In joint honour of the release of 'Premonition' (the latest Hollywood blockbuster attempting to pimp porno-parapsychology to the masses) and the recent death of Ian Stevenson, I thought I'd discuss some more disaster premonitions. Stevenson was a bit of a quack researcher, and collected reports of many weird, 'paranormal' goings on: from reincarnation, to near-death experiences. But it was Stevenson's collections of premonitions associated with the Titanic, that I found interesting.
First, from Wikipedia on the Titanic and the disaster that ensued:
RMS Titanic was an Olympic-class passenger liner that became infamous for her collision with an iceberg and for her dramatic sinking on 14 April 1912. The second of a trio of superliners, she and her sisters were designed to provide a three-ship weekly express service and dominate the transatlantic travel business for the White Star Line. Built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Titanic was the largest passenger steamship in the world at the time of her sinking. During Titanic's maiden voyage (from Southampton, England; to Cherbourg, France; Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland; then New York), she struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. (ship's time) on Sunday evening 14 April 1912, and sank two hours and forty minutes later, after breaking into two pieces at the aft expansion joint, 2:20 a.m. Monday morning 15 April.
...On the night of 14 April/15 April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, with great loss of life. There are several figures regarding the number of passengers and crew who were lost. The United States Senate investigation reported that 1,517 people perished in the accident, while the British investigation has the number at 1,490. Regardless, the disaster ranks as one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history and by far the most infamous. The Titanic's design used some of the most advanced technology available at the time and the ship was popularly believed to be "unsinkable." The media frenzy about the Titanic's famous victims, the legends about what happened on board the ship, the resulting changes to maritime law, and the discovery of the wreck in 1985 by a team led by Robert Ballard and Jean Louis Michel have made the Titanic persistently famous in the years since.
(Funnily enough, I have a personal connection to the Titanic, attending as I did, the London Nautical School - which was set up as a consequence of the official report into the disaster).
So, Stevenson (1960) gathered together a number of premonitions which were in some way related with the sinking. An example:
Mr. J. Connon Middleton, an English businessman, booked passage on the Titanic on the 23rd of March. About a week later. i.e., ten days before the sailing date, he dreamt “that I saw her (the Titanic) floating on the sea, keel upwards and her passengers and crew swimming around her.” The following night he experienced the same dream. These dreams made him “uncomfortable,” and he was subsequently “most depressed and even despondent”. Mr. Middleton did not cancel his passage until about four days after the first dream. He did so then because he had received a cable from the United States telling him that for business reasons he should postpone his sailing for a few days. After he cancelled his ticket, Mr. Middleton told members of his family and friends about his dream prior to the actual sailing and sinking of the ship. They subsequently testified that he had done this. Two of the persons to whom Mr. Middleton had told his dreams mentioned in their reports that Mr. Middleton had told them (in addition to the details given above) that in his dream he himself “seemed to be floating in the air just above the wreck.” Mrs. Middleton stated that her husband “never dreams” and had certainly never had a dream of this kind before. (p. 157)
Okay, so that's a pretty impressive experience. If (and it's a biggie), if it happened exactly as it was described. Errors in recall could easily convince a person that a dream they experienced of a ship sinking was directly caused by a premonition of the sinking, as opposed to the more plausible explanation that knowledge of the sinking was learned through normal means and it is merely the time of recall which has been misremembered (i.e. the dream happened after learning of the disaster rather than before). There is a great deal of psychological research (such as the very well known work by Loftus) which highlights the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony.
There are other normal explanations for the experiences though, and this example (from a 1965 paper adding some further cases to his collection), is a good illustration:
Mr. Colin Macdonald, the percipient of this case, died two years ago, at which time I learned (through a newspaper obituary) of his having refused to join the crew of the Titanic because of an impression he had had of disaster for the ship. His daughter Mrs. Isabel Fernsworth (in an interview on October 10, 1964) narrated to me what her father told her of his experience. She also loaned me a newspaper account of an interview with her father which was published about four years ago. Mrs. Fernsworth stated that her father had corrected a mistake in the newspaper account and that it then accorded with what he remembered of the experience and often narrated to his family or other persons.
In 1912 Mr. Macdonald was a thirty-three year old marine engineer already with considerable experience in ships crossing the Atlantic. When the Titanic’s crew was being selected he was offered the position of second engineer. This would have meant an important promotion for such a young engineer, but Mr. Macdonald had a “hunch” that he should not sail on the Titanic. The offer of the post on the Titanic was made three times altogether, but Mr. Macdonald repeatedly declined it. The man who took the place he turned down as second engineer, Mr. J. Hesketh, lost his life in the disaster.
According to Mrs. Fernsworth, her father never had an imagined perception of the disaster of the Titanic, only a strong impression that something bad was going to happen to the ship.
Mrs. Fernsworth said her father had had other experiences of non-rational foreknowledge of events affecting himself of their family. She remembered one episode in which her father had warned the family of a dangerous accident which would have occurred (most probably) if the family had not followed his strong warning. (p. 220-221)
Stevenson himself admits that some people may have been afraid of sailing on the Titanic, just for the reason that it was a maiden voyage. And this seems quite reasonable - who wants to be stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, on a ship's first go? Although there may have been little rationale for fearing a maiden voyage on the Titanic (with the claims that it was unsinkable well known) there may still have been a large degree of apprehension associated with the ships first sailing.
Finally, Stevenson himself concluded it unlikely, although not impossible, that any normal inferences could have led to premonitions of the disaster. He contrasted it with the sinking of another vessel (the Lusitania) about which only a few, apparently paranormal experiences have also been recorded. The Lusitania was sunk in 1915 by torpedoes from a German submarine. The Germans not only issued general announcements of their submarine warfare against merchant ships but strongly hinted in the newspapers of New York their intention of sinking the Lusitania. Obvious expectations of danger hung around the Lusitania’s last voyage.
But all of these factors undermine the paranormal explanation. The lack of premonitions surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, could be explained by the very fact that it was expected. Anxieties and dreams about an attack, were written off as being fuelled by rumour (and not reported as a 'premonition'). If anybody really did dream about a disaster befalling the Titanic, it can be written off as a lucky fluke (fuelled by superstition and fear). At the end of the day, some 1500 people died because they got on the Titanic. A handful of flawed anecdotes hardly makes a good case for premonitions...Go Top