This post was written by Ted Houghtaling, Scanning Technician.
“Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing…” — James Joyce, Ulysses
On the morning of June 15th, 1904, 1,358 members and friends of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church chartered an excursion ship named the General Slocum for their 17th annual picnic to Locust Grove, Long Island. Named for Civil War general and New York Congressman, Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a gleaming white, three-decked paddle-steamer built by the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company in 1891. In its heyday, The Slocum was hailed as one of the most modern and attractive ships to sail on New York City’s bustling waterways, but by 1904, the once glorious ship had fallen into disrepair. Adding to her spotty service history, including multiple groundings and collisions, it became clear that the vessel, along with her 67-year-old captain, William Van Shaick, was fast approaching retirement.
That morning, Pastor George Haas was busy making last-minute preparations before setting off to meet his congregation at the Third Street pier. He had organized this yearly outing as a way to celebrate the ending of the Sunday school year but more importantly, to give his parishioners a much needed respite from the hustle and din that typified life in turn-of-the-20th-century Manhattan. Most of the passengers that day were women and children from the thriving Lower East Side community known as Kleindeutchland, or “Little Germany,” which arose from the more than one and half million German immigrants who poured into the US between the 1840s and 1850s. By 1904, the Lower East Side was home to one of the largest German communities in the United States and St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was seen as the hub of the burgeoning German-American middle class in New York City.
As the passengers waited on the pier dressed in their finest clothes, a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation filled the air. After all, many of the church congregants had waited all year for this day of revelry and relaxation. An article published the next day in The New York Times reported on the festive mood that morning: “As she cast off and stood out into the stream her flags were flying, the band was playing a lively air, and her three decks were crowded to their capacity with a happy throng that looked for a pleasant day’s outing.”
The Slocum was due to depart at 8 am, but was delayed by two families who, citing a premonition of disaster the night before, quickly disembarked the ship at the last minute. Around 9 am, the General Slocum began its fateful journey up the East River to a lively sendoff. Hundreds of children jammed the decks of the ship to take in the scenes of the urban panorama slowly passing them by. A little before 10 am, it neared the narrow passage of Hell Gate between Wards Island and Queens, which was known for its treacherous and unpredictable currents. But unbeknownst to Captain Shaick and his crew, a small fire had started in the ship’s forward hold. Though the specific cause of the fire remains a mystery, it is widely believed that a carelessly tossed match had sparked a pile of packing hay in the barrels of drinking glasses meant for the day’s entertainment. As black smoke started to rise from below deck, some of the crew opened the hatch to investigate the cause. But as they opened the door, a rush of oxygen poured into the room and transformed the small spark into a raging fire. The crewmen quickly rushed to put out the ensuing blaze, but to their horror, they found that many of the ship’s firehoses were either rotten or leaky. To make matters worse, none of the crew had ever been trained in fire safety, as evidenced by their attempt to smother the flames with charcoal. A full 10 minutes later, Captain Shaick was finally notified of the fire, but by then it had become a “blaze that could not be conquered,” and any attempt to put it out was “like trying to put out hell itself”, he later testified. Now the fire began to spread through the wooden structure of the ship toward the festivities taking place above deck.
When the passengers noticed the encroaching inferno, order and civility soon gave way as fellow church members trampled one another in a mad dash to reach safety in the stern of the ship. A reporter from The Chicago Tribune described the ensuing scene:
It was a spectacle of horror beyond words to express—a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in the waves—women and children with their hair and clothing on fire; crazed mothers casting their babies overboard or leaping with them to certain death; wailing children and old men trampled under-foot or crowded over into the water—and the burning steamboat, her whistle roaring for assistance, speeding on for the shore of North Brother Island with a trail of ghastly faces and clutching hands in the tide behind her— grayhaired mothers and tender infants going down to death together.
Nearby onlookers shouted at Captain Shaick to dock the burning ship, but fearing he might set off the nearby oil and lumber piers, he accelerated to full speed in the hopes of reaching North Brother Island. This, however, only served to spread the flames towards the rear of the ship where most of the passengers had huddled for safety. Fearing for their lives, many rushed towards the lifeboats in a mad stampede, only to find the locking mechanisms painted over and the straps used to hold the vessels permanently fastened in place, rendering them useless. Those who managed to grab hold of one of the 2,500 lifejackets found that almost all of the cork had rotted into a heavy, powdered dust. Tragically, it was later discovered the compressed cork was stuffed with iron bars to meet the requirement that they each contain six pounds of cork. These jackets, along with the heavy clothes customarily worn at this time, resulted in many passengers drowning under the weight of their vests in the turbulent waters of the East River. Others suffered a more violent fate as they were crushed to death under the thrashing of the steamboat’s enormous paddle-wheel.
One gripping account of survival comes from Catherine Kassebaum, one of the many children aboard the Slocum that day.
I climbed over the rail and jumped feet first into the water. It seemed to me that I sank hundreds of feet and that I should never come to the surface again. But at last I saw a flash of light, and that told me that I was up where I could get a breath of air. I tried to keep myself from sinking again by striking out blindly with my hands and feet, and did manage to keep up for a few seconds.
In that brief time I saw women and children around me in the water. They all seemed to be drowning. I remember I wondered in a dreamy sort of way if any of my schoolmates were near me, and if they would be rescued. Then my strength failed me and I sank once more. I stopped struggling and didn’t seem to care any longer whether I ever rose to the top or not.
By the time the General Slocum finally reached North Brother Island, it was a smoldering wreck. The island was home to a hospital for contagious diseases, so many of the nurses and staff rushed to offer assistance. Meanwhile, reporters from around the city flocked to the still unfolding scene. One reporter was George Stonebridge, an amateur photographer who managed to capture these tragic images taking place along the shores of the Bronx near 138th St.
In the days that followed, it was not uncommon to see the grim visage of lifeless bodies floating along the East River. After rescue operations ceased, the final death toll reached 1,021, making the sinking of the General Slocum the city’s worst single day disaster—a record that stood until it was shattered nearly a century later on September 11, 2001. Both Pastor Haas and Captain Shaick survived, but the fate of the other 321 survivors remained uncertain. Historian Edward O’Donnell, in his book Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, wrote on the aftermath.
Thousands rushed uptown to the East 23rd Street pier that was designated as a temporary morgue. By mid-afternoon, those not yet reunited with their family members began to lose hope. Many discovered they had lost a wife or child. Dozens learned they had lost their entire families…For the next week, thousands paraded past the gruesome lineup of victims resting in open coffins. The better preserved were identified quickly. Some of the burned and disfigured were identified by their clothing or jewelry. The sixty-one that could be identified, including many of the bodies recovered days after the event—were buried in a common grave.
On June 18, 1904, three days after the tragedy, the Lower East Side streets were clogged with funeral carriages as the few remaining members of this tightly-knit community gathered to mourn their dead. Over 600 families lost someone in the disaster and almost overnight, the community of “Little Germany” was reduced to a ghost town. After the last body was buried, many of the traumatized survivors either moved further north to Yorkville or returned home to Germany to make a fresh start. Meanwhile, the rest of New York City focused their outrage at the Slocum’s captain, William Shaick, and the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company. For months, the newspapers published more lurid and shocking tales about the company’s negligence and their long history of graft and bribery, which only fed into the public outcry. Eventually, their demands for justice were heard when President Theodore Roosevelt formed a federal commission to investigate the disaster. Although there were many revelations of corruption and graft tied to the administrators of the company, only Captain William Shaick was found guilty of criminal negligence and manslaughter. He served three years of a 10-year sentence in Sing Sing Prison and was released on parole in 1911; President William H. Taft pardoned him a year later. The commission also led to a dramatic overhaul of steamboat safety regulations and inspection procedures for ships throughout the United States—many of which are still in place today.
Shortly after the disaster, members of the Sympathy Society of German Ladies provided funds to erect a memorial to the victims of the Slocum. In 1906, the city of New York dedicated the fountain in Tompkins Square Park and annual services were planned by the Organization of the General Slocum Survivors. But with each successive anniversary, fewer and fewer survivors attended and by 1979, it was estimated by the Queens Historical Society that there remained only 21 survivors. In 2004, Adella Wotherspoon, the last survivor of the General Slocum, passed away at the age of 100. Perhaps eclipsed by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the devastating events of 1904 have largely been forgotten from the annals of New York City history. In a speech given at the 1999 commemoration, Adella Wotherspoon offered a sobering explanation. “The Titanic had a great many famous people on it,” she said. ”This was just a family picnic.”
- Kalafus, Jim (2007) “The General Slocum : The Horror of Fire at Sea”. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/general-slocum.html
- King, Gilbert (2012). “A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum”. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-spectacle-of-horror-the-burning-of-the-general-slocum-104712974/
- O’Donnell, Edward (2003). “Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat “General Slocum”. New York: Broadway Books.
- Wingfield, Valerie (2011). “The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904”. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904