11 Facts about the R.M.S. Queen Mary

Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images
Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images

Even larger than the Titanic and just as elegant, the R.M.S. Queen Mary was once considered the finest ocean liner traversing the Atlantic Ocean. The Queen Mary made exactly 1001 transatlantic crossings in the mid-20th century before it was converted into a hotel in Long Beach, California. Read on for more facts about this famed luxury liner.

1. IT WAS BUILT BY THE SAME FIRM AS THE R.M.S. LUSITANIA.

The Queen Mary was built during an age when countries such as Britain, France, and Germany were all racing to be the top provider of luxury transatlantic travel. Two rival British companies, the Cunard and White Star lines, sought to outdo each other’s ships in terms of size, speed, and amenities. A British shipbuilder called John Brown & Company, commissioned by Cunard, began construction of the Queen Mary—initially known only as Hull Number 534—in December 1930 at a Clydebank, Scotland, shipyard. The company was already well known for having built the R.M.S. Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.

2. THE GOVERNMENT KEPT HER CONSTRUCTION AFLOAT—BUT WITH STRINGS ATTACHED.

With the onset of the worldwide Great Depression, construction on the Queen Mary came to an abrupt halt. Eager to spur on the sluggish economy, the British government agreed to give a loan that would allow construction on ship #534 to continue, but only if Cunard and White Star would merge. (Like Cunard, White Star—famous as the owner of the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic—had fallen on hard times.) In 1934, the new Cunard-White Star Line was born, and construction on the ship immediately resumed. As part of the merger, the government stipulated that a sister ship to the Queen Mary also be built—which was to become the Queen Elizabeth—so the two ships could together dominate transatlantic travel. The Queen Mary’s $30 million price tag would be the equivalent of more than $560 million today.

3. THE SHIP'S NAME WAS SHROUDED IN MYSTERY.

While it was under construction, the ship’s name was a closely guarded secret. On September 26, 1934, Britain’s King George V and his wife, Queen Mary of Teck, were on hand in Southampton, England, to christen #534 after the royal consort herself. "As a sailor I have deep pleasure in coming here today to watch the launching by the queen of this great and beautiful ship,” the king said to the thousands of cheering onlookers gathered on the docks:

“We come to the happy task of sending on her way the stateliest ship now in being. It has been the nation’s will that she should be completed, and today we can send her forth no longer a number on the books, but a ship with a name in the world alive with beauty, energy and strength.”

The queen then cut a ribbon and broke a bottle of wine to christen the ship. The R.M.S. Queen Mary began its maiden ocean crossing two years later, on May 27, 1936, from Southampton to New York. (R.M.S. stands for "royal mail ship"—all vessels with this designation had a government contract to carry British mail.)

4. SHE WAS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL SHIPS EVER BUILT.

The Queen Mary ocean liner
Express/Getty Images

At 1018 feet long and more than 81,000 tons, the Queen Mary was one of the largest ships ever built at the time, second only to the French liner Normandie. (Titanic, by comparison, was only 883 feet long and about 46,000 tons.) Queen Mary’s rudder, at 150 tons, was then the largest ever built. Its amidship dining room, located between two of the ship’s three funnels, was the largest room ever constructed inside a ship at the time—at 143 feet long and spanning the vessel's entire width, it could seat 800 first-class passengers at once. Two dozen boilers and four sets of turbines generating 160,000 horsepower fueled four propellers, which turned at a rate of 200 revolutions per minute. Because of its technological innovation, a 1932 Popular Mechanics article called the Queen Mary “the Sovereign Ship of the Seas.”

5. THE QUEEN MARY'S LUXURIOUS AMENITIES ATTRACTED ELITE PASSENGERS.

Inside, the ship boasted five dining areas, two swimming pools, beauty salons, and a grand ballroom, which attracted wealthy passengers and celebrities to the ship’s first-class accommodations. A first-class breakfast menu included eggs and pastries as well as onion soup gratinée and broiled kippered herrings. An Art Deco mural in the main dining room used a crystal model of the ship to track its progress between England and New York. Royalty, Hollywood stars, notable business magnates, and well-known politicians all traveled on the Queen Mary, including the likes of Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill—and even comedy duo Laurel & Hardy and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame. In addition to first-class, the ship also had “tourist class” (a.k.a. second-class) and third-class accommodations, with the most cramped quarters reserved for the crew, who sometimes bunked 10 to a room.

6. THE QUEEN MARY HELD THE BLUE RIBAND FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS.

In August 1936, clocking in at just over 30 knots, the Queen Mary nabbed the Blue Riband, an unofficial accolade for the ship crossing the Atlantic with the highest average speed, making the crossing in just four days. (Riband is an archaic word for “ribbon.”) Her rival the Normandie briefly captured the title in 1937, but Queen Mary earned it back the following year, and held onto the speed record until 1952, when it was eclipsed for good by the S.S. United States, an American passenger liner whose record of over 35 knots is still unmatched by any ship of its class. (It’s probably no coincidence that Blue Riband candy, a chocolate-covered wafer now owned by Nestle, emerged in the UK in the late 1930s.)

7. THE SHIP GOT A NEW LOOK FOR WORLD WAR II.

The Queen Mary ocean liner in battleship gray
U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1939, the Queen Mary had just crossed to New York when the British government ordered that it remain in port there until further notice. Eventually, Allied forces determined that the Queen Mary, along with the Normandie and Queen Elizabeth, also docked in New York, would become troopships to carry soldiers to various battlefronts. The ship’s hull and funnels were painted battleship gray, earning the ship the nickname the “Grey Ghost.” It was also outfitted with a degaussing coil, which altered the ship’s magnetic field and helped to protect against the enemy’s use of magnetic mines. These highly valuable troopships were capable of moving as many as 15,000 soldiers at a time.

8. THE SHIP WAS INVOLVED IN A TRAGIC ACCIDENT.

British forces assigned the H.M.S. Curacoa, built during the First World War, to serve as an escort ship for the Queen Mary during World War II. On October 2, 1942, the two ships were scheduled to rendezvous off the coast of Ireland. As was typical during wartime, the Queen Mary was on a zig-zag course meant to throw off pursuit by enemy U-boats. Historians believe the cruiser Curacoa was on a straight course—and the two were headed right for each other. Before the ships’ crews could take evasive action, the Queen Mary collided with the Curacoa, cutting it in two and sending it to the ocean floor. Although more than 100 sailors were rescued, 337 men were killed. A British sailor on the Queen Mary named Alfred Johnson later recalled, “I said to my mate … ‘I'm sure we're going to hit her.’ And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armored plating.”

9. AFTER THE WAR, SHE RECEIVED A MODERN UPGRADE.

Once the war ended, the Queen Mary required 10 months of work to be retrofitted so that she could go back into commercial passenger service. The Cunard-White Star Line added more berths in all three classes, as well as air conditioning. She returned to the seas in July 1947, along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, and remained a popular oceangoing vessel for the next two decades.

10. SHE HAD A CAMEO IN A FRANK SINATRA MOVIE.

A 1966 action-adventure film written by Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling and starring Frank Sinatra, Assault on a Queen, takes place in part on the Queen Mary. Sinatra plays a bandit who gets involved in an elaborate heist to rob the liner during an ocean crossing. The film’s score is by legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. Despite the promising setting, reviews of the performances were tepid. "Sinatra swashbuckles like a pirate is supposed to. He's quick with the bitter or sarcastic remark and he evokes some pity. Miss Lisi [Virna Lisi, Sinatra's bombshell co-star] is lovely to look at, even though she's not called on for too much acting," The Miami Herald wrote.

11. THE QUEEN MARY IS NOW A FLOATING HOTEL.

By the late 1960s, the popularity and ease of air travel had effectively signaled the end of the great transatlantic passenger liners. Cunard (which had reverted to its pre-merger name) decided to sell the Queen Mary, which departed on its final cruise on October 31, 1967. After navigating nearly 3.8 million nautical miles, the ship docked in Long Beach, California, on December 9 of that year, where it has been ever since. The iconic ship is now a floating luxury hotel, museum, and tourist attraction, complete with three restaurants, shopping, and dining. The Queen Mary Heritage Foundation is now developing a museum and educational facility to preserve and enhance the ship’s remarkable story.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

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