Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Spectacle of Horror

New York City, 

It was a bright, cloudless morning on June 15, 1904 when a sidewheel passenger steamboat named the General Slocum caught fire on the East River. Ten minutes earlier, it had departed from Lower Manhattan on an end-of-school-year trip to a picnic ground on the Long Island shore. As the steamboat passed East 97th Street, puffs of smoke started rising through the wooden floorboards. Rotten fire hoses thwarted attempts to put out the blaze; the lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible; and the life preservers were defective and of no use. One newspaper reported, it was “a spectacle of horror beyond words to express—a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in waves.” Almost all of the estimated 1,021 people who died were immigrant mothers and small children, hundreds of whom were never found. A rare menu from the General Slocum is dated the day after the disaster, one of the worst in American history.

The menu was printed in advance for an excursion the next day by the National Association of Credit Men, who were meeting at the fashionable Savoy Hotel. Not missing a beat, the organizers chartered the steamer Rosedale for their scheduled cruise up the Hudson to West Point. After a splendid onboard repast, the bankers listened to speeches about collecting delinquent accounts and discussed ways of punishing fraudulent debtors. Meanwhile, bodies were still being fished out of the East River.

The sinking of the General Slocum devastated the German-American neighborhood called 
Kleindeutschland, which was suddenly dotted with desolate schoolyards. In 1906, a nine-foot marble stele was erected in Tompkins Square Park as a memorial. Many of the broken families moved to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, not far from the place where their loved ones perished. The largely-forgotten catastrophe passed from living memory in 2004 when the last surviving passenger, Adella Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), died at the age of 100. She was a six-month-old infant at the time of the accident that took the lives of her two older sisters.

1 comment:

Jeanne Schinto said...

Oh, that was a sad one -- and news to me, despite the huge loss of life! Historical memory is very selective....