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Ignored Warnings, Conspiracy Theories Define Lusitania's Legacy 100 Years After Sinking

By Ryan Chatelain

It was a maritime disaster almost as deadly as the Titanic. It saw innocent civilians become collateral damage. And it swayed the public opinion of a neutral nation at a time of war, just like the attacks on Pearl Harbor did.

One hundred years ago, a German U-boat fired a single torpedo into the hull of the RMS Lusitania, a hulking ship with record-breaking speed that was carrying nearly 2,000 people from New York City to Liverpool, England. The ocean liner sunk in 18 minutes, killing 1,198 – 128 of whom were Americans.

PHOTOS: Lusitania Sinking: 100 Years Later

The Lusitania, the premier vessel of the Cunard fleet, set sail from Pier 54, now part of Hudson River Park just south of Chelsea Piers, on May 1, 1915, and descended into the Atlantic Ocean on May 7, 1915, about 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland.

While the ship's story is no stranger to history books and documentaries, Michael Poirier, co-author of "Into the Danger Zone: Sea Crossings of the First World War," says he believes a century later it doesn't receive nearly the attention it deserves.

"I suppose if Titanic had never sunk, we'd all be talking about the Lusitania more often," he said.

The RMS Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo on May 7, 2015.

The thought of the Lusitania becoming a casualty of war wasn't far-fetched when the ship departed on its final voyage. The Imperial German Embassy in Washington posted notices in New York newspapers warning travelers that any vessels belonging to Britain or its allies that sailed through the designated war zone were "liable to destruction."

"If you were planning to go to Europe and you read The New York Times, you certainly should have at least been apprehensive a little bit about the prospect of the sinking of the ship," said William Keylor, professor of international relations and history at Boston University's Pardee School of Global Studies.

Lusitania Warning
Warning that appeared in New York newspapers before Lusitania set sail

While Americans and Brits were outraged a passenger ship was targeted, Germany felt the attack was justified. It knew the Lusitania was, despite years of denials afterward by the British government, carrying munitions bound for U.K. forces, and the ocean liner itself was designed so that it could be converted into an armed merchant cruiser in wartime.

The munitions, in particular, have received much attention in the 100 years since the torpedoing, but Poirier argues the issue has been overblown.

"You have to keep in mind that every ship was carrying munitions back then ... ," he said. "It's not what she was carrying; it's what she potentially could carry in the future as the war went on. That's what made her a prize."

Some have suggested the munitions were the source of a second explosion that accelerated Lusitania's descent. But other theories exist, too, including that a steam pipe fracture, a boiler room or coal dust might have been to blame.

Deck of the Lusitania

Keylor said he believes the second blast, too, is an over-discussed topic.

"I don't think that's a big deal because the ship was going to sink, and the second explosion just accelerated the sinking of it," he said.

Keylor said that while more lives likely would have been spared if not for the second explosion, many people still would have died and the response to the attack would have been no different.

"It doesn't detract from the fact that many people died," he said. "They were innocent civilians, tourists. And that's what really caused the outrage in the United States."

Lusitania New York Times
Initial reports that the Lusitania was hit by two torpedoes proved to be inaccurate. (credit: The New York Times)

The ship's sinking has been a magnet for conspiracy theories, the most famous alleging that Winston Churchill, then the first lord of the British Admiralty, knew the whereabouts of the German submarine and allowed it to sink the Lusitania in hopes of luring the United States into the war against Germany.

Keylor and Poirier, however, said there is no evidence to support the claim.

"The United Kingdom Admiralty, they were probably at fault just for not anticipating that the Lusitania could be sunk," Poirier said. "I think they mused about it, but I don't think they ever imagined it could happen. So they never had a set plan in place to say, 'Hey, we need to protect this valuable ship.'"

The British propaganda agency, however, did capitalize on the tragedy, flooding the U.S. and Ireland with posters referencing the attack.

Lusitania Propaganda
A propaganda poster referencing the Lusitania attack.

Poirier says too much attention is given to the Lusitania conspiracy theories, and not enough to those who sailed aboard the ship, many with back stories that seem more suited for a Hollywood movie script than real life.

New York City, of course, had a significant role in Lusitania's story, and several prominent passengers had ties to the Big Apple.

Among them were:

• Millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, who died in the water, was a hotelier, banker and railroad magnate. The 37-year-old was a member of the prominent Vanderbilt family.

Alfred Vanderbilt
Alfred Vanderbilt

• Charles Frohman, who was also killed, was a Broadway producer who first brought "Peter Pan" to the Great White Way.

• George Vernon was an opera singer who was gun running for a Russian prince. He died in the attack.

• Vernon's sister, Rita Jolivet, was a Broadway and silent film star who survived the attack and later appeared in two movies about the sinking of the Lusitania.

Rita Jolivet
Actress Rita Jolivet

• William Merry Heina was a racecar driver who survived the attack and went on to be credited by some for inventing the car radio.

• Oscar Grab was a fashion designer. He survived.

• Maurice Medbury was an antiques dealer with two wives, a fact unbeknownst to at least one of them before his death.

And Anne Shymer was a chemist who invented a germicide that was to be used in the war and was on her way to be presented to King George of England.

The sinking of the Lusitania did not exactly propel the United States into war, but it did ignite anti-German sentiment and cries for U.S. involvement.

"It was a public relations disaster, and it really turned public opinion against Germany and congressional opinion against Germany," Keylor said.

Two years later, after Germany broke its promise that followed the Lusitania disaster to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare, the U.S., under President Woodrow Wilson, finally entered World War I.

Today, Keylor sees symmetry in the way Americans reacted to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and how they responded to beheadings by ISIS nearly a century later, although the technology is far different. Online videos of the slaughters by terrorists in the Middle East have impacted the public and Congress much in the same way it did when the written word reached the U.S. after the attack on the Lusitania, sharply altering public opinion and triggering calls for military action, Keylor said.

"It's that visceral reaction to what is seen to be barbarism that cuts across all aspects of national interest, for example, and just causes people to see the enemy .. as the quintessence of evil," Keylor said.

The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission will host a ceremony Thursday in Manhattan to commemorate the sinking. A wreath will be laid at 10 a.m. at Pier A in Battery Park, with descendants of Lusitania passengers scheduled to attend.

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