The Writers Who Predicted The Sinking Of The Titanic

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Morgan Robertson and W.T. Stead

After any large-scale tragic event, many people come out of the woodwork claiming to have had anything from “intuitions” to full-blown prophetic foreknowledge that the incident was to take place. The finger is also pointed, retroactively, at various symbols and story-lines from pop-culture that might have “predicted” the circumstance.

Such is the case for the Titanic disaster, regarding which there are dozens of anecdotes showcasing everything from “uneasy feelings” to the sudden insights of crystal ball gazing spiritualists. Two very startling examples of such seeming prognostication involve authors: one, a crafter of sea-tales, and the other a crusading editor with literally a life-long obsession with massive sinking ships.

I. The Possessed Pen of Morgan Robertson

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Even the most cursory of overviews concerned with the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic will mention the story that apparently “predicted” it 14 years earlier: “The Wreck of the Titan” by Morgan Robertson. But the full explanation of that startling coincidence is not often told…specifically, the fact that Robertson claimed to have “received” the information from some sort of “entity” that literally possessed him to write.

Robertson spent a portion of his early years at sea: first, as a cabin boy and then in the merchant service. After a career as a jeweler fell flat due to the strain on his eyes, he opted for the glamorous life of a poorly paid short story writer. Most of his tales revolved around what he knew—the nautical life. But unlike the wondrous, technology-praising adventure yarns by authors such as Jules Verne, Robertson’s stories tended to be…a little bit on the morose side. And such was the case (obviously) of The Wreck of the Titan.

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Part of a sea-themed novella with the upbeat name Futility, the tale featured a majestic ship called the Titan that carried about 2,000 passengers and was described as a “floating palace.” The Titan—“the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of man”—meets its untimely end in the Atlantic after striking an iceberg.

Futility was sort of a dud when first published in 1898…but, as you can well imagine, brand-new notoriety visited it once news broke in 1912 that the real-life Titanic had met its watery grave. Whereas before he was simply a published but mostly unsuccessful author, Robertson was now a “prophet.”

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And where did he get that “prophetic” information from? If Robertson is to be believed, from the very same “entity” which wrote his books.

According to his journalist friend H. W. Francis, Robertson:

…implicitly believed that some discarnate soul, some spirit entity with literary ability, denied physical expression, had commandeered his body and brain.

That’s…pretty intense stuff. Further, Robertson allegedly referred to himself as “a mere amanuensis, the tool of the ‘real writer’.” (amanuensis=writing assistant)

His writing method was as follows: he’d lie in bed, go into a hypnogogic trance, and note the story elements that spontaneously filled his mind via his “astral writing-partner.” Then he’d wake up, rush to his typewriter, and pound on the keys until the story visions emptied from his mind and filled the pages.

morgan_robertsonThis all sounds like a pretty neat set-up for Robertson; to have your invisible buddy do most of the work for you. But there was only one little problem: the “entity” was working on its own timetable, not Robertson’s.

This meant, for example that the “spirit” might get half-way through a story and just “stop”—and not come back to finish it for a good long while. Or maybe one story would be finished, and the creature might not return to dictate another for weeks or even months.

How was Robertson to make a steady living this way? He couldn’t. But his alcoholism helped lessen the sting of perpetual poverty and, I suppose, the creepy feeling that goes along with repeatedly letting yourself be possessed by a phantom with the writing bug.

Robertson’s revival as an author following the sinking of the Titanic was short-lived. Within a year or two, his “astral writing-partner” had deserted him completely. Penniless and subsisting on the assistance of friends, Robertson died of heart failure in 1915…sitting in a chair outside a hotel room window in Atlantic City, his eyes resting upon the sea that he had such an ambivalent relationship with.

II. The Sinking Feeling of W. T. Stead

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Was Morgan Robertson really channeling some sort of spirit when he wrote “The Wreck of the Titan”? To be fair, Spiritualism of all sorts was all the rage at the turn of the century, both in Europe and the United States. And one devoted spiritualist was the newspaper editor W. T. Stead, who, via a “spirit guide” dubbed “Julia” and the practice of automatic writing, obtained messages from the “other side.”

When not indulging in matters of the esoteric and the occult, Stead went on various editorial crusades about social issues close to his heart. One was published in 1886 in the “Pall Mall Gazette,” entitled “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor.” About two ships colliding in the sea, and the subsequent massive loss of life, the fictional account was meant to highlight the need for ocean liners to equip themselves with enough lifeboats.

Stead followed-up that story with another in the Christmas issue of “The Review of Reviews,” in 1893. It was another fictional account of a sea disaster, this time a passenger liner colliding with an iceberg in the Atlantic. This tale was at least a bit more hopeful than the last, in that he depicted a real-life ship, Majestic, as helping rescue the other sea vessel’s survivors.

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And do you know who the captain was of the Majestic, at the time Stead published the story? Edward J. Smith…who would later go on to captain, and die with, the Titanic.

OK…that’s weird.

But surely, this could all be a coincidence. I mean, the entire thing: Robertson’s story, Stead’s stories, the Smith connection.

Well, for one thing, it’s not like Smith would have had his pick of thousands of luxury ocean liners to captain after the Majestic. It’s not so crazy to think that he could have ended up on the Titanic.

And as for the doomed ship itself, both Robertson and Stead could have just been leaning on old, trusted archetypes regarding man’s hubris. They wrote during an age of massive technological expansion; their cautionary tales could have been a subconscious, or even conscious, reaction to that circumstance. The name “Titan” would be the sort you’d give a huge construction like a ship to denote its vastness, and the Atlantic Ocean would simply be a likely setting for any sea story.

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W.T. Stead and friend

That all considered, let’s go on to the rest of Stead’s personal journey into spiritualism and apparent disaster-paranoia.

Stead was OBSESSED with the idea of mighty ships sinking. As Leslie A. Shephard notes in the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology:

It is quite astonishing how often the picture of a sinking ocean liner with its attendant horrors recurred in Stead’s writings.

In 1911 Stead received an urgent warning during a palm/horoscope reading by a spiritualist named Cheiro. It was pretty damn specific:

Very critical and dangerous for you should be April, 1912, especially in the middle of the month. So don’t travel by water if you can help it.

This was followed up by another admonition regarding ocean travel, this time by a crystal ball gazer named W. de Kerlor. In the vision, Stead was traveling to America on “a huge black ship, but I can only see half the ship.”

On April 21, 1912, the British Stead bought a ticket to go on Titanic’s maiden voyage, in order to make an appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall for a lecture.

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He perished on the ship as it sank.

III. Why Predict A Tragedy If You Can’t Stop It?

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It makes no sense, right? How many people did Robertson save by writing “The Wreck Of The Titan?” Maybe…like one at the very most who had thought about taking a trip on the liner but then remembered that really unsuccessful obscure book that talked about a similar ship sinking?

And sure, Stead’s possible premonitions of his own death might have driven him to write about things like lifeboat awareness and sea safety—which, in his position as a newspaper editor, could have influenced positively both citizens and boat-makers. But it sure as hell didn’t save him.

However, could it not be possible that some sort of precognitive ability—whether derived from “spirit guides” or entities named Fred or just some inborn talent masquerading as an outside force—would not necessarily ensure either “usefulness” or even meaning?

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Nostradamus

Here’s what I’m trying to say: if humans do have, in varying degrees, the (perhaps latent) facility to intuit future events, there might be very little rhyme or reason to it. It could just be this “window” of perception that opens and closes not because of some divine purpose, but perhaps due to something as mundane as certain chemicals being activated in the brain as a reaction to a particular type of food, or level of solar activity.

This might have been why Robertson’s “muse” visited him so randomly. It might be that there was no “astral writing-partner,” just his own brain opening that window seemingly outside of his conscious control.

Similarly, Stead might have intuited his own death way in advance, leading to his lifelong obsession with sinking ships. It didn’t save him because…it wasn’t meant to. It was just something he “picked up” on a subconscious level, and then processed through writing and spiritualism and whatnot.

Then again…maybe the famous examples of Robertson and Stead do have meaning and purpose. And maybe part of that meaning is to simply challenge your perception of what reality is, and what the mind can do.

Portions of the research for this post were derived from “The Mammoth Book Of Nostradamus And Other Prophets” by Damon Wilson.