George Behe is one of the founders of the Titanic Book Club, and an American researcher whose books include “On Board Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage” and “Those Brave Fellows: The Last Hours of the Titanic’s Band”. We hope our readers will enjoy learning a few things about George and the things that got him interested in doing Titanic research.
1. George, how did you become interested in the Titanic disaster, and when did your interest first awaken?
When I was a small boy I found a copy of the old 1912 Titanic book by Logan Marshall on my grandmother’s bookshelf, and I used to thumb through that book looking at the illustrations and text in an attempt to learn what happened to the ship. One illustration in particular horrified me – the one showing a lifeboat full of passengers that was rowing right past a dying swimmer who was holding his arm out in a hopeless appeal for help. My grandmother had already told me there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship to accommodate all the men, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have felt if my mother, brother and I were in that lifeboat and the dying man in the water was my father. The Titanic really caught my imagination, and – because I had no other sources of information about the ship – I read and re-read my grandmother’s book in an attempt to satisfy my curiosity on the subject. However, while reading the book I soon realized that the information contained in one chapter sometimes contradicted information contained in another part of the book, and I felt a keen desire to learn which version of the Titanic story was correct. My desire to learn the truth stayed with me through the years until I was finally old enough to start doing my own original research by interviewing Titanic survivors, acquiring books about the sinking, searching for survivor interviews in old 1912 newspapers, and uncovering new sources of information about the sinking. (I even learned that I’m distantly related to victim Arthur Ryerson and crew survivor William Edwy Ryerson.) At any rate, the desire to uncover the true story of the Titanic has never left me, and I plan to continue conducting my research until I’m physically no longer able to do so.
2. The Titanic carried thousands of people, many of whom sank with the vessel. Which passenger and crew stories have especially moved or inspired you?
My interest in the Titanic has always centered on the lives of her passengers and crewmen as well as their experiences on board the doomed ship. The passenger story that inspired me most was that of Major Archibald Butt, who was President Taft’s chief military aide. My fascination with Archie’s life came about in a completely unexpected manner. Many years ago, my friend Don Lynch (the well-known historian and author of many outstanding Titanic books and articles) gave me a copy of “Taft and Roosevelt: the intimate letters of Archie Butt,” a posthumous compilation of personal letters that Archie wrote to his sister-in-law during the Taft presidency. Reading those letters had an unexpected effect on me, because I soon began to think of Archie as a personal acquaintance who was sharing his innermost thoughts with me. By the time I finished reading those two volumes of letters and realized that Archie would never write any more letters due to his death on the Titanic, I felt like I’d lost a close personal friend in the disaster. My interest in Archie increased, and I gradually began to accumulate additional information about him that I hoped to turn into a short article for the Titanic Historical Society’s quarterly journal The Commutator. It wasn’t long before my research outgrew the scope of my projected “short article”, because I discovered that Archie had written many, many additional letters that were never published in book form but which still existed in an archive in Georgia. Anyway, after eight years of continuous research, seemingly-endless writing and a research trip from Michigan to Georgia, in 2010 I finally published my three-volume, 2,400-page biography detailing every aspect of Archie’s life from his birth until his death on the Titanic and the profound effect his loss had on his relatives and on his innumerable friends. I’m still uncovering new information about Archie and will probably keep doing so until I’m no longer capable of continuing my research. At any rate, I learned that Archie Butt was an honorable man, a brave man, a beloved man and an excellent role model for anybody who might need one.
3. Could you share one or two of the most emotional, moving or satisfying moments you’ve experienced while researching the disaster?
There are many, many fascinating stories about the people who sailed on the Titanic, but one that never fails to affect my emotions is the story of Minnie Coutts and her two little boys. After Titanic struck the iceberg, Mrs. Coutts was leading her sons toward the upper decks when she encountered a crewman and told him she didn’t have a lifebelt. The crewman turned, led Mrs. Coutts down to his own cabin and handed her his own lifebelt from the place where it was stored. The crewman then gently touched the heads of Mrs. Coutts’ little boys and said, “Take my life preserver, madam. If I go down, please pray for me.” (I have tears in my eyes while I’m writing these words.) Nobody knows what happened to that unnamed crewman when the ship went down, but – since two out of three people on the Titanic lost their lives that night – I think we have a pretty fair idea of what happened to him. I’m sure Mrs. Coutts prayed for the soul of that heroic crewman for the rest of her life.
The Titanic’s passengers and crewmen weren’t just a long list of anonymous names on a list – they were individual human beings who had their own hopes and dreams and who had loved ones who cared about them. I feel a definite connection with the Titanic’s passengers and crewmen, and the privilege of having met and become friends with a number of them has had a profound effect on my life that I can never put into words.
4. Which survivor did you have the most contact with? Do you have any anecdotes that you might wish to share?
The survivor with whom I had the most frequent personal contact was Winifred Van Tongerloo (Winifred Quick on the Titanic’s passenger list.) She lived only about ten miles from my home, and I used to visit her fairly often. I can still recall the first time I visited Winifred, because – whereas the Titanic story was always something I’d only been able to read about in books and old newspapers – I suddenly realized that Winifred had actually lived through the disaster, that she saw the ship go down with her own eyes and that she heard the heart-shaking cries of the dying swimmers with her own ears. The hair rose on the back of my neck when that realization came to me, and I felt chills that I can’t describe in words and never felt at any other time in my life.
5. What are some of the most important (or most surprising) historical discoveries you've made while researching the Titanic disaster?
My first significant discovery was learning that a group of three professional gamblers sailed on the Titanic with the intention of fleecing her passengers at the card tables. (I first wrote about this subject in the Commutator and will soon be publishing an expanded version of my article in book form.) Another discovery was the fact that the Titanic was indeed trying to achieve a “record crossing” by attempting to beat the maiden voyage crossing time of her elder sister Olympic and arrive in New York on Tuesday night. Coupled with this attempt to achieve a speedy crossing was my discovery of evidence suggesting that Titanic’s lookouts may have warned the bridge of their sighting of three “early icebergs” during the half hour that preceded their sighting of the fatal iceberg at 11:40 p.m. One of my more recent discoveries (which will also appear in an upcoming book) is the fascinating fact that FAR more passengers and crewmen observed a haze around the Titanic that night than denied the haze’s existence after reaching New York.
Regarding my book about the Titanic’s band, several surprises popped up during my research – one being the fact that evidence supporting the claim that the bandsmen played “Nearer My God, to Thee” far outweighs the evidence proposing that they played “Autumn” instead; in 1912 at least ten survivors wrote letters in which they specifically mentioned hearing “Nearer My God, to Thee”, whereas no 1912 primary sources mention “Autumn” at all. (In truth, Harold Bride’s famous mention of “Autumn” was just a typical newspaper interview of typically-uncertain reliability written by a reporter who later admitted that he wrote “literature” while composing that article.)
Another interesting discovery about the band was that, during most of the evacuation, the bandsmen played indoors in the reception area at the top of the forward grand staircase on the boat deck; it was only at about 2 a.m. that the bandsmen finally stepped outdoors and performed their last selections of music on the open boat deck itself.
While I have the opportunity to do so, I’d like to recommend Christopher Ward’s excellent book “And the Band Played On” to our readers. Christopher is the grandson of Titanic’s violinist Jock Hume, and his careful research on his ancestor’s life is extremely well done and answers many long-standing questions about a heroic man who performed his last pieces of music while standing on the Titanic’s slanting decks. A very worthwhile book!
6. Are you frustrated with any particular Titanic-related subjects about which people continue to quote outdated research information instead of embracing the latest discoveries?
I guess my main Titanic-related frustration is the fact that many people still cling to the old conspiracy theory that an unknown “mystery ship” lay between the Titanic and the Californian and think that the two named vessels were far beyond visual range of each other during the sinking. (A certain Irish writer has even made a “career” out of writing books of cherry-picked evidence promoting the “mystery ship” premise.) If serious researchers want to know the truth about the Californian affair without wading through mountains of nonsense, they need go no further than to read two outstanding books -- Sam Halpern’s “Strangers on the Horizon” and Dr. Paul Lee’s “The Titanic and the Indifferent Stranger”.
7. Does your study of the Titanic and her passengers overlap with any of your other historical interests? What subjects are you interested in that are completely independent of the Titanic?
One overlap in subjects involves the fact that several Titanic passengers were lovers of books just like I am, and I’ve enjoyed researching their lives (especially Harry Widener’s) and will soon be presenting my research in book form. As for my non-Titanic interests, they include 19th century African exploration, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Amelia Earhart, the Lincoln assassination, the history of science, reading biographies of the pioneers in natural science (Darwin, Huxley, Dalton etc.), the WWII bombing campaign in Europe, photography, Sherlock Holmes, the paranormal, biographies of stage magicians, and how to perform close-up magic. Oh, I also collect books of quotes and have a small bookshelf full of those volumes.
8. Do you have any new Titanic-related projects in the works? If so, do you feel like giving us a sneak peak into the type of subject matter they involve?
For the past five years I’ve been researching and writing ten new Titanic books with the intention of self-publishing them when they’re all complete. (I published two of those books in 2020 and hope to publish the remaining eight volumes in 2021.
9. Were you encouraged by others to write your books, or did you come up with the projects yourself? Did you receive help or encouragement from any special people you'd like to acknowledge?
I pretty much came up with each of my projects all by myself, but I could never have completed those projects if it weren’t for the incredible generosity of friends like Don Lynch, Bill Wormstedt, Mike Poirier, Dr. Paul Lee, Mark Chirnside, Karen Kamuda and many other friends who generously shared information from their personal collections in order to ensure that I was working with as many pertinent historical facts as possible. I’ll always be deeply indebted to the above-named friends and to all the other friends who generously provided me with their own research material over the years.
10. Do you have any advice you'd like to offer to aspiring authors?
I guess the most important thing an aspiring author needs to do is choose a specific subject that interests him and then research that subject thoroughly before he begins the actual writing of his book or article. For example, my very first Titanic book was published in 1987, but before that time arrived it took fifteen years for me to gather enough research material to do justice to the book’s subject matter. I began doing my research for that book in 1972 by (among many other things) searching for pertinent information in microfilms of old 1912 newspapers and by visiting various archives in nearby states. (Nowadays newspaper research can be done online, which makes things much easier for present-day researchers.) Doing thorough research is always the most important part of writing a history book, but it takes a lot of time to accomplish that goal and can’t be hurried without introducing careless errors into one’s writings. (A few inaccuracies are inevitable even with the most careful research, but poor or hurried research will definitely result in a book that’s not worth reading.)
The publication of the outstanding book “On a Sea of Glass” by Bill Wormstedt, Tad Fitch and Kent Layton has pretty much told the general Titanic story in as much detail as one could ever hope for, so my own opinion is that the majority of worthwhile Titanic books in the future will be devoted to specific topics that are connected with the tragedy. For example, we’re now seeing biographies written about individual Titanic passengers (e. g. Isidor Straus, Margaret Brown etc.) and about special groups of passengers (e. g. those who lived in New England, the Titanic’s professional gamblers, and other specific groups). Specialized books like these provide authors with infinite opportunities to choose interesting passengers or crewmen, research their lives in detail and then write their biographies. Were any passengers horse enthusiasts? Were any passengers military veterans? Did any passengers have a connection with the author’s hometown or other locations of special interest? All a writer has to do is choose a topic he thinks is interesting, research that topic to see if it can be connected with any specific Titanic passengers and crewmen, and then utilize his research findings to write an article or book about that particular subject.
Although the ultimate goal of an author is to write a book or article, half the fun is doing the actual research and uncovering brand new information that no other Titanic buff has ever seen before. Take my word for it – there’s still plenty of fascinating new Titanic-related information out there just waiting to be discovered by conscientious researchers.
11. What’s the best way for people to contact you if they have historical questions for you (or want to borrow money)? :-)
I’m often offline for extended periods of time, but the surest way to contact me is via the Titanic Facebook groups I belong to. (Afterwards I can always send people my email address privately, because I no longer use Facebook’s instant message feature.)
Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy (Patrick Stephens, 1988)
Lost at Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Mysteries, with Michael Goss (Prometheus Books, 1994)
Titanic: Safety, Speed and Sacrifice (Transportation Trails, 1997)
“Archie”: The Life of Major Archibald Butt from Georgia to the Titanic. [3 volumes ] (Lulu.com Press, 2010)
On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage (Lulu.com Press, 2011)
A Death on the Titanic: The Loss of Major Archibald Butt (Lulu.com Press, 2011)
Voices from the Carpathia (Lulu.com Press, 2015)
Titanic Memoirs (three volumes, Lulu.com Press, 2015)
The Titanic Files: A Paranormal Sourcebook (Lulu.com Press, 2015)
Titanic: The Return Voyage (Lulu.com Press, 2019)
“Those Brave Fellows”: The Last Hours of the Titanic’s Band (Lulu.com Press, 2019)
"The Titanic Disaster: A Medical Dossier" (Lulu.com 2022)
"There's Talk of an Iceberg" (Lulu.com, 2022)
"Fate Deals a Hand" (History Press, 2023)
Pick up George's newest book!
"There's Talk of an Iceberg"
by George Behe
"There's Talk of an Iceberg" contains a careful examination of Titanic's attempt to beat the maiden voyage crossing time of her elder sister Olympic. Subsequent chapters examine the possibility that Titanic passed several "early" icebergs prior to encountering the fatal berg at 11:40 p.m.; discusses the expected range of iceberg visibility on the night of April 14; examines fascinating new evidence suggesting that a slight haze might well have existed right above the ocean's surface that night; provides a thorough survey of survivor observations of the size and shape of the fatal iceberg; describes the crew's little-known search for exterior damage on Titanic's outer hull; describes the numerous icebergs seen by survivors in lifeboats before daylight arrived; and discusses a later sighting of human bodies that were seen huddled on the base of an iceberg floating near the disaster site. The author provides plenty of footnoted survivor and crew accounts pertaining to each of these fascinating subjects.
From member William Oakes:
I just finished Geo Behe 's book, Titanic - Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy.
This is the second book by Mister Behe that I have read this summer.
I also read his book, Voices from the Carpathia.
The First book I mention is an interesting study of the Psychic phenomenon of the day, surrounding the sinking.
A lot of it is questionable, as Mister Behe points out.
But some of the premonitions that caused people to change their travel plans is unexplainable and quite convincing.
The Second book, Voices from the Carpathia is an excellent study of eye-witness accounts, from passengers, crew, and other ships crew members in the area.
One thing I really like about Mister Behe's writing style is his unique ability to tell the story and present the facts, without interjecting a lot of personal opinion. He doesn't try to sway the reader one way or the other. He simply lets the facts speak for themselves.
He does this in both books, which I must say, is quite refreshing, as so many authors today, begin with a premise or an opinion, and then seek out circumstances to support that premise/opinion.
Mister Behe writes like an old school unbiased reporter of facts.
He does an excellent job. His books are very readable and enjoyable. Both books are excellent and should be in any serious Titanic historian's library!
Any book by Behe is a must. And his best, IMO, is "On Board RMS Titanic", which is similar to the Carpathia book above, except for OBRMST has accounts directly from people on the Titanic.