United States Senate Inquiry


Speech of Senator Isidor Raynor

Tuesday, May 28, 1912.

Mr. President, I desire to ask the attention of the Senate briefly to the subject matter indicated in my notice in reference to the disaster to the Titanic.

I shall not bring to your attention the harrowing details of this overwhelming calamity, but my purpose is to ascertain what lessons this disaster teaches us and what legislation, if possible, can be framed in order to avoid its recurrence.

Mr. President, we must change the admiralty and navigation laws of this country. They consist of an incongruous collection of antiquated statutes which should be repealed and reenacted so as to meet the necessities of ocean intercourse of the present day. This is surely one lesson that has been taught us by this dreadful calamity. Without entering into minute details, I submit to the Senate the following suggestions for its consideration. In the first place, let me say a word about investigation by the Senate committee. The committee of the Senate has no power beyond that which it has exercised. In conducting the investigation it acquired its jurisdiction under the constitutional clause to regulate commerce. It is because Congress has jurisdiction to regulate commerce between the States and foreign countries that the committee had the right to undertake this investigation. It would have had no right whatever to summon and examine witnesses unless it had jurisdiction over the subject matter, and the jurisdiction that it has is based upon the fact that by virtue of this examination it is able to recommend to the Senate, under this clause of the Constitution, such improvement in our laws as will enable us to avoid a recurrence of this accident. Therefore the Senate was perfectly right in appointing this committee, and the committee, acting strictly within its jurisdiction and the decision of our courts under a case that I read to the Senate a few weeks ago, has done its full duty in the premises and has done it well, and the committee, and especially its able chairman, deserves not only the gratitude of the Senate but the commendation of the country for the impartial performance of their delicate and arduous duties. If it had not been for the prompt action of the senior Senator from Michigan there would have been no investigation, and his analysis and conduct of the case, thorough in every respect, deserves the appreciation of the Senate and the approval of the people in the highest degree.

I come now to the second proposition. It seems to be universally conceded that this ship was not equipped with a sufficient number of lifeboats to provide for the safety of its passengers. There may have been a sufficient number in accordance with the rules of the British Board of Trade, but it is a conceded fact that the great loss of life occurred because there was an insufficient number to meet the necessities of the case and rescue the passengers and crew.

Third. The failure of foreign steamships to carry searchlights is utterly inexcusable, and if a proper searchlight had been upon this vessel, in my judgment, the accident could have been avoided.

Fourth. The failure to supply the proper officers with binoculars was unquestionably an act of negligence, especially as I gather from the testimony, that a demand had been made by the proper officers for them, and the demand had been refused.

Fifth. There was not the proper attention paid to the wireless messages that the ship received. This appears to me to have been an inexcusable act of negligence.

Sixth. The speed of the vessel was not lowered as it should have been when notice was received that she was in a dangerous zone. My own judgment therefore is that there was negligence in this case and that the disaster was attributable to the want of due care upon the part of the company and those in charge of the ship. The proper tribunals will determine upon this question unaffected by any conclusion that we may arrive at in the premises.

I have said that the navigation and admiralty laws of the United States ought to be changed. Now, in what respects ought the proper amendments to be made?

First. In the first place, we can not change the criminal features so far as crimes and criminal negligence occur upon a foreign ship on the high seas. Prosecution for criminal negligence in the Titanic disaster can only be brought in the British courts, as a British ship upon the high seas is British territory. This is an unbending rule, and, as announced by the Federal courts, is stated as follows:

The general rule is that such courts have no jurisdiction of the offense, even when committed upon the high seas, except when committed on board of a ship or vessel of the United States, unless it appears that the vessel was sailing under no national flag.

The only exception to the rule is that where death occurs in one of our States as the direct result of injuries or exposure resulting from criminal negligence of someone on the ship. Such a prosecution, as has been decided by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, might be sustainable upon the theory that the crime was committed where it took effect.

Second. There ought to be a remedial statute providing that a civil action for personal damages against the owners of the ship could be brought in either the Federal or State courts, and the limited liability statutes of the United States should be repealed.

Third. There ought to be a statute providing that surviving relatives under Lord Campbell's Act can bring suit either in the State or Federal courts, and the limited liability statutes should be repealed so as not to apply to a case of this sort.

Fourth. There ought to be a statute providing for a sufficient number of lifeboats and for the adequate equipment of ships with wireless telegraph. There is no doubt about our right to pass such a statute, even as to foreign ships, because we have full authority to say that foreign ships shall not enter or leave our ports unless they are properly supplied in this particular, and even our statutes now are supposed to furnish that remedy.

Fifth. The doctrine of "knowledge or privity of the owner" should be swept from the statute book, and should not be necessary in order to hold the owners to a full responsibility to prove that the negligence occurred with the privity or knowledge of the owners. There is no reason why owners of ships should not be responsible for the negligence of the crew in the same way that railroad corporations are held responsible for the negligence of their employees. The whole subject is largely in our own hands. We should, without delay, pass a system of laws that, in my judgment, would be sufficient to avoid a repetition of this heart-rending disaster. For a full discussion of the law as it now stands I refer the Senate to the following cases: Schoomaker v. Gilmore (102 U.S., 118); Richardson v. Harmon (222 U.S., 96); the case of La Bourgogne (210 U.S., 97); and Commonwealth v. MacLoon (101 Mass., 1).

And the cases I have already referred to in Thirteenth Wallace and One hundred and ninth and One hundred and thirtieth United States.

Now, just let me explain to Senators how the law stands. I think I can do it in a few moments.

At present you can not recover in the Federal courts for the death of a passenger. There is no recovery at all by the surviving family or the surviving relatives in the Federal courts for the death of a passenger. In these accidents the British law provides, under Lord Campbell's Act, that recovery can be had; and in the case that I have cited, in Two hundred and tenth United States, the Supreme Court held that it would administer the French law; that the law which governs a casualty of that sort is the law of the country to which the ship belongs, and, therefore, France, having a law providing for recovery in case of death, the Supreme Court, in the case I have quoted, the La Bourgogne case, held that the Supreme Court of the United States would administer the French law in the Federal tribunal. This ought to be changed, and we ought to be able to administer American law in American tribunals and not have to resort to the law of the country that owns the ship upon which the accident takes place.

Now, in the second place, I want to say that you can not recover at all if the owner of the ship surrenders the ship and surrenders the freight. We have an old statute here that is a reenactment of an English statute, passed 175 years ago, and we have never changed it. It was passed during the reign of George II, in 1734. It was improved upon in the reign of George III, in 1786, and again in 1813. That is the limited-liability statute. Look at it for a moment. The owners of the Titanic can come into court and surrender their freight money, the pending freight, and there is no recovery against them in any State or Federal court. No matter how many suits are brought in the State courts, no matter how many suits may be brought in the Federal courts, the owners of that ship, no matter how able they may be financially to answer in damages, can go into the Federal courts, sue out an injunction, have a trustee appointed, bring the ship, if it exists - of course, in this case the ship is gone - bring pending freight into court, and escape all liability whatever for injury to passengers, for injury to goods, or for any cause whatever.

That is the statute that is now upon the statute books of the United States. It ought to be repealed or modified. There is no reason on earth why it should continue. When it was passed it was thought to afford an invitation to shipowners to take to the sea and risk the hazardous character of the adventure, but I apprehend there is no more danger on the sea now than there is on the land; and if these statutes are not repealed there certainly ought to be some modification of them.

Now, if you can prove the privity of the owner, you can recover, and the only question of privity which arises in the Titanic case is whether the presence of Mr. Ismay on board this vessel carries with it the privity and knowledge of the owner. You can recover full damages if you can prove privity and knowledge of the owner, but if you can not prove the privity and knowledge of the owner, then the company is not responsible for the negligence of its crew, and all that can be recovered is the ship, if it exists, and the freight money, if it is brought into court.

The only open question in this case is whether or not the presence of Ismay on the ship makes the owners responsible. I am inclined to think his presence on the ship would not have this effect. He was one of the trustees of the line. He was one of the directors of the line. He was upon the executive committee of the line. He was chairman of the finance committee or upon the finance committee, and he was president of the line. In fact, he was almost the line itself. But, nevertheless, I doubt very much whether as a proposition of law his mere presence on the ship itself, admitting that he was not present as a passenger, would come within the Federal statute, which holds that damages can only be recovered were there is a privity or knowledge of the owner. Thus stands the law, and the law ought to be changed.

Mr. President -

Does the Senator from Maryland yield to the Senator from Minnesota?


With the Senator allow me a question? I presume the Senator refers to what is commonly called the Harter law. Under that law if the ship is properly equipped and seaworthy the owners are not liable for any mistake of the master in navigating the ship, and in case of damage occurring they are only liable for the value of the ship and the freight carried.

Now, the question I put to the Senator is whether under that law in a case of this kind where there is a total loss the insurance would not be available under that law?

I think not, Mr. President. It ought to be made available, but there is a decision of the Supreme Court - I can not give my friend from Minnesota the case - in which the point came up involving the question the Senator has asked, and I believe, though I am not certain, that the court held that insurance was not counted.

In Great Britain, I believe, the law provides that the freight money shall be equal to £15 to the registered ton; and in the loss of the Titanic that would amount to a great deal; but we have not any such statute, and there is no recovery here at all. There is no recovery for death, because it does not come within the admirality laws, and there is no recovery for damages against the company unless you can prove the privity and the knowledge of the owner. The Senator from Minnesota [Mr. Nelson] will notice the last case on the subject is the case in Two hundred and tenth United States Reports, which is one of the best opinions, in my judgment, that was ever delivered in the Supreme Court of the United States. Chief Justice White goes into an elaborate and exhaustive discussion of all the questions that are involved in that disaster in case of a collision, and he administered the Code Napoleon in the Supreme Court of the United States, where it required a very thorough investigation to discover what the French body upon this ruling was. The Supreme Court came to the conclusion that under the French code you could recover for death; but they came to the further conclusion that there was no privity or knowledge of the owners, and that, therefore, they had a right in the Bourgogne case, in the case of the collision of a French with a British ship, to go into the French courts, surrender freight money, and escape all liability. These provisions have been on the statute books from time immemorial. We have a bill now in the Judiciary Committee attempting to remedy these obsolete provisions of our navigation laws, and they ought to be remedied, because nearly every other civilized government has adopted statutes in reference to them.

There is another lesson that this disaster teaches us and which ought to be one of general application, and that is the lesson of corporate responsibility. We must enact legislation that will make the controlling and superior officers of corporations within our own jurisdiction criminally responsible for the careless and negligent management of the public-service corporations which they control. I have made this suggestion over and over again, and I repeat it now in the most emphatic way that I can, that it is a shame and an outrage that the criminal statutes of this land permit the men who are really responsible absolutely to escape from the penalties of the law, and inflict penalties and punishment upon those are simply acting under their superior orders. We know how a large number of these corporations are organized, and what I have reference to now are American corporations, because, in Great Britain corporations are controlled by laws that are more efficient and severe than ours. Let us look at the scheme a minute.

A number of individuals organize a trust. We call these companies trusts for want of a better name. The promoters absorb and consolidate a number of competing companies, and then, in order to promote the scheme, a bonded indebtedness is created. The promoters in almost every instance get the bonds and the public gets the stock. Then the consolidated company goes into operation and, as a rule, the bondholders, who consist of the individuals who practically own the constituent companies, have very little, if any, interest in the active management of the concern. The president and managing officers - I will not say in all cases, but in a great many instances of the administration of public-service corporations - perform simply perfunctory duties, their position being largely a sinecure, and the management being left to other hands. I know of one railroad accident after another and one steamship accident after another that are entirely due to the negligence of the directorate of the respective companies. Did we ever hear of a director or a president of any public-service corporation being indicted for manslaughter in an American court in any case whatever where the accident was directly attributable to the oversight, neglect, or carelessness of the company's management? American corporations in a number of instances are running loose and wild without curb and without reins. Take the street railroads of Washington. I have never in any city in the Union seen such an utter disregard of the people's rights. I have time and time again intended to offer some measure here to bring them to bay and call them to terms, and I expect to follow up this purpose. They are violating their charters and they are not giving the people proper accommodations and facilities. I have been in these cars hundreds of times when afflicted and helpless people have been made to stand from almost terminus to terminus simply because the management of these railroads will not run a sufficient number of cars and will not give to the people of this District the rights that they are entitled to. They forget that they are the trustees of the public as well as the trustees of their stockholders.

It is a delusion that these gentlemen are laboring under that they represent private stockholders alone and that their duty ceases when they pay their own salaries and interest upon their bonds and a dividend upon their stock. They owe just as great a duty to the public as they do to the private interests that they represent, and I think the time has come when we must lock hands in this Congress of the United States and demand of these public-service corporations, interstate and in the District of Columbia, that under the heaviest penalties they must properly administer their charter obligations and that the public will no longer stand by and permit the gross violation of their public duty to take place from day to day as it is now doing in this District and elsewhere. What occurs here occurs all around us, and I call upon Congress, taught the lesson as it is by this terrible disaster, to fix the standard and the measure of responsibility, not against sailors and captains and conductors and brakemen and motormen, unless where they are personally negligent, but upon the heads of these corporations, where the responsibility attaches to them for the proper direction and management of the interests that they represent.

There is another lesson, however, Mr. President, that this disaster has taught us, of more importance than a change in our admiralty and navigation laws, and of far greater and more overwhelming significance than the lesson of corporate responsibility, and that is the lesson of religious faith. Disasters like this, instead of weakening, should strengthen the faith of the Nation. There is no use of appealing to reason or to philosophy in a case of this sort. The mind stands aghast and appalled as these calamities come thick and fast. We forget in our moments of sorrow that it never was intended that the intellect of man should reason out such a problem. Suffering and affliction, as they come to the pure and the innocent in a hundred forms, are inexplainable.

The convulsions of nature alone that have swept myriads of human beings to an untimely death can not be reconciled by any process of human reasoning. When reason halts, the Creator has implanted in the soul another faculty, however, that gives us light in the hours of tribulation. It is the light of faith, a pillar of fire in the night of our darkness and despair. Throughout my life I have spent many hours of the day, and many silent and sleepless hours of the night, in the struggle for the light of reason, but in my advancing years the light the gives me fortitude and courage is the sublime light of faith, that never dims nor wanes, and at the supreme moment when reason vanishes, breaks in upon us with all the radiance of the morning sun. We can reason out the negligence of man, but we can not reason out why, in the course of nature, an iceberg from the Arctic zone should just at this very moment have taken its course upon the path of desolation and death. Upon all this and kindred subjects the most profound intellect of the greatest philosophers who ever lived have illumined the world just about as much as the credulity of the earliest races, who attributed every phenomenon of nature to interposition of Divine Providence. What this Nation needs are some severe lessons that will strengthen the pillars and the alters of its faith. We are to a large extent today defying the ordinances of God, and the sooner we awaken to a realizing sense of our responsibility the better it will be for the spiritual elevation of the country. We are running mad with the lust of wealth, and of power, and of ambition. We are separating society into casts, with fabulous fortunes upon the one side and destitution and poverty on the other. It takes a terrible warning to bring us back to our moorings and our senses. We are abandoning the devout and simple lives of our ancestors, and the fabric of our firesides is weakening at the foundation. If this disaster teaches no lesson or points no moral, then let us pass it by with stoical indifference, until the next disaster comes, and in the meantime let the carnival go on. May the heart-rending scenes upon this night of anguish and woe give us faith and lead us back to the alters of our fathers. I will not rehearse the agonies of this midnight sacrifice. I can not afford to dwell upon them or listen to the details that almost distract the mind and break the heart. It is the lesson and the moral that I am searching for.

I will say this, however, in closing: The agonies of separation at this scene, that palsy the tongue when it attempts to describe them, were worse than the agonies of death. I knew well one of the courageous passengers who, with his wife, yielded up their lives on this occasion. The man was a splendid type of American citizenship. I served with him in the House of Representatives, and he was esteemed and beloved by all who knew him. In private life he was a benefactor of the human race. In public life he was an unpurchasable tribune of the people. His heroic wife had the blood of martyrs in her veins, and from the most authentic account that I can obtain, the account of a witness was not examined by the committee, because her testimony was not necessary for the purposes of the investigation, she went to her death with the same spirit of heroic fortitude with which her ancestors went to the fagot and the flame.

A harrowing thought flashes across my mind, and that is, it might possibly have been unnecessary to have presented to this devoted man and woman the terrible alternative that confronted them, and it might have been possible that both of them could have been rescued. I shall dwell upon this incident no longer.

I shall close my brief remarks with this remembrance. As the ship was sinking the strains of music were wafted over the deck. It was not the note of any martial anthem that had, in days gone by, led embattled legions on to victory. It was a more inspiring stanza than this. It was a loftier and holier melody amid the anguish and the sublime pathos of that awful hour that swept through the compartments of the sinking ship. It was a rallying cry for the living and the dying - to rally them not for life, but to rally them for their awaiting death. Almost face to face with their Creator, amid the chaos of this supreme and solemn moment, in inspiring notes the unison resounded through the ship. It told the victims of the wreck that there was another world beyond the seas, free from the agony of pain, and, though with somber tones, it cheered them on to their untimely fate. As the sea closed upon the heroic dead, let us feel that the heavens opened to the lives that were prepared to enter.

Father of the Universe, what an admonition to the Nation! The sounds of that awe-inspiring requiem that vibrated o'er the ocean have been drowned in the waters of the deep, the instruments that gave them birth are silenced as the harps were silenced on the willow tree, but if the melody that was rehearsed could only reverberate through this land "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and its echoes could be heard in these halls of legislation, and at every place where our rulers and representatives pass judgment and enact and administer laws, and at every home and fireside, from the mansions of the rich to the huts and hovels of the poor, and if we could be made to feel that there is a divine law of obedience and of adjustment, and of compensation that should demand our allegiance, far above the laws that we formulate in this presence, then, from the gloom of these fearful hours we shall pass into the dawn of a higher service and of a better day, and then, Mr. President, the lives that went down upon this fated night did not go down in vain.

(Applause in the galleries.)