In A Nutshell
In 1934, over 100 people died when the luxury liner SS Morro Castle caught on fire. No one ever discovered who or what started the blaze, but chances are good it had something to do with George White Rogers. The ship’s chief radio engineer, Rogers was an incredibly creepy character linked to several mysterious fires—and two gory murders.
The Whole Bushel
Note: The above photo of the Morro Castle was taken as it burned at sea.
Every week, the SS Morro Castle set sail from New York and made its way across the Atlantic before finally docking in Havana, Cuba. This 155-meter-long (508 ft.), turboelectric vessel was nicknamed the “millionaire’s yacht,” and with its wood-paneled interior, its beautiful ballroom, and old-timey air conditioning, the ship was a wonder to behold. It was also supposed to be one of the safest ships on the seven seas. But we all know things never end well when you shake your fist at fate.
On Friday 7, 1934, the Morro Castle was hit by hurricane-strength winds which tossed the ship back and forth like a bath toy. Making matters even worse, the captain was dead. Not long before the storm hit, Captain Robert Wilmott was found dead in his bathtub. The ship’s doctor thought Wilmott had died of a heart attack, but everyone remembered the captain’s words shortly before his demise. According to Wilmott, there was a radical onboard, a dirty communist planning on murdering the captain.
Of course, if there was any truth to Wilmott’s claims, Chief Officer William Warms didn’t have time to investigate. With Wilmott out of the picture, Warms was now acting captain, and while he wasn’t really prepared to lead, he had to guide the Morro Castle through the gale, all while dealing with a monstrous fire engulfing the ship.
Somehow, the blaze had begun in a locker full of ink, paper, and cleaning supplies. At first, it seemed like the crew would have no problem putting out the flames, but thanks to an incredibly high turnover rate on the Morro Castle, nobody had learned how to properly operate the firefighting equipment. Worse still, no one had emphasized the importance of fire drills, so nobody knew where to go or what to do when the flames spread.
If someone had immediately sent an SOS, perhaps more lives could have been saved. But something strange was happening in the radio room. George White Rogers, the chief radio engineer, refused to send a distress signal without the captain’s permission. Even as his fingers blistered and the radio batteries exploded from the heat, Rogers insisted on following protocol and waiting for a direct order.
Multiple times, George Alanga (Rogers’s assistant) tried asking Acting Captain Warms for permission to call for help, but things were so hectic on the bridge that it took nearly 30 minutes for Warms to recognize Alanga and realize sending a distress signal was probably a good idea. With the captain’s approval, Rogers finally dashed off an SOS, and then the two Georges made their way to the front of the ship to wait for the Coast Guard’s arrival.
By the time the ship was evacuated, 86 passengers and 49 crewmen were dead.
When the world learned about the SS Morro Castle, Chief Radio Engineer Rogers became a celebrity. After all, he’d remained so calm in the face of danger, and when the radio’s generator malfunctioned, he was the man who fixed it on the fly. Every newspaper wanted to tell his story. Everyone wanted to read interviews with the courageous radio operator. In fact, Rogers made a killing on Broadway, regaling crowds with his story of high-sea heroics.
George Alanga, on the other hand, was the immediate suspect. Investigators were sure the man had set the Morro Castle on fire. After all, he’d encouraged his crewmates to strike for better working conditions, and hadn’t Captain Wilmott mentioned a radical onboard with murderous intentions? George Rogers even confirmed that Alanga was the man Wilmott was so worried about, and that he’d discovered his assistant was hiding bomb-making chemicals—chemicals which Rogers tossed overboard. While no one ever proved Alanga was the culprit—and no one ever discovered who or what started the fire—the scandal ruined his name and nearly drove him to suicide.
Of course, if the newspapers had known Rogers’ backstory, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so eager to proclaim the man a hero. Unbeknownst to the press or the Ward Line, Rogers was a rapist and a thief who had poisoned his wife’s dog out of spite.
He might also have been an arsonist. Before getting a job aboard the Morro Castle, Rogers had worked at a New York electric company that mysteriously burned to the ground. And after ending his Broadway tour, Rogers opened his own radio shop in New Jersey, but the struggling business that was shortly reduced to ashes.
Perhaps it was all a crazy coincidence, but Lieutenant Vincent Doyle didn’t think so. After his shop was devoured by flames, Rogers found employment as a radio assistant at the Bayonne, New Jersey Police Department, working underneath Lt. Doyle. According to the police officer, Rogers once spun a rather elaborate story about how someone might have set the Morro Castle on fire. The story involved a specially made pen with two compartments, one for acid and one for explosives. Someone with ill intentions might separate these compartments with a copper plate, with the excitement beginning once the acid ate through the plate.
Suddenly, Doyle suspected his coworker might be a murderer masquerading as a hero, and maybe that’s why a mysterious package arrived at the station one day. When Doyle opened the parcel, he found a broken aquarium heater. This was pretty normal around the Bayonne Police Department. People were always leaving little gizmos for Doyle and Rogers to repair as they were both electrically minded fellows. Doyle decided to plug the heater in and give it a look.
That’s when the gadget exploded; it was packed with TNT. Luckily, the lieutenant survived the blast, but when investigators started searching for a suspect, all the evidence pointed at George White Rogers.
While Rogers was sentenced to 12–20 years, he was released during World War II to fight for his country. Of course, Rogers was so creepy that no one wanted his help. Suddenly a free man with nowhere to go, Rogers started his own business, helping the citizens of Bayonne with electric problems. But his new life as a handyman quickly came to an end. On July 1, 1953, Rogers’s neighbors (George Hummel and his daughter) were found beaten to death with a sledgehammer. As the police investigated the case, they learned Rogers was the last one seen with Mr. Hummel, that he owed his neighbor several thousand dollars, and that his pants were stained with blood.
It didn’t take much to convince the jury that Rogers was guilty, and he was sentenced to life behind bars. The man died in prison in 1954, though sources are unclear on the cause of his death. Perhaps it was a heart attack, perhaps it was a brain hemorrhage. Either way, Rogers left quite a few unanswered questions behind when he shuffled off this mortal coil. Was it just a coincidence that Rogers was onboard the Morro Castle when it caught on fire? Was it just bad luck Captain Wilmott’s body was burned up before a coroner could examine the corpse? We’ll never know for sure.