When the Titanic sank beneath the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, tales of heroism rose from the depths. 100 years later these stories are still being told, though over time the facts have been lost or embellished making it difficult to tell what is real and what is fiction.
On April 21, 1912 just six days after the passenger liner collided with an iceberg, The New York Herald ran a heroic story about a Newfoundland named Rigel. A seaman on the passenger steamship, Carpathia, claimed Rigel swam amidst boats and rafts calling out to the rescuers on behalf of the survivors. If not for the Newfie’s barks for help the Carpathia crew may not have seen the lifeboat in the fog and more passengers would have lost their lives.
Newfoundlands are known for being extremely strong, hardworking dogs with astounding swimming capabilities and their thick coats allow them to withstand extremely cold temperatures. These characteristics make it somewhat believable that a dog of this breed would maintain the energy to swim alongside a raft in freezing water. However, other than the seaman’s claims there are no other reports of Rigel’s heroism.
There were canine companions on board the Titanic– an estimated 10 to 12— as it was not uncommon for first class passengers to bring their dogs as a travel companion. With a dog show scheduled, the canines were kept in kennels and frequently walked on deck by a crew member of the Titanic. There is no written documentation of the breeds of dogs on board though photos taken on the ship prior to the accident show several dogs including a French bulldog and an Airedale terrier. At least two of the dogs were known to have made it off the ship tucked into their owners’ coats. Despite this information there is still no confirmation of Rigel.
Why make up a story about a giant black dog that saved lives? At the time newspapers were competing for stories about Titanic, paying top dollar for anything they could print. The most probable explanation for Rigel is that someone knew what would make an interesting headline. We are a society that loves tales of fearlessness. We are enlivened and intrigued by the ability of others to seemingly defy all logic to save another. Stories like this inspire and motivate us to want to help others. They give us hope.
The myth of Rigel is not so much about lies and fabrication, who is telling the truth and who is not. It is about the human desire to believe in the power of good, whether it comes in the form of a person or in this case, a Newfoundland. While Rigel’s story may be just that, a story, it isn’t really that much different than James Cameron’s fictional Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt. Both are heartwarming tales inspired by a tragedy and sometimes we need those fictional stories to make reality hurt a little less.