Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Connellsville, Fayette County
Connellsville native, Herbert Morrison is best known for hislegendary, on the spot reporting of the Hindenburg explosion in 1937.
Radio man Herbert Morrison was born in 1905 in Pennsylvania. He married Mary Jane Kelly and had no children. He grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved to West Virginia. He worked in news and television broadcasting for many years, becoming best known for his news broadcast of the Hindenburg tragedy that is still recalled to this day. Morrison died in 1989.
A century ago, when communication devices like the radio, phonographs, and the telephone were still in their infancy, Herbert Morrison was born and raised in a rather typical western Pennsylvania working family. Living in an area famous for coal production, he might have looked forward one day to working in one of the nearby coalmines or coke factories. He could not have known then that his life choices, and a chance series of events nearly thirty years later, would make his name, and especially his voice, synonymous with one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.
Morrison was born on May 14th, 1905 in the small town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh near Scottdale. He was the son of Walter Lindsay and Bertha Oglevee Morrison. By the time Morrison was five years old, the family was living on Market Street in nearby Scottdale Borough, three miles north of Connellsville. The family did not include his father, who passed away when Morrison was just a toddler. According to the 1910 U.S. census, the household included his widowed mother, his grandmother, an older brother, and an adult cousin, Nettie Herbert, who worked as a stenographer at a local "sheet mill." In addition to the several members of his family, two boarders paid to live with the Morrisons and served to provide an extra source of income. Morrison's brother, Walter, was four years his elder and sometimes went by his middle name, Franklin.
Herbert Morrison's mother supported their family by holding several jobs over the ensuing years while continuing to welcome extended family and boarders. When Morrison was fourteen years old, his mother was employed as a saleslady in a jewelry store. Ten years later, in 1930, she worked as a radiotrician in Scottdale. Little did she know that her position in communications foreshadowed Morrison's future vocation. It's surely possible that her job influenced Morrison who was now 24, still living at home, and working a dead end job as a salesman in a shoe store. Seven years later, he would be working in a new profession that would change the course of his life.
At some point after 1930, Morrison was employed as a news reporter for WLS, a large AM radio station affiliated with NBC News, in Chicago, Illinois. Because radio technology was relatively primitive in the 1930s, radio broadcasts were either aired live or not at all. WLS reluctantly allowed Morrison to go to New Jersey to experiment with new recording technology that allowed audio reports to be aired at a later date. On Thursday, May 6, 1937, Morrison and his partner Charles Nehlsen, a recording engineer, were in Lakehurst, New Jersey to report on the arrival of the German zeppelin, the Hindenburg, on her maiden voyage.
Running several hours behind schedule, the Hindenburg appeared over Lakehurst around 7:30 p.m. Many years later in an interview with Julia Martinez, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Morrison recalled, "It was getting dark and a little drizzle of rain had started. The landing crew was spread out around the landing strip. We could see the Hindenburg coming in and down and down and down. About ten minutes out, I started talking into the microphone." At the time everything seemed to be going as planned. "I was talking about what it meant to the United States to have this connection with Germany and how it showed the success of air travel. I hardly had the words out of my mouth when-wow-I heard an explosion." Morrison recalled the event, saying, "People around me gasped. They started crying and screaming. We could see things falling out of the Hindenburg... Some of the things were people."
During the forty-two minute broadcast, Morrison's demeanor quickly changed from one of awe and inspiration to one of horror. He began poetically, "Toward us, like a great feather...It is practically standing still now...the back motors are holding to just enough to keep it..." And then, horrified, he exclaims "...it's bursting into flame! This is terrible! One of the worst catastrophes in the world! The flames are 500 feet into the sky!" Morrison continued, "Oh, the humanity . . . all the passengers . . . I don't believe . . . I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. . . . It's a, it's a . . . I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it just lays there, a mass of smoking wreckage." This is most significant because Morrison was the only broadcast reporter on the scene to cover the arrival of the zeppelin. Additionally, Morrison was relying solely on instinct at the time, as there had been no precedents or standards for unscripted news broadcasts. According to a later account, Morrison was broadcasting in New Jersey at the invitation of American Airlines as a publicity stunt. Whether this is true or not, he was definitely in the right place at the right time. He became famous for his broadcast that day.
The tapes of the tragedy were items of great value to other curious reporters as well as an even more concerned group of Nazi agents in the United States. A future friend of Morrison's would have this to say: I thought the most interesting thing he ever told me was that following the Hindenburg crash, a number of 'brown shirts' from Nazi Germany followed him on his train back to Chicago from New Jersey. They wanted to take the recording he made so that it would not be broadcast and embarrass Germany. Somehow, he found out about their pursuit and managed to evade them by staying with crowds of people on the train all the way back to Chicago. The recording was broadcast the day after the crash.
In the years following the explosion of the Hindenburg, Morrison held several different jobs in assorted radio and television stations in Pittsburgh. We can be sure that his work after the disaster was never as interesting as the events that unfolded that fateful day, but we do know that Morrison loved his work in broadcasting, and he continued for many years. For the next few decades, he worked in Pittsburgh for radio stations such as KQV, WJAS, WCAE and for WTAE-TV. In 1958, he was named the television station WTAE's first news director. "He talked about [the Hindenburg] once in a while," said Charles McGrath, 64, a cinematographer at WTAE while Morrison served as a news director at the station. "What struck me about him and that incident is he never got over it. He was beside himself on that recording. I think it always stayed with him. It followed him all his life."
After moving to Morgantown, West Virginia - his wife's hometown - in 1970, he was often called upon to remember his famous broadcast for news outlets, especially on significant anniversaries of the event. He also involved himself with West Virginia University where he lectured and helped develop a radio and television program for the University Relations department at WVU. Charles Cremer, a journalism professor at West Virginia University invited Morrison into his classroom many times is the 1970s. "I would play the recording of the Hindenburg radio program for my class and then he would embellish it. He was modest and humble. He understood it could have been anyone behind that microphone and thought he owed it to the world to make his story known whenever he was asked. He never seemed to tire of telling his story."
Morrison died on January 11, 1989, of pneumonia in Sundale Nursing Home in Morgantown where he spent his last years. He lived to be 83 years old, certainly enough time to reflect on his extraordinary life. His wife, Mary Jane survived him until, at 88 years old, she passed away on July 23, 2000 in Scottdale Manor Rehabilitation.
Although he had no children to extend his legacy, his expressions of shock have been remembered for many years. Morrison's phrase "Oh the humanity!" would be repeated countless times in spin offs and other television programs. One Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati makes light of the Hindenburg tragedy as a news broadcaster is on the scene of a "Turkey Drop." At first the reporter notices objects falling from a helicopter and gradually gets more concerned as he realizes they are turkeys plummeting to the earth! He exclaims "Oh the humanity" just as Morrison did in 1937. In more recent years it was used in an episode of The Simpsons entitled "Lisa the Beauty Queen" and an episode of South Park entitled "The Simpsons Already Did It" to add dramatic irony to a minor catastrophe. We can be sure without a doubt that Morrison and his timeless broadcast will live in the minds of people forever.
1910; Census Place: Scottdale Ward 3, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania; Roll T624_1432; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 193; Image: 75.