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The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904


Illustration by Samuel Ward StantonIllustration by Samuel Ward StantonThe General Slocum Disaster occurred on June 15, 1904. This tragedy is much less well known compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, and the Titanic Disaster of April 15, 1912. Perhaps these two shocking events happening within a year focused people's attention elsewhere. But the aftermath of the sinking of the PS Slocum radically altered the German-American community of the Lower East Side forever ...    

The PS Slocum, built in 1891, was a paddle boat or sidewheel passenger ship. On June 15, 1904, the ship carried 1,358 passengers, plus crew.

Chartered by the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church for $350.00, the passengers came mostly from the German-American community of the Lower East Side. Excitement and anticipation filled the air — for the passengers, this would be a fun-filled day outside of the city, and as the ship departed, it would be enjoyable to watch the shoreline as the ship made its way out to the North Shore of Long Island.

Most of the passengers were women and children. As the ship made its way up the East River, good times turned bad very quickly. There have been varying accounts of how the fire started, but it spread rapidly within a half hour of leaving dock around 9 a.m. The panic was horrific among the passengers as they faced death by drowning or being burned alive on the ship. It was a safe bet that most of the passengers could not swim, and the period clothing of the day worked against them. 

1000 lives lost .,Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 [above]; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. [below]., Digital ID PS_MSS_CD8_109, New York Public LibraryGustav Scholer papers. Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Aftermath

For days afterward, bodies would wash ashore. Only 321 passengers survived from a total of 1,358 passengers. The final death count totaled 1,021. The next largest death toll in the United States would come decades later with 2,974 dead from 9/11.

There would be miracle stories of survivors for the lucky few and heartbreak for those who lost loved ones. It was widely reported that Captain William Henry Van Schaick would not bring the ship to shore for insurance reasons. Instead, Van Schaick steered the burning ship to North Brother Island. Van Schaick would testify that gas tanks and lumber yards made landing near 130th Street, close to the Bronx, dangerous.

Testimony and Partial Justice

Testimony that would follow in the days ahead established that there were few safeguards; life vests were rotten, life boats were in the same state, fire drills were non-existent, and the crew was untrained to handle the panic that followed on board the Slocum. Eyewitnesses from the shore could see the boat burning and wondered why the captain did not come to shore.  Quickly, Van Schaick and the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company came under the crosshairs of an investigation. Frank A. Barnaby, the President of the company, defended the actions of the captain and the crew.

On January 27, 1906, justice was meted out to Captain Van Schaick by a jury of the United States Circuit Court. He was found guilty of criminal negligence that he had failed to maintain the fire drills required by law. Judge Thomas, the presiding judge, sentenced Van Schaick to 10 years at hard labor. And what happened to the company that owned the ship and the director? The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company and Frank Barnaby escaped justice. 

Van Schaick would serve only part of his sentence at Sing Sing prison. He received a pardon (through the efforts of his wife) from President William Howard Taft in 1911.  

 Corner Ave. A & 6th St., Digital ID PS_MSS_CD8_106, New York Public LibraryBurial of the unidentified. Gustav Scholer papers. Manuscripts and Archives Division

German-American Community of the Lower East Side

Prior to the Slocum disaster, the German-American community was a vibrant and active neighborhood of the working-class and highly educated. The shock of losing so many loved ones devastated families.  Suicides and depression resulted from such a loss and many residents moved away. Other communities were impacted as well. There was a loss of life among the Jewish and Italian communities that had family members aboard the ship.


Standing in Tompkins Square Park is a Tennessee marble obelisk dedicated to the victims of the General Slocum disaster. The fountain was erected in 1906 by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. Etched into the marble are these words: "They are Earth's purest children, young and fair." 

Suggested readings


Most of the photographs were from the Gustav Scholer papers. Gustav Scholer (1851-1928) was a German-American who was an attending coroner during the General Slocum disaster. 

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General Slocum in fiction

While not quite about the General Slocum disaster - author Stephanie Pintoff has created a detective series set in 19th century New York featuring a NYPD detective who has lost his fiance in the tragedy and was injured himself. It's a great introduction to what happened and it's lingering aftermath, plus, they mysteries are very good. In the Shadow of Gotham, A Curtain Falls and The Secret of the White Rose.

Slocum Disaster

Thank you for the excellent suggestion. This sounds like a very good mystery worth checking out.

General Slocum Disaster in fiction

Thank you Anne for sharing the information about Stephanie Pintoff. I checked the NYPL catalogue and the library owns several of Pintoff's works including the book "In the Shadow of Gotham." This book is also an electronic resource. The date of rememberance is quickly approaching.

I am reading a book on the

I am reading a book on the Slocum, called The Unresolved. It is about a girl who died on the boat and her journey as a spirit to find out what happened that day. It is fictional but still a good read.

Slocum featured in The Unresolved

Thank you for your comments. The Unresolved sounds like a good read. For readers who are interested The Unresolved was written by T.K. Welsh. The library may not have a copy but you can suggest a purchase. This book has received excellent reviews.

Other fictional characters on General Slocum

The General Slocum Disaster is remembered in the Dean Koontz novel \"Innocence,\" where a character has lost his wife and children in the tragedy. (See Chapter 10.) Although Koontz's details of the disaster are real, I believe the victims mentioned in this novel are fictional. A bit of history added to the story. Before reading \"Innocence,\" I knew nothing of the General Slocum Disaster. I am grateful that my research brought me to your site, where I found the information I craved. Thank you.

General Slocum/Innocence

I too am reading Dean koontz's Innocence and am amazed that this disaster is not as widely known as Titanic and others.


I, too, came here because of the Dean Koontz book! Reading page, what a tragic disaster.

General Slocum Disaster

Hi David. It is true that many people have not heard about the General Slocum disaster. The anniversary date is coming up soon. As you may be aware Tompkins Square Park, and All Faith Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens hold ceremonies honoring those who passed.

General Slocum in literature

Late to the party, but the way I learned about the disaster was the mention in James Joyce's Ulysses, which was set on 16-June, 1904

General Slocum Disaster - Dean Koontz

As with others commenting, I discovered this disaster from reading "Innocence" by Dean Koontz. He does fabricate the "architect" of the library. According to the NY Public Library's website on its history, the architectural firm was Carrère and Hastings. John Merwen Carrère was the actual architect, and apparently there is a bust of him at the Library.

Slocum Disaster

Your comments are interesting about Dean Koontz fabricating the architect of the library. As you stated correctly Carrere & Hastings was the architectural firm. Why he choose to fabricate the architect is a mystery. ASK. NYPL may be able to tell you where the bust of Carrere is located in the library.

General Slocum disaster

Just to say I found out about the General Slocum from Clive Cussler's novel The Thief. It is the 5th book in a series featuring private detective Isaac Bell.

General Slocum tragedy

Learned of this in the Howard Fast novel Max. Amazed this isn't info that is out there as much as Titanic information. Just horrible for all those involved. Very sad.

Slocum disaster

I learned about this disaster from a fictional book Maggie Rose by Sharlene MacClaren. Good to know someone was held accountable before I'm done reading the novel, it was bothering me!

Maggie Rose

I looked up information on the Slocum disaster from reading the book Maggie Roase by Sharlene Maclaren, also. I had never heard of this tragedy before and reading the book with a character affected by the loss of several loved ones on the ship made me want to know more about this event in history, too.

Slocum Disaster

Susan, you are not alone because many people have not heard about this disaster. This is a part of New York City history that has been mostly forgotten. In the recent past, there have been ceremonies to remember those who perished. Thank you for your comments.

Slocum Disaster in Maggie Rose

Hi Janet: Thanks for the insight about the novel Maggie Rose (daughter of Jacob Kane, Book 2). It does appear based on your comment and the previous comment by "Guest" about Howard Fast's novel, that the Slocum Disaster has played a role in both books. Readers interested in reading about an interpretation of the Slocum Disaster should consider reading both novels.

Slocum disaster

I came to this site because of a book titled "Boroughs of the Dead" by Andrea Janes. It is a collection of 10 short horror stories set in & around NYC. I wanted a bit more information on the incident & am happy to find more sources.

Boroughs of the Dead

Thank you Carol for your comments. I am not familiar with the book Boroughs of the Dead: New York City Ghost Stories by Andrea Janes. A search on Amazon indicates that Janes' book has received high ratings. It appears that the library does not yet own a copy of this book.


How do I get a copy of the dvd Reel NY "Fearful Visitation The great steamboat fire of 1904" that was on for the 100 anniversary of the disaster on PBS. I would like to purchase a copy as my grandfather was a survivor of the disaster.

Fearful Visitation documentary

Hello JoAnn: The documentary "Fearful Visitation" was broadcast on PBS as you stated for the 100th anniversary of the disaster. I do not know if this documentary was released for purchase. I suggest that you contact 917-NYPL- ASK or contact PBS directly. For your information filmakers Hank Linhart and Philip Dray created the documentary.


I had never heard of this disaster until I read a BBC article about the event. While researching the Slocum disaster, the link to this page was one of the results. Thank you, Valerie Wingfield, for writing about this tragedy. Certain ethnic groups and their influences/ contributions have been wiped from NYC history, and it's good to see that the NYPL always includes articles, features, events, etc. that concern Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. Thank you for preserving NYC history. Thanks for the book suggestions as well. The link to the BBC article is:

General Slocum grandmother was a survivor of The Slocum. She was eight years old and lost two siblings and a cousin. She was one of the oldest living survivors. It was a terrible family tragedy

General Slocum

My family was on the Slocum. We lost three family members in the tragic fire. My grandmother was eight years old and could not swim but was saved after being pushed overboar. Thank God

The Slocum Remembered

Thank you for sharing your stories. This was one of the most horrific early tragedies in New York City history. As I have stated in my blog, this event transformed an entire neighborhood. Your oral histories are a powerful reminder that we should not forget the victims of the Slocum.

General Slocum

This tragedy is also mentioned in the book "NYPD: A City and Its Police." My Husband's great Uncle was born on June 15th. 1904. Apparently his hospital room overlooked the East River and people could see the ship burning. I used to hang out in Tomkins Square quite a bit, but only learned later that there was a memorial to the victims there. I am certainly interested to learn more about this.

Book Recommendation

There is an excellent book about this tragedy entitled "Ship Ablaze". Extremely well researched and written, I highly recommend it.

Thank you very much for the

Thank you very much for the information on your site. My husband and I were very interested in finding out more about the disaster of the Slocum . We walked past a plaque commemorating the disaster. It was located on a fence next to to the synagogue on 6 Street and First Avenue. Not knowing what that was, I found your Information very helpful. , I agree with what most of your readers say very sad that not more publicity exists about this tragic event . My husband's father witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster when he was a young man . The memory of seeing so many young women leap out of windows and crashing into the pavement below haunted him for years to come! Thank you Monica Hartman

Slocum Disaster

Thank you for Monica for contacting me about your visit to view the Slocum plaque that commemorates the many lives lost on that fateful day. As, I may have mentioned before, many people are unaware of this event. You mentioned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire another terrible event. It has been occasionally mentioned that the many lives lost helped pushed the Slocum disaster out of people's mind. Individuals such as your husband's father watched as the young women jumped from the building. This tramatic experience sounds very similar to those who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

List of crew members

Thank you for this information. I was trying to find a list of the crew members on the General Slocum. I think my great grandfather was part of the crew. My grandmother always told me that he was. I have found his death notices from the newspapers and they say he was a survivor of the tragedy. Died in 1940. Do you no where I could find such a list? His name was Arthur Bell.

Crew List of the Slocum

Thank you for your query. I have not seen a crew list for the Slocum. The New York Public Library's Electronic Resources holds the Ancestry Library Edition. You may be able to find some basic information about your great grandfather. Please contact the Library regarding access and other research options at 917-ASK-NYPL.

Researching ancestors

Am researching ancestors who were in NYC in 11th ward in 1900 and then no records. A son from Bavaria, Germany eventually ended up in Texas. He came here to avoid the war in Europe with his GFa & GMo. Is there a record of those who died from the Slocum tragedy. This ancestor was said to have been very secretive.

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