Morro Castle Disaster
DESCRIPTION: "As the fire filled the air maddening scenes were everywhere, The flame-swept decks were far beyond control." Hundreds take a trip on the Morro Casle. The captain is dead. Many die. Investigations won't help. God will judge those involved.
AUTHOR: Bob Miller
EARLIEST DATE: 1934 (recording, Ray Whitley)
KEYWORDS: ship fire wreck death disaster
Sep 5, 1934 - The Morrow Castle begins its voyage
Sep 8, 1934 - The Morrow Castle fire
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 133-134, "Morro Castle Disaster" (1 text)
Ray Whitley, "Morro Castle Disaster" (Conqueror 8383, 1934)
NOTES: There have been at least five books written about this event, of which I have seen Burton, Gallagher, Hicks, and Thomas/Witts. Gallagher is responsible for the suggestion that George White Rogers started the fire that sank the Morro Castle, so he has a bit of an axe to grind. Thomas/Witts I consider sensational -- as Hicks, p. xiii, says, there are "mountains of misinformation" about this event. Burton and Hicks, as their frequent citations below will surely show, seems much more reliable, although I think Hicks has less understanding of what constitutes evidence than does Burton (e.g. he's much too willing to accept eyewitness testimony over forensic -- "circumstantial" -- evidence when we know that eyewitness testimony is extraordinarily unreliable).
The Morrow Castle tragedy is one of the saddest in the history of shipping, because it was clearly preventable. The ship itself was new, having been built in 1930 (Paine, p. 345). It had been designed with safety in mind (the Ward Line was proud of saying it had never lost a passenger; Burton p. 13), including safety from fire -- there was an advanced firefighting system and a (rather less effective) fire detection system (Burton, pp. 9-10). Although far smaller than major British liners, a newspaper at the time of her commissioning called her the finest and luxurious liner of built for Americans (Burton, p. 12), and experience in a hurricane showed that she was genuinely well suited to deal with the sea itself (Burton, p. 20).
On the other hand, her crew was poorly paid and poorly kept (the food was reported to be terrible; Burton, pp. 15-16), and there was apparently little sense of teamwork -- they didn't even all speak the same language! There are reports that some were even smuggling drugs to augment their minimal pay (Burton, p. 17).
The Morro Castle sailed as a passenger liner, primarily between New York and Havana -- often with passengers making the voyage to escape the limits of prohibition (Burton, p. 8). It was on its way from Cuba to the United States on its final trip (Ritchie, p. 136). It was far from full; the line had repeatedly cut fares because of the Depression, until they were about half the original price (Hicks, p. 18). But the ship had no choice but to sail; the Morro Castle made its money carrying cargo and the mail. The passengers were for profit, but the cargo *had* to be carried; Hicks, p. 9. Indeed, the ship had been built with government loans because it felt the country needed merchant ships; Hicks, p. 14.
On September 8, Captain Robert Wilmott (this is the usual spelling; Hicks spells it "Willmott") complained of stomach pains, then died (Hendrickson, p. 292). Most believe he had a heart attack (Paine, p. 346) -- he was overweight and reportedly had had two earlier mild heart attacks (Burton, p. 19), and had had some sort of problem as recently as the last week of August (Hicks, pp. 48-49). The ship's doctor and three other physicians on board agreed that heart disease was the cause of death (Burton, p. 22). But he was only 52 years old (Hicks, p. 8), and there are some who think he was poisoned (Hendrickson, p. 292. This includes the ship's own cruise director; Burton, p. 53, and Fourth Officer Howard Hansen, who said he "had reason to believe" the captain "was given a Micky Finn which could have brought on a heart attack," although he apparently did not present his reasons; Gallagher, p. 27). And the doctor died in the disaster, so he couldn't testify about the matter afterward (Hicks, p. 206).
After the tragedy, a body was identified as Wilmott's and autopsied. However, there is much doubt about the identification (it was too badly burned to recognize, so it was identified by location, and there is some doubt about this, because the man who recovered it did not know the layout of the ship; Gallagher, p. 231; Hicks, p 187), and the results of the autopsy were not helpful (Gallagher, p. 232).
Wilmott -- a British-born sailor who had become an American citizen in 1904 and had been captain of an earlier Morro Castle for 13 year before taking over the new one (Hicks, p. 8) -- was a masterful and suspicious man, whose own suspicions may have played a role in his death, by increasing the stress he was under; he supposedly distrusted some of his crew (Burton, p. 20) -- being convinced, e.g., that the radio operators meant to sabotage the ship (Burton, p. 21).
In the aftermath of Wilmott's death, first officer William Warms took command -- producing a complicated command situation, since Warms was only a "three stripe" officer, and Chief Engineer Eban Abbott was a "four stripe" officer. (Abbott was thus senior, and Hicks, p. 76, seems to think that he should have taken command -- but he wasn't a line officer, and most agree that that meant he was out of the chain of command.) What's more, it appears that the Ward Line didn't entirely trust Warms -- on the several occasions when Wilmott had skipped a cruise, the Ward Line brought in another captain rather than let Warms sail the ship (Hicks, pp. 77-78). My guess is that they just didn't consider Warms personable enough to represent the ship to the passengers, but the possibility exists that his superiors didn't trust his judgment. So his command experience was very limited, and he had no experience dealing with emergencies.
It was in this peculiar situation that a fire broke out in a sealed cabinet. It was discovered fairly quickly, but it was too large to put out with a fire extinguisher, and there was too little water pressure in the fire hoses, so it quickly grew out of control (Burton, pp. 34; Gallager, p. 89, notes that when people opened the ship's fire hydrants, they neglected to close the unused hydrants, so all of them lost pressure -- one of the inevitable results of refusing to train the crew to deal with fires). Apparently Captain Wilmott had ordered most of the fire control system disabled a month before, after a leaky hydrant had cause a woman to break an ankle (Burton, p. 40).
The smoke detection system was also mostly inoperative, because the ship was carrying a cargo of fresh animal hides, and the only way to keep the smell away from the passengers was to turn it off (Burton, p. 148); this was arguably the worst bit of planning in the entire miserable saga. The ship's fire doors had been changed from automatic to manual, and no one seems to have thought to close them (Burton, p. 151). It is also reported that the bos'un who should have led the fire crew was drunk (Burton, p. 38). And Warms, who as first officer in the past was the other possible leader of the fire crew, was now acting captain and couldn't do it (Gallagher, p. 35). So there was no one to lead the fire crews.
What caused the fire is unknown; many have suspected arson by a crewman (Ritchie, p. 136). This opinion seems to have been widespread among the ship's officers; Acting Captain Warms, Cruise Director Smith, and at least three other watch-standing officers testified to that effect (Burton, pp. 149-150). Warms declared in his testimony to the Dickerson Hoover commission, "I believe the fire was set. I think somebody put something in that locker" (Hicks, p. 179). Junior officers Freeman and Hackney agreed, although on other points they disagreed with their superior officer.
Gallagher, p. 53, suggests that the fire meets three criteria for arson: if it is intense by the time it is discovered; if it spreads in a rapid, unusual manner (which officer Hackney said it had; Hicks, p. 180); and if water causes the flames to change color, indicating chemical accelerants. However, the third of this is clearly irrelevant (whatever was burning when the crew turned water on it, it wasn't the original chemicals -- and Gallagher, p. 77, notes that there was extremely flammable chemical-treated wood everywhere; Hicks, p. 98, says much of it was re-varnished weekly with a toxic and flammable varnish). The second argument is probably irrelevant (there aren't enough liner fires to compare it against), and the first would have a lot more force if the fire detection system hadn't been turned off! What's more, all the claims are based on memories, not photos or actual forensic examination.
The Dickerson Hoover commission decided not to investigate claims of arson, since it was outside their purview, but did say that it was a strange thing to do, since the arsonist would have been in danger of dying in the fire. It concluded that most of the loss of life was due to the crew's "laxness" -- although Hicks, pp. 284-285, says that most of the crew (except for Chief Engineer Abbott) did their best for the passengers.
You'd think such paranoid officers would have been prepared for sabotage -- but they weren't. There was no real procedure for dealing with fires, and Captain Wilmott had not done much to train the crew or drill the passengers (Hendrickson, p. 292). This even though there had been a fire on board in August! (Hicks, p. 49). When the fire was detected, it probably could have been stopped by closing fireproof doors, but no one was responsible for closing them and apparently it did not happen. And it happened in hurricane weather, which undoubtedly distracted the crew (Burton, p. 37).
Commanding officer Warms did not respond well to the disaster -- stressed out, perhaps, by the loss of his commander? (Burton, p. 148, and Hicks, p. 69, say he actually discovered the body, although Gallagher, p. 21, says it was a junior officer, Howard Hansen.) Overworked (Warms had supposedly been on duty without sleep for more than a day; Burton, p. 30)? Cowed by the fact that he had always been forced to obey Wilmott exactly (Burton, p. 163), and needing time to start thinking independently? Or just antisocial? He was regarded as a loner as well as being prone to changes of mind (Burton, p. 19), and Captain Wilmott's wife later said that her husband had not trusted him (Gallagher, p. 24).
Warms apparently tried to alter course so the wind would not affect the ship as strongly (Paine, p. 346), but he did not send an SOS (Hendrickson, p. 293). An emergency signal would have made the ship subject to salvage, which was very expensive for the owners; one may speculate that he did not wish to risk potential promotion by saddling the company with a high repair bill (Burton, p. 118; Warms's son would say that Warms was "a company man" who did not want to hurt the company; Burton, p. 130. Of course, the fact that it would probably cost him his job also played a part). Particularly since the ship was almost back in port; she was off Atlantic City, New Jersey (Paine, p. 346).
Whatever his reasoning, the ship's high speed fanned the flames; the fire was soon out of control. The powder for the line-throwing gun exploded at about 3:00 a.m. making matters even worse (Burton, p. 39), and at 3:10 a.m. the electricity went out (Burton, p. 40). At almost the same moment, the steering controls on the bridge went out, and Warms did not attempt to transfer control to the emergency rudder system at the stern of the ship, instead slowing down and trying to steer the ship by her propellers (Burton, p. 41). That did no good; about the time he tried that, the engine room had to be evacuated because of the smoke, and the engines had to be shut down lest they explode (Hicks, p. 115).
The high speed posed another problem: It meant that passengers -- especially those near the stern, where most of them had been trapped by the fire -- could not jump from the ship, because they would be sucked into the propellors (Hicks, p. 113). And by the time Warms ordered the engines stopped, it was almost impossible -- the ventilation system sucked smoke, not clean air, into the engine room, making it almost impossible to manage the controls (Gallager, pp. 112-113).
There is conflict about what happened on the bridge in the next ten minutes (one officer claimed to have slugged Warms to get him to do what needed to be done), but at about 3:20, the ship let down her anchor and stopped. Then came the order to abandon ship; Burton, p. 41.
Warms still hadn't ordered a distress call sent. The radio operators tried to keep the airwaves clear, but the window for sending a distress signal was only three minutes long -- and it passed before Warms did anything (Burton, pp. 42-43). George White Rogers, the senior radioman, finally started to call for help on his own initiative (Paine, p. 346). It was already so late that he had to use the emergency backup transmitter power (Hendrickson, p. 293) -- and just in time, because all power went out a few minutes later.
The actual distress call (as opposed to a signal to stand by) went out at 3:23 a.m. (Burton, p. 45), and already the power was so low, or the operators so overheated, or the fire producing enough static, or something, that the ships listening could not entirely comprehend it. They receiver had already permanently failed by then; Rogers -- who had done an emergency fix to keep the transmitter working -- was sending without being able to hear any responses (Gallagher, p. 133). The last signal went out at 3:24.
The heat of the fire made things even worse. Even for those far from the fire, the deck was uncomfortably hot, because it was planking over steel, and the steel conducted heat. And, as the planking heated, the chemicals applied to it began to change state, making the deck sticky and releasing noxious fumes (Gallagher, p. 101).
The crew, meanwhile, was abandoning ship without the passengers; the first boats to go off had almost no passengers aboard -- Paine, p. 346, reports that only six of the first 98 people to reach land were passengers! The #1 lifeboat, even though it carried the chief engineer (the senior person aboard other than Warms) was only half full, and of those 31 people, all but three were crew members (Burton, p. 81). Not every boat was lowered (some caught fire, some were hard to reach because of the fire, and it appears that one had been so heavily whitewashed that the tackle no longer worked; Hicks, p. 115), but the six that were lowered had a capacity of 408 people -- but they carried only 85, and most of those 85 were crew! (Burton, p. 82). One of the passengers bitterly remarked, "Officers and stewards were simply splendid, but ordinary seamen went over the side at the first opportunity" (Gallager, p. 157).
The worst of it is, given the heavy storm, most of the boats could not be maneuvered because there were too few aboard to row or handle them in the bad weather! (Hicks, p. 120). Had the ship been far from help, or had the SOS not been sent, those crew members who abandoned ship hastily would have died as a result of their lack of discipline. Indeed, some of the lifeboats from the rescue ships got in trouble due to the extreme conditions (Hicks, p. 148, who notes on p. 150 that one boat from The City of Savannah could not even return to her ship and had to be rescued herself). Indeed, the storm was so bad that at 2:30 the following afternoon (i.e. about eleven hours after the distress call went out), the Coast Guard was forced to call off search-and-rescue operations (Hicks, p. 156).
It should have been possible to save everyone except the few who were direct victims of the fire; the lifeboats alone could have carried 816 (Gallagher, p. 159), which is hundreds more than there were people aboard, and there were also life preservers and other equipment; counting them all, Gallagher, p. 160, reports that there was life-saving equipment for 1900, which was more than three times the number of people aboard. The problem was that it was misused, or not used at all. At least some people died, for instance, because the life jackets (of hard cork) knocked them unconscious as they went into the water, causing them to drown (Hicks, p. 150).
Part of the problem was inexperience. Gallagher, p. 160, says that the Ward Line was known for paying its crews badly (e.g. Gallagher, p. 161, reports that ordinary seamen were paid $35 per month, and able seamen $50 per month; even executive officer Warms made only $180 per month), so it didn't get good crews. Worse, because no one particularly wanted to work for them, they often recruited crew at the very last moment, so the crews were not very good and not very experienced (Hicks, pp. 24-33).
Although the crew had roused some passengers when the fire broke out, those who fled to the stern never received word to abandon ship, and were cut off from the lifeboats; they had little choice but to go into the sea, and it was non-line officers such as the purser and the cruise director who decided when the passengers should go over the side (Hicks, p. 131).
Burton, p. 84, thinks that ships in the area were slow to respond (in particular, the Coast Guard was hampered because a transmitter was temporarily down; Burton, p. 86), but several eventually turned up and, once they arrived, did very good work, taking off hundreds of survivors (Paine, p. 346). Still, 133 of 435 people aboard died (Ritchie, p. 136). To add to the controversy, 29 percent of the passengers died (86 of 318), but only 18 percent of the crew (49 of 231; Burton, p. 5). I would guess that some of the problems were caused by the gale force wind and poor visibility. Some people died simply because the spray was filling their lungs (Burton, p. 95). Others suffered severely from hypothermia (Burton, p. 101); the water in the area is reported to have been about 70 degrees Fahrenheit -- chilly enough to cause hypothermia if one spent enough time in the water (Hicks, p. 136), although not as quickly fatal as, say, the waters when the Titanic sank.
Many small boats that would otherwise have been able to come out and perform a rescue simply could not put to sea in the storm (Gallager, p. 177).
It is perhaps ironic to note that one of the rescue ships, the Monarch of Bermuda, would itself be destroyed by fire thirteen years later (Gallagher, p. 190).
Acting Captain Warms and a handful of his officers were the last survivors off the ship. By then, they were so out of it that, when it came time to cut the ship's anchor cable, they insisted on doing it with a hacksaw blade (which took three hours) rather than letting the tow ship use a real cable cutter (Gallagher, pp. 212-213). It was a minor point, but indicative of the sort of stupidity that doomed the ship. This prevented some people from being rescued -- when the Coast Guard ship Tampa came on the scene, it didn't engage in rescue operations, because it was hanging around waiting for Warms and no one told the captain that there were still people in the water! (Hicks, p. 150).
Gallagher, pp. 213-221, reports that this delay would destroy and chance of salvaging the ship -- she couldn't be towed while she was anchored, obviously, and by the time they cut the cable, the storm had reached such intensity that the attempt to tow her failed (the Coast Guard's ship Tampa could hardly pull her against the storm; shortly after 6:00 p.m., the 12 inch tow line snapped) and she drifted away, still burning (Burton, pp. 132-133; Hicks, p. 157).
Despite a fire so severe that parts of the ship's structure glowed red (Burton, p. 119) and made the whole ship appear to be afire (Burton, p. 115), the Morro Castle did not sink. Still burning, the Morro Castle grounded off Asbury Park (Burton, pp. 133-134), so close to the convention center that people in the building actually feared it might hit them (Hicks, pp. 161-162). Smoke came from the wreck for days, and small bursts of flame as the fire found new things to burn (Hicks, p. 180). Huge crowds gathered to watch the burning ship -- one estimate says 150,000 (Burton, p. 143), another claims that a quarter million visited the site -- now claimed by some as a murder scene -- in less than a week (Hicks, p. 180). Some tried to help the passengers, but many were gawkers and had to be controlled (Burton, p. 137).
The city actually made overtures to buy the wreck and use it as a tourist attraction (Hicks, p. 187), but nothing came of that.
It proved hard to get aboard the ship to investigate -- the only way to reach the deck was by ropes that had been used to let passengers off the stern; arrangements had to be made to rig a breeches buoy to carry people up and down (Hicks pp. 162-163). Just as well; the ship was still burning and very dangerous.
Although she had brought a lot of business to Asbury Park at first, eventually they wanted to be rid of her. She shifted at times, and people kept getting into trouble while visiting the wreck (Hicks, pp. 210-211). Even once the fires burned out, the ship stank -- those hides were now both untanned and burnt, plus there was all the smoke, as well as the occasional dead body (Burton, p. 165; Hicks, p. 163). The ship was finally towed away to be scrapped on March 14, 1935. The ship that had cost millions to build was sold as scrap for $33,605 (Gallagher, p. 236). In a non-trivial irony, the ship caught fire again while they were cutting her apart (Burton, p. 166).
Insurance eventually paid out more than four million dollars -- more than the estimated value of the ship. The company paid much of this to survivors and heirs, who received an average of $894 (Burton, p. 167); the total amount paid outs was $890,000, which was not quite three-fourths the amount claimed (Gallagher, p. 236). The New York Post, however, claimed the company had made a $263,000 profit on the disaster, even after the expenses were paid (Hicks, p. 209).
The Ward Line knew it was in trouble, and reacted swiftly -- even before the Tampa reached the shore with Warms and the other officers, they managed to get a lawyer on board via one of the pilot boats, and he gave the officers instructions: Don't talk to reporters or government investigators, call it an act of God. They were even told to stonewall the U. S. Attorney! (Hicks, pp. 166-167). But the second radio operator, George Alagna, was an activist, and he knew he was going to be out of a job, and he wouldn't put up with it (Hicks, p. 167). Indeed, the Line's attempts to browbeat him just made him more stubborn; he convinced others that they should not follow the company's official position (Hicks, p. 173). The company's mistreatment of its sailors was coming home to roost.
Naturally there were hearings after the event -- the commission headed by Dickerson Hoover (J. Edgar's brother) began the Steamboat Inspection Service inquiry just two days after the disaster (Hicks, p. 172), and there were four investigations going within a week (Hick, p. 177), with J. Edgar Hoover involved in one of them (Hicks, p. 175). A grand jury issued subpoenas, and a judge ordered the entire crew to stay in New York for a year (Hicks, p. 171). Second radio operator George Alagna, who was a radical, was actually taken into custody for a time (Hicks, p. 183, although it seems to have been regarded as protective custody so that the company lawyers -- who were doing their best to control the story -- couldn't get to him). When Acting Captain Warms was called to testify, it was the first federal hearing ever broadcast on radio (Burton, p. 147). He didn't come out very well, and other witnesses -- notably Alagna -- clearly described his near-stupor. Indeed, Alagna called Warms a murderer (Hicks, p. 182).
(Later, Warms would give much better performances, helped by Ward Line lawyers; Hicks, p. 207. These were in the Coast Guard hearings, with the company apparently trying to pin everything on George Alagna. But Alagna was never asked to testify, and the hearings produced no real results; Hicks, p. 208. Alagna grew so frustrated, and found it so hard to get a job afterward, that he attempted suicide; Hicks, p. 213)
Five officers had their licences temporarily suspended (Burton, p. 161).
The story was eventually driven from the headlines by stories of an arrest in the Lindbergh kidnapping case (Hicks, p. 202).
Warms eventually faced charges of negligence, as did Chief Engineer Abbott and the company (Burton, p. 164). (Abbott had, by all accounts, been completely useless in the emergency, had left the ship early, and even claimed an injury that others could not see, according to Gallagher, p. 129. It sounds as if the stress caused him to develop delusions; certainly he did not do all he could have.) There were several charges; they largely came down to not properly organizing and preparing the crew for possible disasters (Burton, pp. 164-165). The company, it turned out, allowed a man who barely spoke English to hire its crews; inevitably the crews were not properly vetted (Burton, pp. 167-168).
Warms, who had reverted to his near-stupor in the trial (Hicks, p. 218), was sentenced to two years in prison, Abbott was given a four year term, and the company and one of its officers fined (Burton, p. 170), but a higher court overturned the sentence (Ritchie, p. 136; Burton, p. 170, notes that the famous Justice Learned Hand was one of those who voted to overturn and that the fines against the company were sustained). To give Warms what credit we can, he had at least stayed with the ship rather than abandoning it -- a fact that was actually mentioned in the court documents overturning his conviction (he "stay[ed] on the vessel until the bridge had burned from under him"; Gallagher, p. 235).
Warms was allowed to go back to sea, but a year later, he ran his new ship aground. That, finally, put an end to his sea career (Burton, p. 171), although he spent time in the navy in World War II (Hicks, p. 283).
The only good to come out of the mess was a series of stronger laws for maritime safety (Hendrickson, pp. 293-294), as well as a deeper understanding that things like wood and paint were flammable and their use had to be restricted (Burton, p. 180). The whole Ward Line, which ran the ship, and the umbrella company which owner it, did not dissolve at once, but the first steps in that direction began after the Morro Castle inquiry (Burton, p. 181).
You'll note that a lot of conspiracy theories arose about the tragedy: That the captain was poisoned, that the fire was arson. This strikes me as pretty unlikely; too many things went wrong that couldn't have been planned for. But there were genuinely suspicious signs; Thomas/Witts, p. 13, point out that a newspaper in the Asbury Park region of New Jersey had said that the area needed a shipwreck to attract tourists. Problem is, the editorial involved was fifty years old at the time of the Morro Castle fire; surely the whole thing had been forgotten! And Thomas/Witts don't actually think this was the explanation for the disaster; they blame fears of a communist conspiracy plus arson by the psychopathic radio operator George White Rogers.
Gallagher, p. 18, also declares that "George W. Rogers was a psychopath with a criminal record going back twenty years. According to one of several subsequent psychiatric reports, all of which agreed diagnostically, he was 'a sociopathic personality; a shrewd individual who attempts to manipulate his environment.'" This statement is notably problematic; see the excursus at the end of this entry.
Nonetheless, Rogers did have a criminal past dating back to his teens (Burton, p. 174; Gallagher, pp. 249-250, catalogs the deeds, which included both theft and, as a teenager, assault, probably sexual, on a younger boy), and he had been repeatedly thrown out of school as a teenager, eventually being permanently barred from the California school system (Hicks, p. 220). None of this was discovered because they didn't do background checks back then -- and he was genuinely skilled with radio equipment. It also appears that the Navy discharged him in 1920 for malingering or bad behavior, although there was no explicit record of his misdeeds (Hicks, pp. 220-221). But it proved relatively easy for J. Edgar Hoover's agent on the case to trace multiple instances of theft -- and fire (Hicks, pp. 202-204). He even lied about his birth date (Hicks, p. 219).
After the Morro Castle disaster, Rogers ended up working for the Bayonne police department, which had recently installed two-way radios in its cars -- the first city in the country to do so, which meant of course that they needed radio technicians (Hicks, pp. 222-223). It was an officer named Vincent Doyle who had set up the system; Rogers became his assistant (Hicks, p. 224). Then, in 1938, Doyle suffered a murder attempt (Gallagher, pp. 239-240) -- people made a habit of giving Doyle odd gadgets to fix (Hicks, p. 229), and someone gave him a fish tank heater to upgrade. When he worked on it, it exploded. Strong circumstantial evidence pointed to Rogers, who might have been in line to get Doyle's job (Burton, pp. 172-174; Hicks, p. 237, says that this was the only motive police had for the crime) and who had quarreled with Doyle from the day they met after Doyle caught Rogers in a flamboyant lie (Hicks, pp. 190-191).
After Rogers got out on bail, the police had to start protecting the recuperating Doyle (whose left hand had been wrecked and his left leg crippled), since a series of incidents, each petty in itself, seemed to add up to another attack on him, or an attempt to frame someone else for the Doyle murder (Hicks, pp. 240-241). And, interestingly, one involved anonymous notes, which someone had used to get Rogers the position as senior radio operator on the Morro Castle (during his trial, the prosecution had found the people who had sent those notes on Rogers's behalf; Hicks, p. 246), as well as to get Doyle to play with the gadget that nearly killed him. Rogers even tried to cheat his lawyer of most of the money friends had gathered for a legal defense fund (Hicks, pp. 244-245). Little surprise, perhaps, that said lawyer made only a perfunctory attempt to mount a defense (Hicks, p. 248).
Rogers was convicted and sentenced to prison (Gallagher, p. 251), but paroled to do military work (Burton, p. 175; Hicks, p. 253, says that many, including the president, said he should not be paroled, but New Jersey freed him anyway). In the mid-1940s, he became a foreman at an electronics factory where, after a girl turned down his advances, a water fountain was found to have been laced with a poison (Hicks, pp. 256-259).
Later, Rogers became friends with an elderly rich man, William Hummel, who lent him money for various business schemes that, somehow, never came to anything (Hicks, pp. 259-261); Hummel himself recorded that he lent Rogers $7500 by 1949, and more after that (Hicks, pp. 270-271, 273). When he prepared to move south and leave Rogers behind, Hummel and his spinster daughter ended up as murder victims -- with Rogers supposedly noticing that they were missing days before anyone else did (Hicks, p 264, although based on the account on p. 273, this was based on one man's memory of one word said by Rogers, which isn't anything I would regard as evidence. Still, Rogers seems to have liked to hasten the discovery of his crimes; he had nagged Doyle about the exploding tank heater, and this time, he blabbed about the Hummels, whose bludgeoned bodies were in their home more than a week after; Hicks, pp. 265-266). The trial took a long time, in no small part because it was hard to find a jury, but this time, Rogers went to prison until he died in 1958 (Burton, pp. 175-176); it took the jury just half a day to convict him of first degree murder; they chose life imprisonment over the death penalty (Hicks, pp. 276-277)
It certainly sounds like the career of a man with no sense of morality.
Even during the hearings after the wreck, Rogers told tales about George Alagna, the man who had perhaps saved his life (Hicks, p. 186) -- and did so in a way that seemed to make Rogers look much better than he actually was.
On the other hand, there is no direct evidence that Rogers had anything to do with the Morro Castle fire. It can't even be shown that it was set. Every text except Burton is sure he did it, but their evidence is extraordinarily thin.
The most interesting thing is a statement that allegedly was made by Rogers himself. Rogers is recorded as having told Doyle of how a fire could be set to start after a delay, hinting that he knew what caused the Morro Castle fire (Gallagher, pp. 238-239). Obviously an criminal might wish to boast of his acts -- but then, too, a man who had been in a traumatic fire might wish to talk about how it happened! *If* the fire was set, Rogers is the obvious criminal on the crew, but was it set?
Doyle supposedly once asked Rogers "Why did you do it?" and Rogers replied, "The Ward Line stinks and the skipper was lousy" (Hicks, p. 228). But this is the only statement Rogers ever made about it, and it was heard only by Doyle, who had a grudge and who of course was human and might have remembered incorrectly, especially since he only reported it after the murder attempt on him -- long after Rogers made the statement, IF he made the statement.
It should be noted that the official conclusion was that the cause of the fire was not, and could not be, known (Hicks, p. 285. Hicks, p. 286, seems convinced Rogers did it but admits that "There's no guarantee he could have been convicted." He also seems to think that Rogers arranged the death of Captain Wilmott, noting on p. 288 that Rogers used poison on other occasions but admitting that he would have had a hard time getting access to Wilmott's meal.)
Burton, p. 177, says unequivocally (and clearly correctly) "Did [Rogers] start the fire? The only verdict has to be the Scotch verdict, "Not proven."
Robert Smith, the cruise director on the final trip, had a spooky story of his own: Captain Wilmott, what had spent the last 26 years of his life on the Ward Line, supposedly was once asked what he would do if he ever had to leave the Morro Castle. He replied, "In that case, I'll take her with me" (Burton, p. 11).
EXCURSUS: "Psychopathic personality disorder." Gallagher calls George W. Rogers a psychopath, and Hicks, p. 249, says that Charles E. Clark, of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, examined Rogers after his conviction in the Doyle case and declared that he had a psychopathic personality.
Unfortunately for this diagnosis, prior to the 1970s, when the American Psychiatric Association published the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, there was no such thing as a psychiatric diagnosis. I'm serious. Prior to that, psychiatric terms had no definitions, so any psychiatrist could use any designation he liked. So Clark's diagnosis means nothing.
Furthermore, neither "psychopathy" nor "sociopathy" is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis -- the only diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is antisocial personality disorder. So Clark's diagnosis, and Gallagher's citation of it, is meaningless (not necessarily wrong, but meaningless).
And Clark's evaluation was very likely done according to psychodynamic principles. And Robert Hare, who is the best-known psychopathy researcher in the world and who tried for decades to get psychopathy into the DSM, declares, "Although many books and hundreds of articles on the psychodynamics of psychopathy have been written over the past fifty years, in my opinion they have not greatly advanced our understanding for the disorder. To a large extent, this is because most psychodynamic accounts of psychopathy have an armchair, often circular, quality about them" (Hare, p. xii).
This must be stressed. Clark's evaluation has NO evidentiary value, because he gave a diagnosis which had no meaning and was likely conducted according to principles which cannot produce meaning.
That being said, it must be conceded that Rogers does appear to fit the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. According to the current (fifth edition) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, to be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, one must be at least eighteen years old (Rogers was), one must have shown signs of the problem by age fifteen (which Rogers had, as evidenced by his history of school expulsions), the behaviors must not be the result of schizophrenia or bipolar illness (Rogers showed no signs of either), and one must meet at least three criteria out of seven. It appears to me that Rogers met these:
(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are ground for arrest. Although not every instance is proved, there are repeated hints of robbery, at least the one accusation of homosexual rape, two different attempts at murder, multiple intimidation campaigns, and hints of several arsons. Some of these may not be valid. But the list is long enough that it seems nearly sure that Rogers meets this criterion.
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure. Demonstrated, at minimum, by his use of anonymous letters.
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others. Demonstrated, at minimum, by his attempt on the life of Doyle.
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations. As an example, there is his cheating of his lawyer.
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another. He displayed this constantly.
Hence it seems reasonable to conclude that Rogers had antisocial personality disorder. And we note that criterion (5) includes reckless disregard for one's own safety. A person with ASPD is just the sort to start a fire on a ship that he was himself aboard.
Which is not, however, proof that he did it. Or even evidence that he did it.
We know that Rogers was guilty of theft, and probably of arson as well. Formally, a person who has antisocial personality disorder cannot be diagnosed with either kleptomania or pyromania. Rogers clearly does not fit the diagnosis of kleptomania anyway. He comes closer to pyromania -- clearly he was fascinated with fire-starting devices, and there are signs that he meets some of the other criteria -- but the evidence still available to us does not allow a clear diagnosis on this point. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Burton: Hal Burton, The Morro Castle: Tragedy at Sea, Viking Press, 1973
- Gallagher: Thomas Gallagher: Fire at Sea: The Story of the Morro Castle, Rinehart & Company, 1959
- Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Guilford Press, 1993
- Hendrickson: Robert Hendrickson, The Ocean Almanac, Doubleday, 1984
- Hicks: Brian Hicks, When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake, Free Press, 2006
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Ritchie: David Ritchie, Shipwrecks: An Encyclopedia of the World's Worst Disasters at Sea, 1996 (I use the 1999 Checkmark paperback edition)
- Thomas/Witts: Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Shipwreck: The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle, Stein and Day, 1972
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