When the
Dancing Stopped

The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster
and It's Deadly Wake

Prologue

Verdict Imminent
September 24, 1954

After all these years, he could still pack a house.

They loitered on the courthouse lawn, a sea of dark suits, narrow ties and gray fedoras that ebbed and flowed as he was led into the building. The ones who had given up on a seat inside stood on the sidewalk, leaning against pastel-colored cars and smoking Chesterfields as the golden sky faded to a deep autumnal blue. From there, they could at least get the verdict before moving on to their Friday nights.

The crowd grew thicker as he approached the imposing stone building. So many people fought for a position on the steps, straining for a closer look, it was nearly impossible for his huge frame to squeeze through. Jersey City was buzzing and he felt, once again, like a celebrity.

Inside, the Hudson County Courthouse was chaotic, standing room only. They filled the narrow courtroom benches and spilled out into the second-floor lobby, a mass of gawkers silhouetted against the giant murals of angels decorating the rotunda. The roar of their conversations bounced off the marble floors and dark, wood-paneled walls, filling his head like so much radio static. The noise stopped only when the gold elevator doors closed behind him.

George White Rogers knew almost every person he passed in this voyeuristic crowd. Most of them had come up from Bayonne just to hear the verdict. They were bank tellers, businessmen, a large contingent of police officers – many of them witnesses who had testified against him in the past week. They had no reason to be there but couldn’t stay away, lured by the sensational tales in The Bayonne Times. It seemed the newspaper could barely fill its pages without him. The Times reporter had been there every day, gavel to gavel, desperately scribbling down every detail and publishing it on the paper’s front page – titillating headlines alluding to stolen money, messages from the grave and, worst of all, the “Death Hammer.”

How they had turned on him. These were his neighbors, people he had known for years, who had come into his shop seeking help, given him medals, held parades in his honor. Not a trace of that courtesy remained. Now, they wouldn’t greet him when he walked into court, handcuffed to a police officer, a cigarette dangling from his lip. Most of them, in fact, made a point of looking away when he caught their gaze. Only one, the man with the mangled hand, returned his stare.

The significance of the date amused him, although it seemed no one else had noticed. Twenty years earlier – to the day – Rogers had played the Rialto Theater on Times Square. On September 24, 1934, the marquee had screamed his name, followed by the most coveted words on Broadway: Sold Out. The audience loved him, lavished him with standing ovations, angled for autographs. Reporters supplied generous reviews. He had enjoyed the attention, and ticket sales did little to dampen his ego. At $1,000 a week during the Depression, a certain cockiness was unavoidable. For a very brief time, it was safe to say, he had been one of the most famous people in the world.

Twenty years. So much had changed in that time. To anyone who had not seen him since his run on Broadway, Rogers would have been barely recognizable. What was left of his hair had turned gray. Time, or perhaps circumstances, had diminished his paunch ever so slightly. Normally joking at all times, even when it was inappropriate, he was now wooden, stolid. As witnesses made horrible accusations, describing terrible things they believed he had done, Rogers had no reaction. It was as if he didn’t care what people said or thought anymore, which wasn’t entirely true; appearances mattered to him intermittently. He dressed nicely, at least in the courtroom, and still lied about his age.

Rogers had drifted back to better days often during the trial. It was hard not to conjure images of the past as many of the witnesses themselves brought it up. He thought back to the Rialto, how the show had ended after just a couple of weeks. Leave them wanting more, isn’t that what they said? So what if he was playing before an Andy Devine movie, he still got more than his share of attention. His name appeared in the papers almost weekly – there was always something else to be said, a reporter with another question. In those days, people would cross the street to speak, come into his radio shop just to gossip. Preachers heralded him in their sermons. It was all so flattering. Once, his hometown newspaper even declared him a historical figure. They called him a hero.

In 1934, twenty years before he stood trial for double murder, George Rogers won international fame for saving hundreds of lives in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in American history. Off the coast of New Jersey, a luxury liner returning from a Labor Day cruise to Havana caught fire during a tropical storm, just hours after its captain was found dead in his cabin. The ship was incinerated, the passengers tossed into an angry sea. In the chaos of that night, 134 people died.

The tragedy shocked a nation suffering through one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the entire world quickly took notice. Headlines and hearings followed. J. Edgar Hoover involved his Bureau of Investigation. The drama of the public inquiry, broadcast around the nation, was as popular as a serial – listeners picked their favorite heroes and villains and then inundated them with fan letters, hate mail and an unending stream of advice. As more details emerged, the accident grew even more controversial. Many things had gone wrong before and after the fire, and it appeared there was plenty of blame to go around.

Only Rogers had emerged from the smoldering wreckage unscathed. While nearly every other officer on the ship was tainted by scandal, Rogers was hailed for his bravery in the face of crisis, for keeping his calm when his superior officers did not. The country was so desperate for a hero in 1934 that people paid to hear George Rogers recount his last voyage on the most opulent, famous – and tragic – American cruise ship of its time, the Turbo Electric Liner Morro Castle.

Whatever notoriety or celebrity George Rogers could still claim as he stood trial in 1954 dated back to his days aboard the Morro Castle, in fact, most news reports continued to call him the hero of that disaster. The ship had been the most luxurious ocean liner in the coastal trade, a well-known icon on the New York waterfront. Designed by a renowned naval architect and powered by state-of-the-art engines from General Electric, the Morro Castle shuttled wealthy businessmen and middle-class tourists between Manhattan and Havana on a military-precise schedule. The ship was every bit as prestigious as the steamers on the transatlantic route, as handsome as the finest hotels in Manhattan – even the new Waldorf-Astoria. The Ward Line intended its flagship to be both beautiful and functional, and it quickly lived up to its considerable pre-launch hype. On its maiden voyage the Morro Castle broke the speed record between New York and Cuba. In its time, the ship – elegantly appointed, lightning fast – held the promise of nothing less than America’s own Titanic.

The ship’s art deco-inspired profile, seen daily in the classified advertisements of the New York newspapers, attracted its passengers from a variety of social tiers. While the Morro Castle’s largest and best rooms were quietly reserved – and priced – for the wealthy, most of its accommodations were designed for those Americans who had managed to hang on to their jobs at a time when a quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. The Ward Line knew its clientele and catered to them shamelessly. Every week, the haves and have-nots mingled on the Morro Castle’s enclosed promenade deck, dancing and drinking their way through masquerade balls and parties decorated as if every Friday night was New Year’s Eve. In the days before Prohibition ended, the Morro Castle had been little more than a floating speakeasy. One advertising man, without a hint of irony, dubbed her weekly cruises “Escape the Depression” vacations.

It was easy to forget about poverty as they flitted about the ship’s ostentatious formal rooms decorated in the Louis XVI, Empire and Italian Renaissance styles. The ship reeked of affected taste, an ancestor of the mammoth cruisers that would rule the water by the end of the 20th century. But beneath its shiny veneer, the Morro Castle was a troubled ship. Rogers had smelled that trouble from the moment he first walked aboard. It was a scent he knew well.

The Morro Castle struggled with labor problems and allegations that her crew smuggled guns, rum and illegal immigrants. Sailors complained of low wages, poor food and abysmal working conditions, and their efforts to organize a union fueled rumors that Communist sympathizers were onboard. By the time Rogers joined the crew in the summer of 1934, the Morro Castle’s captain was constantly on guard for mutineers and saboteurs. The Labor Day cruise seemed to validate all of those fears. In a few short hours, Rogers watched as death, fire and nature conspired to doom what the marine journals ominously had once hailed as “the safest ship of her size” ever built. Fire spread through the ship in minutes, destroyed lifeboats and cut off escape routes. That anyone aboard survived September 8, 1934 was nothing short of a miracle.

The incident caught the attention of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who insisted on sweeping changes in maritime law. The Bureau of Investigation, urged on by its zealous director J. Edgar Hoover, tried to prove a Communist plot, and then turned its agents on the crew. The fallout ruined the careers of most of the Morro Castle’s officers. After an onslaught of hearings, trials and an inquisition by federal agents, some of the men tried to run from their past; others simply gave up sailing. The courts doomed the careers of a few, another attempted suicide. Only Rogers had been acquitted. The judges declared that on the night the Morro Castle was lost, he alone did his duty. Although more than 100 people died within a few hours, hundreds more would have perished if not for the actions of George White Rogers. The Bayonne Times at the time said Rogers’s name would be recorded for history in “the thrilling saga of the sea which bears the names of those who put their own welfare last when danger threatened.”

So long ago. Those words had been forgotten by everyone but him. For the two weeks that his trial had unfolded, George Rogers had not seen that quote among any of the thousands of words The Times devoted to his case every day. The paper rarely failed to reprint a later quote, however – the one in which Rogers was accused of having “the mind of a fiend.”

The evidence they had was proof of nothing, really.

Prosecutors had hauled out a bloody hammer, a ragged pair of pants, a scattering of receipts and some $100 bills. Their case relied on the word of bank tellers and a television repairman. With this scant bit of evidence, the state of New Jersey had charged Rogers with two counts of murder. The victims – an old man and his spinster daughter – had been his neighbors, his “dear friends.” But when they turned up dead he was arrested the very next day. It was so preposterous, Rogers said, that he would not even put up a defense. Through his attorney, Rogers said all the things the accused are supposed to say: that he put his faith in God and that justice would prevail. He would never hurt anyone, least of all his friends.

The man with the mangled hand had been his friend once. They had worked alongside one another, socialized on the weekends, even rode to the office together all those years ago. But over the course of nearly two decades, the man had grown obsessed with Rogers. He was determined to prove that the radio man held a terrible secret, one that went back even farther than the Morro Castle. The chase was mostly in the man’s mind; Rogers seemed to not run from anything. In fact, the two saw each other often – it was unavoidable in a town as small as Bayonne. Still, the man didn’t consider their encounters to be chance. It appeared that Rogers was taunting him, driving by in his old red pick-up, his arm hanging out the window. Sometimes the man even thought Rogers waved.

The man kept notebooks on Rogers, interviewed people who had known him before, searched for evidence of a criminal record in other towns. In nearly twenty years he had compiled notebooks full, like a detective would. He had tried to get the department interested in his case several times, but no one would listen. They accepted his information politely and did nothing. They assumed the man held a grudge for things that could not be undone. They were right, but the man knew that did not make him wrong. He knew George White Rogers was no hero.

The man sat through the entire trial anxious, waiting to hear something – he wasn’t sure what. Perhaps a fact that would relate to all that he had collected. If anyone had taken notice of him, the man might have seemed even nervous. But in truth, his only fear was that, once again, Rogers might get away with it.

At 6:45 p.m., word came that a verdict had been reached. The crowd from the hallway flooded the courtroom and stood along the back wall. They leaned forward, struggling to hear with almost cartoonish exaggeration. The scene reminded Rogers of a photograph he’d seen from the Leopold and Loeb murder trial, when the famous attorney Clarence Darrow defended two young men who had confessed to killing another teenager. Rogers was fascinated by the case and collected every story he could find about the two boys. The radioman also thought of the McCarthy hearings underway in Washington. The country had turned on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his Red-baiting tactics, just as Rogers felt his own community had turned on him.

It was not a good sign that the jury had finished so quickly. Rogers held some small hope that the jurors had been swayed by his unwillingness to put up a defense, a move designed to cast doubt – or show complete disdain – for the prosecution’s case. The judge had helped his cause somewhat, noting that Rogers had pleaded not guilty and was not required to take the stand. Maybe the jury would see it his way. Rogers had any number of reasons to not submit to cross-examination, and it was a decision he did not regret. He felt he had testified enough in his life. In the aftermath of the Morro Castle disaster he spent countless hours before committees in license revocation hearings and congressional inquiries. He had even faced the brother of J. Edgar Hoover before a national audience. This trial reminded him of those days – sitting at a heavy wooden table in front of a large crowd, reporters recording his every word. Thinking about it only reminded him again how dramatically his fortunes had changed. In those days, he never sat at the defense table.

Two minutes before sunset, at 6:50 p.m., County Judge Paul J. Duffy welcomed the jury back into the courtroom. As the jurors filed in – weary, somber looks on their faces – Rogers showed the only twinge of emotion he had displayed in two weeks. He wiped a dab of sweat from his pasty brow. If it revealed anything, it was too late to matter.

After a moment of silence, save for the shuffling of people in their seats, Duffy spoke. He had no flare for drama; or if he had, two weeks of listening to this case had extinguished it. He did not even address the jurors formally. He simply asked, “Have you reached a verdict?”

A matronly but well-dressed woman named Mrs. Iff stood up in response. She had been selected the jury’s foreman and it was her job to inform the court of the decision. The room grew quiet, but still the audience strained to hear her soft voice.

“Yes, we have,” she said, looking first toward the defense table where Rogers sat and then toward the crowd.

As if for effect, Mrs. Iff paused.

 
Morro Castle

The Morro Castle at sea

Morro life Boat

A lifeboat with survivors from the Morro Castle fire

Morro Castle deck

Rescue workers examining the aft deck of the ship after the disaster. The clothing was shed by passengers just before they jumped into the sea.