Crash of the Century
At the unassuming corner of Flatbush and Ocean Avenues, where the greenery of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden abuts a Wendy’s in a drab stretch of Crown Heights, if you look over a low stone wall and through the chain link and trees, you can see a curve of train track making a sharp jog into a tunnel.
If you had been standing on this spot in the crisp night air, just after seven p.m. on November 1, 1918, you would have been part of a large, anxious crowd. And had you been able to push to the front, you would have witnessed a single man exiting the tunnel alone. He was a businessman who lived in Brooklyn, along the Brighton Beach train line. It was a Friday night, and he had been traveling home for a weekend of rest. His mind had likely been occupied not only with his work but also the impending peace in Europe—an imminent end to the carnage of World War I was beginning to brighten the newspaper headlines.
But that night he emerged “almost divested of clothing,” wrote The New York Times. Staggering forward nearly naked, “his coat and trousers...ripped from him; he had only one shoe, and was without hat, collar, and tie.” As he stumbled closer, you would see that he was gravely hurt, that “his face was bleeding from many gashes and his left arm was useless,” dangling from his shoulder. With the rest of the crowd, you would have parted and let him pass into an ambulance from the Kings County Hospital. He would not be the first person or body to emerge from the Malbone tunnel that night.
The 1918 subway wreck violently ended the lives of over a hundred people, halted a transit labor strike, changed a young mayor's career, and pushed one of New York's last private transit companies into bankruptcy. It was so devastating that the name Malbone, after that night, could no longer be stomached in Brooklyn–the signs for Malbone Street were torn down and replaced with signs reading “Empire Boulevard.”
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The New York City transit system was created in fitful spurts, combining existing systems as it extended its reach ever further out into the greater metro area. It can be easy to forget that, in many cases, these train lines were once independent and privately run, operated in the interest of profit, rather than as a public service. In Brooklyn, where Malbone Street once ran, the main player by the turn of the century was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), which had consolidated smaller rapid transit and streetcar services under one umbrella and created a network of trolleys and elevated trains. From the date of its incorporation on January 18, 1896, the company ran trains in Brooklyn and Queens, maintaining many disparate lines and services. It was once so prominent that its New York Stock Exchange symbol was merely the single letter “B.”
But private rail was not long for New York. By 1918, the BRT was struggling, largely due to a consolidation of train services known as the Dual Contract. One of its stipulations was that passengers be given free transfers at all intersections, even between different rail companies, and guaranteed a five-cent fare on any part of the system. Any surplus revenue would go to the city. This was a victory for riders, but it hurt the train companies. It meant that passengers were traveling further on each ride, but the fare had to remain the same.
By the summer of 1918, the BRT was up against a wall. To add to its woes, labor began flexing its muscle. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had purportedly been enlisting BRT members for two years, and by July 1918 the union was threatening a strike to protest the firing of fifteen men for wearing union pins. They also charged that the newly unionized workers had been victims of violence and intimidation. During negotiations, the union said that “the company has money enough to dog and trail the footsteps of these...men. They have been followed and their houses surrounded by thugs and hirelings in the employ of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company.”
The strike threat was almost realized multiple times in the summer of 1918. The union voted unanimously for one in August, but a last-minute mediation by a prominent member of the National War Labor Board averted it. Negotiations continued, but the BRT repeatedly brushed off the labor interests, dismissing their threat as a “bluff.” Finally, the union demanded that twenty-nine men be reinstated or a strike would go forward on November 1, 1918. Powerful men with stakes in either the company or the union called on Mayor John F. Hylan to take action and halt the walk-out.
Mayor Hylan’s ability to talk convincingly with labor came as no surprise. A populist, Hylan was elected in 1917 at the age of thirty-four, one of the youngest mayors in New York's history. He was known as “Red Mike,” a reference to his fiery rhetoric and his bright red hair and mustache. He rose to prominence as a judge in Bushwick, amending the state constitution to create an office for himself as a Brooklyn judge. After Tammany Hall and business tycoon William Randolph Hearst anointed him, he won the mayoralty on a platform of municipally run utilities.
Hylan was constantly dogged by accusations that he was just a dumb puppet of Hearst’s, “all of his speeches in words of one syllable.” Indeed, his campaign benefited greatly from Hearst's money and by advocacy from the Hearst media empire. He returned the good favor once in office, appointing Mrs. Millicent Hearst as the head of the Women's Committee of the Mayor's Committee on National Defense and to the Mayor's Committee to Rebuild French Cities. He also gave the father of Hearst's girlfriend, Marion Davies, a well-paying job as a city magistrate. And, to the delight of his detractors, the mayor was often running off to Hearst's Palm Beach Estate and was even once embarrassed by the Daily News, which published a photograph of the mayor and the media mogul dressed as cowboys together at a dude ranch.
Hylan's support from Hearst was contradictory to his oft-professed hatred of the prominence of business interests in politics. Hylan railed against “the real menace of our Republic...the little coterie of powerful international bankers [which] virtually run the United States government for their own selfish purposes.” This mistrust extended to transit; he felt the BRT underserved his constituents and that its contract with the city unduly favored the private company.
Beyond being an advocate of labor, Hylan was himself a member of the local train operators' union, having worked while in law school for the Brooklyn Union Elevated Railroad, one of the companies absorbed by the BRT in 1896. Eerily foreshadowing the Malbone wreck, Hylan was fired from the railroad after taking a curve too fast on a steam-powered elevated train, almost hitting someone. Hylan protested the accusation, maintaining his innocence until his death.
As Mayor, though, Hylan had an obligation to try to keep the trains running, and appealed to BRT President Timothy S. Williams on the night before the 1918 strike. He wrote the following, which was then quoted in The New York Times:
“I regard this as a serious situation and one of such public importance that it should be brought to your personal attention....I wish to vigorously protest against the action of your company in disregarding the decree of the Federal authorities.”
But neither the Mayor nor intervention from labor negotiators at the federal level could budge the BRT and its President Williams. Knowing that Hylan did not hold his company in high regard and had close personal ties with the rail union, Williams pressured Hylan: “You, I believe, are still a member of that organization and I have no doubt that...you will advise them not to be so foolish as to call a strike.”
It was for naught, however, and the strike went forward with the union calling on all departments of the BRT to side with labor “for the purpose of paralyzing it in every part of its service.”
Nowadays, the train system shuts down in the event of such a strike, but at the time the BRT ran with what they had, no doubt motivated in part by spite against their union opponents. To keep the system running, the decision was made to quickly train and press office workers into jobs above their skill level.
Edward Luciano was the unluckiest of these improvising motormen. The twenty-three-year-old was described in The Sun as a “tall, dark, smooth shaven, intelligent looking young man with a pronounced Roman nose,” who worked as a dispatcher for the BRT on its Culver line to Coney Island. Luciano had only ever moved trains in the yard—“non-revenue” cars without passengers. He received only two hasty hours of motorman training, far less than the several days normally required.
Later, at Luciano's trial, Joseph B. McCann, who had been a motorman and instructor for seven years, was asked about his instruction of the young employee:
“Did you give any final instruction to Luciano?” asked the District Attorney.
“Did you certify Luciano as a competent motorman?”
“I did not.”
“I had no instructions to do so.”
Luciano nonetheless took control of the train, having been promised a $20 bonus and a raise when the strike ended. On November 1, after working a full shift in his position as a dispatcher on the Culver Line and overhearing a discussion of the shortage of motormen, he reportedly volunteered himself, interjecting “I'll take a train out.”
Luciano was in no condition to be working. In addition to already having worked a full day, he was in a weakened physical and mental state, having just recovered from a bout of influenza, and having just lost a child to the same disease. At the trial, where Luciano “sat mostly with his eyes on the floor,” he said that he was "dazed that night and have been dizzy ever since, even at home. I don't know what I am saying sometimes.”
Asked why he took a job for which he knew he was unfit, Luciano replied wearily: "A man has to earn a living."
The train was bound for Brighton Beach along a route Luciano was so uninformed about that he later could not recall the names of the station stops. The crowded rush hour train left Manhattan ten minutes behind schedule, in the dark of night around six p.m. The cars were crammed with people, many standing in the aisles. Across the Brooklyn Bridge, Luciano overshot many of the stations in downtown Brooklyn, stopping too late and having to back the train up so the doors would open next to the platform. Luciano later said that his speed was only to make up for lost time, but it was also speculated and seems likely that Luciano couldn't effectively operate the train's brakes. These trains, then as now, use compressed air brakes; a motorman slows his vehicle by reducing air pressure, which moderates the resistance on the brake shoes, moving them into contact with the wheels. The speed and weight of a row of train cars means that these air brakes often need hundreds of feet to bring a train to a complete stop. Timing the braking in order to stop at a specific point is an art form that takes much practice to master.
As a novice, Luciano could not be expected to have had a sense for how his train would respond. A nineteen-year-old passenger named Joseph Doyle later testified that “everybody was thrown forward and sideways” from the abrupt braking of the train.
At the Franklin Avenue and Fulton Street stop, the train moved onto the wrong track. Walter H. Simonson was a passenger in the train's third car and was quoted at length in the Times:
“Where the tracks curve away from the Fulton Street tracks, and which the train should have followed, the motorman, instead continued upon the Fulton line for a block or more.”
Luciano had failed to light the two white markers which indicate to the tower-man, Peter Gorman, that the approaching train was Brighton Beach bound. It was too dark to read the train's sign, so Gorman assumed and put the train on the Fulton track. Gorman testified that Luciano didn't back his train up to correct but rather “he changed ends.” That is, he walked the length of the train to the engine on the other end, drove the train the other way until it had passed the split, walked back, and continued on.
At this stop, some people got off the train “because they were so scared.” The jerky braking, the missed route, and the excessive speed was too much. Simonson said that the speed, especially “at the curve at the Franklin Avenue Station, [was] so much so that many of the passengers showed nervousness." The young rider Doyle said that he had “never rode that fast on a Brighton Beach train before.” Luciano seemed out of control, and at the next stop, Park Place, the train ran a full car length past where it was supposed to stop.
The train continued on at its deadly speed, blowing through the Consumers' Park (now Prospect Park) station. George Nordstrom, a passenger, testified that “Consumers' Park station was only a flash of light...I said to my friend, 'We are going to hit that wall sure!...and I had no sooner said it than we did.'”
At Malbone Street, Luciano flew into what would become known as Dead Man's Curve. The curve was supposed to be taken at no more than a few miles per hour, but Luciano estimated he was traveling at thirty mph. A naval officer on board the train said he thought they were hurtling as fast as seventy.
“Before I knew it, the train was in the tunnel,” said Luciano.
The first passenger car jumped off of the tracks a few feet before the tunnel entrance and slammed into a partition dividing the two sections of rail. It crashed down perpendicular to the rest of the train behind it. The rest of the train rumbled on and smashed into it. The first car was completely split in half and the rest of the train cars plowed over it and its passengers, coming to a rest two hundred feet beyond it. No one is believed to have walked away from this first car; remains of riders and the wood and steel of the car were strewn all along the sides of the rails. This terrific impact was heard from as far as a mile away.
After the collision with the first car, the second and third cars also slid off the rails and, “bumping along the ties,” scraped against the tunnel's support pillars, which sheared the left sides of these two cars clear off and mauled those inside. Many passengers were propelled out of the cars and met their deaths colliding with the steel pillars. Others were crushed between the train and the concrete wall of the tunnel, or ended up tumbling under the wheels. The cars violently broke apart around them. Many riders were impaled upon the broken seats or framing of the car; some were pierced by metal shrapnel that speared up through the floor.
The entire train lurched to a halt on its side, becoming a grim pile of the dead and dying. Small fires broke out. The rear two cars were spared the carnage, “although nearly every one (sic) was cut by glass or bruised when thrown from his seat.”
As the darkness of the tunnel set in, all around the sounds of “shouting and screaming and broken glass” could be heard. The survivors who weren't too broken to walk picked their way out into the moonlight. The Times reported the next day that they were unable to rescue anyone up-track of them, as the train was so gnarled and the wreckage packed “so tightly…that no crevice or opening was left.” Those in the front cars were trapped on the other side of the twisted train, “jammed until they were smothered against wounded or fainting passengers.”
Although people nearby began to help those stumbling out, it took almost forty-five minutes for a formal rescue to be organized by the police and fire departments. Despite the phone service crashing, word spread throughout Brooklyn and a large crowd was on hand to witness the first survivors exit the wreckage. The train line was obviously snarled; those trying to get home were delayed hours by the total halt in traffic on the Brighton Beach line, and those waiting for them at home assumed the worst. Hundreds and hundreds were added to a list of the missing.
The crowd was so large that aid workers had a hard time reaching the tunnel. Reserves were called in from all over the city; nurses, doctors, and ambulances from every hospital in Brooklyn eventually arrived to help. Bodies were borne out of the tunnel, many lifted by rope and slings of burlap to street level. Surgeons ministered to the hurt at a makeshift triage station set up at nearby Ebbets Field. The morgue was overburdened by the flu epidemic and had to use a nearby laundry room for the macabre overflow. Priests entered the tunnel to deliver last rites to the dead, who still lay crumpled amidst the train wreckage.
The next day the Times reported that eighty-five bodies had been pulled from the wreckage and at least a hundred people were injured. In the coming weeks, the wreck would claim the lives of 102 men, women and children, “an overwhelming majority [of the deaths]...caused by massive skull injuries,” wrote Brian Cudahy in The Malbone Street Wreck.
Luciano, who was in the locomotive at the front of the train, walked away from the crash. No doubt out of fear and confusion, he fled for his house. He didn't know how he got home but had “an indistinct recollection of having boarded a trolley car.” He was arrested just before one a.m. at his home on 33rd Street in Brooklyn. He was “very nervous and seemed to be on the verge of a collapse.” He was brought in that night for questioning by the mayor, the district attorney and the police commissioner.
Mayor Hylan also visited the wreckage that night. His first remark, quoted in the next day's Times was: “Wooden cars...I believe this is the result of employing an inexperienced motorman and the use of all wooden cars. I shall make an investigation tomorrow and see if the B.R.T. cannot be compelled to stop using 'green' motormen.” The use of old wooden cars was a common complaint against the BRT. Hylan took immediate action:
"I have ordered Police Commissioner Enright to station policemen at every terminal and car-barn from which trains leave, with instructions not to permit any green motormen to take out a train. No man will be permitted to run a train, unless he has had at least three months experience."
When the dust had settled in the coming days, there was a public demand for justice. Mayor Hylan was intimately involved at every step of the way, his populist rage manifesting in him playing “hanging judge” against the BRT; he decided to personally sit as judge for the case, citing a little-known provision of the city charter.
Mayor Hylan and Lewis began to formulate a case the very night of the crash. Twenty-six days later, Lewis announced, “I believe the evidence criminally involves someone high up in the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. Who I will not say.” Soon, charges of criminal negligence were brought against the president, vice president and chief engineer of the BRT, and the chief engineer and the superintendent of the Southern Division, the rail subsidiary of the BRT responsible for the Brighton line. Luciano was also brought to trial, but the case against officials of the BRT quickly became more prominent, becoming a showcase of all the various interests and agendas involved.
The BRT wasn't the only target, though. The Mayor traded barbs with the Public Service Commissioner, whom Hylan implicated in negligence. The Public Service Commission (PSC) had been created in 1906 and was a group of men who provided oversight for the services and finances of public works: gas, electric, railroads, etc. The Mayor started the fight with this institution in a 1,300-word tirade railing against the BRT and the PSC alike. In retaliation, the Commissioner published letters the Mayor had sent to the BRT when he was still a judge, in which Hylan asked for jobs for his friends, implying a close connection to the company.
The Commissioner also implicated the Mayor in what many (including the Mayor himself) saw as a primary reason why the crash was so deadly: the use of old wooden cars. The survivor Simsonon speculated that if “the cars been of steel construction instead of wood such an accident could not have had such disastrous results." The train that Luciano had taken out was composed of five wooden cars from 1887. The BRT was under pressure to remove these older cars, described as “ancient” and “firetraps.” The Public Service Commissioner wrote that the Mayor “has opposed or failed to act upon plans that would have allowed steel cars to take the place of wooden cars.” Ultimately formal charges were never brought against the Public Service Commission or the Mayor, but it didn't stop either from flinging accusations.
The trial became messy and sensational. Eventually, all the accused were acquitted or had their charges dropped. Luciano was let off, clearly upset and shaken; a New York Times headline on April 4, 1919 read: “Motorman Weeps at Trial.” He was aided by his lawyer’s “sympathetic appeal,” playing on the popular anger at the train company, asking the judge “not to cast the sins of the BRT” on his client, whom he alluded to frequently as “that boy.”
Superintendent Blewitt of the Southern Division was seen to be particularly at fault, as the decision to send out Luciano as a motorman had ultimately fallen to him. D.A. Lewis charged that he was more concerned with keeping the BRT moving than with safety, saying that, “human life meant nothing to him.” Despite this vitriol, Blewitt too was acquitted, along with the chief engineer, as he was able to prove that the fatal curve was safely navigated at speeds up to thirty MPH, exonerating his engineering.
Perhaps the largest contributing factor to the crash was the fact that Luciano was pressed into operating trains because of the union strike. Mayor Hylan was also blamed for this; he was seen as having done too little to avert the strike in the first place. Firing back, the Mayor wrote that he had done all he could and had even passed the matter to the federal War Labor Board.
The union and BRT negotiations took on new weight after the Malbone Street wreck. An organizer with the American Federation of Labor wrote:
“Any suspension of work on the part of these employees will make the operation of trains very hazardous and fraught with danger. The riding public of Brooklyn will view this new phase of the strike with anxiety because of the calamitous results in operating trains with inexperienced men.”
The negotiations would go on for years, finally ending in 1920 when the BRT agreed to a majority of the union's demands, but not before there were bomb threats, dynamite placed at a Fulton Street stop, and an incident in which BRT men stoned two trains in a strike demonstration, leading to the death of a seventeen-year-old and putting a motorman into a coma.
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The most lasting legacy of the Malbone Wreck is the changes it brought to safety systems. There were many mistakes of human error, but the train companies took the tragedy as a moment to examine and improve their safety technology. Most importantly, time signals that ensure trains are traveling at appropriate speeds were implemented at all places requiring a speed decrease, such as the one near Prospect Park that Luciano had not known about.
Another prominent safety feature is the dead man's switch, which stops the train when the motorman takes his hand or foot off the controls, either voluntarily or not. There are three instances when this function has stopped an accident: On an August morning in 1927, a train stopped at 142nd and Lenox Avenue. The motorman was found concussed on the floor with a “deep cut over his eye and ... unable to explain his condition.” His skull had been fractured, perhaps from sticking his head out of the cab. Again in 1940, a Lexington Avenue train was delayed twenty minutes when the motorman collapsed, possibly from a cerebral hemorrhage, and the train came to a stop underneath 56th Street. Most recently, in 2010, a G train's motorman suffered a fatal heart attack while at the controls, and again the dead man's switch stopped the train.
The Malbone Wreck would live on in the memory of Brooklynites for years, and the lives of the main players were forever changed. The young motorman Edward Luciano left New York after he was acquitted, entering the real estate business elsewhere. Mayor Hylan left office in 1925, after running for a third term and losing to Jimmy Walker. He is remembered mostly as a fairly ineffectual puppet of Tammany Hall and Hearst. He died of a heart attack at sixty-eight in his home in Queens. The Mayor outlived the BRT; its financial troubles well before November of 1918 were probably enough to ruin the company, but the highly publicized, terribly fatal wreck did not help matters. The BRT declared bankruptcy just two months later, on December 31, 1918. When it finally reemerged out of receivership, the transit company was renamed the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), as its old name was too tarnished. It would operate until 1940, when it was bought by the city along with other train companies, and now composes part of the New York Subway's B Division.
Just as the BRT became the BMT in an attempt to bury the past, Malbone became Empire sometime in 1923 or 1924 and the infamous street disappeared from maps, only a tiny, one-block stretch of it remaining. It's now mostly forgotten, except to those interested in local and transit history. The wonderful resilience of New York City is epitomized by this verdant corner, which belies not a shred of its tragic history; cars and trains still zip around at the corner of Empire, Ocean and Flatbush. Even today, trains still pass over Dead Man's Curve, though now only work trains free of passengers.
New York is a busy place; five million people ride the subway every day. And while terrible events cause us to take pause, in New York, self-reflection is not debilitating. “A man has to earn a living,” said Luciano. The city never stays down for long; it gets back up, and the trains keep moving.
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James Folta is a writer, comedian and carpenter living in Brooklyn. You can find more of his work at cargocollective.com/jamesfolta.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY.