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The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904

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The 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. 

 PS_MSS_CD8_109
Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 above; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. below. Image ID: PS_MSS_CD8_109

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. PS_MSS_CD8_106
Burial of the ‘unidentified’ ‘Gen. Slocum’ disaster June 15, 1904: Corner Ave. A & 6th St. Image ID: PS_MSS_CD8_106

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.

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. 

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Comments

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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.

innocence

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

I am also reading Innocence

I am also reading Innocence and had not known about this disaster previously.

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.

Innocence

Clarification. In Dean Koontz's "Innocence", the architect who lost his family in the General Slocum tragedy was the architect of another library in another city -- not the NYC Public Library. "Years earlier, on a visit to NYC, while her husband remained here to continue overseeing the building of the library, she and her children joined her relatives.... for a day trip on the steamboat General Slocum." (ref: Ch 10).

General Slocum

I, too, arrived at this site, via Dean Koontz. Being in Ireland I had never heard of this tragedy. Aren't books, even kindle books, wonderful? As is the internet. Researching this in the "olden days" would have meant a trip to the library and probably many hours.

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.

dvd

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.

z

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: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27930055.

General Slocum

SLOCUM..my 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.

"Ship Ablaze"

Written by Edward T. O'Donnell, 2003

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.

Slocum disaster

I came upon this disaster after doing some research on my great grandfather. The article I was reading mentioned that his sister-in-law was part of this tragedy. Which I had never heard of, and then I googled it. I am more than anxious to read all of the books fiction and nonfiction regarding this disaster. All of the books mentioned appear to be great reads and I look forward to reading them. Thanks so much for the reviews.

Slocum Disaster

I appreciate your comments. It is amazing that there are many people living today, whose past somehow has been touched by the Slocum disaster. Good reading.

Slocum disaster

Interesting to run across this again. My great grandfather owned the company, Fletcher and Harrison, who made the engine for the General Slocum. At the time there was talk that the boiler blew up and caused the fire, but it was never proven.

Fletcher and Harrison

This is very interesting information. The accusations that developed from the disaster was that the ship had not been properly maintained. The engine may have worked fine for a while, however, poor/no maintenance contributed to the disaster. Thank you Bill for sharing your family history.

Slocum Disaster Awareness

I am the grandaughter of a survivor of the Slocum Disaster and am continually appalled at the lack of knowledge (especially by New Yorkers!) about this horrific event. Anyone interested in bringing it to the attention of Mayor DiBlasio, and the Bronx Congressman who has twice introduced a bill to make North Brother Island part of the National Park Service (it went nowhere), please contact me. The annual Memorial Service has a dwindling number of participants each year and will soon be eliminated altogether. Relatives of victims and survivors need to get some action going to make North Brother Island a permanent memorial to the Slocum Disaster. But we need people! I would appreciate your thoughts on this! Please contact me at anne.hanrahan@riverheadlibrary.org

Jeffrey Deaver novel

I am currently reading a novel about an arsonist in New York City titled "Hell's Kitchen.". It is by best-selling suspense/mystery author Jeffrey Deaver. It is copyright February 2001. Here is what is written on page 211 of the book: " Worse than The General Slocum burning in the East River killing over a thousand immigrant women and children on excursion; in its aftermath the entire German population of the city, too sorrowful to remain in their old neighborhood, relocated en masse to Yorkvilke on the Upper East Side." I had not heard of this disaster before reading the Jeffrey Deaver novel tonight. Web research led me to your site. Thank you.

Slofcum Disaster Largely Forgotten

Ed, thank you for your comments about the Slocum disaster. Jeffrey Deaver as you stated graphically wrote about this tragedy.Occasionally there are ceremonies of rememberance in New York City.

Annual General Slocum remembrance ceremony in Tompkins Park?

Does anyone have the details for the June 15 ceremony in Manhattan, or even in Middle Village, Queens? When, exactly where, contact info, etc.? Thanks.

Annual General Slocum remembrance ceremony

Just got letter......All Faiths Cemetery, June 15th 9:00 am at the statue. Entry thru gate opposite Middle Village Post Office. I have never been, but want to go. Long trip from VA.

Annual General Slocum Memorial

I spoke with someone at All Faiths Cemetery 2 weeks ago and was told the annual ceremony is Saturday, June 11, at 9:00, not June 15, which is a Wednesday. Also, the ceremony at Tompkins Square Park was discontinued several years ago due to lack of attendance.

Annual Ceremony at All Faiths Cemetery

Thank you Anne for providing an update about the "Annual General Slocum Memorial" service on June 11th. If anyone is interested in attending this rememberance ceremony, please contact the cemetery for additional information. Although, the Tompkins Square Park service has been discontinued, a monument to remember the victims is located inside the park.

Tompkins Square Memorial

There were approximately 100 people at a memorial service at TS this past June 15. It was sponsored by NYPL and the Greenwich Village Historical Society. Ed O' Donnell, who is a historian and wrote a well-researched book abut the disaster, led a walk around the neighborhood and pointed out original buildings and the church (now synagogue) that was the center of the community. The current pastor of the congregation also spoke. It was a solemn and lovely remembrance of a tragedy that forever changed the German immigrant community.

Slocum Disaster

My mother's father was a 9-yr-old on board with his mother and baby sister. He was the only one who survived. I did not find out about this until someone brought my mother a newspaper article commemorating the 100th anniversary in 2004. I began doing research and found so much information. It is amazing to me that no one knows about this horrendous loss of life. So tragic. I subsequently went to NYC with my son, and we visited so many pertinent spots relating to the incident. I was pleased that the incoming college students in the area go on a tour of the neighborhood, and the lady conducting the tour stops at the former church and points out the plaque. We went to see the cemetery, to the memorial at Tompkins Park,dedicated to the children who lost their lives that day. We saw the buildings bearing German writing on them.....a sign of where the German community existed before this tragedy tore them apart and they moved on elsewhere.

Slocum Disaster Remembered

Thank you for sharing your grandfather's history about the Slocum disaster. It is ironic that the sinking of the Titanic in the middle of the Atlantic was witnessed by only the survivors. A burniing steamboat witnessed by many on shore is largely forgotten. It is most likely that your grandfather was rescued by many of the heroic New Yorkers who risked their lives to save the passengers. I hope that your family's visit to New York City was a rewarding experience. As you have mentioned on June 15th, the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village will have services at 9:00 A.M.

List of survivors of the Slocum

I have a ticket from for a reunion of the survivors of this disaster, but have no idea which of my relative was a survivor. I figure that if I have a ticket than there must have been a list of survivors. All of my mothers family were German and live in the NY City area at the time of the Slocum. Family German names were Claudy, Obermuller, Walser, Daub and Bolter. Also, Have a bronze medal from the Dewey Club that was presented to my grandfather who lived in Teaneck and worked at Colliers Magazine, NY,City at the time of disaster. The medal had a swimmer etched on it. I'm wondering if that medal had anything to do with the disaster? Thanks

Information about the General Slocum

William, thank you for contacting me. I find it interesting that you have memorabilia from the Slocum disaster but have no idea to whom it belonged to in your family. To partially answer your first question, Ancestry.com published a list of victims of the General Slocum. This list is probably incomplete. I have checked the list and did not see the names that you mentioned. The source for the list was the newspaper the Brooklyn Eagle. As for the medal awarded to your grandfather, this will involve some research on your part. Does the club exist? If so, are there records dating back to 1904. For your information there was a Superintendent Daub who worked at Lebanon Hospital during the disaster (any relation?). Daub was mentioned in a New York times article, dated June 18, 1904. Good luck with your research.

General Slocum disaster in "Manhattan Melodrama"

"Manhattan Melodrama" is a very-competently-made 1934 American pre-Code crime melodrama film, produced by MGM, directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. The film opens with a depiction of the disaster and it's immediate aftermath; also introducing the main characters (as boys accompanying their parents on a holiday excursion). This section of the film offers, in my opinion, a very true-to-life illustration of the flavor of the times. The film was the last movie public enemy John Dillinger saw before he was killed by federal agents waiting to arrest him as he left the theater.

Manhattan Melodrama

I appreciate your comments about the film "Manhattan Melodrama." According to Wikipedia, this was one of the earliest film roles for Mickey Rooney. I'll put this on my list for films to see. It does appear that the Slocum disaster had some impact on popular culture. Thank you for sharing this information.

My Grandfather's Friend

Our mother hold me of her father's friend, who as a boy had survived the Slocum tragedy. Unfortunately I don't remember his name, but the story was that later, he survived being a member of the "Lost Squadron" in WWI. He also was in an auto crash with our Grandfather who was hospitalized, but walked away uninjured!

Time Ablaze

I published a novella, "Time Ablaze" in the July 2004 Analog Science Fiction & Fact. It's a time travel story all about the General Slocum. (A search on the title will turn up an illegal copy of the story on the Internet that folks can read.)

Time Ablaze the novella

Michael, thank you for the information. This was a very interesting idea about having time travel to the General Slocum disaster. I have searched the NYPL catalog and located the "Analog Science Fiction & Fact," as a electronic resource. For quick answers the public can call 1-917-ASK-CALL.

'Forever' by Pete Hamill

On a recent trip to NYC we visited the Tenement Museum which prompted me to buy this novel. I had never heard of this disaster but it gets a mention in the book so I sought more information. It was really fascinating to find all the info on this page. It really is surprising that this tragic event isn't more well known. Some kind of collective amnesia at play perhaps?

The Slocum Disaster largely forgotten

Thank you John for contacting me about the Slocum Disaster and Pete Hamill's book "Forever." For additional reading consider "Ship Ablaze, The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum," by Edward T. O'Donnell. The New York Public Library holds copies of both books. There were several factors as to why the Slocum Disaster was largely forgotten, The death of so many family members was too much to bear, so most of the German-American population settled elsewhere in the City; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (1911), the Titanic(1912), and World War I. However, the descendants and others continue to remember those that died on that fateful day. Remembrance ceremonies are held in New York City each year.

Slocum Disaster

This tragic event has intrugued me for years, probably because I am a risk consultant/safety engineer. I first read about this in a book (now out of print, sadly) called "Darkest Hours" by Jay Nash which detailed many worldwide disasters by reviewing newspaper accounts that bring the events as close to home as you can handle. I quoted from the book in the Wikipedia article on the event, as well as from the New York Historical Society. This Captain had several prior cases where he was not following established safety protocols - as we say in the business, frequency leads to severity and this tragedy is the ultimate result - not only of his errors, but many others (and conditions, like driving the boat into headwinds) which came together in about the only way possible to cause deaths of this magnitude (think 911).

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