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EXTRA! Wall Street Takes Blockbuster Hit from Frozen Asset: The Titanic and the 1929 Crash

archeology by Mark Cook


Claud Cockburn, father of the columnist Alexander Cockburn, wrote as a journalist for the Times of London, then the London Daily Worker and ultimately his own publication The Week, famous for exposing the Cliveden Set, the ruling group in the British Conservative Party who were collaborating in the late 1930's with the Nazis.

In the summer of 1929, Cockburn was sent by the Times of London to New York to cover the extraordinary stock market boom. Unlike Europe which had staggered through an interminable economic crisis since the end of World War I, the United States was wildly prosperous and seemed to have discovered how to stay that way permanently. All socialist theory was made ridiculous by the American experience, or so it seemed in the summer of 1929.

Cockburn's reports of stock market gambling and the lasting influence of the Titanic disaster seem familiar. The following passages from Claud Cockburn's A Discord of Trumpets may relate an apparently unstoppable Wall Street to a film about an apparently unsinkable ship.

Some Kind of Anarchist

The atmosphere of the great boom was savagely exciting, but there were times when a person with my European background felt alarmingly lonely. He would have liked to believe, as these people believed, in the eternal upswing of the big bull market or else to meet just one person with whom he might discuss some general doubts without being regarded as an imbecile or a person of deliberately evil intent—some kind of anarchist, perhaps.

I did not wish to be regarded as any such thing. I kept my doubts pretty carefully under wraps, especially as they did not after all arise from any expert assessment by me of the immediate factors in the situation but simply from the "academic" theories of the Marxist and Leninist writers. . . .

[Cockburn was especially concerned to keep his doubts a secret from his immediate superior in the New York office of the London Times, Louis Hinrichs, a financial expert who was covering the bull market. Then Hinrichs startled Cockburn one day when they were walking through Wall St.]

We had just passed, one day, the bomb-scarred offices of the House of Morgan, its windows now heavily protected in case anyone should want to throw a bomb again—that earlier bomb had been in itself the violent expression of an earlier American dream—when Hinrichs stopped in a disconcerting manner he had when he wanted to make an important point and, spreading his fingers in the fluttering motion which expressed uneasiness and a certain bewilderment, he said, "All the same, Claud, I don't really believe it."

In New York at that moment there was only one "it" of which you could say that. I was as astonished as a member of some underground movement in an occupied country who discovers that the local captain of the police is of the same opinion as himself.

Strangely—for it was quite unnecessary—yet significantly—for it was an indication of the hypnotic effect of the climate we had been living in—we both of us, I noticed as we walked along, lowered our voices. In the 66-storied shadow of the Bank of Manhattan Building Hinrichs began to explain to me what he felt about the bull market and why he believed not only that it would not continue but that it was a possibly monstrous delusion which could do serious harm to "my dear America."...

Excited by the extraordinary disclosure of Hinrichs' skepticism, I drew exaggerated conclusions. "Then you mean," I said, "that you believe that the capitalist system won't work?"

But this was not what he meant at all. He meant simply that the capitalist system—a phrase he somewhat disdained, I think, because it implied the existence of other, equally valid, systems—would proceed as usual by a series of jerks frequently interrupted by catastrophes.

Gambling on the Titanic Story

[Cockburn shared his office with the correspondent for the London Daily Mail, Freddie Bullock. Bullock was a huge gambler on Wall Street, having made a paper fortune in the summer of 1929.]

It was his love of a really dangerous gamble which, according to his own story, had first hoisted him toward the top of the journalistic tree. That was in 1912 when he was already working as a New York correspondent of the Daily Mail with office space in the offices of the New York Times. It was April 15 and a few hours before the White Star liner Titanic had gone to the bottom in a disaster which in itself, and certainly in its impact on the minds of the public in Britain and America, was the greatest of its kind that had ever occurred . . . .

All through the day the White Star authorities in New York had emphatically denied that many, if any, lives had been lost. The imputation was that all of them had been picked up by the Carpathia.

This may have been simply a "stall" while the White Star pulled itself together, or it may have been genuinely believed, because on learning from the Carpathia at a fairly early moment that the Carpathia had picked up the Titanic's boats, it would have been possible to assume that this meant that all the boats were safe with the whole of the 2,224 people on board.

Late on the afternoon of the 15th Freddie Bullock was hanging nervously about the wireless room of the New York Times. Owing to the difference in time between New York and London, there was not very long to go before he would have to send his message for the early London editions. Suddenly he heard one of the Morse operators taking a message with a signal which to Bullock was already familiar—it was the signal of messages from the Carpathia. This was clearly a message from that liner which the New York Times operator was intercepting. Eavesdropping frantically, Bullock thought even his inadequate knowledge of Morse had read the message correctly. He persuaded the radio operator to tell him the text of it. It listed the number of boats picked up, gave a figure of about 700 and concluded "thus accounting all saved."

Bullock copied it down and stared at it in a frenzy of excitement. For if that message meant what it seemed to mean, then 1,500 people had been drowned. On the other hand, ...only a very small slip could turn the sense of the message into something quite different—it could mean that the Carpathia was now accounting for the last survivors and that with their rescue all ... had been saved.

It would have been easy, of course, to send some hedging, weasel-worded telegram to London reporting, perhaps, "rumors" that the casualty list was higher than the authorities would admit. It would be safe, but on the other hand a dispatch of that kind was not going to make any journalist's reputation. Bullock admitted that he could feel his hair turning white as he took his decision. Then he sat down and deliberately wrote the most sensational dispatch of the year—announcing that, contrary to optimistic reports circulating, the death roll on the Titanic had been not less than 1,000 people and possibly was as high as 1,500.

The White Star continued to deny that any loss of life had occurred. In the London offices of the Daily Mail tension was even greater and white hairs were sprouting in the editorial rooms. . . .

Like Bullock in New York the editor in London had to decide whether to play safe or gamble. And there was very little time now before the decision had to be taken and the edition sent to press. In New York Bullock received an anguished cable from London. "White Star," it said, "all other authorities—Reuters's and all other news agencies—absolutely deny any lives lost. Are you sure?"

Quivering all over with the excitement of the gamble, Bullock cabled back, "Absolutely sure. Go right ahead."

Later that night, the Managing Editor of the New York Times went to the New York manager of White Star and demanded a showdown. "Unless," he said, "you release the full news you received from the Carpathia, I shall break the White Star." The news was released in time for the New York Times and Freddie Bullock to go to bed with quiet minds.


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