Editor’s note: On September 11, 1934, the S.S. Morro Castle was a blackened hulk resting just off the beach at Asbury Park, three days after coming to a rest there after a horrific fire at sea. The site of numerous deaths, and the subject of various mysteries and conspiracy theories, the Morro Castle drew huge crowds to the boardwalk to gawk at the burned vessel, some of whom were respectful of the deceased, others, not so much. The following story comes to us from award-winning historian Joseph G. Bilby, author of numerous books on regional history including Asbury Park: A Brief History (The History Press, ©2009, available at Amazon and other booksellers).
By Joseph G. Bilby, ©2022
On September 8, 1934, the SS Morro Castle, a cruise ship of the Ward Line bound from Havana to New York, caught fire off the New Jersey coast. The ship’s controls burned out off Sea Girt, where it dropped anchor and chaos ensued as lifeboat launches failed and people jumped into the ocean. Later that day, a Coast Guard cutter began to tow the burned-out vessel north, but the towline snapped near Asbury Park and the Morro Castle drifted into the beach by Convention Hall, where it became a tourist attraction in Mayor Clarence Hetrick’s fiefdom until towed away in March 1935. Enter now two doofuses from Lawn Guy Land, William Scott (pictured above, left), a gardener, and Robert Mentzinger a plumber (right) of Glen Cove, N.Y., who, in a prefiguration of the MTV reality TV series “Jersey Shore,” decided to visit Asbury Park to see the wreck. On arrival, according to their later story, each dared the other to board the shipwreck. They swam to the Morro Castle’s stern and then used the dangling broken tow ropes to climb up onto the deck.
In the days following the crash landing of the Morro Castle, Asbury Park police and fire department personnel had a telephone line strung from Convention Hall to the ship, for communication with personnel who boarded on official business. That did not include Scott and Mentzinger, who were roaming around looking for and picking up souvenirs, including “a pair of handcuffs, a cigarette lighter and several other items, all without value.”
How the dauntless duo was discovered is unclear. One story related that a fireman and two reporters on watch at Convention Hall called the wreck as a joke at 3:00 AM on September 11 and one of them picked up the phone and answered, and “the three had visions of ghosts aboard the liner.” They called in the police and Scott and Mantzinger were arrested. Another version has it that Asbury Park city fireman (thanks to Mayor Clarence Hetrick the city had a professional fire department) Carl Agreen, who was on night duty at Convention Hall, heard the phone ring as one of the trespassers, unaware that Agreen was at Convention Hall, called as a prank. The fireman ordered the two ashore, where they were placed in custody by Asbury Park police officers Thomas Wilson and Lee Napier at 4:40 AM.
Later that day the Long Islanders appeared before Police Magistrate William E. Andrew and were charged with looting the vessel. When neither Ward Line officials or Coast Guard officers appeared to make formal charges, Andrew released Scott and Mentzinger with “a severe reprimand” and went on to say that “any further incidents similar to this would be dealt with severely, probably resulting in a jail term for the next offender.”
About the Author:
Joseph G. Bilby received his BA and MA degrees in history from Seton Hall University and served as lieutenant in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67. He is assistant curator of the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, a columnist for the Civil War News and New Jersey Sportsmen News, and a freelance writer, historian and historical consultant. He is the author, editor or co-author of more than four hundred articles and twenty-two books on New Jersey, the Civil War, and firearms history. Mr. Bilby has received the Jane Clayton Award for contributions to Monmouth County, New Jersey history; an award of merit from the New Jersey Historical Commission for his contributions to the state’s military history; and the New Jersey Meritorious Service Medal from the state’s Division of Military and Veterans Affairs. In 2018, he was awarded the Richard J. Hughes Prize by the New Jersey Historical Commission for his lifelong contributions to New Jersey history.
Youths Who Looted Ill-Fated Liner Released with Reprimand by Court. (1934). Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., September 11, 1934, P. 1.