Truth is the first casualty
In the days after the December 6, 1917 explosion that devastated Halifax, the city was in chaos. As residents struggled to cope, the world struggled to understand what had happened. Confused and fragmentary news reports didn’t help.
The disaster cut off many of Halifax’s communication lines. Most of this news came from the Associate Press and United Press, via places like New York, Toronto, and Montreal, quickly spreading as far as Hawaii.
According to the Pittsburgh Sun, an unknown vessel rammed an American ship, while the Washington Times evening edition said a British cruiser had rammed an American ammunitions ship. The actual culprits were the Imo, a Belgium Relief ship and the Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying explosive picric acid, TNT, gun cotton, and benzoyl. The Imo hit the Mont Blanc when they both tried navigating the Narrows at the same time.
The Washington Times also reported that everyone aboard the ships had died. In fact, some crew members from both ships, along with harbour pilot Francis Mackey, survived.
Everyone knew the death toll was high, but numbers varied widely. The Washington Times said that hundreds of people were dead, but didn’t commit to a definite number. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Tacoma Times (Washington State) listed the dead at around 300 or 350. Still other newspapers, like the evening edition of Bismarck Tribune (North Dakota), said while the known total was around 300, once debris was cleared the tally could be closer to 1,200. Today, most historical sources agree that the explosion killed 2,000 people and injured 9,000 more.
However as the day went on, some papers started correcting their reports. (In this era, many newspapers published afternoon and/or evening editions, and extra editions for breaking news.) By 4:30 p.m., a report from Montreal printed in the Evening Missourian corrected the ships’ nationality. The report, which was said to come from directly from Halifax, stated a French ammunitions ship and a Norwegian ship “carrying foodstuffs” caused the explosion.
Since reports seem to differ as the day went on, the wires started to include the fact their information hadn’t been confirmed by official sources, as was printed in many evening and late editions.
A day later reports weren’t much better, but the Halifax newspapers started to write what they could verify and tried to correct the earlier errors.
There were a number of local articles trying to explain the previous day’s events like the Morning Chronicle’s “City in Ruins” article and the Acadian Recorder’s “Halifax Suffers.” Pieces like these tried to make sense of a disaster that was still happening by combining fact with rumour. For example, the Chronicle tried to dispel rumours, such as the one that German forces had raided Halifax, while confirming the Mont Blanc and Imo had collided, but “no cause yet found for the collision.”
More and more papers across Canada, the United States and around the world were picking up and telling more well-rounded stories as communication with Halifax was restored. Nova Scotia’s Digby Courier printed a small article mentioning that an estimated 1,500 people were dead and relief trains were on their way to Halifax. The Bellevue Times (Alberta) talked about what caused the explosion and explained how much of Halifax, including the Richmond area, was suspected to be destroyed. The New York Times included articles on how the United States planned to help its neighbours, a message from President Woodrow Wilson, and news on American ships in the area at the time.
Many papers that had reported the story the previous day were using updated information, but there were still a few wild rumours. One example is the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s front-page headline: “Plot to Wreck Halifax Suspected.”
Halifax papers were also focused on making sure the public knew where their loved ones were by listing the missing, dead, found, and injured, plus important notices, such as when relief was expected, where to find help, and public meetings. Local businesses, such as Mahons Limited, also placed ads telling residents they were open for business and were offering help where they could.
As the days went on, the true story of the Halifax Explosion emerged, piece by piece—particular stories of heroism or survival, like that of Vincent Coleman and “Ashpan” Annie Welsh. Despite, or perhaps because of, their factual errors, these newspaper reports are valuable historical records: they capture a real-time reaction—the shock, anguish, and confusion that gripped Halifax after the disaster.
Sources: Peel’s Prairie Provinces from the University of Alberta Libraries, halifaxexplosion.org, Nova Scotia Archives, New York Times Archives, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers form the Library of Congress.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.