Eight years before the sinking of the Titanic, New York experienced a terrible shipboard tragedy that took 1,021 lives, plunging the entire city into grief. On June 15, 1904, the congregation of St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on East Sixth Street rented the steamboat The General Slocum for a picnic excursion to Long Island. The high-spirited crowd—mostly women and children from New York's Little Germany—left the Third Street Pier singing. But a fire broke out in the hold as the Slocum steamed up the East River. The Captain steered the burning boat to the rocky shore of North Brother Island across from East 148th Street in the Bronx, but already the blazing decks had collapsed on hundreds of screaming passengers. On that beautiful sunny morning, scores of families lost mothers and children. The disaster devastated the German-American community of New York, ignited a debate about corporate responsibility, and put maritime safety issues on the public agenda.
The passengers who boarded the blazing ship mostly lived in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, then known as Little Germany. Home country fixtures from beer gardens to delicatessens, singing societies to shooting clubs bestowed a distinctively German flavor to the area. Immigrants constantly renewed the neighborhood's transplanted culture, as the steamship packets delivered passengers from Germany and Eastern European nations through the port of New York. New arrivals could work, drink, eat, vote and worship in their native tongue fortified by the company of the nearly half-million people of German descent living in New York. In the wake of the Slocum tragedy, the Little Germany community seemed to fall apart, with widowers committing suicide and shrunken families moving away from this ethnic enclave, with its memories of missing relatives and neighbors.
Under blue skies, the Slocum steamed up river with a hired band playing. Suddenly, a fire broke out, possibly triggered by a lit cigarette dropped in hay being used to pack beer steins for the picnic at Locust Grove, Long Island. The untrained crew below failed to promptly inform the captain, who was maneuvering through the East River's tricky passage at Hell Gate. Captain Van Schaick decided not to beach on the river's Bronx side, since lumber yards and gas tanks lined the shore there around 130th Street. Instead, he opted to head for nearby North Brother Island. Meanwhile, flames rapidly consumed the wooden stanchions supporting the decks, before the captain managed to ground the ship's bow on the rocky island shore (visible today from the Triborough Bridge). Unfortunately, with the stern stuck over deep waters and the bow in flames, passengers were forced to jump in over their heads. Unable to swim, many drowned in waters fewer than 60 feet from safety. Grossly inadequate shipboard safety contributed to the dreadful death toll: crew members scrambled to save themselves first, inferior fire hoses burst, rotted life jackets crumbled, and lifeboats rusted to their moorings could not be launched.
As horrified onlookers watched from the nearby Bronx shore, tugboats and pleasure craft raced to pick up survivors. Tales of heroism vied with stories of cowardice. One beefy police officer floated on his back to shore with a horde of children clinging to him like a raft. A tugboat captain ordered his crew to hose him down as he rowed a lifeboat towards the flaming ship. Patients and staff of the contagious disease hospital on North Brother Island ran to help, extending ladders from shallow water and forming human chains to pass those bodies still breathing to safety.
The last survivor of the Slocum disaster died this past January at age 100, on the century anniversary of the tragedy. Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon lost two sisters, two cousins and two aunts on the boat. Her mother, Anna Liebenow, was badly burned and bore the scars for the remainder of her life. Sister Helen was six and toddler Anna only three. Little Anna's body was recovered, and her shoes saved. Helen's body was never found, although what her mother later identified as her earrings turned up in the badly charred hold of the ship.
The Liebenow family was active in the Organization of General Slocum Survivors which met in the Schuetzen Hall, a building still standing at 12 Saint Mark's Place. Furious at the ship surviving captain and the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, both Anna and Paul Liebenow saved newspaper clippings, photos and correspondence which they pasted in large scrapbooks. The Bequest of Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon, left to The New-York Historical Society this spring illustrates the tragedy's impact on the family. Their painstaking documentation of the event and subsequent trials also situated their ordeal in a larger framing history of a fairly typical New York German family with 19th century immigrant roots, proud of their American citizenship, but still reading German language newspapers and baptizing their children in the German Lutheran Church.
Captain William Henry Van Schaick and Frank Barnaby, president of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, were the primary targets of the Coroner's inquiry. A parade of witnesses came forth to testify that life preservers on the vessel had fallen apart; indeed cork dust clotted the hair of victims pulled from the water. The Coroner and courts also accused steamboat inspector Henry Lundberg of negligence because he had certified the ship as "safe" a month before. Testimony made clear that inspectors were not expected to probe deeply, particularly since they were paid per inspection. Why had the Captain avoided beaching the ship on the mud flats near the Bronx shore, rather than North Brother Island? How were Frank Barnaby's records falsified to show that he had purchased new life preservers?
Adroitly, the ship company's president maneuvered to escape responsibility. Despite damning eye-witness accounts, a sensational trial ultimately acquitted the company and steamship inspector, while the captain was sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1910, a congressional report condemned the Slocum's lax federal inspection, the untrained crew, and faulty life-saving equipment for the large loss of life. As a result, shipboard safety was improved, although not quickly and widely enough, judging by the huge death toll of the Titanic only eight years later. The disaster did mark the twilight of wooden passenger boats, since the alarmed public shifted its allegiance to less-flammable steel-hulled vessels.
Reactions, Grief, Memory
Greater New York—and much of the country beyond—was stunned by the Slocum disaster. Local newspapers ran special editions for weeks, covering the lengthy search for bodies, the emotional series of trials, the mass funerals and the grief-stricken neighborhood. Black crepe draped City Hall, and schools cancelled graduation ceremonies. Reformers called for stricter boat inspections, crews trained with fire drills, less-flammable ship materials and even swimming lessons for the public. Notwithstanding the grief and outrageous loss of 1,021 innocent lives, New Yorkers erased the tragedy rather rapidly from their collective memory. Why?
Two other disasters occurring soon thereafter seem to have made a longer-lasting impression: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, and the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic in 1912. The wealthy and glamorous Titanic passengers captured more attention than the working class people of Little Germany. After 1904 Germans spread out over the region, abandoning their ethnic concentration on the Lower East Side. With the entry of the United States into World War I, there was ample nativist incentive to erase memories of New York's large population of German-Americans. Not until the recent September 11th tragedy did the general public have occasion to think deeply again about these sad events 100 years ago.
It is hard to ignore some eerie parallels between the General Slocum and World Trade Center disasters. In 1904, the number of casualties was never fully determined because there was no precise count of how many had boarded the ship. Heart-breaking scenes unfolded at a temporary morgue established on a pier, the only space large enough to accommodate so many victims. There was even a father who posted "missing" advertisements to locate a son he hoped had survived. As was true after September 11th, public charity and sympathy was extended to the victims, and surviving families. A memorial where remains of the unidentified deceased could be buried was dedicated only one year later in the Queens Lutheran Cemetery. There, the Organization of General Slocum Survivors will commemorate the 100th anniversary, as it has solemnly done for five score years.