In the News–What I Think and Why

Titanic Violin Found!  Instrument Played by Bandmaster as Ship Sank, Auction House Says

read the story here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/titanic-violin-found-auction-house_n_2883500.html?1363355499

Believe it if you like, but don’t come crying to me when you waste $600,000 on an elaborate hoax. 

As an historian, I’ve had to develop a pretty good “bullshit detector,” and I have to say that the alarms started going off before I got halfway through the article.  (Actually, it was the original story carried in the UK newspaper The Daily Mail.)  The bottom line is that I cannot accept the provenance of the violin as valid. The instrument in question may well be a violin owned by Wallace Hartley, but there is a gaping paucity of proof that this is the violin he played on the Titanic. The cable ship Mackay-Bennett is the beginning of all the problems I have with this story.  Why?  Because the Mackay-Bennett was the ship hired by the White Star Line to recover as many of the Titanic‘s victims as it could find in the weeks following the disaster.  Given that there is little if any evidence that other bodies were looted when they were recovered,  it strikes me as odd that a crewman would choose to steal the violin, rather than letting it stay with the body.  (John J. Astor was carrying several thousand dollars in his pockets when his body was pulled from the Atlantic, all of which was still there when it arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia!)  Not only that, but such a theft would also imply a degree of collusion with other crewmen, as well with the coroner on board the ship, again a bit of a stretch since not a word of such has leaked out in the intervening 100 years. More to the point, the Mackay-Bennett crew wouldn’t have known who the body was when it was recovered, and if it was identified while still on board, they wouldn’t have known who Wallace Hartley was, or know what he and the other musicians had done on the deck of the sinking Titanic,  let alone recognize the significance of the violin. The evidence indicates that the crew were scrupulously honest in their treatment of the other bodies recovered and the personal effects found on them, so why would Hartley’s effects get treated differently? It all begins to break down at that point for me. (No small part of that is due to the fact that there are varying accounts of what effects were found on Wallace’s body–some make no mention of the valise at all, some claim that the valise was empty when the body was recovered.)  I don’t have a problem, as do some people, with the violin not breaking apart while being immersed off-and-on for ten days–they aren’t woodworkers, and I am, so I know that dryness is a worse enemy to hide-based glues than is water. At the same time, none of the damage visible can be attributed solely to the violin being immersed in seawater for ten days. It IS consistent with the history of the violin from the time of its alleged “recovery” from the North Altantic–what you are seeing is basically a violin that has been neglected and poorly stored for most of its existence. The condition of the violin can be attributed solely to those circumstances–there is nothing unique about its condition that proves it spent ten days immersed or semi-immersed in seawater, only that it has been water-damaged at some point in time.  Ultimately, though, what truly screams “FAKE!” to me is that  nowhere in this newsstory (or any other published account) is there any mention of the name of the maker of this violin, and no mention of any contact with that maker (or its successor) or any other maker of string instruments being consulted to offer expert opinion on the piece, nor has there been any participation or consultation of any musicologist or musical instrument historian and/or restorer.  No one who could offer an opinion–or, in the case of the maker, state definitively–that the instrument was made circa 1909-1910, or even earlier.  All that is offered are statements of “tests” that were done which conclude that the condition of parts of the violin are “consistent” with an instrument with such an alleged history as the violin in question.  No mention of what those procedures were, nor of any margin of error in their results, no names of individuals who could confirm or deny the veracity of the reports, no way, really, aside from the presentation plate attached to the base of the violin, to connect this instrument with Wallace Hartley, let alone the violin he played on the Titanic. Particularly damning to that end is the fact that the violin was offered to Britain’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, and several leading auction houses, all of whom declined to acquire it and wanted nothing to do with it.  It may well be true that this violin was owned by Wallace Hartley, and indeed be the instrument presented to him by his fiance.  But for it to be the violin that Hartley played while the Titanic sank beneath his feet stretches credibility to the breaking point.  The chain of provenance recounted here asks that a lot of the violin’s history be taken on faith; the validity of the claim, however, can’t be based on what some people wish were so.  
But why the fuss, you ask?  Simple: the newsstory is correct when it asserts that–if this IS the violin Hartley played on the Titanic–it would be the single most important Titanic artifact ever found.  For that reason alone, there can be no room for doubt or error.  As has been said in other circumstances, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof–and the “proof” offered to date is far, far from convincing, let alone extraordinary.
So, swoon away if you will, but I will submit that, to borrow a quip from Dickens, “there’s more of gravy than of the grave” to this particular flight of fancy….
I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and that’s what I think–and why….

8 thoughts on “In the News–What I Think and Why

  1. Daniel,

    First, I hope you’re well. Secondly, I simply couldn’t agree with you more, for the very reasons which you have clearly stated. Those who think contrary are fools; the person who spends six figures on this instrument, is a complete and utter fool.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    Many thanks for your very insightful post. Please see the post below which I have sent to most of the newspapers which ran the story. I agree with you completely. As I state below, nowhere in the historical record are the claims made by the auction house backed up. What IS happening is an attempt being made to distort the historical record, to fit the auction house’s own view of the event.
    Mr Aldridge himself called me last night (Friday 15th March 2013) and threatened to sue me unless I shut up and stop defaming his character. As can be seen from the post below, nowhere do I do this.
    During the “conversation” in which I was threatened with “being taken for every penny” and “I know where you are and I know where you live, I have family very close to you” I called on Mr Aldridge to make public all his research and all of the alledged test results that he claims “Prove Beyond Doubt” the authenticity of the violin.
    He declined to do this and one has to ask the reason WHY?
    But once again I am please that I am not a lone voice in the wilderness regarding this issue and am very pleased that other experts and historians are also asking questions.
    Take care Daniel,
    All the best,
    Nige

    Re Claims that Wallace Hartleys Violin from Titanic has been found

    To claim that this is the violin Wallace Hartley had on Titanic with him is the worst form of manipulation.

    The historical record DOES NOT show that Wallace was recovered with his violin strapped to his body – it actually proves the opposite.

    The inventory of items recovered on Wallaces body makes NO MENTION WHATSOEVER of a violin or music case or anything similar being found with him.

    The supposed “Diary” of maria Robinson, Wallaces sweetheart, nowhere has her signiture in it, nowhere is there any proof that it even belonged to her. The alledged letter to Nova Scotia is PRINTED IN CAPITAL LETTERS in pencil!

    We are supposed to believe that when the ship sinks and everyone – the band included, are fighting for their lives, Wallace is more concerned with the fate of his instrument than his life?

    We are also supposed to believe that the violin survives almost 2 weeks in the sea and emerges intact?

    The local press in Colne, Wallaces home town make NO MENTION of his violin whatsoever. If Wallace had indeed been recovered with his violin after the disaaster, they would have been all over the story and given it massive coverage.

    This violin clearly is A Wallace Hartley instrument – but to claim that it is THE violin, that he had with him on the Titanic is preposterous and IS NOT BACKED UP BY THE HISTORICAL RECORD.

    • Indeed, Nigel, the question of “Why?” the forensic results have not been made public is a huge obstacle standing in the way of accepting the provenance of the violin. As I said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the only thing extraordinary about the “proof” in the case of this violin is the lack thereof. And you can quote me on that!

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