Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

NYC Neighborhoods

The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904

Share

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 DivisionThe 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 DivisionGerman-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.

Remembrance

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:

Note:   

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. 

Support The New York Public Library. Keep Libraries Open!

Support The New York Public Library with an Advocacy letter.

Comments

Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

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.

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.

innocence

I, too, came here because of the Dean Koontz book! Reading page 43...wow, 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!

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.

Post new comment