Volume 17 • Issue 3 | June 11 - 17, 2004

Remembering the Slocum disaster, a century later

By Bonnie Rosenstock

Claude Rust Collection

Painting of the General Slocum on fire in the East River by Walter M. Baumhofer.

In 1978, after Karen Lamberton and her father finished cleaning out the apartment of her aunt, who had recently died, he gave her all of their relative’s accumulated and treasured family memorabilia — invitations, photos, birth certificates, etc. — because she was interested in researching family genealogy.

One endearing picture in particular caught Lamberton’s attention. It turned out to be a photograph of her dad as a young boy in knickers and tie and his father in a skimmer, a flat hat made of straw.

“I asked where they were. He said they were on an excursion boat. My mother shot him a look which stopped the conversation dead. It seemed to touch a nerve,” relates Lamberton.

Her father died in 1984, but it took until the end of the 1980s for Lamberton to work up the courage to ask her mother about the picture and why she didn’t want to talk about it. “My mother replied, ‘My family didn’t do that [go on anymore excursion boats] because of the Slocum,’ ” Lamberton, from Suffern, N.Y., now in her late 50s, says.

And that’s how Lamberton found out about the General Slocum disaster and her mother’s family’s tragic involvement in it. (The photo of her father wasn’t taken on the Slocum, but a different boat.)

Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon, who was the last Slocum survivor, in 1996. She died in January at the age of 100.
As she and a cousin began delving deeper, they discovered that out of 14 relatives who were on the ill-fated steamer, 12 succumbed to the fiery inferno or the hellish waters, and a fortunate 15th missed the boat. They included the Muths, Schnitzlers, Christs and the Hessels.

“My Uncle John and young John Muth survived,” she says. “Another relative, Ed Schnitzler, was a cop. He had no idea what was happening. As he was walking, he just saw a boat on fire in the East River almost directly across from North Brother Island in The Bronx. He went to the nearest dock near the police station on 138th St., commandeered a boat and rowed out. When the breeze changed direction, he saw it was the General Slocum. His wife and two daughters perished.”

As the 100th anniversary approaches on June 15, few people recall the burning of the General Slocum, yet until Sept. 11, 2001, it was New York’s worst loss of life in a single event. The Slocum claimed the lives of over 800 children and 300 adults, mostly women, from the working-class German-American Lutheran community (Jewish and Catholic friends who went along also perished, in addition to two African-American crew members). It remains New York City’s — and the nation’s — largest and most devastating peacetime maritime disaster. Sadder still, it decimated a vibrant, flourishing neighborhood and a way of life.

It began peacefully enough, that anticipated day of summer fun, that Wed., June 15, 1904. It was the 17th annual picnic of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church located on E. Sixth St. between Second and Third Aves. in what had been Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, since the 1840s. At the turn of the 20th century, about one-third of New York City’s population was of German descent. The neighborhood ran along the East River from Houston St. to 14th St., and the church was its spiritual nexus. The pastor of the church, Reverend George F. Haas, had chartered the triple-decker side-wheel General Slocum, one of the most popular excursion steamships of its day, for $350 from the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company. The trip would be to Locust Grove, near Northport in Suffolk County, Long Island.

Since it was a workday, most of the passengers were women; about 500 people were under 20 years old. Between 1,300 and 1,500 people were aboard. The exact number has never been confirmed, nor the number of dead, which ranges from 1,000 to 1,300.

“An unknown number were either carried out to sea or held on the bottom by debris, etc., until they were totally decomposed and so never found,” explains Lamberton. “The city put out the number of 1,021 and then 1,031, based on the coroner’s number of death certificates. It is that confusion which led me to give up five years trying to compile the most accurate list that I could, and although not complete, it is over the city’s 1,031. Even with all the record-keeping we do today, there will always be those who remain missing.”

With the band playing popular German music, the General Slocum left the Third St. pier near Houston St. at 9:40 a.m. Less than a half-hour later the wooden ship went up in flames, the result of a crewman’s carelessness. When he was filling the ship’s lanterns with oil, some of it spilled on loose hay from packing material that was strewn on the floor. The hay, along with other garbage in the forward cabin, should have been swept up and taken off the ship before it sailed. Instead, it caught fire from the intense heat of the nearby furnace room. As the Slocum was going through the most fearsome part of the East River known as Hell Gate (in the East 90s), the cries of “fire” could be heard. With the whirlpools, rocks and current so strong, the captain, William Van Schaick, decided not to turn the ship around, but to head for North Brother Island just a few minutes away. They never made it.

In the official investigation that followed, it became evident that many confluent factors contributed to the heavy loss of life: the rampant corruption of that era, inadequate safety precautions and lack of crew preparation (the 35-man crew had never received required training or had a fire drill) and the still debatable decision of the captain to press ahead. One month before the disaster, two inspectors from the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service had declared the Slocum safe and sound.

In fact, the six lifeboats were all tied down and glued to their chocks (blocks used to prevent them from temporarily moving) from a recent paint job and would not budge. The life belts were nailed tight to the overhead by rusty wiring and dated “1891.” They were required by law to contain six pounds of solid cork; however, a noticeable powdery substance was spilling out of them. When the passengers put them on and jumped into the river, instead of floating, they sank like a rock from their weight. The fire hoses, which were declared in “good condition,” burst apart from the water pressure.

However, Captain Van Schaick was declared solely culpable and was the only one to go to jail. (He later received a presidential pardon.) Steamboat company officials were tried, but never convicted even though records indicate that owners bribed the inspectors; in any case, the latter most likely bought their jobs, as this was the practice of the day. Upon inspection of all the harbor excursion boats, many were found to have similar violations. As a result, there was a complete shakeup of the Inspection Service. Since 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard has carried out its functions.

But it was too late to save Little Germany. Devastated by the deaths of so many loved ones, some family members committed suicide or went crazy. Many others moved away, to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, to Astoria in Queens, to the other boroughs. “I will turn my back on this neighborhood and never return was how survivors felt,” says Lamberton, one of the organizers of the Slocum Centennial Committee. “They came home to an empty house and a neighborhood devoid of women and children. There was mass trauma. They didn’t have family to support them because they all died. They didn’t have psychological services in those days. I talked to about 80 descendents, and there is still a lot of emotion about it,” she says.

However, remnants of Little Germany still exist in the renamed East Village. The Community Synagogue bought the red-brick church building from the congregation in 1945. (The altar and baptismal font were taken to the Zion St. Marks Lutheran Church at 339 E. 84th St. when the parishes merged.) A few buildings still bear German words etched into their facades. The 1884 landmarked Ottendorfer Library on E. Ninth St. and Second Ave., the first building in the city specifically built to serve as a free public library, proclaims “Freie Bibliothek u. Leshalle” (free library and reading room). The medical clinic next door still bears “Deutsches Dispensary” carved above the door.

And in a quiet area of Tompkins Sq. Park on E. Ninth St. and Avenue

A, beyond an iron gate and adjacent to the East Village Conservancy Headquarters, there is a humble 9-ft. upright stele of pink Tennessee marble with a low relief of two children looking seaward and a lion head spout. It was sculpted by Bruno Louis Zimm and donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies in 1906. In 1990, Frank Duffy and a group from the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, site of the SUNY-Maritime College in the Bronx, raised more than $6,000 by popular subscription for its restoration. The Parks Department renovated the monument and fountain in 1991. The monument is dedicated to the memory of the children. It says simply, “They were Earth’s purest, Children Young and Fair.”

Why has the General Slocum tragedy been relegated to the back burner of history? (In contrast, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory conflagration, which took the lives of 146 women on the corner of Washington Pl. and Greene St., is represented by a plaque and often cited.) Certainly it was well known in its day. In “Ulysses,” James Joyce devotes several paragraphs deploring it.

In the German-American community, “there’s a 50-50 split,” explains Lamberton. “Germans themselves tried to bury it. Either families talked about it a lot or didn’t talk about it at all and that’s how we’re going to make it through. Others made a conscious effort to make sure their children and grandchildren know the story and this is how we triumphed.”

Lamberton says many descendents of survivors felt that they were being compelled by the tragedy to become successful and have fulfilling lives, and she notes a high number of “extreme successes” that came out of the disaster.

“Talking to descendents today, many say, ‘I was pushed from behind my whole life.’ You still have the feeling that was the reason behind it,” she says.

Perhaps the sinking of the more glamorous luxury liner Titanic on April 15, 1912, in which 1,500 perished, replaced it. Or the ensuing wars may have played a role in its diminished importance. “There was a lot of anti-German feeling leading up to World War I, then World War II, so perhaps that’s why it got lost,” she suggests. (In 1917, the Germania Life Insurance Company at 201 Park Ave. S. and 17th St., founded by German immigrants in 1860 to serve the growing German-American population, changed its name to the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.)

Comparing this 1904 tragedy to 9/11 is inevitable. “The human response was the same,” declares Lamberton. “People in boats went to the rescue, police commandeered boats, everybody was working as a cohesive unit. However, the major difference is the Slocum victims and families were all related by blood, marriage, religion and location. After three generations, they are scattered around the country now. It destroyed a community.”

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