At Luna Park and Dreamland, two of the amusement parks constructed at Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century, rides such as the Dragon Gorge Roller Coaster and the Helter Skelter slide weren’t the only attractions—the disaster spectacles were also big draws. Gettysburg, the 1900 Galveston Flood, and the Fall of Pompeii were re-enacted nightly. Fighting the Flames at Dreamland and Fire and Flames at Luna Park were particularly popular—these were shows where, of all things, tenement fires, in sets built to look like the very buildings where most of the audience lived, were re-enacted. The fires were set, actors in the upper floors screamed in terror, and then the firemen arrived and put out the fire, earning a huge ovation from the relieved audience. Fires were common at that time. Overcrowded buildings, careless accumulation of flammable materials, bad wiring for those who had electricity, and dangerous candles and gas lamps for those who didn’t, created situations where small fires could easily run wild. The spectacles at Coney Island gave audiences a chance to cheer for the firemen who were their heroes, and also see a happy ending to a story that in real life ended tragically far too often. Nothing, though, no tenement fire or theater fire or dock fire, such as the one that claimed 400 lives on a Hoboken pier in 1900, could prepare anyone for the horror of the steamship General Slocum disaster. On June 15, 1904, the Slocum set sail from Manhattan for a pleasure excursion to Long Island. Not long after launching, the ship caught fire. Out of more than 1300 passengers, 1021 died. Until September 11, 2001, it was the worst disaster in New York City history. Edward T. O’Donnell’s Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum gives a detailed account of what went wrong and why that fateful June day. It’s a tossup as to which is worse—the story of the ship’s horrifying last moments or the awful combination of corporate greed, carelessness, and cowardice that caused it.
Cover art from O'Donnell's Ship Ablaze.
The excursion was a yearly event for St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Located in the East Village, the parish was in an area so heavily populated by German immigrants that it had become known as “Little Germany.” By 1904, the German population had begun to move out of the area and spread around the city, but that made the outing even more important; it was a chance for scattered parishioners and family members to have a reunion. Unfortunately (or so it seemed), the trip to Locust Grove on Long Island was on a Wednesday, which meant that many working men couldn’t go. The majority of passengers were women and children, including almost all of the St. Mark’s Sunday School students. The General Slocum trip was a big occasion in the community. Those who couldn’t go because of work or other reasons felt left out. One little boy whose parents had chosen not to go cut school and snuck off to the ship with friends. Eleven year old Catherine Gallagher’s family couldn’t afford tickets for all of the children, so Catherine, the oldest girl, was the one who would miss the trip. When she was sent on an early morning errand to a store, the shopkeeper asked why she looked so sad. Catherine burst into tears and explained it was because she was the only one of her family and friends who was missing the outing. The shopkeeper, who had been given some complimentary tickets by the church, felt sorry for her and gave her a ticket. Catherine, overjoyed, rushed home to join her family. The church group paid $350 to the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company for the day on the General Slocum. The steamship had launched in 1891and was captained by William Van Schaick, an experienced pilot who led a crew of about thirty. The ship looked like it was in fine shape on the outside—it was neat, clean, and brightly painted. Inside, though, it held darker secrets—the ship had only recently been inspected by the US Steamship Inspection Service, but inspectors at the USSIS learned quickly that the best way to do their job was to get into a ship, glance around quickly, sign off on paperwork and move on. The inspectors were paid by the number of inspections they did, so it made sense for them to go fast and not cause trouble. The steamship owners also didn’t want any questions raised or problems pointed out; the tacit agreement between both the USSIS inspectors and the steamboat owners was that that would be bad for both their businesses. Inspector Lundberg, the last inspector to visit the Slocum, noted that the ship did have lifeboats but didn’t bother to point out that the long unused boats had been practically welded into place by coats of paint, and were pinned under chicken wire that had been put around them by crew members who had been annoyed by the sound of the boats banging against the walls. Lundberg saw there were life preservers, took out and tapped a few, but didn’t ask how old they were. He didn't see that most of them dated back to 1894, and were falling apart. Lundberg didn’t check the fire hoses or ask when the crew had last done a fire drill. He gave the Slocum a pass and moved on, something which no doubt pleased Frank Barnaby, the owner of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, who didn’t want to put money into his ship if he didn’t have to. Crowds began gathering early on the morning of June 15th. Family reunions took place on the pier forming big groups within the mass of people. People brought picnic baskets of food and toys for the children. The captain held the ship as long as possible to make sure that everyone who had bought a ticket could get on, but finally they were about to leave. One woman leaned against the rail and told the man next to her that the night before she had had a foreboding that something terrible was going to happen. Without saying a word, the man grabbed his family and raced down the gangplank and off the ship. The woman with the premonition gathered her children and ran after him. The bad feeling was just too much and besides, it wasn’t that farfetched a thought—steamship accidents weren’t uncommon. The ship had just negotiated Hell Gate, the dangerous section of the East River known for its shifting currents and rocks, when a little boy told a crewman he had seen smoke. The crewman went to investigate, not expecting much. The fire he found in a compartment, though, was stubborn and resisted his attempts to put it out. He went to get help and made the terrible mistake of leaving the door open, allowing the fire to quickly grow. Crew members took out the fire hoses which had never, in anyone’s recollection, ever been used. The old, dried out material quickly sprung leaks and the water didn’t flow; at the inquest, one sailer confessed that he had perhaps not removed a rubber flange from one of the hoses, thus making water flow even more unlikely. Considering they had never had a fire drill, sadly, this mistake was understandable. Confronted by a wall of fire, the crew ran, the flames rushing up behind them. Children who had gone below deck for ice cream raced to the deck, screaming. The chemicals used to wash down and treat the deck fed the fire and made it fiercer; when the passengers on the decks saw the conflagration swiftly bearing down on them, they ran. A panicking crowd is an ugly thing, and with no one to help or lead, with no one giving instructions for what to do in a fire, the Slocum’s crowd quickly descended into madness. The crew wasn’t there to hand out life preservers so passengers tore them down and fought for them, biting, punching, and trampling others to reach them. Those who won the life preservers, though, were the unlucky ones—inside the old, unused preservers, the cork, buoyant when new, had disintegrated into a powder that when wet, became as heavy as cement. Many of those who jumped into the water with life preservers sank immediately, never to resurface. The lifeboats couldn’t be freed from the walls where they had been painted or wired into place. Passengers then had to make the decision whether to stay on board and hope the captain could land the ship before it was too late, or jump into the water. The choices were equally bad for many of the passengers; most people, especially working class people didn’t know how to swim. Living in the city, working in shops and factories, they didn’t believe they had any need to know how to survive in the water. Many jumped anyway, thinking that drowning was preferable to burning; some who did know how to swim were handed babies by their mothers, hoping that they would provide a chance. Miraculously, some of those babies did make it, including Adella Liebenow, only six months old, whose mother, Anna, could swim. Adella, the youngest survivor died in 2004, just short of the disaster’s one hundredth anniversary. Even the best swimmers struggled once they hit the water. Turn of the century clothes, particularly the women’s layers of skirts and high boots, dragged them down. The strong currents also challenged swimmers. Much worse were the panicked, drowning people around them, who fought and grabbed at anything they could. Competent swimmers drowned as others, overcome with fright, grabbed them and pushed them down below the surface. Even rescuers were in danger as the desperate fought them, too crazed to realize what was going on. Captain Van Schaick, meanwhile, made a fatal mistake. Looking for a place to land, he passed up the idea of turning around and heading back to one of the other small islands they had passed. He decided not to go to one of the docks nearby. Instead he chose to run upriver to North Brother Island. At full speed, it would only take a few minutes, but Van Schaik forgot to consider that running at that speed and going upriver, with the wind behind them, would only make the flames worse. Later, Van Schaick would say that he avoided the docks because he didn’t want to risk setting other ships on fire, but others, when questioned, felt that would have been the wiser decision. The sight of the flaming boat racing up the river had of course drawn attention. People jumped into small craft at the docks and set off after the boat. Tugboats already in the river turned and followed it, pulling up as close alongside as possible. People still on the Slocum jumped onto the tugs. Rowboats pulled as many people out of the water as they could.
Fire boats try to put out the fire on the Slocum.
The Slocum reached North Brother Island and ran aground twenty feet from shore. Staff from the island’s Riverside Hospital, a hospital for people with contagious diseases, rushed to the shore and began to pull people from the water. Survivors raced around the shore, desperately trying to locate family members. Anna Liebenow, sitting on the beach with six month old Adella, had to fight off a woman who insisted that the girl was her baby. As the fire on the Slocum burned out, rescue boats began to ferry survivors and bodies back to Manhattan. News of the disaster had traveled quickly—reporters from the New York World had even made their way to North Brother Island, taking photos and interviewing survivors. Dazed, bandaged survivors were taking the train back to their home just as people on the streets were picking up special editions of the newspapers, telling the terrible story. A makeshift morgue was set up on a pier on the East Side. An increasingly restless and hysterical crowd fought to get in while the coroner and morgue workers tried to put the bodies into some kind of order for identification. When that evening, people were finally allowed to come and search for their loved ones, some fainted on the spot. Others burst into tears and screams. One woman, after identifying her children, ran out of the building and tried to jump into the river. Others tried to commit suicide; in the coming days, some of those who had been prevented the first time would try again and succeed. One morgue worker went mad. It took days to recover bodies, with people waiting in agony for some information about the lost. The worst of human nature also showed itself at the morgue, with undertakers gouging prices and jewelry and money disappearing from bodies. Entire families were wiped out—the whole community of Little Germany had been devastated as well. The New York Times sent reporters to canvas the area and check the death list, sure that the number had been exaggerated due to misidentifications and repeated names. They found those, but for every mistake they corrected another name was added to the list—the high number had been right.
The New York Times headline on June 16, 1904.
There were a few happy endings—people whose family members turned up in hospitals after they had been thought dead. The little boy who had cut school to go on the trip against his parents’ wishes was a good swimmer who made it out alive, but didn’t go home until late that evening, sure his parents would punish him for disobeying them (they didn’t). Catherine Gallagher, the girl who got the ticket from the shopkeeper, also survived, living past one hundred. The spin had started immediately from the Knickerbocker Steamship Corporation. Frank Barnaby, the president, quickly had a bookkeeper alter the books to make it seem as though life preservers had recently been purchased for the Slocum. He then issued a statement saying that the ship had life preservers and lifeboats and he was very sorry that the passengers had been too hysterical to take advantage of them (this was a none-too-veiled attempt to pass the blame to the mostly female passenger list). But it wasn’t long before the stories about the bad life preservers and unreachable life boats began to come out, as well as the lack of help passengers received from the crew members, who basically had run for their own lives as soon as they saw the fire; out of the bare 300 survivors, 28 were members of the crew. Eventually seven people were indicted, including Barnaby, Van Schaick, and the USSIS Inspector Lundberg. Barnaby kept appealing his initial conviction until he was left with nothing but a fine. Van Schaick was sentenced to ten years in prison, but intensive lobbying by various sea captain organizations got the sentence reduced. He finally served only three years, and later received a full pardon from President Taft. The Slocum disaster, amazingly, faded quickly from the public consciousness, disappearing from the papers before Van Schaick even went to prison. Percentage-wise, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was less of a disaster, but has become a part of popular culture; the Slocum, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned. It is quickly mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the opening of the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama (incidentally, the movie John Dillinger saw before he was shot) opens with the Slocum, using it to orphan two boys who grow up to be the main characters of the film. Interestingly, the film makes the excursion an Irish, rather than German one, which makes sense considering the film was made between the wars when there was little sympathy for Germans (less sensible, in fact downright unbelievable, is the fact that Mickey Rooney plays a little boy in the opener who is supposed to grow up into Clark Gable. Yeah, and I’m going to wake up tomorrow and look like Vivien Leigh). Seven years later, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire would occur under similar circumstances—immigrant workers trapped by greedy factory owners who locked the doors of the factory floor in order to make sure no workers left without being inspected for stolen material—but has remained a well-known part of American history. O’Connell attributes this to several things: the factory fire’s association with the labor movement; the fact that it affected members of many immigrant groups rather than just one; the huge impact on Little Germany which left few people to keep the memory alive; and, as World War I approached, anti-German sentiment that made newspapers stay away from anniversaries or memorials of the event. Oh dear, I think I’ve told Mr. O’Connell’s entire book—it’s a short book so I’m actually quite serious about this. O’Connell used almost all primary sources for his research and that makes the story immediate and quite ripped from the headlines. My biggest quarrel is that there is no index. Why, why, why?!!! This omission is just inexplicable. The book is engrossing, though at times quite harrowing. But this event was that terrible, and should not be forgotten or softened. It should be remembered because of the reasons it occurred, because it can happen again. Greed and carelessness never go out of style.