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The Royal Mail Ship REPUBLIC sank after collision off Nantucket
Were there millions or even billions in gold aboard?
submitted by
Van Field
    On the morning of January 23, 1909 the RMS REPUBLIC had left New York harbor and was bound for the Mediterranean with 742 vacationing passengers and crew. What the contents of her hold contains is still a mystery!
    The White Star ship was built for the carriage trade with on board opulence and comfort, rather than speed.  On the six-day crossing, passengers would spend their time dining in style and drinking the best wines, dancing to the music of fine orchestras and being served by an attentive staff of servants. She was a cruise ship intending to ply the sunny Mediterranean sea for two months. 
    Passengers could enjoy something new aboard ships. A newspaper printed daily aboard with news and stock reports copied by the ship’s wireless operator.  The wireless aboard was thought of as a luxury more than a safety device. 
In the hours before dawn, the ship encountered a fog bank.  Captain Inman Sealby ordered a small reduction in the speed. He was in open sea in the Nantucket traffic lane south of Nantucket Island.  The ship was sounding the fog signal in accordance with International Rules of the Road.  At about 5:30 a.m. an answering fog signal was heard off the port bow.  The Captain immediately ordered full astern and the helm to hard a-port, while signaling his intention with his foghorn. Out of the fog appeared the bow of a ship.  The oncoming ship hit REPUBLIC amidships killing three passengers as they slept.  The ships soon drifted apart and out of sight in the fog.  Water was pouring in to the engine and boiler rooms killing the lights and soon the ship was listing.
    The crash awakened the young Marconi wireless operator, Jack Binns, who discovered his cabin was in shambles. The wireless shack had its roof torn away by the impact. As there was no power, he hooked up the emergency batteries and sent out a distress call.  He sent the newly agreed upon Marconi co. signal “CQD”.  It was the first use in such a large life-threatening situation, of this abbreviation.  CQ is a general call to all listening and the D stood for distress.  By the time of the TITANIC sinking in 1912, it had been replaced by the new international distress signal dubbed SOS because it resembled the Morse characters, however the dots and dashes are run together making one character.  
    Jack Irwin, the operator on duty at the Marconi Station on nearby Nantucket picked up the distress signal and relayed it so the world was soon informed.  The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched two cutters, SENECA from New York City and GRESHAM from Boston to the scene.  The BALTIC, LaLORRAINE, salvage tug CITY OF EVERERETT and the Revenue Cutter ACUSHNET from Woods Hole upon hearing the distress call all rushed towards the location of the collision.      
    This was the first demonstration of Marconi’s Wireless ability to aid victims of disasters at sea.  It would be another three years before the United States would require passenger ships to carry wireless.  It is interesting to note that the other operator at Nantucket was a recent trainee of Marconi’s named David Sarnoff, who went on to become the President of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which later absorbed the American Marconi company.
    Meanwhile the Italian ship FLORIDA had suffered her bow pushed in and three crewmen killed in the collision.  Fortunately the FLORIDA wasn’t leaking as the damage was above the water line.  She was on her way from Italy with 900 Italian immigrants. As a result of the earthquake on December 28, 1908 in Messina, Italy, the Italian Government arranged steamship transportation for many of the traumatized survivors to go to America in steerage, whether they wanted to or not!  There were more than 200,000 dead and countless others left homeless.  The ship’s Captain was only 28 years old, but performed admirably in the circumstance he found himself.   
The FLORIDA returned to the scene of the accident and was able to take aboard all of the REPUBLIC’s passengers and most of the crew. This was not an easy task at sea for the smaller damaged FLORIDA.
Meanwhile Jack Binns, the REPUBLIC’s wireless operator kept in communication with the White Star Liner BALTIC.  By noon the next day, the BALTIC was about 10 miles from the disaster scene.  The fog remained heavy so the ship was moving very slowly with extra lookouts on duty.  It was arranged by wireless for the ships to signal via small signaling bombs.  Ship’s chronometers were synchronized via wireless and crews listened attentively for the noise.  Nothing was heard until they down to their last bomb.  The eight left on the REPUBLIC formed a circle looking out and listening intently.  Two thought they heard a faint noise so the course was sent to the BALTIC and in about 15 minutes their foghorn was heard.  By this time Jack Binns had been at his post at the wireless with no food and no heat, day and night until ordered off the sinking ship by the Captain shortly before its final plunge.
    The French Government gave Jack Binns a medal for his heroism as wireless operator.  In 1912 he was slated for a post on the TITANIC, but love intervened to save him.  He had just gotten married and didn’t wish to leave his new wife to go to sea again. 
The White Star Liner BALTIC finally arrived, the passengers were again transferred, this time to the BALTIC as the FLORIDA had lost 30 feet of bow accordioned into the ship and was severely overloaded with all the people aboard.  The women and children were transferred first, then the rest of the First Class passengers, then finally all of FLORIDA’s passengers.   A riot almost ensued because the Italian steerage passengers felt they were being considered last.  The transfer at sea of so many people took eight hours.  This left the FLORIDA to limp into port for repairs while the BALTIC brought the passengers to New York minus their jewels and luggage.    
    Most of the REPUBLIC’s crew as well as the passengers had been put on the BALTIC.  Captain Sealby and eight others remained with the sinking “unsinkable” ship along with the wireless operator.
Jack Binns reported in an interview years later, “when daylight broke the next morning, it revealed one of the greatest concourses of ships ever seen on the seas.  Everywhere, as far as the eye could see were ships.  Every liner and every cargo ship equipped with wireless that happened to be within 300 mile radius of the disaster, overhearing the exchange of messages between the BALTIC and REPUBLIC had gathered around and stood by ready to be of whatever assistance they could.  It was a fine testimonial to the value of wireless.”       
The 15,000 ton 570 foot, REPUBLIC with a 70-foot beam was taken in tow by the two Revenue Cutters, SENECA and GRESHAM bound for the shallow water around Nantucket. They tried to tow at 2 knots.  The Anchor liner FURNESSIA had tied up to the stern to act as a rudder for the disabled ship.  At about 8 p.m. with their searchlights on the tow, it was determined that the giant ship was rapidly sinking!
The tow started at 10 a.m. Sunday morning and continued until 7 p.m. Sunday night.  No actual progress was being made, as the strong current they were bucking was the same speed as their forward motion, so all four ships stood virtually still.  
    The FURNESSIA cast off their line as the stern of the REPUBLIC was under water flooding the wireless room. At this time the Captain ordered the rest of the crew off save one volunteer to stay with him. The rest departed in the Captain’s gig. 
    “At this time the REPUBLIC was attached to the GRESHAM by a steel hawser.  As soon as we put off in the Captain’s gig we pulled over to the GRESHAM, told the Captain of that ship the condition of the REPUBLIC, and asked him to pay out a nine-inch rope hawser and stand by, ready to cut the hawser as soon as he got a signal from the bridge of the REPUBLIC that the ship was about to go under.  It had been previously agreed that Captain Sealby was to flash a blue Coston light when the moment did arrive. 
    “This, the Captain of the GRESHAM did.  He stationed a man with an ax over the hawser, with instructions to cut it the moment he saw the blue light. We stayed off in the lifeboat waiting for developments and holding ourselves ready to go to the rescue of Sealby and Williams the moment the ship went down. 
    “Fortunately there were four or five other ships in the vicinity watching the proceedings.  Each one played his searchlight on the REPUBLIC. By the aid of many searchlights the two lone figures could be seen pacing to and fro on the uptilted bridge.  And then came the signal of the blue light.  Then we saw one of the men jump on to the rat-lines of the foremast, climb up to the top of the mast and wait.  The other man ran forward, jumped up on the rail, and taking one last long look at the little cabin on the bridge, turned and dove 40 feet into the sea. 
    “For one minute more the bow of the REPUBLIC trembled above the waves and then sank.
    “We rowed to the spot where it went down.  The light of each observing ship was trained upon the spot. Fortunately a quiet sea was running at the time, but even so it was most difficult to see very far from the open boat as the lights, intercepted by the crests of the waves, threw darkened shadows over most of the surrounding water. 
    “For 20 minutes we rowed around, earnestly but yet aimlessly, for we did not know where to go.  On all sides we saw glaring searchlights, but nowhere could we discern any sign of life in the sea.  I don’t think any more sorrowful moment ever came to the lives of the men in the open boat, not to mention those on the nearby ships, for Captain Sealby and Second Officer Williams had nobly upheld the tradition of the sea.  But the length of time did not diminish our hopes. 
    “Suddenly, to our right, from out of the murky blackness of the waters of the sea, a revolver shot rang out.  We pulled over in that direction immediately, and found Captain Sealby hanging on to a floating crate, so nearly exhausted that he had just sufficient strength to pull the trigger of his revolver.  ‘Williams over there’, he said, ‘get him.’ But we pulled the Captain in and sure enough we found Williams too, clinging to a hatch cover that had floated off the REPUBLIC as she went down. 
    At the time of this interview in the April 1924 issue of RADIO BROADCAST, he was working as the Radio Editor of the New York Tribune.  This may explain the rather vivid account that he gave of the event 15 years afterward.       
Why did the Captain wait for the last possible moment to abandon his ship?  Perhaps it had to do with the chance a salvor might have been able to save and claim the ship and cargo.  
The sinking took place in 40 fathoms, 9 nautical miles W.S.W.  of the Nantucket light ship.  The exact position given by the two Revenue Cutters in their reports was about 8 miles apart.  In 1981 the wreck was located about halfway in between the two positions. The sunken remains were found six miles from the charted location.
    At this point in this story the facts have been told, now begins the conjecture.  Captain Sealby surrendered his Captain’s license, as was the custom.  It was to be re-instated after a court of inquiry had determined that he was blameless.  However, the required board of inquiry was never held, leaving the Captain without a job.  He went back to school and took up Maritime Law, which he practiced in San Francisco until World War 1when he went back to sea serving as a transport Captain with the Merchant Marine. 
It is believed that the ship was carrying a secret cargo of gold destined for France, to be loaned to Czarist Russia to pay for the War with Japan that they were engaged in at the time. The amount is said to be 15 tons of gold bars and 3 million 1909 dollars in $20 gold pieces in mint condition.  In addition there was a large some of money destined for relief of the victims of an earthquake in Italy.  There was also a $265,000 payroll aboard for the U.S. Navy fleet that was in the Mediterranean on a good will tour promoted by President Teddy Roosevelt.  
    All Government records of the cargo seem to be missing.  Captain Martin Bayerle formed a Dive Corporation to salvage the gold and silver from the ship. It is believed that there may be as much as $15 billion aboard!  The loss of so much gold in 1909 could have caused a panic in the world markets and may have been hushed up because of this. 
    There are many interesting web sites for those who wish to read further.  Http://rms-republic.com will give you the long version.  This web site is almost book length detailing the search for more information and any official records.  You can just type SS REPUBLIC into your favorite browser and find these sites. The site has a complete bibliography of the incident.