Edward T. O’Donnell is completing a book on the General Slocum tragedy, to be published by Broadway Books later this year.
This week, Hibernian Chronicle departs from its normal “this week” format to tell a story with great relevance to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On June 15, 1904, more than 1,000 people died when their steamship, the General Slocum, burst into flames while moving up the East River. It was both the deadliest single fire and deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in American history. Most of the victims were Germans — all from the same church — but the tragedy involved New Yorkers of all backgrounds, including a great many Irish Americans. Like Sept. 11, the Slocum tragedy tested the wills of New Yorkers and brought out their best.
The story of the General Slocum tragedy begins in the thriving German neighborhood known as Kleindeutchland, or Little Germany. Located just east of Little Ireland on the Lower East Side in what is today called the East Village, Kleindeutchland had been home to New York’s German immigrants since they first began arriving in large numbers in the 1840s. By the 1870s, the neighborhood featured countless German institutions, including fraternal societies, athletic clubs, theaters, bookshops, restaurants, beer gardens, synagogues and churches.
One of those churches, St. Mark’s Lutheran church, on East 6th Street, held an annual outing to celebrate the end of the Sunday school year. They usually chartered an excursion boat to take them to a nearby recreation spot for a day of swimming, games, and food. On June 15, 1904, more than 2,000 people boarded the General Slocum at the East 3rd Street pier for a day at Locust Grove on Long Island Sound.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the crew of the General Slocum cast off and the ship pulled away from the pier. Ten minutes later, disaster struck.
As the ship passed East 90th Street, smoke started billowing from a forward storage room. A spark, most likely from a carelessly tossed match, had ignited a barrel of straw. Several crewmen tried to put the fire out, but they had never conducted a fire drill or undergone any emergency training.
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To make matters worse, the ship’s rotten fire hoses burst when the water was turned on. By the time they notified Captain William Van Schaick of the emergency — fully 10 minutes after discovering the fire — the blaze raged out of control and the ship was in the middle of the treacherous waters of the Hell Gate channel.
The captain looked to the piers along the East River, but feared he might touch off an explosion among the many oil tanks there. Instead, he opted to proceed at top speed to North Brother Island a mile ahead. Several small boats followed the floating inferno as it roared upriver. Among them was one piloted by a Captain Flannery, who pulled his tugboat alongside the burning Slocum and allowed dozens to jump aboard. Another containing policemen James Collins and Hubert Farrell rescued 26 from the water.
The increased speed fanned the flames. Panicked passengers ran about the deck, unsure where to take refuge. Mothers screamed for their children, husbands for their wives. The flames, accelerated by fresh coat of highly flammable paint, rapidly enveloped the ship and passengers began to jump overboard. Some clung to the rails as long as they could before jumping into the churning water. A few were rescued by nearby boats, but most did not know how to swim and simply drowned. The ship’s steward, Michael McGrann, fulfilled his duty to protect the ship’s money by filling his pockets before jumping. Unfortunately, the weight of the coins dragged him to his death.
The inexperienced crew provided no help. Nor did the 3,000 lifejackets on board. Rotten and filled with disintegrated cork, they had long since lost their buoyancy. Those who put them on sank as soon as they hit the water. Wired in place, none of the lifeboats could be dislodged.
Even if they had, they would never have made it safely into the water with the ship chugging along at top speed.
By the time the ship finally beached at North Brother Island, it was almost completely engulfed in fire. Survivors poured over the railings into the water. Some huddled in the few places not yet reached by the flames, too terrified to jump. Nurses and patients at the island’s contagious disease hospital rushed to offer assistance. Several of them grabbed ladders being used to renovate the facility and used them to bring the survivors off the ship. Others caught children tossed by distraught parents. One patient, Mary McCann, a 17-year-old Irish immigrant who had arrived at Ellis Island only three weeks earlier, plunged into the water and saved 10 children. Within minutes, all who could be saved, including the captain and several crew, were moved away from the burning hulk.
The General Slocum left a grisly wake. The boats that followed seeking to offer assistance plucked a few survivors from the water. But mostly they found only the lifeless bodies of the ship’s ill-fated passengers. The fact that most were young children only added to the horror.
Within minutes of the tragedy, reporters from the New York World and other major dailies were on the scene. The dispatches they sent back to their newsrooms sickened many a hardened editor. Rescue workers openly wept as the corpses piled up. By the time they were done counting the bodies and tabulating a list of the missing, the death toll stood at 1,021.
With more than 2,000 people on the outing, nearly everyone in the neighborhood knew someone on the ship. As word of the fire spread, it caused panic and confusion. Just as with Sept. 11, no one seemed to know where to go. Eventually thousands gathered at St. Mark’s Church awaiting word about survivors. Thousands more rushed uptown to the East 23rd Street pier designated as a temporary morgue. In yet another similarity to 9/11, many grabbed photographs of their loved ones and went about asking people if they’d seen them. By mid-afternoon, those not yet reunited with their family members began to lose hope. Many eventually discovered they had lost a wife or child. Dozens learned they had lost their entire families.
At the morgue, Coroners Joseph Berry and William O’Gorman oversaw the policemen and Coroner’s Department workers as they labored to lay out the hundreds of corpses as they arrived. Others were dispatched to scour the city for coffins. Wagons arrived laden with tons of ice for the preservation of the bodies. Outside hundreds of policemen strained to control the swelling crowds of relatives and friends, not to mention curiosity seekers, reporters, and undertakers.
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 61 who could not be identified — including many of the bodies recovered days after the event — were buried in a common grave. Funerals were held every hour for days on end in the churches of Kleindeutschland. These tragic scenes were punctuated by the suicides of several men and women who lost their entire families in the fire.
The story of the General Slocum made headlines across the nation and around the globe. World leaders and European royalty sent money and letters of condolence to Mayor George B. McClellan and the people of St. Mark’s. Just like 9/11, funds poured in from private citizens and charitable groups from Connecticut to California.
How could a tragedy of such magnitude occur within a few hundred yards of the shores of the nation’s most modern city? In the weeks and months that followed the fire, an outraged public searched for answers and culprits. City officials vowed to conduct a thorough investigation and within weeks, Captain Van Schaick, executives of the Knickerbocker Steamship Co., and the inspector who certified the General Slocum as safe only a month before the fire were indicted.
In the end, prosecutor assistant district attorney Francis P. Garvan managed to send only Captain Van Schaick to jail and even he was pardoned after serving three years of a 10-year sentence. In contrast, the officials at the Knickerbocker Steamship Company escaped with only a nominal fine. This despite the fact that the trial revealed the company had illegally falsified records to cover up their lack of attention to passenger safety.
The General Slocum tragedy left a lasting impact on New York City. First, it caused the rapid dissolution of the German enclave of Kleindeutschland. Most survivors and their relatives were unwilling to remain in a neighborhood suffused by tragedy and simply moved. By the time of the 1910 census, only a handful of German families remained in Kleindeutschland. Second, the General Slocum disaster brought about a major upgrading of steamboat safety regulations and a sweeping reform of the United States Steamboat Inspection Service.
Sept. 11, 2001 and June 15, 1904 were certainly very different events. One was an act of hate-inspired terrorism, the other a dreadful accident born of negligence and greed. More important, they are different in that the Slocum tragedy rapidly faded from public memory, to the point that it was replaced as the city’s great fire just seven years later when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burned. It’s unlikely that 9/11 will be so easily forgotten, given the nature of the attacks, the fact that so many millions saw the horror on television, and that the U.S. launched a subsequent war on terrorism in response.
Still, there are similarities in the way the city experienced the tragedy that are worth noting. As in 9/11, the Slocum tragedy made clear that ordinary people could perform extraordinary acts of heroism. It likewise showed that in times of great tragedy, the people of New York (and the nation) responded immediately with an outpouring of sympathy and financial support. Finally, it also demonstrated that although badly shaken, the spirit of New York City and its people remained resilient in the face of tragedy.
Postscript: readers familiar with Ulysses may recall that James Joyce refers to the Slocum tragedy in the work which is set on June 16, 1904, the day after the fire: “Yes, Sir. Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heart rending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can’t understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that. Now you are talking straight, Mr. Crimmins. You know why? Palmoil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. . . . Graft, my dear sir. Well, of course, where there’s money going there’s always someone to pick it up.”
(Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.)