Rumor has wings

When people struggle to understand tragedy, the truth suffers — lessons from the Halifax Explosion.

A lot of the blame for the Halifax Explosion goes to a navigational error, but people didn’t see that at the time.

On Dec. 7, the day after the explosion, Honolulu Star-Bulletin editor Riley H. Allen told readers the disaster wasn’t an accident. He pointed to enemies that wanted to cripple the allied war effort. Using inconclusive information and hearsay from wire reports, Allen maintained the ships involved were innocent, but were pawns in someone’s “diabolic scheme.”

He added that other ports, like Honolulu, could also be at risk, adding to the rising speculation about what had happened in Halifax.

Allen didn’t have any information to verify those claims, but that didn’t stop him from making them. He wasn’t the only one to speculate, and his claims weren’t the most outlandish.

The Halifax of 1917 wasn’t much like Halifax today.

The world was at war and as one of two major Canadian East Coast ports, and the one closest to Europe, was abuzz with activity as convoys, nurses, soldiers, and relief ships traversed the harbour daily.
With the activity came the fear that the Germans would attack Halifax. With the increased traffic came extra precautions such as anti-submarine nets, but otherwise the war left Halifax untouched.
On Dec. 6, that changed.
The Imo, a relief ship, and the Mont Blancwhich was filled with explosives, collided in The Narrows, the body of water between the Bedford Basin and the Halifax Harbour.

The Mont Blanc caught fire. Knowing an explosion was imminent, the crew fled. The burning ship slowly floated toward Pier 6 and the Halifax neighbourhood of Richmond. About 20 minutes after the collision, at 9:04 a.m. the Mont Blanc blew up. The explosion, the wave that followed, and an evening snowstorm destroyed a broad swath of Halifax, Dartmouth, and Tuft’s Cove and caused damage in many nearby communities such as Lawrencetown and Africville. Some observers compared Richmond’s devastation to a battlefield in France.

Almost immediately, the explosion was news around the world. Research reveals stories in newspapers worldwide, including the aforementioned Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the Birmingham Daily Mail, the Windsor Evening Record from Ontario, The Evening Telegraph from Australia and L’Ouest Eclair from France plus local papers: The Acadian Recorder, The Evening Mail, The Halifax Herald, The Daily Echo, and The Morning Chronicle.

These papers didn’t just report suspected death and injured numbers, relief efforts and stories of heroism and loss. They also added to the fear that Halifax was under attack.

It wasn’t just reporters who perpetuated these rumours. People ran from the blast site yelling that the Germans had bombed Halifax. One unnamed person said they had seen a dead German in one of the munitions magazines, while another claimed that a German had been seen aboard the Imo. A freight captain was passing by Halifax at night when he saw something moving in the water. He told journalists it was a submarine, despite official reports from Halifax saying that it was probably a tanker or barge.

None of this was true (and no one seemed to wonder how an onlooker could pick out a German by looks alone) but the stories spread.

The rumours grew more bizarre as they spread. The story of a traumatized carrier pigeon illustrates the hysteria.
The pigeon, after flying through an open window into a Dartmouth home, was rumoured to be carrying a message written in German. Despite being busy dealing with the disaster’s aftermath, Dartmouth police investigated. Officers found nothing criminal: a family had found the pigeon and was caring for it. It carried no messages in any language.

People who weren’t even near Halifax at the time drew accusations. The Windsor Evening Record published a piece from an unnamed writer who claimed that the explosion’s timing was a “strange coincidence, as Albert Kaltschmidt was on trial.” Kaltschmidt was a German spy, caught as he plotted to blow up several factories and bridges in Michigan and Ontario. He was on trial in Detroit, 2,200 kilometres from Halifax.

But this is what fear does. People heard about what happened; they had no explanation, so they embraced any plausible-sounding theory.

Even the blast’s victims weren’t immune to speculation. Haakon From, captain of the Imo, died instantly but people still questioned his character.

About a month before the explosion, someone reported that From had been involved in an altercation in Seattle. According to witnesses and records, From owed money to an engineering firm. When the firm’s lawyer contacted From for payment, he seemed to act like a “maniac” and tried to flee.

Even though his own lawyer reassured readers that From was “a skilled navigator and intensely anti-German,” the story still ran. It left many readers wondering about From’s mental state and if his anti-German stance was an act. In reality, the story was irresponsible rumour. From wasn’t around to defend his behaviour, and it had nothing to do with Halifax.

From’s helmsmen John Johansen also drew attention after going to Boston for medical care.

While there he didn’t have access to newspapers. Keen to catch up on the news, he tried to bribe a nurse to get him one. A nurse reported he was acting strangely. She also noticed, and doctors confirmed, that Johansen wasn’t as injured as initially thought. Rifling his possessions, someone found a letter written in a foreign language. Hospital staff were suspicious.

Police arrested Johansen, putting him through an emotional ordeal before Halifax lawyer Charles Jost Burchell convinced his captors he was innocent. In this case, an injured man who was obviously confused and worried fell victim to wartime and post-explosion fears, all because he wanted a newspaper.

When they could, Halifax officials and local news sources tried to put these rumours to rest, reassuring residents that there was no foul play involved nor were enemy forces in Halifax. An inquiry reinforced that.

Heightened fear and need for an explanation is understandable after any disaster. It’s up to those reporting the news to verify claims before printing them. Fear and personal prejudices can grow in the face of tragedy, causing strangers, the dead, neighbours, and even birds to shoulder the blame.
Katie Ingram is the author of Breaking Disaster: Newspaper Stories of the Halifax Explosion, which pieces together different stories that were published in newspapers following the disaster. The Pottersfield Press book is now available in stores.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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