Up until 9/11 the worst recorded peacetime disaster to occur in New York City, and still the city’s greatest maritime disaster, with the highest death toll, took place on 15 June 1904. Most Americans, even New York City natives, know little or nothing of the disaster. But, in many ways similar to 9/11, it is a story of greed, negligence and lack of justice for the victims and their surviving families. And though the passage of time tends to obscure past events, perhaps one reason why this event has been forgotten may be partially due to the anti-German campaigns stemming from the two World Wars that occurred after the disaster. And, unlike the well known 1912 RMS Titanic disaster that took the lives of many affluent people, this New York City maritime disaster took the lives of mainly lower and middle-class German-American women and children and massively influenced the dissolution of their German-American community.
The community affected was called KleinDeutschland or Little Germany, a German immigrant neighborhood in the Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. In a quote from Wikipedia — “Beginning in the 1840s, large numbers of German immigrants entering the United States provided a constant population influx for Little Germany. In the 1850s alone, 800,000 Germans passed through New York. By 1855 New York had the third largest German population of any city in the world, outranked only by Berlin and Vienna…In 1845, Little Germany was already the largest German-American neighborhood in New York; by 1855, its German population had more than quadrupled, displacing the American-born workers who had first moved into the neighborhood’s new housing, and at the beginning of the 20th century, it was home to almost 50,000 people. From a core in the riverside 11th Ward, it expanded to encompass most of the 10th, 13th, and 17th Wards, the same area that later became known as the Jewish Lower East Side.” Often considered as the hub of this German-American community was St. Mark’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church.
By all accounts the day of 15 June 1904 in New York City was bright and sunny, much like the day of 11 September 2001. While most of the men of Little Germany had to work that day, the women and children from the congregation of St. Mark’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church planned a holiday excursion, the 17th annual end-of-school celebration. They had purchased tickets and, for $350, chartered the paddle-steamer, PS General Slocum, to take them up the East River toward Long Island Sound to Locust Grove, a picnic ground on Long Island’s north shore, where they would spend the day. The women were dressed in the fashion finery of the period, with long dresses, layers of petticoats, heavy leather shoes and stylish hats while the children and infants were dressed in their Sunday best. Filled picnic baskets were in tow and many of the children brought flags to wave and sports equipment to use for games at the picnic ground. A German band would be aboard to provide lively music during the approximately two hour cruise to their destination. The mood was happy and boisterous, as the passengers gathered at the Third Street pier on the East River. The happy pastor of the church, George Haas, was there with his family to coordinate the celebration and make sure everything went well for the ladies and their children. The official passenger count for the excursion numbered 1,358 plus crew, but the total number will never be known, since babies and small children did not need tickets and were not included in the passenger count.
The General Slocum carried the name of Civil War general Henry Warner Slocum, who later became a New York Congressman. It was a wood-constructed, three-decked, paddle-steamer built in 1891 by the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company. Painted a bright white and festooned with colorful pennants, in its early days it was considered to be one of the most modern and attractive excursion craft to sail on New York’s busy waterways. From its’ beginning up until the disaster the paddle-steamer had been captained by the same man, William Van Schaick. Now, by 1904, having seen many years of service, that included multiple groundings and collisions, the General Slocum, like its 67-year-old captain, was nearing retirement. It was no longer considered a top-of-the-line vessel on New York waterways and could not demand the higher-priced fares of the more modern vessels that had surpassed it. However, it was still a visually striking boat and for lower and middle-class patrons it could provide an exciting and affordable river adventure and an escape from the daily routine in the bustling city environment. It also undoubtedly continued to provide a steady stream of income for the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company.
The paddle-steamer was scheduled to leave the pier at 8am, but was delayed until around 9:30am. As in many such stories there appears to be an omen or mystical warning of things to come. It is reported that two families became agitated and quickly disembarked the ship, citing a premonition of disaster the night before. Once underway, however, the atmosphere remained festive with music playing, children romping about the crowded three decks and passengers waving to people along the shoreline.
There is still some controversy over how the disaster started, but the main conclusion on where it started seems to have been in a storage room in a forward hold. This room also served as the lamp room and contained lamp oil, that from spillage over the years, had permeated the wooden flooring with the flammable liquid. In addition, the room contained oily rags and other detritus. If that was not bad enough, it is reported that open packing barrels containing glasses to be used for the excursion were packed in straw (excelsior) and stored in this same room. The galley was cooking up clam chowder and pastor Haas, whose wife and daughter drowned in the disaster, later reported he saw a fire erupt in that location from a pot of oil on the stove. Others blamed spontaneous combustion or a crewman for starting a fire by leaving a smoldering cigarette in the lamp room or flicking ashes or a lit match in the room. In any case, a fire erupted below decks with the passengers and most of the crew unaware.
At around 10:00am the boat reached a tidal strait in the river with the (ominous for this disaster) name of Hell Gate, known for its deep water, violent currents and whirlpools. At this point an account of the story states that a boy first saw the smoke coming from below deck and ran up to the pilot house to report the fire to Captain Van Schaick with the captain responding, “Shut up and mind your own business.” Some versions state that the boy reported the fire to a crewman with the same response. Eventually, at least one of the crewmen did take notice of the smoke and made the fatal mistake of opening a hatch to the hold where the smoke was issuing from. This quickly gave the fire a burst of oxygen, which caused the fire to explosively erupt onto the first deck and quickly spread.
Here’s one account of fourteen-year-old survivor, John Eli, who, with his mother, two brothers and other passengers, went to see the machinery in the ship’s engine-room. His mother and brothers, whose clothing caught fire, drowned after being forced overboard into the water in the panic that ensued:
Suddenly, and without the least note of warning, there was a burst of flame from the furnace room that rushed up through the engine-room and burst out about us. The flames spread with the rapidity of an explosion, setting fire to the clothing of the women and children who were grouped about the engine-room watching the machinery…The flames spread in bursts that soon had the entire deck enveloped.
With the horrible screams of pain and panic coming from the first deck and now flame and smoke billowing from below, panic broke out on the upper decks as well. The fire was mainly concentrated fore and amidships, causing the passengers, for the most part, to run pell-mell toward the railings at the stern of the boat and, in the pandemonium, the infirm and small children were trampled underfoot. The captain, now realizing his boat was being engulfed by a full-blown fire, turned the wheel over to his first pilot, Edwin Van Wart, and called below for the crew to man the fire hoses and ordered the fire bell to be rung. At the same time he began laying on the boat whistle in order to attract rescue vessels from the shore. It was also at this point he made a fateful decision, that most likely increased the loss of life.
Instead of looking for a place to beach the vessel somewhere along the river shoreline, which was about 300 feet away, he called for the engines of the General Slocum to be brought up to full speed and ordered the boat steered toward North Brother Island, which was about two miles away. This headed the boat directly into the wind, fanning the flames and blowing them back toward the panicked passengers crowding the aft end of the boat. The crush of bodies caused passengers to be forced over the railings into the roiling waters below. For most it would become a choice of death by fire or death by drowning.
Horror gripped the witnesses on shore who helplessly watched the General Slocum, engulfed in flame, whistle blowing, race down the river with piercing screams coming from women and children on fire or from those being pushed or jumping into the treacherous waters of Hell Gate. Tugboats and small craft began to stream from the shore trying to catch up to the General Slocum in order to provide rescue assistance, but first had to plow through lines of floating bodies left in its wake. Some fortunate few, still alive and struggling in the water, were picked up and saved by the advancing rescue vessels.
Sometime just before or just after reaching North Brother Island, part of the hurricane deck (upper deck) collapsed inward throwing more passengers overboard or down into the inferno of the lower decks. Some had to watch loved ones pinned by the collapsed timbers being roasted alive, unable to lend any assistance. Others dove or were thrown into the churning paddle wheels and were crushed to death. First pilot Edwin Van Wart approached North Brother Island and intended to swing the boat sideways, parallel to the shore, but instead the bow of the ship hung up on the rocks leaving the stern stretched out over the deep, swift moving river. Because most of the remaining passengers were crowded at the aft end of the boat, they were still left with the choice of burning to death or jumping into the river.
Several other factors, many that would be brought out in a later investigation, made the chance of survival even worse. The outer clothing of the day was for the most part made of heavy wool, which caused the women with their heavy dresses and cumbersome undergarments to be dragged down by the weight of the saturated clothing after entering the water. Most people at that time, especially women and children, didn’t know how to swim and panicked after entering the water. In the case of those who knew how to swim, many were drowned by non-swimmers latching onto them in a death grip. It was later reported that the life vests available to the passengers, though adequate in number, had not been changed out since 1891. They were filled with cork to make them buoyant. However, with age and exposure to the elements, the coverings were rotten and the cork now had the consistency of sawdust. There are several accounts of mothers, clothes and hair on fire, desperately wrapping their infants in these vests and throwing them overboard, only to see them sink like stones after hitting the water. Others pulled down the life vests only to have them crumble to dust in their hands. Not one lifeboat was launched from the General Slocum. The davits had been painted and repainted over the years, locking them in place and the boats themselves had been literally wired in place to prevent them from rocking and making noise with the movement of the boat. When the fire first started, the crew did attempt to put it out with the available fire hoses. However, the hoses were constructed from cheap material, and had never been tested since the ships construction. They were rotten and immediately burst in the hands of the crew once water pressure was applied to them. The captain was required to regularly check all the safety equipment, hold regular fire drills and make sure the crew was trained in emergency procedures. Captain Van Schaick hadn’t carried out any of his safety responsibilities. The boat was to have regular safety inspections and, in fact, such an inspection had supposedly been carried out by assistant steamboat inspector, Henry Lundberg, on 6 May 1904. He had given the General Slocum a passing inspection at that time. The bulk of the crew was made up of low-paid men from around the docks, many of them negroes, and, as was cited above, were untrained in emergency procedures. Many survivors reported that they did practically nothing to help the passengers and abandoned the ship to save their own lives. Here is one account from a The New York Times article of the day:
Most of the deckhands were negroes and were apparently unmoved by the terrible sights they witnessed in the police station. All of them had jumped into the water and swum ashore to North Brother Island.
The deckhands weren’t the only ones not showing any compassion for the lives of the women and children suffering and dying. Here is a quote from a Smithsonian article titled, “A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum.”
A witness reported seeing a large white yacht flying the insignia from the New York Yacht Club arrive on the scene just as the burning Slocum passed 139th Street. He said the captain positioned his yacht nearby and then stood on the bridge with his field glasses, “seeing women and children jump overboard in swarms and making no effort to go to their assistance…he did not even lower a boat.”
There are many accounts of the bravery of individuals and crews of tugboats and small craft aiding in the attempted rescue of passengers from the burning General Slocum. Some risked setting fire to their own vessels in order to get close enough for the passengers to jump to safety. Some individuals saved lives by going into the water themselves and pulling passengers out of the water only to later lose their own lives going back for more. Many children saved the lives of other children and babies and, as was often the case, lost their own siblings and mother in the disaster. Of particular interest is the story of those who came to the rescue from North Brother Island. At that time Riverside Hospital was located on the island for the quarantining and treatment of people with communicable diseases, like tuberculosis, typhoid, measles, etc. (In fact it was where “Typhoid Mary” lived out the rest of her days after being captured). The staff from the hospital, and even some of the patients, seeing the catastrophe, rushed down to the shoreline to throw anything that would float out to those struggling in the water. Most, not being able to swim themselves, brought ladders to the edge of the water and pushed them out as far as possible for survivors to grab onto so they could be pulled in to shore. Some formed chains with their bodies in order to reach victims in the water. Eventually, with no more sign of life left aboard, the General Slocum, with its’ grizzly cargo of charred bodies, became dislodged and floated down river where it landed on a beach at Hunt’s Point and continued to burn.
Of the around 1,400 passengers, only 321 survived the disaster. Only 2 of the 23 crew members lost their lives. Captain Van Shaick suffered a fractured leg, contusions and minor burns when he jumped from the pilot house of the burning boat onto the deck of a tugboat, although by his own account he was rescued from the water. Hospital workers from around the city rushed to makeshift hospitals along the East River or were shuttled to North Brother Island to help treat the injured. Among the injured, many would be scarred for life from the burns they had received. In the hours and days that followed, bodies continued to wash ashore on North Brother Island. Many of the missing would never be found, their bodies having been carried out to sea. The day after the disaster a cannon was fired over the East River in an attempt to dislodge bodies thought to be stuck in the mire of the riverbed.
Divers would later be sent to the hulk of the General Slocum to recover the remains of the dead left in the charred wreckage; most could not be identified, having been burned beyond recognition. Every type of wagon from around the city was put into use to carry the dead away to the city morgue or temporary morgue facilities set up at a riverside pier. Many men went out of their minds with grief having come home from work, perhaps to find that their entire family was gone and having to identify loved ones arrayed in open caskets along the pier. Several suicides were reported in the aftermath. Here is a quote from a New York Historical Society article “Witness to Tragedy: The Sinking of the General Slocum.”
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.
At the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, over 900 victims were buried, including 61 in a mass grave for the unidentified. Their is a large monument located in the cemetery in remembrance of the victims.
News of the disaster quickly spread across the country, causing outrage over the incident and sympathy towards the victims. A General Slocum disaster relief fund was set up and contributions poured in to aid the injured and their surviving family members. President Teddy Roosevelt expressed his own outrage over the disaster and quickly called for a commission to carry out an investigation. On 21 June 1904 George Cortelyou, the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, was appointed head of the investigative commission. As a coroner’s investigation went forward, testimonies from those responsible were full of evasions and excuses. The lurid details of malfeasance surrounding the disaster came out but, not unlike today, the majority of the guilty were never held accountable for their negligence and wrongdoing. 29 July 1904 a grand jury handed down indictments against Captain William Van Schaick, assistant steamboat inspector Henry Lundberg, inspector John Fleming, Knickerbocker Steamboat Company president, Frank Barnaby, and also the secretary, treasurer and commodore of the company.
Assistant inspector Henry Lundberg, who had given the unsafe boat a passing inspection (and most likely had been getting bribes from Knickerbocker to look the other way), was tried three times for fraud, misconduct and inattention to duty, but was never found guilty. At the advice of his lawyer he refused to testify in order not to incriminate himself.
Frank Barnaby provided receipts showing that new life vests had been ordered and sent to the General Slocum, but questioning of the secretary of the company revealed that she had removed the name of another Knickerbocker boat from the receipts with acid and replaced it with the name General Slocum (most likely at Frank Barnaby’s orders). Barnaby actually became indignant over the accusations against him and his company and did everything possible to avoid payouts for the multiple lawsuits that followed. From a “Stuff Nobody Cares About” article comes the following quote:
The liability limit they wanted was not to exceed the value of the boat. That is the value of the boat after the fire and beaching and termination of the excursion should not exceed the sum of for all the victims collectively – $5,000. That would amount to less that $5 paid per fatality and injured. The owners then had the gall to claim that under maritime law that sum should be subject to fees of the salvage and wreckage services performed. Essentially they were claiming they should be limited to the current value of their wrecked boat which would be close to nothing. Sure enough, besides a fine they had to pay, Knickerbocker ended up paying nothing to the survivors or the victims families.
Captain Van Schaick’s testimony of his actions before and during the disaster kept suspiciously changing and in the end he was made the scapegoat and the only one punished for any crime. On 27 January 1906 Captain Van Schaick was found guilty in a United States Circuit Court on one of three counts of criminal negligence in that he failed to maintain fire drills required by law. The presiding Judge Thomas sentenced Van Schaick to 10 years hard labor at Sing Sing prison. His wife soon began a letter writing campaign to show mercy to the aging captain, leading to him being paroled in 1911 and later pardoned by President William Howard Taft on Christmas Day 1912.
The following quotes are taken from a 6sqft article titled “Remembering the worst disaster in NYC maritime history: The sinking of the General Slocum ferry.”
In Tompkins Square Park, the Slocum Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1906 to the victims of the disaster and remains to this day. The pink Tennessee marble fountain was donated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and shows two children looking seaward, over a lion’s head which spouts water.” An inscription reads “THEY WERE EARTH’S PUREST CHILDREN, YOUNG AND FAIR.”
Within a decade or so, nearly all of Kleindeutschland was occupied by Jewish residents; some from Germany, but mostly poorer Jews from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. By World War I, and the anti-German fervor that it raised, the German-American presence in this part of the Lower East Side all but disappeared…However, even to this day, reminders remain, particularly of the General Slocum disaster. St. Mark’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church still stands on East 6th Street, though in 1940 it became the Community Synagogue. A plaque on the building memorializes the victims of the General Slocum disaster.
After the disaster it was ordered that all such commercial river vessels should be given a thorough inspection. The same safety violations that had plagued the General Slocum were found on practically every vessel inspected. This led to further regulations and tighter safety measures, to keep such a disaster from ever happening again.
For those interested in learning more, I recommend this Library of Congress site “Topics in Chronicling America — General Slocum Steamboat Tragedy” with links to many newspaper accounts from the time period.
As one of those “conspiracy theory nuts” there is something about a lot of the minutiae of the event that bothers me, so I am left with a question that can never be answered. Similar to 9/11, was there behind it all an aspect of ritual and sacrifice? What do you think?
Here is a narrated reenactment of the disaster (notice how one of the narrators in the film, with a straight face, refers to the operation of the General Slocum as a “half-baked” operation and let’s the viewer know that Van Schaick lived to be 98-years-old and died in a “Masonic home”):
Hindenburg disaster 80th anniversary: Last zeppelin survivor recalls ‘suddenly the air was on fire’
Werner Doehner, 88, recalls famous airship explosion that killed 36 people, including his own father and sister
- Shawn Marsh
- Friday 5 May 2017 09:00 – INDEPENDENT
Wind and thunderstorms had delayed the Hindenburg’s arrival in New Jersey from Germany on 6 May 1937. The father of eight-year-old Werner Doehner headed to his cabin after using his movie camera to shoot some scenes of Lakehurst Naval Air Station from the airship’s dining room.
“We didn’t see him again,” recalled Doehner, now 88 and the only person left of the 62 passengers and crew who survived the fire that killed his father, sister and 34 other souls 80 years ago on Saturday.
Doehner and his parents, older brother and sister were returning from a vacation in Germany and planned to travel on the 804-foot-long Hindenburg to Lakehurst, then fly to Newark and board a train in nearby New York City to take them home to Mexico City, where Doehner’s father was a pharmaceutical executive. 00:13 / 00:15SKIP AD
The kids would have preferred the decks and public rooms of an ocean liner because space was tight on the airship, Doehner said in a rare telephone interview this week with The Associated Press from his home in Parachute, Colorado.0:00/0:00Skip in 5
Their mother brought games to keep the children busy. They toured the control car and the catwalks inside the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. They could see an ice field as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he remembered.
As the Hindenburg arrived at its destination, flames began to flicker on top of the ship.
Hydrogen, exposed to air, fuelled an inferno. The front section of the Hindenburg pitched up and the back section pitched down.
“Suddenly the air was on fire,” Doehner said.
“We were close to a window, and my mother took my brother and threw him out. She grabbed me and fell back and then threw me out,” he said.
“She tried to get my sister, but she was too heavy, and my mother decided to get out by the time the zeppelin was nearly on the ground.”
His mother had broken her hip.
“I remember lying on the ground, and my brother told me to get up and to get out of there.” Their mother joined them and asked a steward to get her daughter, whom he carried out of the burning wreckage.
A bus took the survivors to an infirmary, where, Doehner said, a nurse gave him a needle to burst his blisters.
From there, the family was taken to Point Pleasant Hospital. Doehner had burns to his face, both hands and down his right leg from the knee. His mother had burns to her face, both legs and both hands. His brother had several burns on his face and right hand.
His sister died early in the morning.
He would remain in the hospital for three months before going to a hospital in New York City in August for skin grafts. He was discharged in January, and the boy, a German speaker, had learned some English.
The family returned to Mexico City, where funerals were held for Doehner’s father and sister, who were among the 35 fatalities of the 97 passengers and crew aboard the airship. A worker on the ground also died.
The US Commerce Department determined the accident was caused by a leak of the hydrogen that kept the airship aloft. It mixed with air, causing a fire. “The theory that a brush discharge ignited such mixture appears most probable,” the department’s report said.
Eight decades later, Doehner is the only one left to remember what it was like on the Hindenburg that night. A ceremony commemorating the disaster will take place at the crash site on Saturday evening.
“Only two others who ever flew on the airship are alive,” said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. “But they weren’t on the last flight.”
Interest in the disaster remains strong as ever, Jablonski said.
“The internet and social media has exposed and attracted the interest of a younger generation,” he said.
The Hindenburg, Doehner said, is “something you don’t forget”.
© Associated Press