The story was first reported by Carlos Hurd in the Evening World on the evening of April 18, 1912. Although passengers generally did not mention the hymn in letters they had written to loved ones while on board Carpathia, many found ways of including mention of the hymn in their accounts to the press, even when they had not personally heard the music.
Caroline Bonnell, Titanic survivor. April 19, 1912, Christian Science Monitor:
“And those that were in the lifeboats which were close to the vessel say that the orchestra played till the very last and that the men went down into the sea singing "Nearer My God to Thee."”
“Quartermaster Moody.” April 19, 1912, The Evening World:
BAND PLAYED ITS OWN DIRGE
“The band had broken out the strains of “Nearer, My God, To Thee” some minutes before Murdock lifted the revolver to his head, fired and toppled over on his face. Moody saw all this in a vision that filled his brain, while his ears drank in the tragic strain of the beautiful hymn that the band played as their own dirge, even to the moment when the waters sucked them down.”
Note: There was no quartermaster by the name of Moody on board Titanic.
Mrs. A. A. Dick, Titanic survivor. April 19, 1912, The Evening World Page 3:
"Mr. and Mrs. A. A. Dick of Calgary, Canada, first cabin passengers, left in the second boat. Said Mrs. Dick:
DRIFTED IN BOAT WHILE THE MUSIC PLAYED
It seemed the people were so stunned and dased [sic] that the first few boats were filled indifferently. As we got into the boat and it was guided away, the band was playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ and the lights were burning brightly. We drifted around in the boat, it seemed, about four hours until dawn."
Mrs. A. A. Dick, Titanic survivor. April 19, 1912, New York Herald:
"We heard several rounds of shots echoing across the water and learned afterward that many men were shot down as the last boat put away. There were three men shot in the steerage by the second or third officer, we understand. As the steamship went down the band was up forward and we could faintly hear the start of 'Nearer My God to Thee.'
Ada Clarke, Titanic survivor. April 20, Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"Oh, they were brave and splendid, all the men. They died like brave men. At the last, all the men were kneeling and there floated out across the water the strains of ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it and saw the band men kneeling, too."
Caroline Brown, Titanic survivor. April 20, 1912, Worchester Evening Gazette:
“The band played marching from deck to deck, and as the ship went under I could still hear the music. The musicians were up to their knees in water the last I saw them.”
Carlos Hurd, Carpathia passenger. April 19, 1912:
"As the screams in the water multiplied, another sound was heard, strong and clear at first, then fainter in the distance. It was the melody of the hymn, ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ played by the string orchestra in the dining saloon. Some of those on the water started to sing the words but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consumed by death. The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow."
Thomas Patrick "Paddy" Dillon, Titanic survivor. April 28, 1912, Plymouth, England:
"There was one musician left. He was the violinist and was playing the air of the hymn 'Nearer, My God, To Thee.' The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop and felt myself going headlong into the icy water with the engines and machinery buzzing in my ears."
Reporter. Date unknown, 1912, London Daily Mirror:
BAND GOES DOWN PLAYING
"In the whole history of the sea, there is little equal to the wonderful behaviour of these humble players. In the last moments of the great ship's doom, when all was plainly lost, when braver and hardier men might almost have been excused for doing practically anything to save themselves, they stood responsive to their conductor's baton and played a recessional tune."
It is difficult to ascertain by these accounts which ones are accurate. Bonnell said only that the band played to the end and that the men were singing Nearer, My God, To Thee (which does not specifically say the band was playing the hymn).
Mrs. A. A. Dick's accounts actually conflicted. In one account it was said she heard the hymn as the second lifeboat was lowered away (early in the sinking), and in the other that it was faintly heard as the ship went down (at the end).
Clarke saw the bandsmen kneeling as they played the hymn while Brown saw them marching from deck to deck. Dillon painted a picture of a solo violinist, while a Daily Mirror reporter painted the opposite picture of a band playing under a conductor's baton (there was no conductor on Titanic).
Is this a matter of confused memories? Creative reporters? The vast variances in these accounts would seem to cast doubt on them all.
Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee
Titanic's Final Number: False testimony?
Carpathia Accounts: Nearer, My God, To Thee
Caroline Bonnell account
Quartermaster Moody account
Mrs. A. A. Dick account (World)
Ada Clarke account
Caroline Brown account
Carlos Hurd account