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Published January 24, 2020

The people of New York are generally not easy to shock. The sight before them on this particular morning, however, couldn’t be described any other way. 

A huge paddle boat was steaming up the East River, through the section of water known as Hell’s Gate. Fire and smoke trailed from it like streamers, and women and children fell from its decks like petals from a flower. 

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Source: Unsplash

For most people in New York, Wednesday the 15th of June 1904 was expected to be just another day. For the German- American immigrant population centred around St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street, it was one of the biggest, most exciting days of the year.

The church was at the heart of a neighbourhood known as Little Germany, because it had become home to so many of the German immigrants who had arrived from the 1830s onwards. By 1904, many of them were starting to move away, as they made their fortunes and chose to live in more prestigious areas. Reverend George Haas could easily have been one of them, but since taking over as the pastor of St Marks in 1882, at the tender age of 28, he had remained steadfastly loyal to his flock.

Reverend Haas. Public Domain.

Under his guidance, the church offered a lot more than just services; it was truly the centre of their community, and nowhere was this more obvious than at the church’s annual summer outing.

It was held to celebrate the end of the Sunday School year, and over the years had grown from a simple picnic to a huge outing. This year, they had hired a grand steamboat to take them up the East River to the picnic grounds of Locust Grove on Long Island Sound.

While the parishioners of St Marks would naturally form the bulk of the party, there would be others, too. Former parishioners who had moved on from Little Germany came back especially, reuniting with extended family and former neighbours. There would also be others from the Lower East Side area; other immigrants who lived there and used the same shops, and who looked forward to the outing just as much as their neighbours even if they didn’t share their culture or faith.

The leisurely way that it started illustrated just how much of a community event it was. Their hired steamboat, the General Slocum, was supposed to leave the pier at the end of East Third Street at 8:45 am. Inevitably, some people arrived late – but because of the close interconnections between them, they also inevitably had friends or family already aboard, who would beg Reverend Haas to wait just a little while for them to arrive. Therefore, according to contemporary historian J.S. Ogilvie, it was “well along toward ten o’clock” before the ship was ready to depart.

Most of those onboard were women and children; it was, after all, a working day, and their menfolk were generally not able to just take a day off when they pleased. It’s not possible to say exactly how many boarded the ship that day, as they didn’t keep a precise count; two children were counted as one person, and infants were likely not counted at all. They counted 982 in this way, but it’s thought that there were actually around 1,400 people, all told. To keep order onboard, there were two policemen, Albert Van Tassel and Charles Kelk – who probably didn’t expect much trouble from a church group.

The General Slocum itself was an impressive side-wheel steamboat, built of wood and painted bright white, with three decks – the main deck, promenade deck, and hurricane deck – which were largely open to all sides so that everybody could enjoy clear views as they progressed through the city. She had been built in 1891, and named after a Civil War general; that name was now emblazoned across the boxes of her paddle wheels. There were lifeboats hanging at the sides, and racks full of life preservers – none of which were expected to be necessary, as Captain William H. Van Schaick was highly experienced. He had been commanding the General Slocum through these waters for all of her thirteen years, and just the previous year had been given an award for his excellent safety record.

The General Slocum. Public Domain.

As well as the passengers and crew, there was a band aboard. Professor George Maurer’s German band had set up on the main afterdeck to play the community’s favourite songs. Several of the band members had brought their family with them.

The big challenge for the captain and his pilots was a stretch of water known as Hell Gate. Here, the water of the East River and the Harlem River meet, and the competing tides of the Upper Bay and the Long Island Sound create a constant flow of confusing currents and whirlpools. Reefs, rocks, and islands add to the difficulty – although over the previous century these had been reduced by blowing up the most troublesome outcrops.

All in all, they were difficult waters, and many a ship had met trouble here before, so Captain Van Schaick would have been watching his course very carefully.

Meanwhile, the party was well underway. As the band played, many of the younger guests danced, while smaller children played games and the adults caught up with relatives and admired the city skyline. Reverend Haas made a point of touring the boat to greet as many of his guests as possible.

Mrs Catherine Kassebaum recalled;

“We had a party of eleven on the boat, and were anticipating a fine day’s outing. We wanted to hear the music on the way up the river and so all of us were gathered on the after deck, not more than twenty feet away from the band and close to the rail of the deck.”

Anna Weber similarly recalled the levity of the day;

“My husband and myself, my children Emma and Frank, and my sister Martha Liebenow met my brother, Paul Liebenow and his wife, with their six month old baby in her arms, and Helen, six years old, and their baby girl three years old at the dock. We had invited them to go with us to the excursion, and we went on board laughing and talking, the children ahead with my sister.

We went to the middle deck, near the forward part of the boat. The sun was shining, and the boat glided through the water so smoothly that the children could play around without any danger, and were told to remain within call. The four little ones romped back towards the stern of the boat with my sister.”

Some of the crew were also able to enjoy the atmosphere. Deckhand John Coakley, having shown the two policemen around the boat, was able to stop in the bar for a beer to quench his thirst. He probably hoped it would be the first of several that day, but he was interrupted by a small boy – possibly twelve year old Frank Prawdzicki – telling him that there was smoke in one of the stairwells.

Going to investigate, Coakley found that the boy was right. The smoke appeared to be coming from the ship’s forward cabin. 

Public Domain

As described by the report from the ensuing investigation, this cabin lay two decks below and just behind the pilot house. It contained the steering gear, but was also generally used for storage and as the lamp room, where the ship’s oil lamps would be polished and filled each morning. That meant that the cabin contained polish, oily rags, cans of kerosene and paint, sacks of charcoal and more. On this occasion, it also held several barrels which had been used to transport glasses for the excursion. They had been packed in dry hay to keep them safe from breakages. 

How exactly the fire started in that storage room will never be known. It would only have taken one small spark in the wrong place, and it could have been smouldering for hours before it was discovered. It could, theoretically, have remained just smouldering for hours more, if not for what happened next.

Coakley opened the door to see where the smoke was coming from. He saw the fire, and instinctively tried to put it out with a piece of canvas. Unfortunately, the canvas was tied to the floor. Instead, he dropped a sack of charcoal on it and ran to find the First Mate. This was beyond his experience – he’d only been hired 18 days earlier. 

The weight of the sack of charcoal might have smothered the fire if not for one thing; Coakley left the door to the cabin open. That gave the flames unlimited access to oxygen, and allowed it to grow. The hay scattered around the cabin fed the fire so it grew at an incredible rate; dry hay can actually burn faster and hotter than gasoline.

At the same time, young Frank Prawdzicki was racing for the pilot house. He burst in and told Captain Van Schaick that the ship was on fire. He was told, in no uncertain terms, to go away. The captain was too busy with the turbulent waters of Hell Gate to be distracted by what he thought to be a childish prank.

Coakley found First Mate Flanagan, and together they returned to the seat of the fire. Flanagan called the captain on the speaker pipe and told him of the fire, then ran for the engine room to get the steam pump running. This would provide water to the standpipe, to which the fire hose could be attached, so they could fight the fire. 

The hose was attached to the standpipe, and run out to the storage cabin – but no water reached the fire. The aged fabric hose was severely kinked, and burst in several places. 

Another crew member brought up a rubber hose, but they couldn’t connect it to the standpipe. The commission would later explain why. “ While the witnesses themselves could not explain this failure, the cause of it is obvious. One of the exhibits is this forward standpipe with the valve closed and a hose coupling with expansion ring still upon the standpipe. Evidently; when the linen hose blew off from its coupling, the crew failed to remove that old coupling, and in their excitement did not notice its presence there, and were therefore unable to attach the rubber hose.”

At this point, the crew appear to have given up entirely on the idea of fighting the flames. This is unsurprising. They hadn’t been trained for this. Of all the deckhands on board, only one had been present the last time a fire drill had been held. That had been the previous year, and it hadn’t included actually turning the hose on. In fact, it seems that no water had been run through that hose since it had been installed – thirteen years earlier, when the boat was new. Unlike many other ships, the General Slocum didn’t put its fire hoses into double duty and use them to wash the decks.

With no further attempts to combat it, the fire grew bigger and bigger. As the smoke and fire spread, panic began to stir among the passengers. They started to race for the back of the boat, the stern, where they thought they would be safe. Some, like Reverend Haas, tried to calm the crowds, by assuring them that the smoke was just the coffee or the clam chowder burning in the kitchen. Such assurances couldn’t last long, though – the fire spread back as the ship continued to steam onwards – into the wind.

Contemporary illustration of the disaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Halphusen, the church’s sexton, would later be openly critical of the crew.

“It seemed to me that the crew of the boat lost their heads- they were undisciplined, and did not do what sane men would have done to stay the panic and restore order.”

Clara Stuer, one of the survivors, later recalled how she became aware of the fire.

“I was sitting on the upper deck with Miss Millie Mannheimer, 40 years old; Miss Lillie Mannheimer, her niece, 9 years old, and Walter, the latter’s brother, aged 11. We had just passed the entrance to the Harlem River, and were going slowly when Lillie called to her aunt, saying: ‘I think the boat is on fire, auntie; see all the smoke.’ ‘Hush!’ replied her aunt, ‘you must not talk so. You may create a panic’ Lillie would not be silenced, however, and it seemed but a few moments later when there was a roar as though a cannon had been shot off, and the entire bow of the boat was one sheet of flames. The people rushed pell-mell over one another, and in the rush I lost track of my friends.”

The Reverend Haas had managed to find his family, and tried to take them to safety. Unfortunately, safety was hard to find.

“When the fire shot up to the top deck and drove the crowd back the panic was terrible. The crush from the forward part of the boat swept those in the rear along. The women and children clung to the railing and stanchions but could not keep their hold. I, with my wife and daughter, were swept along with the rest. In the great crush many women fainted and fell to the deck, to be trampled upon. Little children were knocked down. Mothers with their little boys and girls in their arms would give wild screams and then leap into the water. We could see boats pulling out from the shore by this time, and a faint ray of hope came to us. With my wife and daughter I had been swept over to the rail. I got my wife and daughter out on the rail, and then we went overboard.” 

Contemporary illustration showing passengers jumping from the boat. Public Domain

Many of those already at the back of the boat tried to stay put, hoping, as George Kircher did, that one of the many other boats on the river would come and take them off. As the fire grew fiercer, however, more and more passengers were trying to pack into a smaller section of the boat, and many were either forced overboard or chose to jump rather than be crushed. Kircher said;

“ I saw little children trampled on. Everybody was making for the back of the boat, and behind them seemed to be a big wave of flame. As the crowd from the front got to where we were the railing burst into flame, and then I had to jump. Just as I jumped part of the deck gave way and I saw the people tumbling down into the water through a big hole in the deck.”

Kircher, who was described as “a boy” at the time, lost his mother, brother, sister, aunt and grandfather.

Nicholas Belser, or Balzer, told of his attempt to free one of the lifeboats.

“I lost track of my wife some time before the fire broke out, and was sitting on the upper deck when I discovered the ship was on fire. I drew my penknife and tried to cut away one of the lifeboats. I succeeded in severing the ropes, but when I got that far I discovered they were held with wire and were immovable.”

Anna Weber said that someone had shouted to get the life preservers.

“…and we all stood up on camp stools and on the benches and reached for life preservers. Some of them we could not budge, and the others pulled to pieces and spilled the crumbs of cork over our heads. The heat was blistering and the flames swept along the roof of the deck and scorched our fingers as we tried to snatch down the life preservers. The flames drove those who were standing around me back and over to the side of the boat.”

Many of those who managed to retrieve life preservers found them to be less than helpful. Jacob Miller, from the Sunday School, was said to have tried seven before finding one that stayed in one piece when he strapped it to a mother of several children.

The accounts do not say, however, whether that woman survived. Many who had life-preservers on when they jumped into the water did not. Haas recalled, “We had on life preservers, but I don’t think we had them properly adjusted. At all events, after I got into the water I did not float.”

Walter Mueller recalled that the life preserver his father tied about him was no use, because it broke off as he hit the water. John Kircher, interviewed later at the morgue, said that his wife had put a life preserver on their youngest daughter because she couldn’t swim. 

“Thinking the little girl would be perfectly safe with the preserver on, she lifted her to the rail and dropped her over the side. She waited for Elsie to come up, but the child never appeared. She had sunk as though a stone were tied to her.”

The cork inside the life-preservers was supposed to be solid; instead, it had rotted into dust, and at that point had all the buoyancy of a bag of dirt.

One of the General Slocum’s life preservers. Public Domain

Many of those who jumped or fell into the water found that the greatest danger wasn’t so much the water as it was the other people in it with them. Those who could swim were often swamped as they were grabbed by those who couldn’t. Those who survived, while most couldn’t say so, had probably needed to push several people off in order to do so. At the worst point, when many people were falling into the water, there was a great danger of somebody falling on top of you. From the remains of band leader George Maurer, it appears that this was what happened to him; he had a large boot print on his head.

Policeman Van Tassel was more fortunate. According to his account, he was knocked unconscious by a falling woman, but recovered his senses when he hit the water.

“I found that I was too weak to swim, so I turned over on my back to float. I was soon surrounded by women and children, grabbing at me to save themselves. I called to them to keep calm and I would save them. Then I floated into North Brother Island with women and children clinging to me from head to foot.”

Fire alarms had been rung all along the riverside, but the arriving fire engines could do nothing but watch from the shore as the ship steamed on. The only chance they had to put out the fire was the fireboat, Zophar Mills, but by the time she caught up there was more need for rescuing people; the fire was too entrenched for a single fireboat to tackle it. 

The rivers of New York were always busy with traffic, and many of the other boats on the water that day attempted to help. However, there was little they could do while the General Slocum was still steaming on. Some attempted to pluck survivors from the burning ship’s wake, but most focussed on trying to catch up and take off those still on board. It was only when the ship reached North Brother Island that it came to a stop, beaching itself at the bow with the stern – where most of the surviving passengers were still clinging on – still swung out into the river.

Illustration from J.S. Ogilvie’s “History of the General Slocum Disaster…” Public Domain.

Anna Frese was one of the passengers who had remained at the bow of the ship. She had been on the outside of the railings, clinging on until her father told her to jump. When he did, however, she found that she couldn’t let go. The heat had seared her hands to the railing. She managed to pull free, but at great cost; she had once dreamt of being a concert pianist. Soon, her father would be arguing with doctors who wanted to amputate her hands. 

Ogilvie’s account of the disaster detailed some of the heroic attempts to help.

“The Massasoit, which was the closest boat behind the Slocum when she struck, drew so much water that it was impossible to get her bow within fifty feet of the Slocum. It didn’t make any difference to Carl Rappaport, her coxswain. He took a running jump forward over the bow and swam toward the burning steamer. Like a big red-headed St Bernard he grabbed two babies and swam back to his own boat. Meantime the captain of the Massasoit was putting boats overboard as fast as he knew how. When these were out picking up people from the water wherever they could, Rappaport was floundering around helping from the water side. 

The Franklin Edson, with her new clean coat of white and gilt paint, drew less water than the Massasoit and went right up to Slocum’s side so that people jumped from the burning decks and were dragged back to safety. For safety was not on the forward deck of the Edson. She needs a new coat of paint. Her forward windows were cracked by the heat and there are marks of flame for the forward thirty feet of her superstructure.

Jack Wade, master and owner of his little tug, was pitching his life-preservers over, turning loose his boats and pushing up so close to the burning decks that the hair on his brawny arms frizzled and his men, John McDonnell, Ruddy McCarrol and Bob Brannigan, had their shirts burned off their backs. It wasn’t worth while afterward to attempt this crew to tell how many lives it saved. They had been too busy to count.”

Meanwhile, some of the residents of North Brother Island were running to help. Many of them couldn’t; the island was home to a hospital which specialised in contagious diseases, so most were in no shape to. However, nurses, doctors, and even some of the healthier patients raced to the scene.  Mary McCann was one of the latter; on arrival in America she’d been diagnosed with measles and scarlet fever, and sent to North Brother Island to recover. Well on her way back to health, she was at that time a ward helper – and, somewhat rare for the time, someone who could swim. She was reported to have swum out four times, and brought back a survivor each time. Pauline Fuetz, an 18 year old nurse, also swam out and rescued five children, but on her last trip was nearly drowned herself by a panicking woman who grabbed her and wouldn’t let go.

“I was after the children. I wanted to save the women, too, but my first resolve was to bring the children ashore. The woman who got me nearly took me down with her. If she hadn’t been so excited I would have saved her.”

Others waded out beyond their depth despite not being able to swim, and used ladders that happened to be at the hospital to reach out to those in deeper water. In this way, they saved as many as they could, but before too long they found that they were bringing in more dead people than alive.

Bodies laid out on the lawn of the hospital on North Brother Island. Public Domain.

CPR as we know it today had yet to be established. Instead, they attempted to revive people by laying them over barrels, or pressing on their chests and abdomens to push the water out. This was, in most cases, ineffective. There was one astonishing rescue, however, when a young girl whose body had been taken to the Alexander Avenue Police Station along with twenty nine other bodies, was found to be alive. A woman who had volunteered to take notes of the effects and clothing of the female dead, to aid in identification, had untied the girl’s corset and realised she was still breathing. Help rushed to the girl’s side, and she was soon recovering well. Clara Hartman, whose age is variously given as 11 or 15, survived, although her sister and mother did not.

Rescue turned to recovery, and powerful lights were borrowed from the railroad company in order to allow them to work through the night. As bodies were brought ashore, they were laid out on the hospital’s lawns. They were photographed, tagged, their valuables bagged, and sent off to the morgue. However, it was quickly obvious that the morgue would not be big enough. A large property on Charities Pier, East 26th Street, was taken over. The same property would later be used as the morgue for victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. 

Many of the survivors, and family members who had not been on the excursion, toured ceaselessly between the various locations searching for their loved ones – hoping to find them in one of the hospitals, dreading finding them at one of the morgues. Identification was not always easy. One man is said to have arrived at the morgue looking for his wife, and identified five different bodies as hers; eventually her body – which was not any of those five – was identified by the initials engraved inside her ring. 

Inside the morgue. Public Domain.

Another man, on finding his little girl lying in a coffin, is said to have thrown his watch, ring, and wallet in with her, crying out, “Take all, take all now that you have taken her!”

Attendants at the morgue, and the police officers who were guarding it, had to be alert, for fear that grief stricken relatives would find the last or most beloved of their family at the Charities Pier morgue, and then try to throw themselves off the pier in order to join them. The police officers also had to be vigilant for gawkers; not all of those lining up to search the morgue had any reason to be there. Some had just turned up through morbid curiosity. The crowd was expanded by a large number of undertakers, not all of whom were waiting patiently for business. They were bound to get it, as the number of dead would overwhelm Little Germany’s undertakers many times over and families would be forced to use undertakers from other areas, at whatever prices they chose to charge. A contemporary account said:

“The undertakers approached every one who walked in the direction of the pier, asking to be allowed to take charge of the bodies of friends if they succeeded in identifying them. Many times several undertakers, or their runners, would grasp some man or woman and force him to listen to them. Two of these men got into a fight and several blows were exchanged before the police separated them. Both were arrested, charged with disorderly conduct.”

It wasn’t just the relatives who were so affected by these terrible scenes. One of the morgue’s attendants was found wandering the streets in a distracted state, muttering, “I can’t identify that body, take it away…” He had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. He had been working at the Charities Pier morgue for three days solid.

Several divers, including Charles P Everett, were enlisted to explore the sunken boat for any further recoverable remains. He told his story afterwards:

“I noticed a section of the hold, on my right, sag less than a foot. Immediately the ends of dresses and long, slowly moving, disheveled hair floated about from under the beams and the general wreckage… There were at least eighty charred or pitifully distorted bodies of women or children in the center of the vessel. Like those I had just left, they were nearly all held in the same awful embrace of the flames… I tried to extricate the forms of those for whom mothers, or brothers, or sisters were wailing in hospitals and homes. A couple of bodies floated free of the tanglewood but drifted away slowly – like the movement of a funeral, I thought at the time – into dark, obscure corners of the thing that men used to call a graceful, speedy steamer. Some of those waiting mothers and sisters and brothers will probably never again see the faces they loved, for the tide that swirls angrily around the watery grave is a thing not to be cheated of its dead…

They tell me I was down in the tomb about an hour and a half. That must be a mistake. I was down there a year.”

Everett estimated that there must have been nearly a hundred bodies in the wreck. Other divers retrieved 26 bodies from the wreck; later, the body of a young girl and part of the body of a boy were found. Another 25 bodies were dredged up with boat hooks.

Fishing up bodies from the river. Public Domain

Alongside retrieving bodies, the divers had another vital task – retrieving evidence. One of them brought up a piece of the standpipe, which was intended to supply water to fight any onboard fire. Coroner O’Gorman said that it “shows absolutely that the crew of the Slocum made no attempt to fight the fire.  The valve was closed tightly. My opinion is that when we get hold of the other standpipe its valve will be found closed also.”

They also brought up life-preservers, still wrapped around the bodies whose lives they had failed to preserve. O’Gorman said of those, “I found to-day more life preservers, or life killers rather, with rotten canvas coverings split, and rotten, granulated cork half dribbled out of the place where good, honest, solid cork ought to have been I found several life preservers that had been removed from bodies dragged from the bottom of the river. These were waterlogged, not burst.”

He also listed the questions that he would want the inquest to answer:

“Why wasn’t that fire apparatus in order instead of being absolutely useless? Why was there no fire drill, no discipline that would have fought back the flames? who of the crew tried to turn back the standpipe valves? Why is it that the percentage of the crew lost is 4 1-3 (one man) while probably 75 per cent of the helpless passengers died? Why didn’t Captain Van Schaick take that boat to shore a mile below North Brother Island? Why didn’t he turn in at least a half-dozen perfectly safe and easily accessible places? Why were the life preservers rotten? Why were the lifeboats not swung from their davits into the river when the steam ran a mile and a half from the time fire was first discovered?”

None of these questions were easily or quickly answered, because the parties involved had every reason not to answer them.

The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, owners of the General Slocum, would never admit that they had knowingly sent the ship out with inadequate fire apparatus or life preservers, because that would make them criminally negligent.

The United States Steamboat Inspection Service, and the specific inspectors who had carried out the inspection of the General Slocum just a month before the tragedy, would similarly never admit that they had been, at best, lax in their duties, because that would make them criminally negligent, too.

And the captain would, of course, insist that North Brother Island was the best place to bring the ship to shore – to say otherwise would be to admit his negligence.

But the evidence given at the coroner’s inquest seemed to be overwhelming.

One of the survivors at the coroner’s inquest. The original caption gives her name as Mrs Ida Geister, and states that she lost four children in the disaster.

When questioned about the life preservers, representatives of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company claimed that they had bought new life-preservers for the General Slocum in recent years. However, the paperwork had been visibly altered to say General Slocum instead of Grand Republic – the Slocum’s sister ship. 

Representatives of Kahnweiler and Sons, who supplied the life preservers, admitted that they had not supplied any new life preservers to the General Slocum since 1891. However, they did also claim that their life preservers would last for twenty years. Otto Kahnweiler, confronted with one of them, declared “I’ll trust myself to that belt now with hands and feet tied!”

With one tug on the straps, the life preserver fell apart, and cork dust fell on the witness’s feet.

One of the pilots, Ed Weaver, had gone along the river on a police boat with Coroners O’Gorman and Berry prior to the inquest. When they asked him then what he would have done, he said “I would have run her in at the foot of East 129th Street, which could have been done in a few minutes’ time.”

Now, on the stand, he denied this, and defended the captain’s decision to head for North Brother Island.

Inspector Harry Lundberg, the USSIS inspector who had performed the Slocum’s last inspection that May, was called to give evidence. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination; he wouldn’t answer any questions.

Except, a week later, he was back on the stand, called by his own counsel, and then claimed that he had made a thorough inspection and actually rejected a number of life preservers – contradicting earlier public statements he’d made, when he said he’d rejected none.

The coroner’s jury found seven directors of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company guilty of criminal negligence; so were Captain John Pease, who commanded the Grand Republic and was the Commodore of the Knickerbocker’s fleet, Captain Van Schaick and his first mate Ed Flanagan, and Inspector Lundberg.

The first to reach trial would be Inspector Lundberg. After three mistrials, where the juries could not agree on a verdict, he walked free on the 25th of May 1905.

That put paid to hopes of prosecuting the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company directors; they could now essentially say, “the inspector told us everything was fine, so it’s not our fault.” 

Their charges were all dropped.

Captain Van Schaick. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In January 1906, Captain Van Schaick went to trial. While the jury found him not guilty on two counts relating to the deaths of the ship’s steward – who had sunk to the bottom of the river holding the day’s takings – and an unidentified passenger, they did find him guilty of criminal negligence for failing to ensure that the Slocum’s crew were trained and equipped for firefighting. He was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing Prison. He was thus the only person held legally responsible – and he only served four years before being pardoned by President William Howard Taft.

A memorial fountain stands in Tompkins Square Park, and another memorial stands in Lutheran All Faith Cemetery in Middle Village, where the unidentified dead were buried. It was unveiled by the youngest survivor of the tragedy, Adella Liebenow. She was only six months old when her mother saved her from the fire, and eighteen months old when she unveiled the memorial. One of her sisters, Helen, likely lies beneath it. Adella went on to be the last living survivor of the General Slocum disaster, before passing away at the age of 100 in 2004.

Perhaps the worst thing about this tragedy is that there were so many chances for it to have been mitigated or even avoided entirely. 

If the cabin had not been filled with essentially all the most flammable items on the ship, the fire would have lacked the fuel to grow. 

If the deckhand Coakley had, through either better sense or better training, kept the door closed, or at least shut it, the fire would have lacked the oxygen to spread. 

If the fire hoses had been kept in shape, properly inspected and maintained, of higher quality or just newer, the fire could have been put out. 

If the company had ensured that the life preservers were in good condition and the life rafts ready to launch ; if the ship had run fire drills for its crew; if the inspections had been thorough and honest, the passengers would have had the chance to escape in the life rafts or with the life preservers. 

If the captain had been able to bring the ship to shore sooner, if he hadn’t steamed into the wind, the fire might not have engulfed so much of the ship. 

That all these errors lined up on that day, when the ship was filled with women and children who largely could not swim, and who were dressed in heavy Sunday best clothes, only added to the death toll. It was estimated that, in total, over a thousand people had either burned or drowned.

And the injustice of it – the fact that, out of all the people whose negligence and errors had led to those deaths, only the captain was ever held responsible – should have made this tragedy all the more memorable. 

Instead, it was largely forgotten. It was to be eclipsed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, and the sinking of the Titanic, and the outbreak of the First World War erased most of the sympathy felt for the German – American community. 

As Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon said at the 1999 memorial:

“The Titanic had a great many famous people on it. This was just a family picnic.”

The General Slocum memorial in Lutheran All Faith Cemetery.

Thanks this episode go to:

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  • Suzanne Morley
  • Scott RC
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Sources, References and Further Reading

Books:

History of the General Slocum disaster by which nearly 1200 lives were lost by the burning of the steamer General Slocum in Hell gate, New York harbor, June 15,1904 – Compiled by J. S. Ogilvie – Internet Archive

New York’s awful excursion boat horror – Edited by John Wesley Hanson – Internet Archive

Websites and Online Articles:

Wikipedia Article on the General Slocum

Wikipedia Article on Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon – last living survivor

General Slocum Fire 1904 – This family genealogy page has a lot of fascinating information

A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum – Smithsonian Magazine

The General Slocum Disaster of June 15 1904 – NY Public Library

The General Slocum Disaster – Fire Engineering Magazine

A Look Back at the General Slocum Disaster – Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

General Slocum Steamboat Tragedy – Library of Congress

Witness to Tragedy: The Sinking of the General Slocum – New York Historical Society blog

The General Slocum Fire – Gilder Lehrman

June 15 1904 – The General Slocum… – The Nation Almanac

Rikers Island’s Unsung Heroes of the 1904 Gen. Slocum Disaster

Slocum Memorial Fountain – Atlas Obscura

Slocum Disaster, June 15 1904 – National Archives at New York City

A token for the General Slocum – Mariners Museum

Report of the United States Commission of Investigation upon the disaster to the steamer General Slocum (PDF)

Radio/Podcast:

Ship Ablaze – Remembering the General Slocum – NPR

Video:

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