Fire On The Water

Published July 31, 2021
Fire On The Water
The General Slocum Disaster
Guest Blog by Rene Kruse

On June 15, 1904 one of the great disasters in American history occurred in the Hell Gate area of New York City’s East River. Although overshadowed by ever greater disasters to come in the city’s history, the burning of the General Slocum and the loss of nearly 1,000 lives, remains one of the most horrific events to ever occur during our nation’s past – and it’s one that left tales of doom, curses, despair, death and even hauntings in its fiery wake.

By the early summer of 1904, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company needed a second passenger steamship to carry visitors back and forth from New York City to Rockaway Beach during the thriving resort season. The SS General Slocum was commissioned and built in Brooklyn to fulfill that need. Before and after the Rockaway Beach season, the General Slocum was an excursion ship carrying visitors around New York City and was available for private charter.

The ship had a 235-foot-long wooden hull, three expansive decks and a passenger capacity of three thousand.  The Slocum was, by design, a “sidewheel” boat. This means her paddlewheels, 31 feet in diameter, were located on each side, just aft of the center of the ship. Launched in 1891, her white hull with brilliant gold lettering and bright orange paddlewheels made her a spectacular sight as she steamed around New York. As an excursion ship, she was one of the most popular and recognizable steaming the New York City waters. At the time the General Slocum burned, at least half of the people living in New York had either been aboard her or had seen her close up.

Many believed the General Slocum was a cursed ship, however that idea never made it into print until after the fire and sinking. In support of these claims, during her fourteen years afloat, she did experience a series of unfortunate mishaps. The first in a long succession of problems that plagued the General Slocum involved the drowning of a young girl, who had been accidentally pushed overboard by an overzealous crowd.

The ill-fated General Slocum

It turned out that 1894 was a very bad year for the ship. In July, while carrying 4,700 passengers, she ran onto a sandbar so hard that her lights were completely knocked out. The New York Times reported, “A panic followed, in which women who fainted were trampled upon, and men fought with each other to get to the boats. Pandemonium reigned for half an hour, until order was restored by the crew. Then it was found that hundreds had been injured in the wild scrimmage.”  In August, she ran into another sandbar off Coney Island during a terrible storm. Panic again ruled the night until the storm eased and the passengers were transferred to another boat. The very next month, the Slocum collided with a tugboat, the R.T. Sayre. She drifted helplessly about the East River, nearly running aground on the rocks off Governor’s Island before another tugboat was able to push her to safety.

The General Slocum suffered only minor scrapes over the next four years; however, in 1898 she collided with the lighter Amelia, just off the Battery. The two ships struck each other so hard that they became locked together and had to be separated by tugs. Then in June of 1902, during a return trip from Rockaway Beach, she again ran aground on yet another sandbar. As it was already dark, the four hundred passengers on board had to camp out on deck all night until they could be rescued the next morning.

On August 17, 1901, a bizarre event occurred aboard the General Slocum. The ship had been hired to take a group of four hundred people, mostly men, to Rockaway Beach. The men, immigrant workers from the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, were reportedly already drunk when they boarded the vessel. As the ship steamed into open waters, she was met by a storm with heavy seas. The drunken passengers, whom news reports dubbed the “Paterson Anarchists,” for their rowdy behavior and labor union affiliation, panicked and insisted that the captain turn around. When he refused, a group of them stormed the bridge in an attempt to take over the ship. The crew fought the group off successfully and was able to lock them in cabins until the captain could land. At least seventeen of the so-called anarchists were arrested and most of those ended up in jail.

St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was located in Little Germany, also known as Kleindeutschland, a New York community of eighty thousand German inhabitants located along the Lower East Side near Tompkins Square.  St. Marks held an annual celebration to commemorate the conclusion of their Sunday school year. In 1904, the parishioners chose to charter the General Slocum to take them to Locust Point on Huntington Bay on the North Shore of on Long Island for a picnic. The charter cost them $350 and for most of them, their lives.

On the morning of June 15, 1904, Captain William Van Schaick and his crew of twenty docked the General Slocum for boarding at the Third Street and East River pier. The scene was that of great fanfare with excited parents and children. The Slocum grup band played German favorites. Because it was a Wednesday and most men were at work, a majority of those boarding the ship that day were women and children. In all, 1,358 souls were on the General Slocum that day. Only 337 were still alive just two hours later.
The ship was loaded and underway by 9:30 a.m. One survivor recalled the General Slocum, “glided through the water so smoothly that the children were allowed to move around and play as they wished about the deck.” As it turned out, her smooth sailing was not so fortunate, as families who had wandered apart towards the beginning of the journey would later spend much precious time frantically searching the parts of the ship not burning, trying to find their children.  

Less than thirty minutes after casting off, twelve-year-old Frank Prawdzicki was the first to notice signs of fire.  He tried to warn the captain but was pushed away from the bridge and told not to bother the officers again. Ten minutes later, a general fire alarm spread through the ship. Young Frank Prawdzicki and his mother survived the fire but his four sisters, Annie, age fifteen, Henrietta, age thirteen, Gertrude, age three and one-year-old Johanna, were all lost.

The fire spread through the ship faster than anyone could have possibly imagined. Feeding the flames further was the highly flammable paint with which the ship had recently been repainted. However, the main reason the flames spread with such ferocity was because of what Captain Van Schaick did next. Many believed that he badly mishandled the fire and the situation that followed.

When the Captain was first notified of the fire in the forward compartment, they were steaming past a large set of piers where he could have docked in time to possibly save countless lives. Instead, he steamed ahead at full speed for nearly five minutes before beaching the ship on the shores of North Brother Island. He later tried to explain, “I started to head for 134th Street, but was warned off by the captain of a tugboat, who shouted to me that the boat would set fire to the lumber yards and oil tanks there. Besides, I knew that the shore was lined with rocks and the boat would founder if I put in there. I then fixed upon North Brother Island.”  

Unfortunately, as the ship steamed ahead at full speed, the wind fanned the flames fiercely and caused them to move toward the aft (rear) part of the ship where most of those aboard had taken refuge from the smoke and heat.  The fire ate away at the decks with amazing speed. A flotilla of small boats and tugs followed the raging inferno as she sped down river.

The ruins of the General Slocum, still on the water.

It would not be one single thing that doomed the ship. Even though the General Slocum had experienced a variety of mishaps during her short life, Captain Von Schaick had received a number of safety commendations as he was ultimately in charge of safety on board the ship. Little did anyone know that the Captain had become very lax in regard to safety. In reality, the General Slocum had become a floating deathtrap. The crew had never been trained in the required safety drills or with the safety equipment, most of which was aged and rotted. The ship’s life boats were originally lashed in place with ropes, but as the ropes had begun to rot, they were reattached with wire and could not be released during the fire.  

The times were also a factor in the large number of lives lost. In the early twentieth century, very few people knew how to swim, especially those living in the city. The clothing worn by the women and young girls also proved to be a great hindrance to their survival. Long, heavy skirts and the petticoats worn underneath grew heavy in the water and clung to their legs, pulling them down and making it impossible to for them to swim or even stay afloat.  And these were Victorian times. Devout, church-going women would never have considered stripping down to their undergarments before jumping, even to save their own lives. Also, many waited on the ship too long and were killed when the decks burned through and collapsed. Others were mauled to death by the still-turning paddle wheels as they jumped over the side. 

The first action taken by the crew was to try to put out the fire using the on-board fire hoses. Having never been used before or replaced as needed, most crumbled as they were taken from their racks. The hoses that didn’t crumble into pieces, burst apart when the water pumps were turned on. After this first course of action failed, a majority of the crew abandoned ship leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. One survivor related, “...it seemed to me that the crew of the boat lost their heads -- they were undisciplined, and did not do what sane men would have done to stay the panic and restore order.”

Three thousand life preservers were hung along the interior deck walls near the ceilings. Passengers climbed onto deck chairs and camp stools to take them down but found that many of them were stuck to the walls, evidently put back too soon after the recent paint job. Others simply fell apart in their hands, the fabric shredding, releasing the granulated cork inside. At that time, solid pieces of cork were sewn inside life preservers and maritime law required a minimum amount of cork be placed in each, measured by the weight of the finished jacket. The Nonpareil Cork Works, makers of the life preservers used on the General Slocum, had used useless lightweight granulated cork instead of the required solid cork. It was later discovered that in order to reach the required minimum weight, the company had placed iron bars and pieces of stone inside the jackets.    

A few of the life jackets did stay intact for a while. Mothers strapped their babies and young children into the remaining life preservers, took them to the rail of the ship and dropped them over the side. To their utter horror, they stood and watched as their children hit the water’s surface and immediately sunk from sight, pulled down by the weighted jackets that were supposed to keep them afloat.

Joseph Halphusen, the church sextant described the scene as “pure panic.” He further described how a sheet of flame followed rolling clouds of smoke. A rush began towards the sides of the boat during which women and children were thrown down and trampled. He said that many were pushed overboard and even more jumped into the river.  Mr. Halphusen waited till the last minute before he dropped his two daughters over the side and jumped himself, just as a rescue tug arrived in time to fish all three from the water.

Because this was to be a cheerful family-oriented outing, George Maurer, the Slocum bandleader, brought along his wife. Margaret, and daughters Clara, age twelve, and Matilda, age fourteen. Margaret died a few days after the fire from burns. His daughters drowned, as did Maurer himself. When his body was recovered, his forehead carried the imprint from a boot heel. It was believed that after he was already in the water, someone landed on him as they jumped.

As the General Slocum struck the shore of North Brother Island, Nicholas Balser was at the aft end of the ship, waiting till the last minute to jump. When at last he did jump, to his surprise he landed in water only up to his armpits and walked out onto the shore. “When I finally emerged, I looked back and to my dying day I’ll never forget the scene. Around me were scores of bodies, most of them charred and burned. I helped as many as possible of those still living to land. From the stern of the boat, where hundreds of persons were huddled fighting like mad to leap into the water, I saw dozens of women and children throw themselves over the side.”

Catherine Kassebaum, and the ten family members she brought with her that day, wanted to listen to the music, so they all gathered around the grup musik. A woman’s scream reached them before any smoke was noticed.  Thinking that someone had fallen overboard, she and her family scanned the waters below. Within seconds, the true nature of the problem became apparent when smoke began billowing toward them and they heard general panic on the forward part of the deck. Catherine, realizing that she had to stay calm if there was any chance for survival, called her family together, instructing the strong to care for the weak, but they were soon overtaken by a mass of screaming women and children rushing toward them in an attempt to escape the oncoming smoke and flames. 
Catherine’s family disappeared as the crowd swept past her. She was able to climb onto a rail for a better vantage point, trying to spot any of her family. Her hands and face were scorched and blistered, holes were burning in her clothing; she finally decided to take her chances by jumping into the water. She described the feeling that she would never again surface when she saw a flash of light and something solid above her. She was later found alive, clinging to the ship’s paddle box. Her daughter Nettie had waited until she saw a tugboat approach the burning ship and jumped onto the deck, breaking her leg. Though mother and daughter were reunited, the remaining nine members of their family perished.

The family of Anna Weber was slightly more fortunate than the Kassebaums. At the first puff of smoke, Anna began rushing about the deck searching for her children. The heat was so intense that her face was scorched and her hair caught fire. Hoping that her husband had found their children, she went to the side of the boat and tried to lower herself down by a rope. Her flesh blistered every time her hands or face touched the side of the boat. She finally dropped when her rope burst into flames. Anna was soon pulled to the shore of North Brother Island by an unknown savior where she found her husband with his clothes burned off, wandering about looking for their children.

Frank and Anna Weber lost both their son and daughter, along with her sister. Their friends, Paul and Anna Liebenow, whom the Webers had invited along as a special treat, lost two daughters but their six-month old daughter Adelia was miraculously saved. The following year little Adelia Leibenow (later Witherspoon) unveiled the Steamboat Fire Mass Memorial. She went on to live a full life and was the last known General Slocum survivor. She died in 2004 at the age of one hundred.

The Reverend George Hass, pastor of St. Marks, had been on a tour of the ship as it first got underway. As smoke began pouring up from below he was able to find his wife, Anna, and his sister, Emma. They waited on the middle deck, searching for George and Anna’s thirteen-year old daughter, Gertrude. When they realized that the deck above them was about to collapse, they jumped together into the water.  Rev. Hass described how he thought he must have put on his life preserver incorrectly because it seemed to be pulling him deeper under water. He was able to free himself and floated to the surface, but by that point, had lost track of his wife. Of the entire Hass party, only Rev. Hass and his sister survived the ordeal.  

By the time the General Slocum was beached on North Brother Island, she was fully engulfed in flames. She ran aground in about 25 feet of water, just off the shoreline. Fireboats arrived shortly, along with other small boats and tugs. These smaller boats maneuvered around the bodies and wreckage, plucking any survivors they found from the water. Captain Van Schaick jumped to the deck of an approaching tug, with an injury to his eye that left him blind on one side, but otherwise unharmed and dry. 

North Brother Island was a hospital island for contagious diseases. Many medical personnel and patients watched from the hospital windows as the General Slocum approached. They rushed the short distance to the shore to render any aid they could. City Health Commissioner Thomas Darlington happened to be visiting the hospital that day. “I will never be able to forget the scene, the utter horror of it,” he said later. He described how the patients in the contagious wards “went wild at the things they saw from their windows.” They screamed and beat at the doors until they were finally quieted by a number of staff members. They watched as the small boats were arriving with the survivors, and towing large numbers of bodies.

The island became a “scene of courage and panic.” Many stories of heroism and cruelty were printed in the newspapers over the next week. A tugboat captain risked his boat and crew by pulling right up to the flames and is said to have saved nearly a hundred lives. Some quite ill patients left the safety of their hospital beds and ran into the water, rescuing as many children as they could. One newspaper reporter wrote of the actions of a particular hospital staff member, “A nurse who always wished she could swim ran into the river to grab some children, which she did again and again until she was swept into deeper water, where she discovered that she could swim, and continued saving lives.”

Over the following few days, hordes of souvenir hunters made the recovery of bodies much more difficult as they washed ashore on North Brother Island and other sites down river. Thieves stripped many of the bodies of jewelry and other valuables as they lay at the high tide line. Hospital attendants chased away a man they found stooped over the body of a woman, attempting to steal the gold watch chain that she wore at her waist. Then there was the large and mysterious white yacht that was cursed by many as it lay just yards away without making any attempt to help with the rescue. A New York Times headline screamed from the page that the private captain “Kept His Yacht Back While Scores Perished: White Vessel’s Captain Watched Slocum Horror Through Glasses.”

The bodies that were pulled from the water or washed ashore on North Brother Island were laid out side by side on the grass outside the hospital. They were later moved to a makeshift morgue at the East 23rd Street Pier. Coroner William J. O’Gorman announced that more than $200,000 in cash and jewelry was recovered from the victims. Eva Eingler’s body was found to have $30,000 in cash, securities and bankbooks on it. It is unknown why she took that much money with her on what was supposed to be a short excursion. The funds, jewelry and personal items taken from the victims were taken to the coroner’s office to be held for the owners’ survivors. A volunteer who was taking inventory of the victims’ personal effects was startled to discover that fifteen-year-old Clara Hartman of East Ninth Street, pulled from the water and thought to be drowned, was still alive three hours after the fire on board the General Slocum.

Bodies of the dead were placed on display on North Brother Island. They were eventually packed in ice so they could be preserved until someone could identify them.

Rescue volunteers and police openly sobbed as they moved bodies hour after hour. As morgue staff worked to lay out the bodies as they arrived, others were sent to search the city for wooden coffins. Still others brought back tons of ice to help maintain the bodies until they could be identified and claimed by family members.  

While still burning, the hull of the General Slocum was washed a few thousand yards down river by the current until it became lodged in the mud. In following weeks the hull remained partially submerged just off of Hunts Point in the Bronx. Divers were sent down into the hull to search for and recover trapped bodies. Police continued to search the riverbanks for many weeks, collecting bodies and debris from the boat that continued to wash ashore.

While the divers were searching the burned-out hull, they discovered many bodies lying at the bottom of the river. Continuing their search they found a deep hole in the riverbed from which they retrieved more than fifty more bodies. All of these bodies were wearing life preservers. The very life preservers that were supposed to save their lives were weighing their bodies down, making the recovery that much more difficult.

When news of the disaster spread, grief-stricken families flocked to St. Mark’s Church to await the news of their loved ones.

When they heard about the disaster, huge numbers of people amassed at St. Mark’s Church to await news of survivors. Still others rushed to the morgue trying to get information faster. Over the next week, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers walked past the rows of bodies, hoping to find a lost friend or family member. Though many bodies were never recovered, assumed to have washed out to sea, 61 were never identified and were buried in a common grave in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. The tragedy was further deepened as people committed suicide after learning they had lost their entire families. They may have died later but they were killed by the General Slocum as surely as if they had been killed by the flames.

Funerals were held every hour around the clock in Little Germany. With such a large number of dead, all having lived in the same community, nearly everyone in Little Germany had lost a friend or family member or knew someone who had. The deep sadness of the tragedy seemed to permeate the very fabric of the community and people started to leave. Within a few years, only a small handful of the original inhabitants were left and Little Germany was no more.

Of the 1,021 people who died as a direct result of the fire on board the General Slocum, over ninety percent of them were women, children and infants.

Outrage was the order of the day as people wondered how such a tremendous tragedy could occur within a few hundred yards of one of the most terbaru cities in the world. Someone had to be held accountable for such a great loss. City leaders vowed to bring to justice those who were to blame. Within a few weeks, the main executives of the Knickerbocker Steamship Co. were indicted along with Captain Van Schaick and a safety inspector. Also indicted were the top executives of the Nonpareil Cork Works, makers of the deadly life preservers. They were never convicted.  

During the trial, it was revealed that the Knickerbocker Steamship Company had falsified records, covering up its lack of concern for passenger safety. In return for their complicity in the tragedy, they received only a small fine. 

Captain Van Schaick’s story ended differently. Though he tried to explain his actions on that terrible day, the jury was not convinced. In the end, the captain was the ultimate authority for safety on his ship and he was held accountable. Convicted of criminal negligence and manslaughter, Captain Van Schaick was sentenced to ten years hard labor at Sing Sing Prison. Though he appealed for his release directly to President Theodore Roosevelt, a native New Yorker, he was repeatedly refused. After serving three and a half years, he was pardoned under President William Howard Taft and spent the rest of his life in seclusion, a broken man, until his death in 1927.

The cause of the fire was quickly discovered. The night before the General Slocum’s simpulan trip, deck hand Dan O’Neill violated fire regulations by storing a barrel of packing hay on board. He placed the hay in a closet with a stash of oil lamps. This proved to be the deadliest of mixtures.

Just one month before the fire, Henry Lundburg, Assistant Inspector of Hulls, performed a safety inspection of the General Slocum. During this inspection, he determined that the life preservers were “up to date and of good quality.” When inspecting the water pumps and fire hoses, he didn’t seem at all concerned that no water came out when he turned the valves on and off. Another part of the inspection required him to climb up to the lifeboats to check them. Instead, he merely glanced up and checked the box for “in good condition” on his form and walked on.

The great tragedy that occurred aboard the General Slocum, resulting in the horrific deaths of so many innocent men, women and children were in large part due to the illegal actions and corrupt behaviors of Henry Lundberg and Dan O’Neill. Neither of these men spent a single day in jail.
In 1906, a memorial fountain to the victims of the fire was erected at the north end of Tompkins Square Park.

The remains of the General Slocum’s hull were recovered and rebuilt into a barge named the Maryland, which sank off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, during a December storm in 1911. The curse, some said, continued.

Captain Van Schaick lived for twenty years after he was released from prison, though he didn’t get much rest during that time. He privately told friends that his nights were frequently interrupted by the screams of women and children. His days were filled with shadows in the corners and the smell of burning flesh. In the end, it was said that he welcomed death. Was he being haunted by the victims of the great tragedy in which he was at least partially to blame, or was his tormentor his own conscience?

So many suffered to learn such harsh lessons. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this disaster is that so much is left without rest, so many lost forever. But many were left witness, to remember the flames, to remember the screams, to remember the horror. 


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