Deciphering who owned items plucked from the debris field around the Titanic is a bit like ‘CSI’ work, according to Alexandra Klingelhofer, vice president of collections for Premier Exhibitions, Inc.
Unless the items are in a protective suitcase or contain initials, it’s next to impossible to link items to their owners.
But in 2012, when researchers noticed a “W.M.” embossed on a leather toiletry kit pulled from the ocean floor around the Titanic, Klingelhofer said they knew the chances of figuring out who owned the bag were good.
“It had the initials embossed on it, which I can’t say I’ve seen on any other piece of luggage,” Klingelhofer said.
After painstaking research, it became clear the toiletry kit belonged to Titanic First Officer William Murdoch, a man whose death became increasingly controversial after he was portrayed in James Cameron’s Titanic.
Murdoch's story and six of the items in Murdoch’s kit, ranging from four officer buttons, a shoe brush and a pipe, will be on display at the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in Las Vegas Sept. 1 through October.
In Cameron's 1997 Titanic, Murdoch accepts and ultimately returns a bribe from a wealthy passenger, and later, while trying to keep a lifeboat from overfilling, shoots a passenger, and then himself.
“Most people, of course, draw their inference about Murdoch from Titanic; stricken with grief after shooting the young passenger and taking his own life,” said James P. Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Delgado, who has been on an exploration mission to the Titanic, said there is no definitive evidence to prove that Murdoch shot himself other than several witness reports that allege an officer killed himself, but the reports do not specify who.
“He is an important figure, and the idea of himself shooting himself has gotten in the way of appreciating who Murdoch was,” Delgado said.
Klingelhofer notes that Murdoch was on the bridge when the ship hit the iceberg, and gave the orders for 'hard-a-starboard." She said he worked desperately to save the ship, and ultimately as many people as he could.
“He was well known as a solid sailor," Klingelhofer said. "He came from a sea faring family, father and four of his uncles were captains, so he was not new to it or the size of the ship because he had sailed on [RMS Olympic, Titanic's sister ship]."
He was assigned to the starboard side of the ship to load lifeboats, loading “women and children” first, but also being more lenient than the other side of the ship in allowing some men on board.
“‘To many people, he is a Scottish hero,” Klingelhofer said. “He did his duty, loaded up more people onto the lifeboats than other officers, and he responded as best he could to the task assigned to him.”
Following the movie, people from Murdoch’s hometown of Dalbeattie, Scotland, and his nephew Samuel Scott Murdoch called on Cameron and 20th Century Fox to apologize.
In 1998, then vice president of 20th Century Fox met with Murdoch’s nephew and gave £5,000 as compensation for the distress caused by the portrayal, according to WilliamMurdoch.net, a site that painstakingly details Murdoch’s life.
The mystery of how Murdoch died is “not solvable,” but according to Klingelhofer the exhibit in Las Vegas will focus on what Murdoch did on the ship, and showcase his "strong and dependable" character.
The items will be on display at the Titanic Exhibition in Orlando after leaving Las Vegas in October.
Follow @MaryBowerman on Twitter.