itanic’s maiden journey ended, not with a bang but with a slide and scrape, as the ship brushed too close to an iceberg. After inspecting the damage, Captain Smith issued an order for a distress call. “Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man.” Next, Captain Smith gave the order for the lifeboats, “Women and children first, crewmen to row the boats.” In the first-class cabins, passengers made hard decisions. Husbands said goodbye to their wives and children. Some passengers said goodbye to their beloved pets. While other first-class passengers prepared their dogs for a journey on a lifeboat.
From the 2,435 passengers and a crew of around 900 people, Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Carpathia rescued 705 people from the Titanic’s lifeboats. In those lifeboats, along with the human survivors, were three little dogs.
Titanic historian, Dr. J. Joseph Edgette from Widener University, studied the disaster for decades. Edgette curated an exhibition that included man’s best friend for the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
“There is such a special bond between people and their pets. For many, they are considered to be family members. I don’t think any Titanic exhibit has examined that relationship and recognized those loyal family pets that also lost their lives on the cruise.”Dr. J. Joeseph Edgette.
The dogs of the Titanic
Edgette’s research confirmed at least twelve dogs were on board the Titanic when it sunk. These canines all belonged to first-class passengers. The actual number of dogs on board the Titanic is unknown. Ship records, lost with the ship, would have identified all animals, including dogs that traveled as cargo.
Of the twelve confirmed dogs on board, records that still exist identify seven canine passengers by breed and owner’s name. Various documents, including insurance paperwork, transcripts of the senate inquiry, and newspaper reports, enabled the following dogs to be identified:
- Frou-Frou, a toy poodle;
- Kitty, an Airedale;
- Gamin de Pycombe, a French Bulldog;
- Sun Yat-Sen, a tiny Pekingese;
- Lady, a young Pomeranian;
- Chow-Chow, who was actually a Chow-Chow;
- A Fox Terrier called Dog;
The canine passengers were technically supposed to stay in the F Deck’s kennels. The dogs sailing on F Deck had their daily needs and exercise attended to by the Titanic’s crew.
However, some canines sailed in luxury, living alongside their humans in first-class cabins.
Rigel, the Newfoundland hound who saved the day
In 1912, the New York Herald reported a touching story centered on a heroic dog, Rigel. According to the newspaper source, as the ship groaned and echoed as metal twisted and warped, First Officer William Murdoch hurried to F deck. Once there, he freed his canine companion, Rigel. Together, Murdoch and Rigel scouted through the halls of the sinking ship, hunting for trapped passengers. Each time Rigel paused his sniffing and howled, Murdoch hurried to unlock a door or assist a passenger to the lifeboats.
Murdoch assisted passengers until the end, going down with the ship. But Rigel’s story continues.
Rigel swam for hours hunting for his beloved master in the cold, foggy water. Rigel was a Newfoundland hound, his thick water-resistant coat well-suited to survive the freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic. With Rigel’s search for Murdoch unsuccessful, he sniffed out the next best solution, a crewman manning Lifeboat 4 who’d been kind to him. In the foggy darkness, as Rigel swam alongside, Lifeboat 4 separated from the other boats.
When the crew of the Carpathia eventually arrived and searched through the misty waters, they called out for survivors. The passengers in Lifeboat 4 were barely hanging on, unable to respond. Once again, Rigel came to the rescue, barking sharply, guiding the rescue crew with the sound of his voice.
The story has been repeated and reprinted since then. And it’s no wonder — it’s a remarkable feat.
Except there’s a slight problem with the story. No one has ever proved Rigel was a real dog — let alone one of the Titanic dogs.
Going down with the ship
The Bishops left their stateroom several times to walk about the deck to discover what was happening. Each time they returned, Frou-Frou became more anxious. She could sense that something was wrong. During the Bishop’s final visit to their rooms, Frou-Frou was beside herself.
The toy poodle leaped at Mrs Bishop, her sharp nails tearing at the pretty dress, and she tugged and begged to go with them. Instead, Mr Bishop locked the door, and they. They never saw Frou-Frou again.
“There would be little sympathy for a woman carrying a dog in her arms when there were lives of women and children to be saved.”Helen Bishop
First-class passenger, Ann Elizabeth Isham, traveled with her Great Dane. The Great Dane was considered to large to stay with Isham in her cabin, so she visited him daily in the kennels. When the Captain commanded women and children to board the lifeboats, Isham raced to the kennel to fetch her beloved pet.
As Isham lined up with her Great Dane, a crewman told her that the dog was too big for the lifeboat. Rather than saying goodbye to the Great Dane, Isham gave up her place on the lifeboat and chose to stay on the ship.
There are accounts that both crew and surviving passengers saw a female body floating in the water. Her frozen arms wrapped tightly around a Great Dane. Those tasked with recovering bodies from the ocean never found Isham. She is one of only four first-class female passengers who did not survive the disaster.
Besides Isham, at least one other person visited the kennels on F Deck as the Titanic sunk. In the chaos, someone let the dogs out of the kennels. The logic, presumably, being to give the dogs their best chance of survival.
Once released, the dogs made their way to the top deck, where they frantically ran about as the ship sunk.
To the lifeboats!
“The dogs that survived were so small that it’s doubtful anyone even realized they were being carried to the lifeboats.” — Dr. J. Joeseph Edgette.
In her first-class cabin, Margaret Hayes kept her brand new puppy, Lady. When the call came to evacuate, Hayes wrapped Lady tightly in a blanket to keep her warm. With Lady sufficiently swaddled to keep the cold night air at bay, Hayes held her in her arms like a newborn.
Without question, Hayes climbed aboard Lifeboat Seven with Lady in her arms.
Knowing she would not see him again, Elizabeth Rothschild kissed her husband goodbye. She picked up her little dog, hid him under her coat, and calmly lined up for Lifeboat Six. Rothschild kept her dog hidden until morning.
When RMS Carpathia arrived to rescue the passengers, they denied the dog boarding privileges. But Rothschild refused to take no for an answer. She stayed put in the lifeboat, refusing to board RMS Carpathia. Eventually, her Pomeranian was granted boarding rights and together, they boarded RMS Carpathia.
The Harper family boarded Lifeboat Three. Myra Harper held their Pekingese, Sun Yat-Sen, in her arms. When questioned, Mr. Harper reportedly said, “There seemed to be lots of room, and nobody made any objection.”
The surviving dogs were so small; it’s doubtful that anyone can convincingly claim their rescue cost a human life.
Amid a disaster, the choice to leave behind an animal is one that no pet owner ever wants to make.
Knowing your own death would be imminent as Isham did, and choosing to stay with a beloved dog is equally unfathomable — but one that hundreds of other pet owners would make in a heartbeat.
Sandi Parsons lives and breathes stories as a reader, writer, and storyteller.
She lives in Western Australia with her favorite husband, two problem puppies, and many teetering stacks of books.