Morro Castle / Mohawk Article

Jim Kalafus

Dec 3, 2000
I don't know- but given the grand finale of the Queen Elizabeth a generation later, I'd venture a guess that any design changes in either QM or QE, brought about by the Morro Castle disaster, were superficial. Her direct legacy was the stringent emphasis on 'fireproof' aboard the United States.

Pen and Ink I did during my hiatus from writing, ca 1998. But, I digress....

The ammonia was one of several "hazards" presented by the Morro Castle after she came to rest. The hazard best remembered is the hundreds of untanned cow hides in the hold- they did not burn, and soon the Morro Castle began to give off a stench that all but ruined the late fall tourist business.

Here is one to ponder- the FBI,of course, investigated the disaster. What is less well known is the fact that the Ward Line had spies monitoring the FBI while they were aboard the ship and reporting back to company headquarters, via notarized letters, about where the FBI was searching and what they were removing from the wreck. What exactly did the Ward Line fear the FBI would stumble across, and more important, did they? (Foreshadowing of future article?

Another less known fact ~ The Morro Castle and Oriente were key players in the smuggling of wealthy, illegal, European Jews into the U.S. They used a very sophisticated set-up, nearly foolproof. Mr. and Mrs. X would travel from, say, Berlin, to Havana. Money (a nice sum) would be deposited by them, in their name, in a Havana bank. Crew members would get them aboard the ship where they would, essentially, hide out in the open. There had to have been MUCH collusion on a high level aboard the ship to make this work. Since no money changed hands until the wealthy Europeans were safely ashore in NYC, it was in the crew's vested interest to make sure that they arrived unmolested. Once ashore, the bank in Havana would be "wired" and the funds released to the runner who arranged the deal.

The weekend/midweek schedule of departure (Morro Castle left NYC every Saturday, Oriente every Tuesday or Wednesday) made the ships popular among girls who..ahem...were in trouble and needed to have it "fixed" in Havana. Not legal there, but one could arrange to get "fixed" in a hospital for a fair sum of money that seemed a bargain compared to taking one's chances in the US. For a minimal fee, one could sail down on the Morro Castle, take the Ward Line up on their "extend your vacation by three days" deal, and depart for home, no longer pregnant, aboard her sister ship. (BTW- the first homicide of 1933, in NYC, took place one minute after midnight Dec 31/ Jan 1, when a housewife from Queens died of a septic abortion in a hospital in Harlem. The knitting-needle wielding abortionist, a woman, was nearly 80 and BLIND! Released in custody of her daughter. Ahh...the Good Old Days.)

The final voyage of the Morro Castle was fairly on the level. The majority of the passengers were either "20-something" Jewish honeymoon couples from NYC and Philadelphia returning home to their families in time for Rosh Hashanah, or upper middle aged German-Americans. Very little scandalous was revealed after the fire which, by Morro Castle standards, is a big surprise.

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