Irish connections with the doomed “Millionaires’ Ship”, the RMS Republic

RMS Republic originally called Columbus
RMS Republic in 1903 (then called Columbus) in Belfast Lough (photographer: Robert Welch; source: Harland & Wolff Collection, National Museums NI).

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Dr Paul O’Brien unravels the epic story of the RMS Republic’s last voyage and explores the Irish connections, including the role of his own relation Thaddeus Crowley (a cousin of his mother, Ellen Crowley). O’Brien also seeks to determine if the tragic fate of the Titanic could have been averted had the lessons from the Republic been heeded.

The RMS Republic

The RMS Republic, a White Star liner, was built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff in 1903. By the following year, she was operating as a New York–Mediterranean luxury cruiser throughout the winter-spring season, for which she had earned the nickname “The Millionaires’ Ship”. During the summer and autumn seasons, the vessel sailed between Liverpool and Boston via Cobh in Co. Cork. For some time, she had been commanded by Irishman Captain J. McAuley, who had relinquished this position just months before her final voyage.

Republic and Florida collide

Sixty-one-year-old Thaddeus Crowley of Ballinadee, Co. Cork, was quartermaster on the RMS Republic when, early on Sunday morning, 23 January 1909, she was rammed amidships in dense fog off the coast of Nantucket Island by the SS Florida.

RMS Republic sinking
The RMS Republic sinking by the stern after having been hit by the Lloyd Italiano liner Florida on 23 January 1909 (credit: US Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

It was a collision of two worlds. The Lloyd Italiano liner Florida was packed with over 800 poverty-stricken refugees fleeing the death and destruction caused by earthquakes in Messina and Reggio Calabria, which had occurred in late December 1908; there were over 80,000 fatalities and many more were forced into homelessness.

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The Republic was taking about 450 wealthy first- and second-class passengers – including 59 bankers – on a luxury Mediterranean cruise. These pleasure seekers, having embarked in New York, were predominantly American. But there were also several Irish passengers, according to a report in the Cork Examiner (26 Jan. 1909), as well as many Irish-Americans. They even served Guinness on board this palatial steamship.

First-class dining saloon on the RMS Republic originally called Columbus
First-class dining saloon on the RMS Republic in 1903 (photographer: Robert Welch; source: Harland & Wolff Collection, National Museums NI).

On her final voyage, the Republic had a crew of approximately 300. Besides QM Thaddeus Crowley, several Irishmen were working on board, including Fourth Officer J.M. Morrow, Chief Engineer James McGowan and Fourth Engineer John Gordon Legg, all from Belfast; two stewards, Thomas Frew also from Belfast and W. Rezon from Dublin; a Dublin trimmer named Robert Riley and Michael McDonnell from Galway, a greaser.

Crewmen of RMS Republic
Crew of RMS Republic in Genoa, Italy, in 1908 (photo courtesy of Paul O’Brien).

Victims of the Republic/Florida collision

Four individuals on the Florida died in the collision. In most reports, these victims are identified as crewmen, but some accounts suggest they were steerage passengers (including one orphan child).

The recoiling Florida’s overhanging damaged prow had cut a swath along the upper part of the Republic’s main deck. Two first-class Republic passengers, asleep in their cabins, died almost instantly due to the impact of the collision. They were William J. Mooney (stateroom 28 or 32) and Mary Lynch (stateroom 34). Fr John Norris, a fellow first-class passenger, administered the last rites to W.J. Mooney and Mrs Lynch.

Mary Lynch, passenger on board the RMS Republic, who died in the Republic/Florida collision
Mrs Mary Lynch, passenger on board the RMS Republic, who died almost instantly in the Republic/Florida collision (source: © www.rmsrepublic.news).

Mary’s husband, Eugene Lynch, was wounded in the collision and died three days later in hospital. Mrs Murphy (stateroom 30), the wife of a South Dakota banker, was also injured but survived. Given their surnames, we can assume that Mooney, Lynch and Murphy all had Irish connections.

W.J. Mooney was the richest man in North Dakota. Cavalier County’s first lawyer, judge and postmaster, he was also the president and principal stockholder of the Cavalier County National Bank. This voyage on board the Republic was the first leg of what was intended to be his fourth tour around the world.

Eugene Lynch was a successful liquor wholesale businessman and real estate owner from Boston. Before setting sail, his wife was convinced she would be injured or worse at sea and had taken out an accident insurance policy of $10,000 for herself and her husband. This type of policy was rarely issued to women, but Mary was so deeply convinced of impending danger that she insisted on a special travel policy that would pay out if killed or injured at sea.

Mrs Mary Lynch, passenger on board the RMS Republic
Eugene Lynch was injured in the Republic/Florida collision and died a few days later in hospital (source: © www.rmsrepublic.news).

The evening before they set off on the Republic, Mary’s cousins, the McCarthys, threw a going-away party for the Lynches at the Waldorf Hotel. It was reported that Mary expressed her misgivings about the trip to those in attendance. On the night of the disaster, Eugene and Mary bumped into their friend James B. Connolly – an Olympic champion, journalist and son of two Aran Islanders – on the promenade deck; he was a second-class passenger.

James Brendan Connolly, Olympic champion, journalist and author
James B. Connolly, c.1906 (photographer: James Edward Purdy; source: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Connolly described his final encounter with the Lynches in his autobiography, Sea Borne: Thirty Years Avoyaging. Eugene Lynch questioned Connolly on why the ship was travelling at full speed in such dense fog, with his wife adding that she feared they were at risk of colliding with another steamer. Connolly tried his best to dispel their worries. Before he died, Eugene recounted that when they retired to their cabin Mary fretted: “Don’t let me get hurt in the fog”.

Boiler room bravery

The impact of the collision opened a hole at the waterline in the port hull of the Republic’s engine room; engines and dynamos were disabled, and a bulkhead was breached.

Belfast-man J.G. Legg, Fourth Engineer, hurried into the boiler room. Water was rushing in and was already waist-high; the boilers would explode if the cold seawater reached them. Wading through the water, Legg managed to open all the valves on the boilers, thereby single-handedly preventing an explosion. His actions saved the ship and the lives of all those on board.

Republic sends distress calls

Though crushed back to her collision bulkhead, the Florida remained seaworthy, but the Republic now drifted helplessly in the dark and fog. The damage to the Republic’s deck had almost demolished the radiotelegraph operator’s cabin; its telephone link to the bridge was broken. Quick-thinking Marconi radiotelegraph operator Jack Binns rigged up a working system using batteries.

Jack-Binns radiotelegraph operator
Jack Binns, Marconi radiotelegraph operator (source: jackbinns.org).

An Englishman, Binns had been assigned to the Republic in 1908 following a short stint at the Marconi station in Crookhaven, Co. Cork. Binns had other Irish links too, later marrying Alice MacNiff, daughter of Phillip MacNiff, a successful American immigrant from Co. Leitrim.

Alice MacNiff, aka Mrs Jack Binns, and daughter of Phillip MacNiff
Alice MacNiff, wife of radiotelegraph operator Jack Binns and daughter of Phillip MacNiff, a successful American immigrant from Co. Leitrim (photo courtesy of Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace M.D., granddaughter of Jack Binns and Alice MacNiff).

Captain Inman Sealby ordered Binns to send out the internationally recognized CQD distress call, followed by the Republic’s call letters “MKC”, as well as the ship’s location. The rigged-up equipment had a weak signal with a maximum range of 20 miles. The Florida had no radiotelegraph.

Jack Irwin, Marconi operator at Siasconset shore station on Nantucket Island, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts – awake because of the bitter cold – picked up Binns’ signal. Irwin sent out a distress call to ship and shore stations.

The Baltic responds

One of the first responders was the White Star liner RMS Baltic (another Belfast build), commanded by Captain J.B. Ranson; there were two radio operators on board. The Baltic headed for the coordinates given by Binns to Irwin.

RMS Baltic under construction by Harland and Wolff in Belfast
RMS Baltic under construction in Belfast in 1903 (photographer: Robert Welch; source: Harland & Wolff Collection, National Museums NI, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Interestingly, for her maiden voyage in 1904, the Baltic was commanded by Captain Edward Smith – later captain of the RMS Titanic. In April 1912, the Baltic would relay an ice warning to the Titanic. She would also pick up the doomed ship’s signal and alter course but was too far away to be of any assistance to those on board the Titanic.

Though the Baltic was only 64 miles from the Republic, negotiating the distance in the blinding fog was hazardous. Captain Ranson estimated that they had to zigzag about 200 miles. By the time they got near and the two ships were in direct radio contact, the Baltic was down to her last sound bomb and not yet visible, while the Republic had none left.

RMS Baltic in Belfast Harbour
RMS Baltic in Belfast Harbour in 1904 (photographer: Robert Welch; source: Harland & Wolff Collection, National Museums NI, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Chronometers were synchronized and at a fixed time, the Baltic detonated her remaining bomb. Standing over the Republic’s chronometer, with the ship’s officers ranged around watching him and listening keenly, QM Thaddeus Crowley raised his hand at the agreed time: a faint report was heard and the direction from which it came pinpointed. The bearing was fixed and reported back to the Baltic. The latter came alongside at 7.30pm, 14 hours after the collision.

Quartermaster Thaddeus Crowley of the RMS Republic
Quartermaster Thaddeus Crowley of the RMS Republic in 1908 (photo courtesy of Paul O’Brien).

Due to the intense cold and peril, the Republic’s passengers had already been evacuated to the Florida. But the damaged Florida had become dangerously overloaded. A second transfer of over 1,500 individuals was now made to the Baltic. This included the passengers and most of the crew of the Republic and the Florida’s passengers; the latter’s crew was not transferred and Eugene Lynch also remained on board the Florida.

The large transhipment was without incident despite the threat of rioting from the Florida passengers who had been instructed to wait for the wealthy Republic passengers to enter the lifeboats first. The Baltic and Florida then set sail for New York.

SS Florida after collision with the RMS Republic
The crushed bow of the SS Florida in dry dock in New York after its collision with the RMS Republic in 1909 (credit: Martin & Ottaway; source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Attempts to save the Republic

Initially, damage to the Republic’s hull seemed slight, but it extended below the waterline and she flooded slowly. An effort to block the hole using a makeshift canvas collision mat failed. The rising waters spilt over into other compartments as the watertight bulkheads did not go all the way up to the deck.

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Another responder to the Republic’s distress call was the whaleback steamer SS City of Everett. She had powerful pumps and seaworthy towing capability. Captain Thomas Fenlon (born in New York but presumably of Irish descent) offered to pump out the flooding engine room and take the Republic in tow. But Sealby declined – he didn’t want any salvors getting rights and may have been waiting for White Star Line’s tugs to arrive.

A skeleton crew went back to the stricken vessel in an effort to protect salvage rights. It included Captain Sealby, Second Officer Williams, Jack Binns and Thaddeus Crowley. Binns later recalled that Crowley had not been chosen to return to the Republic on account of his advanced age (61) but had jumped into the launch as it had left the Baltic, saying he would not desert his old ship.

An attempt was then made to tow the now-heavily waterlogged ship to shallow waters by the Gresham, a US Revenue Service cruising cutter and auxiliary gunboat, which had also responded to the distress call.

The Republic sinks

The too-long delayed attempt to tow her by the underpowered cutter proved unsuccessful. The Republic sank by the stern on 24 January 1909. Sadly, the bodies of W.J. Mooney and Mary Lynch never made it off the ship.

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The remaining crew had already been evacuated, all except Captain Sealby and Williams, his second officer. It was widely reported at the time that they remained on board as the Republic plunged to the bottom of the ocean. The captain climbed the foremast as the vessel went down. Both were safely rescued from the sea as they clung to floating debris. In his autobiography, James B. Connolly – who was not present at the time – refuted these claims. On the other hand, compelling eyewitness accounts were given by Jack Binns and Captain Ranson.

Captain Inman Sealby of the RMS Republic
Captain Inman Sealby of the RMS Republic, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1912 (printed in Vineland Historical Magazine, vol. 29, 1944).

Initial aftermath

While the Baltic lay outside Sandy Hook, south of New York City, James B. Connolly sent the New York Herald a dispatch. Already a noted writer of sea stories, his detailed description of the Republic/Florida collision was the first published account from a passenger’s perspective.

From New York, the Baltic sailed to Ireland with Captain Sealby, Jack Binns, and some of the Republic’s officers and crew on board, as well as some passengers of the lost liner. On the night of 6 February 1909, as the Baltic approached the Irish coast, the saloon passengers of the Republic and Baltic held a meeting in the smoking room. Eloquent speeches were delivered praising the captain and crew of the Republic.

Smoking room of RMS Baltic
First-class smoking room of RMS Baltic in 1904 (photographer: Robert Welch; source: Harland & Wolff Collection, National Museums NI).

Also discussed at this meeting was how to honour the bravery of the crewmen involved. Organized by wristwatch millionaire Ralph Ingersoll, whose niece was on board the Republic, the saloon passengers of the Republic and Baltic funded the awarding of a specially struck medal “For Gallantry” for the officers and crews of the Republic, Florida and Baltic.

Medal for gallantry awarded to the crew of the RMS Republic
Medal for gallantry awarded to Thaddeus Crowley, Quartermaster RMS Republic (photo courtesy of Paul O’Brien).

On 7 February, the Baltic docked in Cobh (then “Queenstown”), Co. Cork. On arrival, many letters and telegraphs of gratitude and congratulations were distributed to Captain Sealby and his crew, bringing tears to their eyes. On the same day, the ill-fated RMS Lusitania set off from Cobh; she would be sunk six years later by a German U-boat off the western coast of Ireland, killing over 1,000 passengers and crew. First-class passenger Leonard McMurray survived the sinking of both the Republic and the Lusitania.

Jack Binns was later presented with a gold watch by Guglielmo Marconi and the other directors of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd. The widespread publicity surrounding the Republic/Florida collision garnered enormous support for Marconi’s radio technology.

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi, 1908 (source: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Like Binns, Marconi had close connections with Ireland. His mother was Wexford woman Annie Jameson, granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons. Marconi’s first wife was Beatrice O’Brien, a daughter of Lord Inchiquin of Dromoland Castle, Co. Clare. He spent considerable time in Ireland, in Wexford, Antrim, Galway, Clare, Kerry and West Cork (including Crookhaven). In 1919, Marconi achieved the first transatlantic wireless telephonic communication between Ballybunion, Co. Kerry and Louisbourg, Nova Scotia.

The Titanic: lessons not learnt

The failure to hold an official inquiry into the sinking of the Republic cast a long shadow. Jack Binns knew it was a fluke that his emergency signal was picked up in off-hours for Marconi operators, and he recommended that 24-hour cover be introduced.

If this had been adopted, then the Titanic’s first distress signal, sent out at 12.10 am ocean time, would have been picked up by the nearby SS Californian. Instead, the Californian’s sole operator – Cyril Evans, a Marconi employee – had gone off air at midnight as per company policy. If Jack Irwin had done the same, the story of the Republic might have been very different.

Marconi radio room on the Titanic
Marconi radio room on the Titanic with Harold Bride, the junior wireless officer, seated, 11 April 1912 (photographer: Francis Browne; source: titanicphotographs.com, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

In addition, the Californian’s earlier ice-warning signals had been cut short by the Titanic’s Marconi operators because their volume, on account of proximity, was drowning out commercially valuable passenger radio traffic.

Had an official inquiry been made into the sinking of the Republic, the fatal inadequacy of its bulkheads could also have been highlighted. It seems extraordinary that this flaw, which also caused the Titanic to sink rapidly, was either not reported by Sealby or ignored. The bulkheads of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, were quickly retrofitted to safe heights after the Titanic disaster.

The Republic had 16 lifeboats at the time of the collision – the minimum number required by the British Board of Trade for ships weighing over 10,000 tons. As more than 1,500 people on board the Republic and the Florida were safely transhipped – many individuals more than once – it can be assumed that the lifeboats belonging to the Baltic and Florida were also used. The number of lives saved and transhipped in the Republic/Florida collision roughly equals the number lost in the Titanic disaster.

The Titanic had davits for 48 lifeboats. In March 1910, the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, decreed that only 16 of these should be filled (there were another four collapsible lifeboats on board, but these proved challenging to launch when the ship was sinking). Conventional wisdom at the time held that in the event of an accident, ferrying people to nearby ships would save the day, so there was no need for a seat for everybody. The Republic/Florida accident seemed to confirm this. Ismay, who was on board the Titanic, survived by claiming a space in one of the lifeboats.

J. Bruce Ismay survived the sinking of the Titanic
By claiming a space in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats, J. Bruce Ismay became one of the most hated men in Britain and America (source: “Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic: the ocean’s greatest disaster” by Marshall Everett, via Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr / Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0).

Jack Binns and the Titanic

Jack Binns eventually left the White Star Line service and joined the New York American as a journalist. He started work on Friday, 12 April 1912, just two days before the Titanic sank.

As the news of the Titanic spread, the newspaper, looking for a scoop, sent Binns on the tug Mary F. Scully to meet the survivor-laden RMS Carpathia. They didn’t rendezvous, but the Carpathia used the tug’s radiotelegraph as an intermediary to relay her signals.

Consequently, Binns learnt that J. Bruce Ismay had ordered the New York White Star office to hold the RMS Cedric so it could take the Titanic’s surviving crew members right back to Liverpool. Ismay didn’t want an investigation by the US authorities and was anxious to get potential witnesses out of reach. Binns passed this information back to base.

J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, in 1912
J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, in 1912 (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Senator William Alden Smith was told and hightailed it from Washington with a subpoena to meet the Carpathia (incidentally, the Carpathia was sunk in 1918 after being torpedoed by a German submarine off the southern Irish coast).

Smith chaired the subsequent Senate inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. Binns was called as an expert witness in the matter of the Californian’s radio silence and he told of his prior recommendation of 24-hour radiotelegraph cover following the sinking of the Republic. Regulations on continuous cover were not implemented until 1914.

Ismay subsequently moved to Costelloe Lodge in Connemara, Co. Galway, to hide away, having become one of the most hated men in Britain and America.

Rediscovery of the Republic wreck

Before the Titanic, the Republic, at over 15,000 tons, was the largest ship to have sunk in history. Reports suggested she was carrying vast quantities of valuables and gold when lost at sea. It has been claimed that among her cargo were some 45 tons of rare gold double-eagle coins rumoured to be worth between $400 million and $1.6 billion.

Captain Martin Bayerle rediscovered the wreck in 1981 and has carried out some surveys and excavations. But according to Bayerle, her legendary billion-dollar cargo remains buried inside an undisturbed section of the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean, some 270 feet below the surface. Bayerle’s new treasure recovery plan is to get underway this summer.

Anchor of the RMS Republic
Author Paul O’Brien with the anchor of the RMS Republic at the Maritime Museum, Fall River, Massachusetts.

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Jack Binns’ granddaughter, Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace M.D., gave valuable source information and photos.

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