Life Jackets Stuffed With Iron Bars. The P/S General Slocum and The Greatest Forgotten Maritime Tragedy in United States History

by Owen James Burke

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Illustration: Mariner’s Museum

On June 15th 1904, The United States of America suffered its greatest tragedy since The Civil War, resulting in a loss of life that would not be surpassed in any single incident until September 11th, 2001.

One fine late spring Wednesday, over 1,300 members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — mostly women and children — boarded the 235-foot keeled, side-wheel passenger steamship P/S General Slocum (along with roughly two-dozen crew members and staff) to set sail up the East River, past north and south Brother’s Islands, into Long Island Sound and down to Great Neck Point on the north shore of Long Island. It was to be a postcard day for the passengers, who were looking forward to spending a day outside of the city, and a picnic on the beach.

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Photo:  The National Archives

The Slocum began her routine voyage up the East River at around 9:30am in fair weather. A fire started in the lamp room shortly thereafter (likely from a match or cigarette) as the vessel was passing East 90th Street, and although  a 12-year-old boy noticed and reported the fire early on, he was ignored by the captain of the vessel, William Henry Van Schaick, who took him for a practical joker.

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An 1895 drawing of the General Slocum for American Steam Vessels, p. 404. Drawing: Samuel Ward Stanton, 1870-1912

The boy didn’t give up. He approached a deckhand named John Coakley, who was unfortunately just a green hand. With no experience, he wasn’t sure whether he call should call the Captain, so he dumped a bucket of charcoal — a temporary flame retardant — on the fire, left the door to the lamp room open and turned to get the attention of the First Mate, Edward Flanagan. When Flanagan arrived the fire had spread.

By the time a serious blaze had taken hold, Captain Van Schaick followed what, to any supposedly trained captain, would seem like no protocol at all. Granted, his situation was complicated. He attempted to make a heading for a lumberyard dock at 134th street, but a tugboat captain directed him away, fearing that the lumberyard would catch fire. Rather than try to land the vessel on either shore of the East River, he continued his course directly upriver, and upwind for North Brother Island (then a quarantine hospital, now abandoned). Hoping he’d beach the Slocum before steering gave out and left the vessel adrift mid-river, he still steered upwind, which consequently fanned the flames and made matters even worse, ultimately reducing the time passengers would have escape the inferno. The vessel finally grounded on North Brother Island, where horrified witnesses watched from shore. Captain Van Schaick would later provide a statement in which he argued that he had no safe landing option, and had he attempted to make shore on either riverside, he’d have risked a fire of potentially further catastrophe in the presence of oil tankers and nearby buildings.

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Captain William Henry Van Schaick, 1837-1927, would be an object of scorn for the rest of his mortal life, a brutally tormenting experience to compound his guilt, no doubt. Photo: Find a Grave/Earl Thibadeau

The real disgrace on the behalf of the ship’s crew was that although the 13-year-old ferry was young in ship years, her original safety equipment was (relatively) not. In fact, none of it had ever even been tested. Rotting canvas life preservers, firehoses and other safety equipment, which had spent their lives on deck or slung over rails, open to the elements — 13 years of sun, wind, rain, ice and snow — had no chance in being employed to save lives. The lifeboats aboard the Slocum were tied, hung, or so painted in a way that they were immovable. Although safety inspections did exist during these days, inspectors generally took their jobs much more lightly than they do today.

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Of the 1,358 souls aboard the ferry, only 321 made shore alive. Gustav Scholer Papers/New York Public Library Digital Papers

The Slocum had been due to set sail at 8:00am, however, two families were mysteriously overcome with fear, and decided to disembark the vessel at the last moment, fortunately for them, and departure from the dock was delayed by an hour.

Somewhere around the time the vessel was passing 97th street, crew were reporting smoke rising through the floorboards above the second cabin. When the firehoses were turned on, they burst, and were immediately rendered useless. Members of the crew then returned to the wheelhouse, reporting to Captain Van Schaick that it was a “blaze that could not be conquered. …like trying to put out hell itself.”

When it finally came time to abandon ship, the cork inside the life jackets was either cheap and corrugated or had disintegrated with rot, and had effectively turned the cradles of safety into anchors. Furthermore, marine safety regulations of the era required life preservers to be a certain weight. Cheap factory owners whose life preservers did not fulfill the criteria inserted iron bars, rather than more or better quality cork, in order to save on costs. Of course, as physics would have it, nearly everyone who put one on went to the bottom. Those who did not don lifejackets received no help from the heavy woolen clothing of the period.

Over a thousand people entered the water and died attempting to swim to North Brother Island as the ferry burned and sank into the mud. Tragically, most of the passengers were women and children. During this time period in what was then New York’s Little Germany, most of the fathers and husbands were at work. Many of the passengers could not swim, as was typical of the time.

Onlookers watched in terror, some, though fully capable of making rescue attempts, simply stood frozen in shock and awe. One witness recalled watching a large white vessel with New York Yacht Club insignia float alongside the Slocum as it burned into the mud. Some women and children flung themselves into the flames, others remained on deck until it collapsed into the pyre. Another witness told of a 12-year-old boy who had shimmied up to the bow of the Slocum, holding on as long as he could until it became too hot to grasp, at which point he fell back and was engulfed. One man threw himself overboard and landed in the ship’s wheel, screaming at the top of his lungs as it chewed through his body. Others followed him.

Nurses from the hospital on North Brother Island attempted to throw rescue objects to the passengers, as it was too hot to approach  the burning vessel and save them. Some nurses did dive into the River to make rescues, but were badly burned themselves.

Firefighter Edward McCarroll dove from his boat, the Wade, and rescued one young child before returning to look for others, when a desperate mother grabbed him by the throat, pulling him underwater. She begged him to save her child, which he did.

It is believed that Van Schaick, who swam to shore badly wounded and blinded, was the last person off the ship, as was his duty as captain.

Bodies continued to wash ashore for days afterward, and were found floating in Hell Gate, the narrow channel out to the Atlantic Ocean. The final death count totaled was 1,021, with 321 survivors and the rest (presumably) missing. The next greatest loss of life on United States soil would not come until nearly a century later, though it would take place in the very same city, with 2,974 dead after the attack of 9/11.

In the wake of the incident, whether sustaining any bodily injury or not, those who did survive the ordeal were not as fortunate as one might think, and suffered tribulations beyond their worst nightmares going forward. Because nearly all aboard belonged to the same church or were friends, neighbors or family in some regard, these poor souls watched nearly everyone they knew perish in a most gruesome and terrifying manner. In the years following, there were many reports of depression and suicide within the community.

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Above: Firefighters scramble to put out the flames as the General Slocum sinks into the East River. Originally published in Harper’s, a caption reads “A view of the General Slocum on fire off North Brother Island.” Photograph: Public Domain

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Above: “Burial of the ‘unidentified’ from the ‘Gen. Slocum disaster. Corner Ave. A & 6th St.”
Image: Gustav Scholer Papers/New York Public Library Digital Papers

Captain Van Schaick was the only person convicted. He was sentenced to 10 years at Sing Sing Prison, but was paroled after three and a half. President Theodore Roosevelt refused to pardon him, but the federal parole board under President William Howard Taft voted to free him in 1911. The real pity (apart from the disaster itself) was that of the other seven parties indicted on behalf of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company — two inspectors, the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore — no one else was convicted. Even more appalling is the fact that although they too were indicted, the managers of the life preserver company, Nonpareil Cork Works, were exonerated as well.

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Image: Encyclopedia Titanica

If there was one good to come of this tragedy, it came in bringing about a prompt and thorough reconsideration of safety equipment regulations and inspection for all maritime vessels going forward.

On January 24th, 2004, the last surviving passenger of the General Slocum, Adella Wotherspoon, passed away at the age of 100. At the time of the tragedy, she was six months old.

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Adella Wotherspoon. Image: Wikipedia. 

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A mass memorial of the General Slocum was erected in 1905 and rests in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which used to be Little Germany. “IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE DISASTER TO THE STEAMER GENERAL SLOCVM JVNE XV MCMIV” Photo: Erik Edson/Wikipedia

Find literature about the General Slocum at the New York Public Library — OB

Suggested readings (via NYPL):

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