and wanted to switch the boats so that he could use a mediocre ship to drown his enemies… but that’s a whole different story.

Not an Accident

So once everything was in place, this is how the plan was supposed to go: The “Titanic” was meant to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, but a ship called the S.S. Californian was expected to be nearby, about six miles away (because at that distance, the ships would be visible to each other).

From this point forward, when I speak about the Titanic, I’m referring to the Olympic, which is now pretending to be the Titanic.

A view of an iceberg in the distance

A view of the iceberg which sank the Titanic photographed from the Carpathia 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Everything seemed to be going according to plan. The Titanic got warnings about icebergs ahead but didn’t bother to slow down. The fateful iceberg they hit could have easily been avoided, which leads conspiracy theorists to believe that it wasn’t an accident.

Don’t Panic

At first, the staff didn’t seem so concerned, and some survivors reportedly said that crew members told them, “Don’t worry; the Californian is coming to save us.” Other witnesses claimed that some of the lifeboats said “Olympic” on them instead of “Titanic.” Speaking of the lifeboats, we know they sent them out half empty. Why would they do that? Especially when they knew there weren’t enough lifeboats to begin with?

Lifeboats lined up at a dock from the Titanic survivors

Lifeboats from the Titanic survivors 1912. Photo by Universal History Archive / UIG / Shutterstock

Maybe because they really thought they were all going to get rescued. It ultimately became apparent that no one was coming to save them. The lifeboats were being filled to maximum capacity, and about 1,500 passengers tragically lost their lives. So, what exactly happened? And where was the Californian?

No One is Coming…

It was 35 minutes after the collision when the first distress signal was fired and when the first radio emergency was sent. It was 45 minutes before they even started to prepare the lifeboats and a full hour and 25 minutes from the time of the crash to when the first lifeboat was launched.

Two lifeboats filled with survivors

Titanic survivors on their way to the RMS Carpathia April 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When the Titanic came to a stop, Captain Smith told the fourth officer to work out their location. It is clear from records that the position the navigator worked out was actually 12 miles from where they actually were. This was a fatal mistake. The position they were supposed to be in would have put the Titanic in sight of the Californian.

Teeny, Tiny, Fatal Mistake

As I mentioned, the Californian was meant to be about six miles away from the Titanic. When the Titanic shot up to its distress rescue flares, it was a signal for the Californian to show up. This way, White Star Line gets insurance money, and the Californian would get credit for being the hero who saved the day. It seemed like a win-win for everyone.

The Titanic passing an iceberg

The Titanic passing an iceberg the day before they hit one in 1912. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

But there was one detrimental detail that was overlooked. It was really dark outside, and the Titanic wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly where they were. They knew they needed to be in close enough proximity to see the Californian. So, once they saw another ship, they realized they were at the right spot (or so they thought).

Proceed with the Plan

Titanic survivors reported that they saw a ship at the horizon (about five or six miles away) and that Captain Smith sailed toward it at a low speed for about five minutes before stopping for the last time. Almost as if he were expecting the other ship to sail over toward him.

Captain Edward J Smith in uniform

Captain Edward J Smith. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

At this point, the stricken ocean liner is dead in the water while the Californian is standing by. Messages have been sent to Captain Smith from the Californian, telling them exactly where they are waiting. Captain Smith sees another ship on the horizon, and after receiving inaccurate information about their exact location, Smith assumed it was the Californian and that everything was going according to plan.

Rescue Rockets Launched

It was illegal for boats to just sail on the Atlantic then. The only documented ship in the area at the time was the Californian. Plus, the Titanic expected the Californian. So, when they saw a ship, naturally, they assumed it was her. As for the Californians, they also saw a ship and assumed it was the Titanic.

An illustration of lifeboats being lowered from the Titanic

Illustration of lifeboats being lowered on the Titanic 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Now, the furthest distance you could see the rescue flares was about 12 miles. However, those white flairs blended in very well with what was described by various survivors as “a starry night.” The red and blue flairs, on the other hand, should have been seen from the closer distance of six miles.

Waiting for the Signal

At about midnight, the Titanic sent out its first distress signals: red, white, and blue. The rockets could be seen from the Californian and were reported to its captain, Captain Stanley Philip Lord, who asked what color they were. Reportedly, for the next two hours, he continuously asked his officers about the color of the rockets, as if he was expecting to see blue or red flares.

Women and children being loaded onto lifeboats

An illustration of women and children being loaded into lifeboats as the Titanic sank in 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Regardless of what he was expecting, the answer was always the same. Only white rockets could be seen. Therefore, Captain Lord assumed the signals were not coming from the Titanic. The starry night made it difficult to be 100% sure they were rockets because, even at that distance, the officers understandably expected to hear a report, which they didn’t.

The Samson

As we now know from court documents, there was a boat called the Samson that was also sailing the Atlantic that night and conducting illegal fishing. The sailors admitted that they saw a ship sending out distress signals but sailed away because of their illegal activity. They truly thought another boat in the area would save them. Maybe because they saw another boat in close proximity?

Titanic lifeboat with people in it

Titanic survivors on their way to the Carpathia of April 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

As it turned out, the Samson was in between the Californian and Titanic. The Titanic assumed it was the Californian, while the Californian assumed it was the Titanic. Unfortunately, the Titanic didn’t make it to the exact location, and the Californian couldn’t see their distress signals.

Insurance Scam Gone Wrong

As we know, the white flares blended into the starry sky, but the blue and red flares should have been noticeable from the six-mile distance they thought they were at. When the Californian didn’t see the distress signals and saw a boat that wasn’t sinking, they figured the White Star Line chickened out last minute and didn’t go through with the plan.

Lifeboats from the Titanic alongside the Carpathia

Lifeboats from the Titanic next to the Carpathia 1912. Source: Shutterstock

The Titanic, on the other hand, saw a boat and thought it was the Californian coming to save them, so they went through with the “accident.” Since the Titanic’s radios kept getting busy signals from the weather, combined with frequent calls from panicked passengers, the Californian and Titanic couldn’t get in touch with each other.

Captain Lord’s Nap Time

Assuming that White Star Line had backed out, Captain Lord of the SS Californian fell asleep, only to wake up to the tragic news of the sinking. It is widely believed that the Californian was the only ship at the time close enough to see the Titanic, or at least its rockets at the time of the sinking.

The Carpathia sitting in the water 1912

The RMS Carpathia 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

By that point, it was over. The ship sank to the bottom of the ocean, 1,500 innocent people died, and the RMS Carpathia had already arrived to rescue the remaining survivors who were lucky enough to get on a lifeboat. Needless to say, this was a plot that went horribly wrong.

The Truth About the Californian

Now, you might be wondering: Just because the Californian was there doesn’t mean they plotted to be there. Maybe both ships just happened to have been sailing the Atlantic at the same time. Furthermore, maybe Captain Lord really didn’t see the distress signals and fell asleep. It makes perfect sense that the Titanic’s radio wasn’t working and couldn’t get in contact with any surrounding ship.

Survivors sitting on the deck with blankets and coats

Titanic survivors sitting on the deck of the Carpathia 1912. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Although this all seems perfectly reasonable, here is the weird part. The Californian had no passengers on board. Instead, it was filled with food, water, and towels. It was as if it was expecting to be the hero ship on that fateful night. Instead, it became known for its perceived inaction during the Titanic disaster since it was the closest ship in the area at the time.

Looking at Clues

Conspiracy theorists also found evidence suggesting the ships were, in fact, switched. First of all, before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, it didn’t receive a public examination – allegedly, out of fear that experts would discover that the Olympic is really the Titanic in disguise. And then, there are the portholes.

Two photographs of the Titanic, one with fourteen portholes and one with sixteen

The Titanic before it was switched with 14 portholes (left) and the Titanic after it was launched with 16 portholes (right). Photo by Universal History Archive, UIG, Shutterstock / Universal History Archive, Shutterstock

Many theorists have examined photos of the Titanic while it was under construction and compared them to photos of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. The claim is that the Titanic initially had 14 portholes and the Olympic had 16. But if you look at photos from the Titanic’s maiden voyage, there are suddenly 16 portholes. Theorists believe that this is proof of a switch, while skeptics think that two portholes were added between the original design and the launch of the Titanic.

More Compelling Evidence

A White Star Line tradition was to engrave the name of each ship into the upper bow plates, with letters that were four feet tall. When looking into the shipwreck, it was found that the Titanic letters were made of iron and engrossed onto the original bow plates.

The letters M and P engraved into the Titanic wreckage

‘MP’ engraved into the Titanic shipwreck. Source: YouTube

Over time, two of the letters fell off and were lost forever in the deep sea. But, eerily, where the letters once were, we can now see the letters ‘M’ and ‘P’ engraved onto the ship. That one is pretty compelling. You can try and debunk everything else in this theory, but how do you explain this?

The Britannic

After all of this happened, White Star Line gave the U.S. military the third ship from the line, the HMHS Britannic. It was meant to be a transatlantic passenger liner. However, it was launched right before World War I. Theorists suggest that the government knew exactly what was going on and said they would keep their mouth shut as long as White Star Line gave them a boat.

The HMHS Britannic in the water

HMHS Britannic. Photo by ANL / Shutterstock

The ship was designed to be the safest of the three boats. In 1915, it was used as a hospital ship, but, unfortunately, it suffered a fate similar to its sister ships.

Learning New Things Everyday

This theory is so interesting because of how many documented facts it is based on. If you don’t believe this theory, at least you learned information about the Titanic that they never taught you in history class. I, for one, never knew that another ship was admittedly at the scene of the wreckage.

Passengers on a ship looking out onto a field of ice, like what passengers of the Titanic saw

Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

I also had no idea that J.P. Morgan invested in the Olympic-class line, and, according to the conspiracy theory, he was likely involved in the disaster. So, what do you think? Was this a tragic accident? Or one of the biggest insurance scams gone terribly wrong?

Next is a true story about a woman named Violet Jessop, who was on all three Olympic-class ships at the time of their catastrophe and survived them all.

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