book review

The Malbone Street Wreck  
by Brian Cudahy

Reviewed by Paul Matus  Page 2

The Narrative
Cudahy starts slowly in setting the scene of his story by describing the ordinary events of November 1, 1918, a common literary device. The Great War is near an end, the famous and deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 is in full swing, an important election campaign is reaching its climax. He falls into a little too much minutiae, perhaps, as he tells us the times of the high and low tides off Governor's Island. For a moment I suspected that the evening high tide would, in some odd and unsuspected way, impact on our story--perhaps we would learn that a ferryboat delayed by the inrushing tide would arrive late at nearby Fulton Ferry, delaying a train that would make the Malbone Street train late in turn ... but this didn't happen. I suppose I've simply read too many old English novels.
     In the second chapter, we learn some of the history of the Brighton Beach Line, the route where the train would meet its fate. This does not bear too heavily on the story, but it does explain how the deadly curve, the final essential element in the unfortunate chain of events, came to be.
     In chapter three, the story begins to attain its focus, as Cudahy accurately describes the causes of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers strike without which the BRT would not have been scrambling for motormen, even to the extent of sending an insufficiently trained dispatcher out on the road at the controls of a train full of rush hour passengers.
     We meet Edward Luciano, the motorman of the ill-fated train, in the fourth chapter. Cudahy describes his regular job, some of his training, and important details of his personal life which may have contributed to his actions on the Brighton Line that day. The motorman's name, in itself, is an issue in the narrative, as different contemporary accounts give him a number of names, various combinations of Edward, Anthony, Antonio for his given and middle names; Lewis, Luciano or Luciana for his surname. Cudahy cites anti-Italian prejudice as motivation for Luciano using the Anglicized version of his surname, but he doesn't tell us whether Luciano was an immigrant or native born, which may have had some bearing on this. He correctly tells us that he was known as "Billy" Lewis to his friends, a note I've seen nowhere else.
     At any rate, Edward Luciano was the name under which the motorman was indicted, and perhaps that is the reason Cudahy settled on that name.
     The fourth chapter describes the events leading up to Luciano being assigned as motorman of the train, and describes the route by which the train reached Park Row from its origin at Kings Highway on the Culver Line. From Park Row, we get a detailed description of the train's actions from the time it left Park Row via the Fulton Street and Brighton Lines until it met its fate at Malbone Street.

     This is perhaps the most absorbing chapter of the book, in that Cudahy, with some conjecture, creates a plausible picture of the ride, Luciano's actions, and the grim results..
     Chapter five tells of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the rescue effort and Cudahy's idea of what Luciano did in the wake of the accident.
     The following chapter takes us through the legal proceedings that followed--the Kangaroo Court [my characterization] assembled by the transit-hating Mayor Hylan and the actual trial of the motorman and five officials of the BRT on charges of manslaughter. It doesn't give away any great secret to reveal that all were acquitted, a result which Cudahy attributes mainly to prosecutorial incompetence, but which must also take into account the inherent weaknesses of the case.
     The Epilogue sums up "where they are now" or at least where they were in the years following the accident--the fate of the BRT and its successor BMT and some of its officials, the Brighton Line and the crash site, Hylan, Luciano and even Malbone Street itself. As we conclude, Cudahy has told his story in an economical 104 pages.







Continued on page 3

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