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The Strange Mystery of the SS Morro Castle

Back in the 1930s, the 508-foot American ocean liner SS Morro Castle was the epitome of luxury on the high seas. Between 1930 and 1934, the SS Morro Castle acted as a high-class passenger liner between Cuba and New York City, attracting a steady clientele even during the Great Depression, due to the fact that its wealthy passengers could legally avoid the Prohibition at the time, gambling and drinking alcohol on a nonstop party all the way to Cuba and back. The ship had a clean service record, offered high-end luxury accommodations, was fast, being able to make the trip in under 58 hours, and was a steady draw for American and Cuban businessmen and tourists of all ages alike. Yet all this was about to change, and the opulent SS Morro Castle was going to become a great maritime mystery.

On September 8, 1934, the SS Morro Castle departed on schedule from Havana, Cuba on its way back to its home port in New York. It was mostly a routine voyage, although the regular captain, Captain Robert Wilmott, had suddenly died the night before to be replaced by Chief Officer William Warms. Nevertheless, the departure went without a hitch, with no way anyone could have predicted the tragic sequence events that was about to unfold. It began with stormy weather and a brisk northeastern wind, followed by a fire that inexplicably broke out in in a storage locker on B Deck. The blaze was fueled by the strong winds, soon spreading out of control to knock out power on the whole ship. With the ship plunged into darkness and the smoke and fire engulfing everything in its path there was complete panic and chaos on board. The Coast Guard moved in for a rescue operation, but the winds and large ocean swells made progress slow, only compounded by the fact that Warms was highly underqualified to be captain, and so made the mistake of continuing the ship’s course into the gale-force winds rather than turning back towards shore, and furthermore it would turn out that he had not sent a distress call until a full 38 minutes after the fire had broken out.

SS Morro Castle

Making things even worse was that the crew of the vessel in general was composed of inexperienced people merely desperate for work during the Depression, and some of which had never even been on a ship before. Safety precautions were also a joke, with fire doors surrounded by wooden frames, alarm wires disabled, and fire hoses that had been turned off to keep passengers from tripping on them or slipping on water from them, and there was the fact that the lifeboats had been so heavily coated in paint that they were difficult to remove. Mandatory fire drills had never been carried out, nobody seems to have been trained in how to use the life jackets either, and it would turn out that the whole ship was a veritable fire trap, with heavy use of ornate wooden interiors, lacquered wooden furniture, and decks painted with highly flammable paint, which only made it all worse. Historian Deborah C. Whitcraft, co-author of Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle has said of all of this:

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. there were so many things that happened here that defy any explanation. It’s like a comedy of errors. There were so many things done wrong here. You just can’t make this stuff up.

The inferno raged on. When all was said and done, the bodies of over 137 passengers and crew out of 549, possibly more if you account for any stowaways, were strewn about bobbing around in the sea everywhere, the ship was a total loss, and the charred husk of the vessel ran aground in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey, to loom there just offshore like the remains of some ancient deep sea leviathan. The sight of this massive ship just sitting out there aground right off shore caused a lot of excitement at the time, with people flocking from all over to get a look and take photos. Before long there were even souvenir shops and food stalls set up, the whole thing like a carnival sideshow or county fair. The water was so shallow that some people even waded out to the hulking ship to reach out and touch it, and further off shore sightseeing cruises set up especially for this purpose went by full of gawking curiosity seekers. Eventually the ship was towed away and scrapped. Whitcraft say of all of this:

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.

In the meantime, an investigation was being carried out to find out just exactly what had happened aboard the doomed ocean liner, with some oddities along the way to suggest that all of this had not been a simple accident. One was the death of the original captain, Robert Wilmott. It seemed strange that he just happened to have dropped dead from a heart attack on the night before the voyage, especially since he had been in top physical condition and had never had any heart issues in his history. Making it even more suspicious was that, although his body was meant to end up in New York to be tested for any foreign substances such as alcohol or poison, it never did arrive, and in fact was lost somewhere along the way to never be seen again. How could this happen? It seemed as if there were perhaps nefarious dealings going on, and as this avenue was pursued investigators began to look at one of the crew, Chief Radio Operator George White Rogers.

At the time Rogers was actually being hailed as a hero. Not only had it been him to realize what was going on and finally send a distress signal on his own, but he was also credited with saving the lives of several people aboard. At first glance, he seemed to be the good guy, but for investigators there were cracks beginning to appear in his heroic façade. For one, Rogers was one of the last known people to have seen Wilmott alive. That hardly proves that he poisoned the captain or engaged in any foul play, but it got more interesting when a background check on him was done to find that he had quite the criminal history, which had slipped by the ocean liner company because they had never checked on it. It turned out that Rogers had once been arrested for making terrorist threats as a disgruntled employee at his former company, and most intriguing of all, he had been arrested in the past for arson. Also a sort of red flag was that a failing radio shop he had opened in the aftermath of the disaster would also burn down to leave him with insurance money. This was all rather quite suspicious, as investigators were also trying to figure out what had caused the fire in the first place, and one word that had been thrown around quite a bit was arson.

The beached SS Morro Castle

The idea was that Rogers had perhaps poisoned Wilmott and then started the fire on the ship for reasons unknown, but investigators could find no motive and no hard evidence for it, so he was never arrested in connection with the death of Wilmott or the disaster. However, curiously he would be later arrested when, after hilariously getting a job as a police officer, he allegedly attempted to murder his superior officer by crafting a bomb out of an aquarium, of all things. According to Whitcraft, this was because he likely felt that the police were closing in on him. She says:

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? 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. 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.

Whether him wanting to kill Doyle because of the fire was really the case or not, he went to prison for the attempted murder, be released to serve in World War II, and unbelievably go back to prison for life for murdering two neighbors. Eerily, when he died suddenly of mysterious causes just three years into his life sentence at Trenton State Prison it seems his prison records vanished of the face of the earth. As all of this was going on, Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott, and Ward Line vice-president Henry Cabaud had all been arrested on charges of criminal negligence leading to the high death toll. They would be convicted and sent to jail, but later all be suddenly acquitted and the blame came to mostly fall on the shoulders of Wilmott, who was too dead to put up much fight. A lot of people think this, plus the death of Rogers and disappearance of his records, are suspicious and indicative of some sort of dark conspiracy involving the government, the ocean liner company, foreign powers, or all of the above.

One idea is that a deal had been struck between the United States and Cuba to use the SS Morro Castle to secretly transport arms and munitions to Cuba, and those who knew about it were pardoned or acquitted of any wrongdoing in the wake of the disaster to keep them quiet about it. What part did Rogers have to play in all of this? No one knows, but another conspiracy theory is that he had been hired by the cruise line itself to start the fire as a part of an insurance fraud scam or had even been a government informant or spy. Too bad he died suddenly in prison while doing time for a different crime, otherwise he would have been able to talk. Convenient. Was he perhaps silenced in a different way by his handlers after he was unexpectedly jailed for life for murder? Who knows, but it is easy to see why it all stinks of some sort of conspiracy, and Whitfield has said:

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.

Why would they want to hide all of this? Considering that much of the information remains classified and all of the people who were actually there are dead, there is a very good chance that we will never know what happened aboard the SS Morro Castle. Was this all a planned incident, with the death of the original captain and the fire all connected in some sort of vast conspiracy? If so, who carried it out and why? Or was this all just a series of coincidences and unfortunate accidents that came together to create this concoction of a great maritime mystery and historical oddity? The cause of the fire is still officially unsolved, no one has ever been truly held accountable, and it will likely forever remain a strange mystery of the sea.