Featured Article: Senator Smith and The United States Titanic Inquiry

Senator William Alden Smith and his son had made a North Atlantic voyage aboard the Baltic under the command of Captain E.J. Smith in 1906. Captain Smith would later be the commander of Titanic in 1912. While aboard the Baltic, the senator had the chance to meet Captain Smith and developed a great respect for the man. After Titanic went down, the senator was determined to find out why the largest and most state of the art ship in the world went down at the command of one of the most experienced and respected captains on the sea?

Senator William Alden Smith (left) & Captain E.J. Smith (right)

He telephoned to Charles Hilles, Secretary to President Taft, to ask what action was to be taken. The reply was that the President intended to do nothing. After hearing this, he began working on a draft of a resolution to investigate the disaster.

Early morning of Thursday, April 18th, word had been received showing that there were no other survivors of the disaster, except for those aboard the Carpathia. The true scope of the disaster was now apparent to all. Shortly after hearing the news of the true reality of the survivors, the Senate met that same morning and the floor was turned over to Senator Smith, who immediately asked for passage of his resolution which authorized the Committee on Commerce to investigate the disaster. 

The resolution called for a hearing with witnesses being subpoenaed who could offer information about the disaster. With very little opposition the resolution was carried, and Smith was appointed by the Commerce Committee chairman, Knute Nelson, as chairman of the subcommittee to look into the Titanic disaster. Neslon and Smith spent the remainder of the day selecting the panel of Senators that would aid him in the inquiry.

J. Bruce Ismay
Later that morning, the Department of the Navy contacted Senator Smith, advising him that they had intercepted several significant messages being sent from the Carpathia by Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line. 

Other than announcing the loss of Titanic and requesting personal needs, some of telegrams that were intercepted indicated that Ismay was hoping to go directly back to England, along with the crew, without setting foot on American soil. Some of these messages were signed with the name "Yamsi". It didn't take much to interoperate that Yamsi was Ismay spelled backwards.

At noon, Smith immediately arranged a  meeting at the White House. During the meeting, Smith asked about the legalities of subpoenaing British citizens. President Taft, checking with Attorney-General George Wickersham, said there was no question so long as they were in the United States.

That afternoon, the first meeting of the investigative subcommittee was held, during which the Ismay messages were discussed. Smith asked which of the other Senators would accompany him to New York to serve subpoenas and interrogate witnesses.

That evening at around 9:30pm, Titanic survivors begin to disembark the Carpathia shortly after her arrival.

Ismay had hoped for a quick return to England for himself and the surviving crew members by immediately boarding another White Star ship, most likely the Cedric. However, that hope was quickly diminished with the arrival of Senator Smith and his men, intercepting Ismay and the others before they could disembark the Carpathia. The men carried subpoenas for Ismay, as well as various members of the Titanic crew.

Smith also was accompanied by Senator Francis G. Newlands, US Steamship Inspector General - George Uhler, Sheriff Joe Bayliss (an old ally of Smith's that was deputized as an Assistant Sergeant at Arms of the US Senate specifically to serve subpoenas), and Bill McKinstry (Smith's private secretary).

The inquiry began at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City the following morning on Friday, April 19th. After two days, the inquiry was moved to Washington D.C. All together inquiry lasted 18 days and recorded the testimonies of 86 witnesses.