Read Thunderstruck Online

Authors: Erik Larson


For my wife and daughters,
and in memory of my mother,
who first told me about Crippen


the second most famous in England, but what I intend here is more than a saga of violence. P. D. James in
The Murder Room
has one of her characters observe, “Murder, the unique crime, is a paradigm of its age.” By chronicling the converging stories of a killer and an inventor, I hope to present a fresh portrait of the period 1900 to 1910, when Edward VII ruled the British Empire with a slightly pudgy cigar-stained hand, assuring his subjects that duty was important but so too was fun. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” he said, “so long as you don’t frighten the horses.”

The murder fascinated Raymond Chandler and so captivated Alfred Hitchcock that he worked elements into some of his movies, most notably
Rear Window.
Followed by millions of newspaper readers around the world, the great chase that ensued helped advance the evolution of a technology we today take utterly for granted. “It was hot news indeed,” wrote playwright and essayist J. B. Priestley, himself a scion of the Edwardian age, “something was happening for the first time in world history.” There was a poignancy as well, for the story unfolded during what many, looking back, would consider the last sunny time before World War I, or as Priestley put it, “before the real wars came, before the fatal telegrams arrived at every great house.”

This is a work of nonfiction. Anything appearing between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document. I relied heavily on investigative reports from Scotland Yard, many of which as best I can tell have not previously been published. I ask readers to forgive my passion for digression. If, for example, you learn more than you need to know about a certain piece of flesh, I apologize in advance, though I confess I make that apology only halfheartedly.

Erik Larson



A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don’t find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting.

J. M. Barrie


Peter Pan



, J
20, 1910, as a light fog drifted along the River Scheldt, Capt. Henry George Kendall prepared his ship, the SS
for what should have been the most routine of voyages, from Antwerp direct to Quebec City, Canada. At eight-thirty in the morning the passengers began streaming aboard. He called them “souls.” The ship’s manifest showed 266 in all.

Captain Kendall had a strong jaw and a wide mouth that bent easily into a smile, a trait that made him popular among all passengers but especially women. He told good stories and laughed easily. He did not drink. By standards prevailing at the time, he was young to have command of his own ship, only thirty-five years old, but he was by no means untested. Already he had lived a life as eventful as any imagined by Joseph Conrad, whose novels always were popular among passengers once the
entered the vast indigo plain of the Atlantic, though thrillers and detective tales and the latest books warning of a German invasion were in demand as well.

As an apprentice seaman, Kendall had served aboard a brutal vessel with a charming name,
where he witnessed the murder of a shipmate by an unstable crew member, who then began stalking Kendall to silence him. Kendall fled the ship and tried his hand at mining gold in Australia, a pursuit that left him penniless and hungry. He stowed away on another ship, but the captain caught him and marooned him on Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait off Queensland. After a brief stint harvesting pearls, Kendall joined a small Norwegian barkentine—a three-masted sailing ship—carrying seagull excrement bound for farms in Europe, but storms tore away portions of its masts and turned the voyage into an epic of starvation and stench that lasted 195 days. His love of ships and the sea endured, however. He joined the crew of the
Lake Champlain,
a small steam-powered cargo ship owned by the Beaver Line of Canada but subsequently acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was its second officer in May 1901, when it became the first merchant vessel to be equipped with wireless. He caught the attention of his superiors and soon found himself first officer on the railway’s flagship liner, the
Empress of Ireland.
In 1907 he gained command of the

It was not the most glamorous of ships, especially when compared to the
which was new and nearly three times as large and infinitely more luxurious. The
was launched in 1897 and in succeeding years ferried troops to the Boer War and cattle to England. It had one funnel, painted Canadian Pacific’s trademark colors—buff with a black top—and flew the line’s red-and-white-checkered “house” flag. It carried only two classes, second and third, the latter known more commonly as “steerage,” a term that originally denoted the belowdecks portion of a ship devoted to steering. A Canadian Pacific timetable from the era described the second-class quarters. “The Cabin accommodation on the
is situated amidship, where least motion is felt. The staterooms are large, light and airy. There is a comfortable ladies’ room and a smoking room, also a spacious promenade deck. An excellent table is provided. Surgeons and stewardesses are carried on all steamers.” The line’s motto was, “A little better than the best.”

The manifest for the upcoming voyage listed only 20 passengers in second class but 246 in third, nearly all immigrants. In addition the
carried a crew of 107, among them a wireless operator, Llewellyn Jones. Canadian Pacific had been aggressive about installing wireless on its transoceanic vessels, and the
despite its age and modest decor, carried the latest apparatus.

, K
knew, a captain needed more than skill at navigation and ship-handling. He had to dress well, be charming, and possess a knack for conversation, while also owning the mental wherewithal to monitor a thousand operational details, including whether the lifeboats were adequately secured, whether the correct foods and wines had come aboard, and—a new responsibility—whether the ship’s Marconi set and aerial were in good repair and ready to receive the inevitable flurry of trivial messages that engulfed a liner upon departure. Although the jokes, bon voyages, and riddles were utterly predictable, they nonetheless reflected the wonder with which people still treated this new and almost supernatural means of communication. First-time passengers often seemed mesmerized by the blue spark fired with each touch of the key and the crack of miniature thunder that followed, though shipping lines had learned from experience that wonderment faded quickly for passengers whose cabins were too close to the wireless room. They learned too that it was prudent to locate Marconi sets a good distance from the wheelhouse so as not to distort the magnetic field registered by the ship’s compass.

Before each voyage Kendall tried to read as many newspapers as he could to keep himself up to date on current events and thereby arm himself to meet his nightly obligation to host guests at his table. Amazing things were happening in the world, so there was a lot to talk about. A year earlier Louis Blériot had flown his airplane across the English Channel, from Calais to Dover. While on display at Selfridge’s department store, the craft drew 120,000 admirers. Science seemed foremost on people’s minds; talk of X-rays, radiation, vaccines, and so forth infused dinner conversation. If such talk ever lagged, there was always the compelling subject of Germany, which by the day seemed to grow more pompous and bellicose. Another foolproof way to inject life, if not violence, into a moribund conversation was to comment upon the apparent decline of morality, as made evident most shockingly in Bernard Shaw’s recent play,
which Beatrice Webb, the social reformer, called “brilliant but disgusting,” with “everyone wishing to have sexual intercourse with everyone else.” If all the above failed to ignite a good conversation, one could always talk about ghosts. The whole country seemed engaged in the hunt for proof of an afterlife, with the exploits of the venerable Society for Psychical Research often in the news. And if by chance a conversation became too heated, too lively, one could recall anew how one felt upon the death of King Edward and remark upon how eerie it was that Halley’s comet should appear at nearly the same time.

Shortly before his passengers were due to board, Kendall bought a copy of the continental edition of London’s
Daily Mail,
an English-language newspaper distributed in Europe. The edition was full of fresh detail about the North London Cellar Murder and the escalating search for two suspects, a doctor and his lover. Back in London, the ship had been visited by two officers from Scotland Yard’s Thames Division, patrolling the wharves in hopes of thwarting the couple’s escape.

Everyone loved a mystery. Kendall knew at once that
would be the mainstay of conversation throughout the voyage—not aircraft or dead kings or haunted country houses, but murder at its most loathsome.

The question at the fore: Where were the fugitive lovers now?

fashion, with Kendall greeting his second-class passengers as they came aboard. Passengers always seemed at their best at the start of a voyage. They dressed well, and their faces bore an appealing flush of excitement and apprehension. They stepped from the boarding ramp carrying few belongings, but this did not mean they were traveling light. The bulk of their baggage—typically multiple trunks and valises—was stowed belowdecks or delivered to their staterooms. Many chose to keep with them a small carrying case containing their most important belongings, such as personal papers, jewels, and keepsakes. Nothing about the passengers struck Kendall as unusual.

eased from the wharf amid the usual squall of white handkerchiefs and began making its way down the River Scheldt toward the North Sea. Stewards helped passengers find the ship’s library and its dining room and lounges, known as “saloons.” Despite the modest proportions of the
its second-class travelers felt as pampered as they would have felt on the
The stewards—and stewardesses—brought blankets and books to passengers, and took orders for tea, Belgian cocoa, and scotch, and carried pads and envelopes upon which passengers could write messages for transmission via the Marconi room. Kendall made it a point to stroll the deck several times a day looking for untidy uniforms, tarnished fittings, and other problems, and trying always to greet passengers by name, a good memory being another attribute necessary for the captain of a liner.

Three hours into the voyage Kendall saw two of his passengers lingering by a lifeboat. He knew them to be the Robinsons, father and son, returning to America. Kendall walked toward them, then stopped.

They were holding hands, he saw, but not in the manner one might expect of father and son, if indeed one could ever expect a boy on the verge of manhood to hold hands with his father. The boy squeezed the man’s hand with an intensity that suggested a deeper intimacy. It struck Kendall as “strange and unnatural.”

He paused a moment, then continued walking until he came abreast of the two. He stopped and wished them a pleasant morning. As he did so, he took careful note of their appearance. He smiled, wished them a fine voyage, and moved on.

He said nothing about the passengers to his officers or crew but as a precaution ordered the stewards to gather up every newspaper on the ship and lock them away. He kept a revolver in his cabin for the worst kinds of emergencies; now he placed it in his pocket.

“I did not do anything further that day or take any steps because I wanted before raising an alarm to make sure I was making no mistake.”

Kendall would discover that his ship had become the most famous vessel afloat and that he himself had become the subject of breakfast conversation from Broadway in New York to Piccadilly in London. He had stepped into the intersection of two wildly disparate stories, whose collision on his ship in this time, the end of the Edwardian era, would exert influence on the world for the century to come.

Other books

Children of the Earth by Anna Schumacher
Essentially Human by Maureen O. Betita
Robin Hood, el proscrito by Angus Donald
Carol Cox by Trouble in Store
The Waltzing Widow by Gayle Buck