The 1930s are mostly remembered for the dreary slog of the Great Depression, the end of the national alcohol Prohibition experiment, and the dangerous rise of fascism around the world. But many personal milestones were also marked during the era – some with joy, some with sadness, and some in now-forgotten news headlines.
On September 1, 1934, our parish records show Reverend Toye officiating at the wedding of Joseph A. Drummond (of 3450 “F” Street) and Madeline Claire Finn (of 4618 Chester Ave.) M. Claire’s twin sister Marian was among the witnesses. A few hours later, following a wedding breakfast at the Hotel Normandie (366h and Chestnut), the couple went by train to New York City, to board a fateful honeymoon cruise.
The Morro Castle cruise ship was one of many “party boats” which had originated during the 1920s, to get around the Prohibition laws. The cruises sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba, in two and a half days, spent two days there, then returned. It must have seemed like a perfect honeymoon: exotic travel with a hint of danger; cocktails, dining, and entertainment; ocean, tropics, moonlight, and a touch of luxury – all in one short jewel-like week.
The Drummonds enjoyed the first part of their trip, sending postcards home from Havana saying they were having a “swell time.” Cuba was an interesting place: historians note that “The period from 1933 to 1937 was a time of ‘virtually unremitting social and political warfare’” but the travelers were largely cocooned from the troubles.
A first hint of disturbance came when the ship’s Captain Willmott, who had seemed preoccupied, complained of indigestion after dinner on the last night of the cruise. Shortly afterwards, he died of an apparent heart attack. The evening dance was canceled out of respect. Then, somewhere near the coast of Asbury Park NJ, fire erupted, possibly in two separate places onboard, and the acting captain and his crew discovered that the mechanisms on half of the attractively-decorated lifeboats were clogged with dried paint, and couldn’t be lowered.
Gale force winds whipped up an inferno. The Catholic Standard related a survivor’s terrifying tale: “All the passengers were huddled together near the stern…There must have been 200 or more of us there. Most of them were half crazy with fear…Then…we saw Father Egan. He stood there outlined in flames…He raised his hands…and then he began to pray, while the passengers fell to their knees…Father Egan gave general absolution and then the fire got so close we all had to jump…” The NY priest would be among those rescued, but at least 134 people died, and many others were injured.
The Drummonds gave a short interview from a hospital in NY, recalling that “as the flames crept upon them they jumped hand-in-hand into the water. The impact of the water knocked Drummond unconscious” but he retained a bruising grip on his wife’s wrist. They stayed together, and when a Cuban woman drifted up, crying for her children, “they undertook to hold her above water” for six hours until they became exhausted, and she flailed and drifted away to her death. A lifeboat picked them up an hour later.
Joseph Drummond had puzzled over one odd incident before they sailed from Cuba, when a young black boy tried to board and the captain “seemed very excited. After the boy was searched he was put off the boat.” Disgruntled sailors sometimes tried to supplement poor pay by smuggling goods and stowaways. Passengers were unaware of labor problems making the captain particularly jittery on this trip; the chief radio operator’s police record of theft, terrorist threats, arson, and murder has since come under scrutiny.
A handful of melted rosary beads, later recovered from the Drummond cabin, were the couple’s honeymoon memento, as they settled near the church at 4516 Springfield Ave. — baptizing two children, Joseph Kevin Drummond in July 1935, and Brian “Cresson” Drummond in April 1939 – before disappearing into the mists of parish history.