Back to Conference Participants Abstract: Change of Venue: Brooklyn, Mineola, and the Malbone Street Tragedy  




On a late autumn day in 1918, 102 people were killed in Brooklyn in what remains the deadliest subway crash in American history. This grisly tragedy, known as the Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard) wreck after the location of the transit tunnel where so many died, remains an under-investigated event. The broad outlines of this story are well known: transit workers called a strike, the National War Labor Board sided with the workers, Brooklyn Rapid Transit attempted to maintain service by utilizing inexperienced employees, and the dispatcher-turned-motorman crashed the crowded subway train into a stationary concrete partition.
The ensuing court case is considerably less known. Because the wall did not move, it seemed to most Brooklynites that someone must have been negligent. Although an obvious suspect was Edward Luciano, the poor scab engineer, there was virtually universal sentiment in Brooklyn that five high-level BRT officials should be held partially or wholly responsible for the deaths. Attention especially focused on Thomas Blewitt, who held the BRT's ultimate responsibility for monitoring the training and certification of motormen. Yet despite their determination, none of those indicted by the Brooklyn DA on charges in connection with the Malbone Street accident were ever convicted.
Before any trial could take place, the defense filed a petition for a change of venue, appealing to Supreme Court Justice J. Callaghan in January 1919 that they could not "secure a fair and impartial trial in the county because of agitations by the public press and by various organizations adverse to the officials of the companies operating the elevated and street surface railroads in Brooklyn." To add credibility to this request, they submitted an affidavit containing numerous newspaper clippings and other indications of Brooklyn residents' pro-union and anti-corporate attitudes. The BRT even distributed cards to passengers at their stations pretending to solicit passenger opinion (a wonderful collection at the N.Y. Municipal Archives), and then used them as evidence to move the trial.
Despite the fact that the 1920 census would enumerate over two million residents of Kings County, the motion for a change of venue was granted. Judge Callaghan insisted, "The defendants were tried and convicted in the eyes of public opinion before an indictment was ever found against them." Foreshadowing the Red Scare to come, Justice Callaghan compared efforts to discredit the BRT to "the efforts of a well-organized corps of propagandists." The trial was moved to Mineola, the seat of Nassau County, where presumably a less radical jury pool would be convened. The BRT's success in achieving a change of venue turned out to be a master stroke; all the defendants were acquitted by April 1919. One Brooklynite spoke for many: We believe it was a scandalous waste of money for the District Attorney to carry on the trials in Nassau County. We believe it is a great incitement to disorder for any jury to declare a man free from blame who, in order to win a bonus of $20, deliberately runs a crowded train and causes more casualties than made the United States go to was with Germany. The incident reveals Brooklyn's sui generis nature. In 1919 more than four million people, one out of every five employed workers, was involved in a strike. Workers sought to make wartime gains permanent while business owners attempted to roll back the clock. In the arena of public opinion, however, where much of this battle would be fought, industrial democracy seemed to be an assault on private enterprise and public order. Standard historical interpretations invariably note a swing to the right in American public opinion. The majority of people, often influenced by hysterical newspapers controlled by the wealthy, believed unions had no rightful place in a peacetime system. National loyalty became equated with the open shop and business associations attempted to foster this anti-union sentiment. By mid-1919, laboršs position was rapidly weakening: unions no longer had governmental support, and were being blamed for the high cost of living and lagging productivity. The hysteria of the Red Scare of late 1919 and early 1920 blurred the distinction between "good" American unions and those controlled by radical conspirators or evil immigrants bent on social revolution. Brooklyn in 1919 hardly fits this scenario. Brooklynites remained decidedly to the left of the rest of the nation, and the Malbone Street disaster inhibited any movement to conservatism in the borough. Only by moving the trial to Nassau County could the BRT hope to find a sympathetic jury. Brooklyn, USA was truly "a city apart."