The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

June 15, 1904 will live in infamy in the history of New York

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Even veteran reporters looked and wept as the tragedy of the General Slocum unfolded.

    It was a few minutes after 9’o’clock on a sunny, humid day in June just 106 years ago. The excursion boat General Slocum was moored to her dock on East 3rd Street on the Lower East Side.

    It was a big day for the 1,400 passengers who were boarding the ship. Most were women and children, members of the congregation of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Sixth Street. They were excited to be going on their annual Sunday school picnic. 

    The neighborhood they came from was called Little Germany because of the origin of many of the families who came here as immigrants. The parents and children carried picnic baskets as they boarded the boat, anticipating the outing at Locust Grove on Long Island Sound. Flags were caught by a light breeze, and the band played a Lutheran Hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

    Forty minutes later, what started as a joyful day had turned into a horrible tragedy.

    Newspaper headlines the next day told the story :

    The banner in The World read: “List of Slocum’s Dead May Reach 1000”

    The Times headlines: “ “St. Mark’s Church Excursion Ends in Disaster in East River Close to Land and Safety”

    “693 Bodies Found—Hundreds Missing or Injured”

    The loss of life was staggering. Never, until the World Trade Center attack, was there such a heavy  loss of life in a disaster in New York. The final death toll was put at 1,021. 

    The two-stacked paddleboat had shoved off from the pier and steamed up the East River. At about 125th Street, fire was discovered in a cabin on the main deck. Instead of beaching the boat on either side of the narrow river, Captain William J. Van Schaick, for a reason never adequately explained, increased the speed. He wanted to head for North Brother Island just off the Bronx shore.

    As the flames crackled through the vessel, mothers clutched babies to their breasts. Boys and girls, as historian Edward Ellis wrote, “climbed onto deck chairs and waved frantically toward the shore. Now the encroaching flames set their clothing afire. Terrified women tried to herd the children to the stern, but the panic-stricken, screeching; youngsters, could not be managed.”

    Some people jumped into the water and made it to shore. Others drowned. The burning vessel attracted many spectators on the Manhattan shore. They yelled to the captain to beach the Slocum. He ignored their cries.

    By the time he did beach the vessel on North Brother Island, hundreds had perished. As Ellis described it, the General Slocum, named after a Civil War hero, was overrun with flames. “Floating in the water,” Ellis wrote, “were bodies blackened and bloody, torn and seared. Veteran reporters looked and wept.”

    It happened on June 15, 1904.  A year later, a memorial fountain, eight feet tall, was unveiled near the northwestern corner of Tompkins Square. On it are engraved a picture of two children looking toward the sea and the words: “They were earth’s purest, children young and fair.”

    Grief filled the neighborhood, as hearses rumbled through the streets for three days. Burials were in the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. Families were decimated. In many cases, the fathers, who were at work when it happened, were the only survivors. Some were so devastated, they committed suicide. Others, it was said, went mad.

    Sorrow gave way to anger. An investigation was held. It turned out that the crew had no emergency training. Most life preservers were rotten.  The captain was convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor at Sing Sing Prison.

    Adella Wotherspoon, the last survivor of the disaster, died six years ago at 100. She lost two sisters in the tragedy. She was six months old when it happened. A year later, she unveiled a monument to 61 unknown dead at the cemetery.

    Ms. Wotherspoon, organizers hoped, would attend an observance of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy in 2004. She didn’t make it -- she died in February of that year.

     The epitaph for all those who died on that terrible day more than a century ago might well be the words uttered by the coroner. He said:

    “Wives, all of them, and mothers, too. I don’t doubt it’s the most awful sight I have ever seen.”