Like the bones of a long-dead titan, the remains of the SS Morro Castle sat still, beached on the shore in the shadow of the Asbury Park boardwalk. Despite the fact that a minimum of 137 passengers and crewmen lie dead in the wake of a tragic fire (plus potentially dozens of unaccounted for stowaways—more on that later), souvenirs and photo-ops caused a boom for this Jersey Shore community. For half a year from the fall of 1934 to the early spring of 1935, tourists flocked from hundreds of miles hoping to capture a glimpse of the moored leviathan in the aftermath of its tragic blaze, which lay close enough to land to wade out and be touched.
Questions abound regarding the source of the fire, but Ripleys.com sat down with Deborah C. Whitcraft to get to the bottom of the story. Whitcraft served as mayor and police commissioner of nearby Beach Haven for a decade, and is the founder of the New Jersey Maritime Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of SS Morro Castle information and memorabilia. She has a lifetime acquaintance with the aquatic and a fascination with shipwrecks. It was through that interest that she co-authored Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle to uncover the mystery behind Asbury Park’s shipwreck on the shore. From exposing humanitarian crises to uncovering murder plots and government conspiracies, buckle up your life jacket, because this one goes down a positively wild rabbit hole.
A Night to Remember: Sea of Flames
The bodies of men, women, and children littered the waters churning around the rapidly burning and soon smoldering remains of the SS Morro Castle on the early morning of Saturday, September 8, 1934.
The SS Morro Castle had acted as a passenger liner between Cuba and New York City since 1930. For a round trip cost starting at $65—about $1,200 adjusted for inflation—and ornate staterooms going as high as $200—about $3,800 today—passengers could spend two and a half days getting to Havana, two days vacationing there, then two and a half days back. This week-long escape from the bleak reality of life in the midst of the Great Depression was a singles mixer in a party atmosphere, where individuals could gamble and drink alcohol. The original booze cruise, the Morro Castle acted as a legal way around prohibition.
On the evening of September 7th, trouble began with the untimely and mysterious death of the captain, Robert Willmott, merely hours before the ocean furnace began its unrelenting route of destruction. Attributed to a heart attack, the line of succession led to Chief Officer William Warms assuming command of the steamship. The problem, however, was that Warms was wholly unqualified for the task at hand. Following the disaster, Warms and members of his crew were convicted of willful negligence. These convictions would later be overturned.
In the early morning, in the midst of a nor’easter, a fire sprouted within a first-class writing room. As the flames began to spread, devouring all in its path, Captain Warms continued the ship’s course, steering the vessel into the gale-force winds at a speed of eighteen knots—twenty miles-per-hour.
“Twenty miles-per-hour doesn’t sound like a lot,” Whitcraft explains, “but it is when you’re in the middle of the ocean—in the middle of a nor’easter—and you’re going into the wind. What that did was fuel the fire from bow to stern. Instead of changing direction and going toward shore and saving as many people as possible, this guy just maintained his speed into the wind.”
“She was twelve miles from the beach when the fire was set. Had he turned that vessel toward shore— broadside to the wind rather than into it—I think that more people could have been saved.”—Deborah C. Whitcraft, co-author of Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle.
The fire was further fed on the ship’s deck, which was coated in an oil-based paint. This carried the fire the entire length of the vessel.
In the time that it took for the S.O.S. to be sent, the Morro Castle could have safely beached on the shore. “Under admiralty law, the captain must order an S.O.S. George Rogers was the radio operator, but he’s not allowed to send an S.O.S. until it’s ordered by the captain. Warms claimed he ordered the distress call immediately. Rogers says he didn’t order it until thirty-eight minutes later. Thirty-eight minutes is a long time for a ship to be on fire in a nor’easter,” said Whitcraft.
Meanwhile, the acting captain was not the only person unfit for their role. Generally speaking, the crewmen of the Morro Castle were not proficient in their positions, either. During the Great Depression, impoverished individuals took up jobs regardless of their qualifications. “They were panic-stricken. Absolutely terrified. Some of those crewmen were onboard a boat for the very first time. A lot of them solely worked for a place to sleep and meals. They didn’t even make wages. They were able to fill the ranks of their crew with people who were desperate for work,” said Whitcraft.
The loss of the cruise ship was also precipitated by a litany of common sense safety violations regarding fire control. Whitcraft tells us, “It was a very fancy, modern vessel for its time. Look at the interior. There were so many pieces of heavily varnished furniture that acted as accelerants to this fire.”
Existing counter-measures proved to be inadequate. While the ship did have fire doors, they were themselves surrounded by wood that rendered the blockades useless. The fittings for fire hoses were dismantled after a passenger tripped over one. The fire hydrant system on board was built to use only six of the forty-two at once. Should more than that be used, as would be the case on the night of September 8th, 1934, water pressure fell to the point of nonfunctional.
There were no lessons learned from the tragedy of the Titanic over two decades prior either, as lifeboats were largely inaccessible due to the late Captain Robert Willmott’s affinity for busywork. “When the vessel was laid up between trips, the captain would order the crew to paint from stem to stern and back again. There were so many layers of paint in the chain and the davits of the lifeboats that, when the worst happened and those lifeboats had to be dropped, several of them were unable to deploy because they were so gummed up. It just locked the boats in place.” Whitcraft says, “It’s like a comedy of errors. There were so many things done wrong here. You just can’t make this stuff up.”
The Morro Castle supported twelve lifeboats, six on each side. Only half could be utilized in life-saving efforts on the night of the fire. “If you look at the pictures of the charred remains, you see these boats just hanging there that could never be lowered.”
“No requirements teaching people how to properly don life jackets, or how to go to the muster zones for the lifeboats occurred,” Whitcraft informed us. “Because Captain Willmott was a people-pleaser, he never wanted to inconvenience the passengers or even imply there could be the possibility that they would need to don these life jackets and jump overboard.”
As a result, many passengers perished. “When they dropped into the water there was a thirty-to-fifty foot drop. They had never been properly shown how to don the jacket and hold it against their chest, so the jacket came up and broke the necks of some. With others, it came off them completely or rendered them unconscious, which put them face down in the water.” Whitcraft explained, “there were so many things that happened here that defy any explanation.”
Hell Afloat: Death on the High Seas
One particularly chilling tale is that of heroic eighteen-year-old Olympic swimmer, passenger Franz de Beche. “He kept giving life jackets away to these single women who didn’t even know where they were stowed in their room, saying, ‘I can swim better than any of you, so here, take this jacket and jump overboard.’ When Franz de Beche finally decided to jump free of the ship with no jacket at all, he jumped off the stern… and the propellers were still spinning. His body was never found.”
Power was lost shortly thereafter, plunging the luxury liner into pitch blackness. “They lost all machinery. They lost everything.”
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of this catastrophe is the potential scores of unaccounted Cuban children that were aboard the SS Morro Castle as refugee stowaways.
“To the best of our ability, to reconstruct the passenger and crew list, it is estimated they had approximately 620 people on this last, fateful trip. The problem is, that when the ship arrived in Cuba, there was a tremendous amount of violence in the streets of Havana. People were being shot. You went there at your own risk. The Cuban people, in a desperate attempt to get their kids away from the violence that surrounded them, paid the crewman aboard the Morro Castle a couple of dollars to smuggle their kids onto the ship. They made arrangements for their kids to be raised in boarding homes in New York City. When the ship met its fate, the first casualties of that disaster were these Cuban kids, because they were put in unoccupied rooms.” Whitcraft explains, “the crewmen essentially abandoned the passengers. Not all, but the majority did.”
“There was so much secrecy about the Morro Castle. Nobody would talk about it. No crewman wanted to admit, first of all, that he took money to smuggle these kids on board. Then they didn’t want to admit that they abandoned them. Everything about this disaster belies belief.”
Dead bodies and abandoned, impotent lifeboats would line the Jersey Shore for weeks. “They set up a temporary morgue. People literally took a number, like a bakerym to view the bodies to identify their loved ones. It was just so sad.”
On the morning of September 8th, more than just bodies and miscellaneous detritus began washing up on the Jersey Shore: the towering inferno itself soon made its way to the mainland, as residents of the Asbury Park boardwalk (perhaps even the nearby Madame Marie) quaked in fear. “They were terrified,” Whitcradt recounts, “There was a radio station at Convention Hall. They were fearful that the bow of the ship was coming right at them.”
Morbidly enough, profiteers sought a silver lining in the tragedy. Whitcraft explains, “The governing body in Asbury Park entertained the idea of paying the Ward Line to keep the wreck there because it drew so many people. This disaster happened on September 8th. Most of the stores and businesses on the boardwalk had already closed. Most of them were going out of business anyway because nobody had any money. But after the Morro Castle disaster, they flipped their signs from closed to open again. They made a killing with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Asbury Park.”
Alas, this nautical sensation’s residency at Asbury Park was short-lived. “The ship ended up sitting there for six months. The local people were really incensed that the governing body at the time thought they would use such a horrific tragedy as a boost to tourism, so they threw that idea out the window. But the real reason that Asbury Park ended up having the ship towed off the beach was because there was a cargo of untreated animal hides in the hull of the vessel that they had picked up in Cuba and were bringing back to New York. When the wind came off the ocean, the stench of those rotting hides pervaded Asbury Park.”
Accident or Arson?
So who or what started the fire? Officially, no cause or culprit was ever identified. However, the annals of history have identified the likely suspect. Captain Willmott had no prior medical history to suggest that he was ill or that he any cardiac issues, anything like that.
Suggesting it was a case of poisoning, Whitcraft attests any unexplained death at the time was often attributed to a heart attack. Suspiciously enough, the remains of Captain Willmott were supposed to be sent to New York for testing of poison, but they never made it there. Allegedly, his body was lost.
In all the news coming from the tragedy, a few heroes emerged, but Chief Radio Operator George White Rogers lived to become the villain.
“George Rogers was one of the last people to see Willmott alive. He was the radio operator. At the time, radio operators were placed on vessels like the Morro Castle not by the owner of the ship, but by the government. The problem with George Rogers was that the government never did a background check on him. George Rogers had a criminal background history a mile long. He was an arsonist, he had been charged with terroristic threats against people with whom he worked in prior employment…The guy was bad news.”
Despite possibly being the captain’s killer, to the unwitting public, George became a celebrity. “George Rogers suddenly becomes the hero because he saved some rich woman’s canary, cage and all. So he becomes the hero and he takes his act to vaudeville. He became sort of famous, telling everybody how great he was because he ‘saved so many people and this rich lady’s bird’ and all this stuff. But the guy was nuts. Truly nuts. After George Rogers takes his act to vaudeville and it dies down, he gets a job at the Bayonne Police Department.”
By this point, George was undoubtedly the world’s most famous radio operator and in need of a new job…his failing radio repair shop had just mysteriously burned down. “They hire Crazy George. One of his superiors, Lieutenant Vincent Doyle, starts asking George, ‘where were you when the ship caught on fire? What did you do?’ Well, George Rogers starts talking to Vince Doyle about points of origin, accelerants used, and all that. How could you know that if you weren’t the arsonist?,” regales Whitcraft.
“So, when Vincent Doyle figured out that there’s something wrong here, George Rogers realized he was on to him. George Rogers decided he needed to kill Vincent Doyle. So, he took an aquarium heater and he made a bomb of it. Sociopaths are brilliant people,” Whitcraft asserts. “There are a lot of smart people who are crazy. So he makes this bomb that’s detonated by the lifting of the lid in an evidence box that’s in Vincent Doyle’s office. Well, it ripped his fingers off, but it didn’t kill him. The bomb wasn’t strong enough. So George Rogers went to prison for the attempted murder of his superior officer.”
After being released from Trenton State Prison on good behavior, Rogers served in World War II before receiving a dishonorable discharge over verbal and physical altercations with other crew members. Later, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment after murdering William Hummel and his daughter Edith. Rogers owed money to Hummel and, instead of paying his loan, chose to bludgeon them to death.
“George Rogers died in Trenton State Prison. I don’t believe in coincidences,” Whitcraft says plainly. “There’s only two inmates who served in Trenton State Prison whose records disappeared from the face of the earth. That’s George Rogers and Bruno Hauptmann, from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. I don’t believe for a moment that’s just an accident, that they just misplaced the files. I believe very strongly to this day that the government did everything in its power to protect George, and one of the reasons I say that is he knew too much.”
Knew too much of what?
Disclosing an International Government Conspiracy?
The horror of the SS Morro Castle is officially an unresolved mystery. Unofficially, there’s credible evidence suggesting more than just arson, a potential government coverup.
There’s admittedly a lot of mystery regarding the events surrounding the Morro Castle: Captain Willmott’s sudden death and the disappearance of his remains; the overturning of acting Captain Warms’ and other crew members’ convictions; the lack of an investigation into Rogers despite overwhelming suspicion of his guilt by the FBI less than a week after the fire, in addition to disregarding his history of criminality, his strange death via brain hemorrhage in prison, and the disappearance of his file.
According to Whitcraft, it’s all a government conspiracy. To start, the SS Morro Castle cost 5.5 million dollars, most of which was put up by the U.S. government.
“The government was using the Morro Castle to transport arms and munitions to Cuba,” Whitcraft explains. “FDR was a supporter of Batista, so he was supplying millions of dollars of munitions to the Cuban government that were shipped by the Morro Castle. Now, of course the government denies this, yet I have plans of the Morro Castle ship that show where these munitions were stored. So why would they show on the plans the storage facilities for guns, for munitions, from New York to Havana, Cuba if they didn’t carry them?”
Fulgencio Batista led a successful coup of Cuba in 1933, which saw him act as the puppet-master of the country until his presidency in 1940. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an admitted supporter of Batista and immediately recognized the regime as legitimate. Despite a proclamation made in 1922 to prevent the sale of arms to Cuba which reinforced FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” of non-intervention, behind closed doors it was the norm for the United States to frequently weigh their hand in various Latin American politics.
“They already spent millions of dollars toward the purchase and construction of this ship. Now they’re sending millions of dollars in munitions to Cuba at a time when the American people were standing in breadlines trying to figure out how to feed their family. So the government had a reason to try to silence the crew.”—Deborah C. Whitcraft, co-author of Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle.
Whitcraft believes that those aware of the government’s delivery of munitions were silenced by pardoning them of any wrongdoing in the disaster. “If you look at the pictures of the crewmen who were indicted and found guilty of a whole host of felony charges—abandonment, failure to hold safety drills, all that stuff—they’re all standing there with smiles. Right after they were indicted and sentenced, FDR overturned all their sentences and they knew that. I really believe they knew they were not going to have to serve any sentences.”
Other believe Rogers was hired by the Ward Line to commit arson for insurance fraud, or was even a government informant, but when floating these ideas by Whitcraft, she considers them to be sinkers. “Rogers was just nuts. Rogers had no dog in this fight. There was no gain in this. But it was such an embarrassment for the U.S. government to put a sociopath with a criminal history record a mile long that they never even checked on—and I fully believe that the government knew that he had committed this arson. It can never be proven today, there’s nobody alive to do it.”
“To this day, there are still records of the Morro Castle that are deemed classified by the government. There is so much they wanted kept away from the American people. It’s like the JFK assassination. I think there’s so much that the American people will never know and will never be disclosed. And I think the people, especially the family of the ill-fated passengers, deserve to know more about what really happened.”—Deborah C. Whitcraft, co-author of Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle.
Today, the SS Morro Castle is long gone, the rusted heap of ashes was hauled away for scrap in March of 1935. In its place is a solemn, tombstone-like monument erected in 2009, cast directly in the shadow of the Asbury Park Convention Center, a stone’s throw from where it first grounded over eight decades ago.
Despite the rabid, macabre publicity and tourism it generated, the ghost ship that once haunted the Jersey Shore stood as a somber mausoleum playing host to the silent majority of the unjustly dead, acting as a great funeral pyre. It is in their sacrifice which holds the greatest legacy of the Morro Castle, as it resulted in the rewriting of safety measures at sea, the importance of drills, and enhanced accountability measures for crew members. “There was something good to come of it,” concluded Whitcraft.
By Kris Levin, contributor for Ripleys.com
Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.