Just in time (more or less) for the 75th anniversary of the loss of the T.E.L. Morro Castle, what follows is a series of books and links related to the disaster. If anyone would like to see links added, feel free to send them to aslightdelay(at)hotmail.com
Four books take the tragedy as their subject. The first of the lot was Fire at Sea: The Story of the Morro Castle (Rinehart, 1959, reissued by Lyons Press in 2003), by Thomas Gallagher. The book, coming 25 years after the event, was the first attempt at a comprehensive telling of the Morro Castle’s last, fateful voyage. The narrative unfolds at breakneck speed, with narrative flourishes worthy of a mystery novel. On the downside, Gallagher reports as fact numerous rumors and conjectures, some of which were known at the time not to have been true. Gallagher’s book also established the template for the books that followed in taking radioman George Rogers as the unquestioned villain of the disaster, generally to the exclusion of other, equally plausible (if more prosaic) theories.
Nearly fifteen years later, two more books would follow. The first of these was Shipwreck: The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts (Stein and Day, 1972; numerous reissues since, but currently out of print), which expanded on the stories of some of the passengers and crew, but which takes license with some melodramatic, perhaps even lurid, details; it reads as though the authors were aiming for a screen treatment as much as a work of nonfiction. This was followed, in short order, by The Morro Castle (Viking, 1973; out of print), by one-time Daily News reporter Hal Burton. The book breaks no new ground, but is a well-written, concise telling of the story, free of the myths and speculation that mar the earlier books. This is also the only book-length treatment of the story that explores theories other than arson as possible causes for the fire.
Finally, 2006 would see the publication of When the Dancing Stopped, by Brian Hicks (Free Press, currently available in paperback). Despite access to FBI files that had not, up to that point, been available, Hicks likewise does little to shed new light either on the Morro Castle blaze, or even on the unique pathology of George Rogers; Gallagher had, nearly half a century earlier, covered much the same ground–either without access to the FBI files, or having been provided access on the sly. That said, this is a brisk, readable account, one whose strength is exploring the disaster in greater depth in light of its context within the Great Depression, and the state of the United States Merchant Marine.
One book casts only a glance at the Morro Castle disaster, in the form of an essay by maritime expert and author William McFee. The book, The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941 (Simon & Schuster, 1949; out of print), edited by Isobel Leighton, is a treasure trove covering the years from 1919 to 1941, and the players in the Morro Castle drama rub shoulders–figuratively, at least–with the Dionne quintuplets, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, and a host of others. The book is a fun, and informative, read in its own right, but McFee’s essay is noteable for explaining, plausibly and in depth, an alternative to the arson theories that have been the centerpiece of nearly every retelling of the Morro Castle saga.
And, of course, the internet contains a wealth of information–more accurate in some instances than others–on the disaster. While some of it can be repetitive, some resources contain in them nuggets of great value. In no particular order:
Wikipedia entry on the Morro Castle
The Rutgers Oral History archive has this interview with Thomas Torresson Jr.
Wardline.com is likely the single best resource on the web for the Ward Line; it’s worth remembering that the line has a history that stretches long before the line’s misfortunes of the early 20th century, and it does not shirk the line’s later, more problematic history.
Gare Maritime contains an embarrasment of Ward Line-related riches; not only the Morro Castle, but also the Oriente, Havana, Mohawk, and others of the Atlantic, Gulf and West Indies line (AGWI) plus the General Slocum may be found here.
In The Wake of the Morro Castle, by Captain Jeffrey Monroe. This essay, by a descendant of a Morro Castle crewman, argues that the Morro Castle was doomed before she even sailed by a combination of poor design, poor staffing, and the attitudes of the day.
Bjorn Larsson’s page on Morro Castle’s sister ship, Oriente, has some terrific interior shots that give an idea of what both ships–whose design was identical–looked like inside. The rest of the site is a wealth of information on a number of other ships, and shipping lines.
The Asbury Park Press has an online portal to special commemorative coverage of the disaster.
Time Magazine’s archives–now available for free–include several Morro Castle-related articles.
MUSEUMS AND EVENTS:
Pathe newsreel video from 1934, courtesy of YouTube
A newsreel review of the year 1934; it sounds as though the sound has been re-dubbed in some places, by a new voice using the original narration.
Three videos courtesy of the Asbury Park Press:
From 1934, newsreel footage of the beached vessel
Recollections by Thomas Torresson Jr., the last surviving crew member from the Morro Castle, shortly before his death
Recollection by Bob White, a witness to the beached liner