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Sounding the Depths: The Times and the Sinking of the Maine

On February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the American battleship Maine, anchored in Havana Harbor, sinking the ship and killing 260 sailors. Americans responded with outrage, assuming that Spain, which controlled Cuba as a colony, had sunk the ship. A great deal of the American public’s outrage was generated by media coverage—newspapers and the emerging film industry—of the incident. The Biograph Company renamed its film The Battleships “Iowa” and “Massachusetts” the Battleships “Maine” and “Iowa,” and immediately released it to theaters. It played to cheering audiences. Newspapers, like those published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, were even more influential in stirring American public opinion into a frenzy over the sinking of the Maine. In contrast to more sensational accounts of the Maine explosion, the staid New York Times cautiously reported on February 17, 1898, that there “was no evidence to prove or disprove treachery” as a factor in the sinking of the battleship.



Capt. Sigsbee Reports the Number of Dead as 253 and of Survivors as 96.




All the Information at Hand Tends to Indicate That the Loss Was Due to an Accident.


Most of the Rescued Men Sent to Key West on the Ward Line Steamer Olivette.


Nothing has been learned of the cause of the loss of the battle ship Maine. She is a burned and broken wreck, resting on the bottom of Havana Harbor, and two officers and 251 sailors have perished. There is no evidence to prove or disapprove treachery. Naval men tell of many ways in which the disaster could have been caused by accident which could not have been guarded against.

It is not yet known how most of the dead men were killed. The supposition is that in most cases the shock of the explosion, which shook Havana, caused direct death or such injuries that the victims were unable to escape from the quickly following dangers of fire and water.

The meager accounts gathered from curt official dispatches and censored press messages indicate that the officers and men who were left alive behaved themselves like American sailors, stuck by their ship and comrades, and were brave, cool, and efficient in the presence of dreadful and sudden disaster.

The Spanish authorities in Havana and Madrid have profusely expressed regret and sympathy, have tendered kindly offices, and have bestowed them whenever possible. The people of Havana are reported to have done all they could to help the survivors and to show their sorrow for the dead. The newspapers of Madrid reflect in their utterances the course of the Government.

Of the survivors of the Maine, 59 have been sent to Key West, 12 remaining to look after the bodies of the dead, and 25 being hurt so badly that they cannot be removed.

An investigation of the condition of the vessel will be made immediately, and until that has been done nobody can know whether it will be possible to raise and refit her. The inspection is expected to give a clue to the cause of the disaster and to show either the explosion was within or from without. The officers are reticent. Expressions by some of them indicate their opinion that there was an accident to one of the dynamo engines.

Resolutions expressing the sorrow and sympathy of Congress were introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday, Prominent members of both houses express suspicions that the Maine was destroyed by foul play, but say they will await evidence.

Source: New York Times, 17 February 1898.