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Mysteries of the Lusitania disaster resurface

March 18, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
In 1915, a German submarine sunk the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, killing nearly 1,200 people including 123 Americans. The story of that disaster is the subject of a new book, “Dead Wake.” Jeffrey Brown talks to author Erik Larson about finding new material in a century-old tragedy.

GWEN IFILL: One hundred years ago this May, there was a fateful encounter in the Irish Sea.

Jeffrey Brown has that story from our latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history, the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. Nearly 1,200 people, including 123 Americans, were killed.

It’s a story of legendary proportions, but also one with a number of mysteries at its core. And it’s told in the new book “Dead Wake.”  Author Erik Larson, whose previous bestsellers include “The Devil in the White City,” joins me now.

And welcome to you.

ERIK LARSON, Author, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania”: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Unlike some of these other of your past works, this one more well-known, more well-trod. Why did you want to come into it?

ERIK LARSON: At first, I was a little put off by the fact that it was so well-known and so well-trod.

But what I realized as I started doing some exploratory research was that there was an opportunity here, I felt, to bring something to the party that hadn’t necessarily been brought before. I saw it as — because there is so much fantastic archival material, that it seemed to offer an opportunity for me to put on my Alfred Hitchcock hat and really make it kind of an exercise in nonfiction suspense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Suspense and mystery. So that kind of detail — and that’s what you really go through here, the detail — you are talking about individual lives, diaries, letters.

ERIK LARSON: Oh, intercepted telegrams, love letters from President Wilson to his girlfriend. I mean, there is so much material. It was a surplus of riches.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the kind of stuff that turns you on to tell a story?

ERIK LARSON: This is the kind of stuff that turns me on, yes, yes, I mean, anything that — anything that allows a story to advance at a fast clip. And there was so much great stuff, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ship, a wonder of its time, right, a marvel.

ERIK LARSON: Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also its nemesis, the submarine, a marvel, in another way, of its time.

ERIK LARSON: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, partly, what grabbed me is, this is an interesting — it is a story of technology, in a way.

ERIK LARSON: In part, it is.

I mean, one of the things we have to — I had to really discipline myself to do is to go back — well, not go back in time, obviously, but to adopt the point of view of the era to appreciate how new the submarine was as a weapon. Today, it is very familiar to us, all the “Run Silent, Run Deep” and all the sonar pinging and so forth.

But, at this time — and, by the way, there was no sonar involving submarines in World War I.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. It was out there blindly.

ERIK LARSON: It was out there blindly essentially stumbling around, relying on charts.

But the thing that I really had to discipline myself to appreciate at all turns was how new the submarine was as a weapon of war, and how poorly understood it was, not just — not just by civilians, but by the people who commanded the submarines, by the British navy, by the German navy. Nobody really understood what a submarine was capable of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so then you — the other side is the people, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So there is the large figures you mentioned, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, as the first lord of the admiralty.

ERIK LARSON: First lord of the admiralty, yes.


But then the many mini-characters, smaller figures.

ERIK LARSON: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just as an example, one that grabbed me is Charles Lauriat, a Boston bookseller. Right?

ERIK LARSON: Yes, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why him as a way in to tell your story?

ERIK LARSON: You know, I wanted to have passengers we could sort of hold hands with through the entire voyage.

And Charles Lauriat left one of the most detailed accounts of any of the passengers. When I say one of the accounts, I mean he left multiple traces of his story in the historic records, from testimony, a book he wrote, an amazing filing with the Mixed Claims Commission after the war. So there was a lot of rich detail.

But, also, what I really liked about Charles Lauriat was just the fact that, in that era, it was considered to be the golden age of books and of book-collecting and so forth, that a book collector, Charles Lauriat, could be famous, recognized on the street.

JEFFREY BROWN: Imagine that.

ERIK LARSON: … and could travel — I know — and could travel first class on the classiest ocean liner on the sea for his annual buying trip to London.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned mysteries. One of the great mysteries, of course, is, and as you document, the British well knew that submarines were in the area. They were tracking…

ERIK LARSON: Not only did they know that submarines were in the area. They knew that this submarine, U-20, was very likely to be in that area, because they knew exactly where it was headed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But they didn’t send out naval patrol to guard the Lusitania.

ERIK LARSON: No. Well, nor did they tell Captain Turner, how was the captain of the Lusitania, nor did they tell him that any of this was known.

They knew precisely the patrol zone that the submarine was going to be in off Liverpool, which is where all the Cunard ships were headed. They also knew — they also knew that Nightly, the big German broadcasting center at Norderstedt, was broadcasting the Lusitania’s coming and goings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why didn’t they tell them?  Why didn’t they do more?

Was there, in fact, some sense for the British wanting a ship to go down to lure the Americans into the war?

ERIK LARSON: It is a complicated story.

Let me hang it on one historian, who, early on, when he wrote a book about the spy agency, the super-secret spy entity in this book called Room 40, he concluded that the reason the Lusitania was allowed to sail into the Irish Sea unprotected was because of — it was just a — as he put it, it was a monumental cock-up. It was a mistake.

Later in life, as other evidence came forward, he changed his mind, which I found fascinating. And there was this interview at the — on file in the Imperial War Museum in London where he says that, as much as he loves the Royal Navy — and he calls himself a lover of the Royal Navy — he had come to the conclusion at that point in his life that there was some kind of a conspiracy, there was something.

But he couldn’t — he just didn’t know what kind.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is Dead Wake.

Erik Larson, thanks so much.

ERIK LARSON: Thank you.