The General Slocum has been part of my life for as far back as I can remember.
My great grandmother, Amelia, 20 in 1904, lived in Little Germany. She knew, or knew of, many of the principal players in the events of June 15, 1904 and as a child obsessed with both history and ships I would often ask her to tell the story of the disaster and its aftermath. “I would have been aboard the Slocum that day, but at the last minute….” became the central motif of literally thousands of family legends in the NYC area, but, to her credit, my great grandmother never made that claim. As my mother recently put it: “There wasn’t a chance she would have been there. Her father would never have wasted money on something like excursion tickets.” So, extreme paternal frugality saved her and her two sisters from probable death that morning. I was, possibly, five years old when I became interested in ‘grandma’s shipwreck,’ but of course I did not write any of the stories down, nor did I tape record them. Sadly, no one else did, either. For a time, my interest in ships waned, and ‘though I saw great grandmother frequently, until I was well into my teens I did not hear of the General Slocum again, except in passing.
My great grandmother died in 1982, but fortunately, on the last Thanksgiving that she was well enough to attend the family get together, she and her friend, Fay, also from Little Germany. spoke at length, about the tragedy and its aftermath. At 15 I was old enough to remember the details clearly - though, once again, I neither tape recorded nor wrote them down. They spoke of “Mary” who organized everything and who died in the fire, of Reverend Haas losing his wife, of how a number of the survivors came back home aboard an elevated train, but so few got off that people assumed it was only the first of many trains (it wasn’t) and finally, of how shocking it was to see adults, trained from birth to keep all emotion hidden in public, reacting with hysteria as the known death toll mounted and relatives failed to return home. Both remembered a woman falling to her knees in the street, screaming and tearing at her hair when she learned of the death of her family. So many questions I wish I had thought to ask while I still had the opportunity. “Mary” was, I much later learned, Mary Abendschein, a middle aged single woman who channeled her energies into improving St. Marks German Lutheran Church and who, in fact, had organized the fatal voyage. But, did my great grandmother and Fay recall the name of the hysterical mother? Did she ever find her children, or had they been lost? How many of their friends survived, how many didn’t, and who were they? I’m glad that I got a final chance to hear of the Slocum as a young adult, but regret not having had the time to learn more straight from the mouths of those who were there.
A basic outline of the Slocum story for those not familiar: The General Slocum, a wooden sidewheel vessel owned by the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, caught fire while on a chartered excursion of the St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church Sunday School. Rather than immediately put his vessel in to shore on either side of the East River, the captain kept in midstream, and at full speed, for at least five minutes beyond the point where the fire first became uncontrollable. The majority of the passengers could not swim, and those not forced overboard by the flames in mid-river, had to jump, or were thrown, into the water when the ship grounded, bow-on, on North Brother Island and the upper decks began to collapse. Medical staff and patients from the hospital on North Brother Island, and a flotilla of small boats and tugs, worked fast to save the drowning, but within a quarter of an hour of the grounding there was no one left to save. Later in the afternoon, the charred hulk of the Slocum drifted free of the beach and sank on the Bronx side of the river, in the direction of Throgs Neck.
There follows a history of the General Slocum, from J.S. Ogilvie’s History of the General Slocum Disaster:
The General Slocum was one of the best known vessels about New York Harbor. Since the time of her launching, in 1891, she has been employed in so many different capacities, and on so many different runs, that possibly five out of every ten people in New York City have, at some point, been aboard her, or have seen her at close range.
Built for the Rockaway service as a sister ship to the Grand Republic, she was kept on that run during most days of the summer months, and during the thirteen years she has been in service she has carried to that resort almost enough people to equal the population of this city.
As an excursion boat she was easily one of the most popular of all the vessels that ply the surrounding waters. Her build did not allow much room for dancing, but the younger folks usually found room in a rather small space on the main deck for this amusement, while the general arrangement of the vessel, with corners and spaces to suit every kind and class, gave her great popularity. During the excursion season, which comes before and after the Rockaway season, she was employed almost every day by excursion parties.
The General Slocum, too, has followed every international yacht race held off Sandy Hook since the day she was built. When she was in her prime and was the finest of the harbor craft, great sums were paid for her on the yacht courses. Since 1891, however, other vessels have appeared which are faster and more suitable to open sea sailing than the Slocum, and she has gradually become the poor man’s transport at the races.
At her launching, everybody was full of praise for Divine Burtis, Jr., the boat builder, of Conover Street and Atlantic Basin, Brooklyn, who built her. The contract for her construction as given out on February 15, 1891, and on April 18th of the same year, three days more than three months later, she was launched.
As she was the finest vessel in the harbor, and having been built in Brooklyn, that city took pride in her and turned out in a crowd at her launching. Miss May Lewis, the niece of the then-President of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, her owners, broke the bottle of wine over her bows as she left the ways.
When the vessel a short time later made her trial trip, she was described as the realization of the boatbuilder’s dream. She was provided with three watertight compartments, which was something entirely new then in such craft, and she was said to be unsinkable. Her dimensions were: length of keel, 235 feet; breadth of hull, 37 feet 6 inches; depth of hull, 12 feet 3 inches; length of deck, 250 feet; breadth of deck 70 feet.
Her body was of white oak and yellow pine, and she was of about 1200 tons. Her engines, which were three of the most advanced pattern, were built by the W.& A. Fletcher Company, of Hoboken. She was a sidewheel boat, each wheel 31 feet in diameter, bearing 26 paddles. She had a steam steering gear of the latest pattern, and was lighted by 250 electric lights. She had a speed of about 18 miles an hour.
The General Slocum had three decks, the main deck provided aft with a comfortable and roomy cabin for women, and with a restaurant forward. The next above, the promenade deck, held the main cabin, richly lined with highly polished sycamore and upholstered in red velvet. Forward and aft of this cabin were roomy deck spaces. The band usually played on the after-part of this deck. The hurricane deck was provided with a running bench all along the outside. Her two funnels were almost amidships and were placed one on each side. Her body was painted white, and her funnels a medium yellow, while her name in large gold letters stood out on either side. She carried a crew of 22 men, a captain and two pilots.
Much would later be said about the General Slocum being a “hoodoo ship.” For a time, in the 1970s and early ‘80s, that particular canard became an integral part of the tale, but a review of the ship’s pre-fire record shows that her life was certainly no more ill starred than that of any other river boat. This segment, also from Ogilvie, details the major mishaps of the boat’s fourteen year career:
The first serious mishap to the General Slocum happened on July 29, 1894, when, on a run home from Rockaway, on which 4700 persons were aboard, late at night she ran on to a sandbar and struck with such force that she carried away several stanchions and injured her electrical apparatus so that every light on board was extinguished. 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 of the same year she met her next mishap. During a heavy squall she ran on a bar off the end of Coney Island. It was night, and again a panic raged. The captain and crew fought down the scrambling passengers, and finally when the storm abated, transferred them to another vessel.
In the following September she was again laid up through a collision in the East River with the tug R.T. Sayre. She sustained damages which cost $1000 to repair, and drifted helplessly about the river for some time, at last to be saved from going on the rocks off Governor's Island. Minor accidents happened to her until July, 1898, when she again was put out of commission by the steam lighter Amelia, with which she collided off the Battery. The two vessels locked and were being carried on the Battery Rocks when tugs separated them.
In June, two years ago, while returning from Rockaway with 400 people aboard, in order to avoid a small sloop she again ran on a bar, where she remained all night, her passengers camping out on deck and in the cabin.
The most serious affair that happened aboard the Slocum before the recent disaster, however, occurred on August 17, 1901. She then had aboard 900 persons, mostly men who were described at the time as Patterson Anarchists. When they boarded the vessel at Jersey City most of them were intoxicated. The Slocum's owners had contracted to take the party to Rockaway, and when the vessel passed outside the Narrows she encountered a heavy sea.
Some of the passengers ordered the captain to turn back. He refused, and then a mob organized to compel him to obey their wishes. The mob first started a panic among the women aboard, and then began a march on the pilot house to lay hands on the captain. The deck hands and spare men from the engine force were quickly called upon, and, with the captain, they attacked the mob and a pitched battle was started. Little by little the mob, and all other passengers were driven into the cabins, the doors of which were locked. An hour later, the Slocum stopped at the police pier at the Battery, where seventeen of the men were turned over to the police. Most of them were later sent to jail.
The officers of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company have frequently been up before the authorities for overcrowding the Slocum. Almost every year special men were detailed to watch her, and charges against her were often made. In 1895, the company was fined $1,670 for a violation.
One event this author missed came early in the Slocum’s career, when a young girl was crowed overboard off of an upper deck and drowned. Evidence that the Slocum was considered a ‘cursed’ vessel from before the fire is non-existent, and the affairs as outlined by Ogilvie, although unpleasant, are not anything that could not, and did not, happen frequently aboard other turn of the twentieth century harbor craft.
So, when the congregants of St. Marks German Lutheran Church, on East Sixth Street, boarded the General Slocum on the morning of Wednesday, June 15th, 1904, en route to a Sunday School picnic at Locust Point on Long Island Sound, there was probably little or no sense of foreboding. It was a beautiful late spring day, the voyage to Locust Point was just long enough to be interesting, and in an era where free time was measured in minutes rather than hours or days, 12 hours spent doing nothing but relaxing in a pleasant place with old friends was a rarity to be anticipated for weeks in advance and remembered fondly for weeks afterwards. Within four hours, 958 of the passengers would be dead or fatally injured, the Slocum would lie sunken with only a portion of her paddle box and her funnels breaking the surface, and fewer than 400 survivors would be slowly making their way back to the Lower East Side, or were recovering in several hospitals.
Because there were so few survivors, interviews - some lengthy, some partial - given by almost half of those saved exist.
We begin with one of the most descriptive accounts if the fire, as well as one of the saddest. It was left, by Mrs. Catherine Kassebaum, 52, of 196 Guernsey Street, Brooklyn.
Catherine Kassebaum was eventually reunited with her daughter Annette, “Nettie”, 30. Nettie had remained aboard the Slocum until a tug appeared through the smoke. She jumped down to it, breaking her leg, but was saved. Lost from the Kassebaum party were Henry Schnude, 32, a Deacon of St. Marks Church, his wife, Anna, also 32, their daughters Mildred, 2, and Grace, 4, Mr. William Schnude, 61 and his wife, Louise, 58, Mrs. Frieda Toniport, 27, and her children Frances, 4, and Charlotte, 1 ½.
Frank Prawdzicki, 12, of 85 East Third Street, was one of the first passengers to spot the fire. He ran to the pilot house and attempted to warn Captain Van Schaick, only to be told “Get the hell out of here!” Frank survived, as did his mother, Mary, 36, but his sisters Annie, 15, Henrietta, 13, and Gertrude, 3, died, and his infant sister Johanna, 1, was lost and never recovered. Mary Prawdzicki gave birth to a second son, Alfred, in 1906.
This account, by Anna Weber, tells the story of an extended family more fortunate than the ill fated Kassebaum party. It also contains a link to the final Slocum survivor, Adella Wotherspoon.
Anna Weber, 31, and her husband, Frank, 35, lost both of their children ,Emma, 10, and Frank C. Jr., 7, in the fire, along with her sister, Martha Liebenow ,29, who resided with them at #404 East Fifth Street. Paul Liebenow, 33, and his wife, Anna, 32, lost two children, Anna, 3, and Helen, 6, whose body was never recovered. Their infant daughter, Adella, 6m, became the final known General Slocum survivor, dying in 2004.
The Department of Charities General Slocum Report has a table in which the missing are matched with the body most likely to have been theirs. Helen Liebenow, 6, is thought to be body #5, a 6 year old girl buried in grave 5 of row 1 at the Lutheran Cemetery.
Margaret Maurer, 48, was the wife of George
J. Maurer (53) the leader of the band that played aboard the General
Slocum’s final voyage. She died, of
pneumonia following burns, on June 23, 1904, joining daughters Clara, 12, and
Matilda, 14, and husband, George, who was found with the print of a shoe heel
stamped into his forehead. 'Professor' Maurer's song list for that morning
1) Unser Kaiser Friedrich
2) Poet and Peasant
3) Bird of Passage
5) Vienna Swallows
6) Swanee River
7) On The Beautiful Rhine
8) Dutch Patrol
9) Hip Hip Hurrah
For the return voyage, the program was:
1) Unser Kaiser Friedrich
3) Ever or Never
4) Under The Double Eagle
6) The Picadore
7) Werner's Parting Song
8) Children's Carnival
9) Princess Pocahontas
10) Mrs. Sippi
11) Home Sweet Home
Many of the survivors spoke of the "younger set" dancing to Maurer's band that morning, and many witnesses on shore testified that although it was evident to them that the ship was ablaze, apparently it was not as immediately evident aboard the ship, for the band kept playing. The wave of passengers who ran from up forward, described by so many survivors, overwhelmed the small band. Maurer was seen being carried into the water holding one of his daughters and, from the heel mark on his head it is likely he was rendered unconscious by one of the other passengers who rained down when the railing was broken away.
Cornet player August Schneider, 34, of 322 Stanhope Street, Brooklyn, was luckier than George Maurer. His family traveled with him on the excursion, and they were not entirely annihilated.
Dora Schneider, 32, was lost, as were her daughters Catherine, 8, and Amalia, 6.
Reverend George C.F. Haas, 50,of St. Marks German Lutheran Church was accompanied by his wife, daughter, sister, sister- in - law and nephew on the Sunday School excursion. He recalled:
Of the Haas party, only the Reverend and his sister, Emma, 30, escaped. Anna S. Haas, 46, died, as did her daughter, Gertrude, 13, her sister, Mrs. Sophia Tetamore, 31, of 1471 Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn, and Mrs. Tetamore’s son Herbert, 3. Reverend Haas made his first post-fire public appearance, his head swathed in bandages, at his wife’s funeral in the front parlor of their home at 64 East Seventh Street. Those in attendance were surprised at how ill he seemed. Anna Haas’ was the only body recovered at that point, but just as her service began news arrived that the remains of Mrs. Tetamore, whose face had been destroyed, had been identified by certain markings on her body. Sophia’s coffin was taken to the Haas home and, after services, both sisters began their final journey together. Gertrude Haas’ was one of the final bodies identified (her death certificate was #3617, Mrs. Tetamore’s was 3160, and Mrs. Haas’ 2930) while Herbert Tetamore was never found.
St. Marks Sexton, Joseph Halphusen, and his family, were more fortunate than the Haas party:
Because of the proximity to shore and the immediate presence of many rescuers on hand, a few passengers who ‘drowned’ that morning were brought back. There is a uniform quality to their accounts - a struggle, a ringing in their ears, a sudden ‘acceptance’ of what was happening, and then blackness. One who was brought back was Susan Schulz, 24, of 414 East Ninth Street:
Walter Mueller, 10, was the son of Bernard, 38, and Valesca Mueller, 29, of 95 2nd Avenue. They were lost, as was their son, Edgar, 4, but children Walter, Louis, 9, Arthur, 6, and Grover, 13, survived.
Bernard Mueller died in the hospital on June 23, 1904. Before he died, he stated:
The orphaned Mueller children were taken in by their grandmother, Johanna Hagar. Grover died in South El Monte, California, in April, 1968.
There is often the mistaken tendency to consider ethnic neighborhoods, both historical and contemporary, as being homogenous. Little Germany was really a small town within a large city, and the passenger list of the General Slocum reflected all levels of German-American society as it existed in 1904. Nicholas Balser, 56, of 422 East Eighth Street escorted his wife Amelia, 46, and family friend Maria Fickbohm, 40, of 91 Avenue D, and her three children, Maria, 14, Ernest, 12, and Frederick, 9, on the excursion. Mr. Balser was a pharmacist, whose business acumen allowed him the luxury of a free Wednesday (an advertisement for his pharmacy, and “Wild Cherry Cough Balsam, .25 the bottle” appeared in the program handed out to Slocum excursionists that morning) while Peter Fickbohm’s saloon allowed Maria the luxury of a telephone (Orchard 505) and servant, Kate Cibilski, 18, who traveled with the family on the outing. Mr. Balser, still in the wet clothing in which he was rescued from the river, returned to the Fickbohm’s saloon where he gave this account:
Catherine Balser, in fact, died that day, as did Maria Fickbohm, her servant Kate Cibilski, and two of her three children. Only Freddy Fickbohm, whose position at the onset of the fire- far forward and on the top deck- gave him an excellent chance at survival, escaped alive. A Fred W. Fickbohm, of the right age and born in New York, is shown in both the 1920 and 1930 census as living in Newark, New Jersey, with his wife and daughter, both named Lillian.
If Nicholas and Catherine Balser, whose prospering pharmacy gave them the luxury of a midweek day off together, and Maria Fickbohm, with her successful family business, telephone, and servant represented one extreme of life in Little Germany, then 47 year old Mrs. Emilia Richter, of 404 East Sixth Street represented the other. However, in the eyes of the community, both women were equally respected. Mrs. Franz Wilhelm Richter had been left widowed with seven children, and an elderly mother to support. Determined not to fall upon charity, and equally determined to keep her children in school for as long as possible, Emilia worked several jobs. According to one account, for a time she worked up to 20 hours each day as an office cleaner, a washwoman and a piece worker at home. Had “help” been offered from outside of her immediate family she most likely would not have accepted it - and after the disaster neighbors spoke of her approvingly, if not glowingly. By 1904, her three eldest children had entered the work force and for the first time in a long while things were looking up for the Richter family. The General Slocum excursion was probably the first “vacation” they ever had. Emilia’s 15 year old son, William, was working in an office and could not make the excursion. Only he and his sister Frances, 10, remained alive by the afternoon of June 15th. Mrs.Richter, along with her children Emilia, 20, Lizzie,19, August, 14, Ernest,12, and Annie, 8, drowned in the water off North Brother Island. Frances Richter gave this account of her mother’s sad final moments:
A final account of the family survives, leaving one to wonder what became of the three survivors of Emilia Richter:
Frances, the ten year old girl who was saved, walked hand-in-hand with her brother, who had not gone. The boy is only fifteen, but he acts like a grown man. The day after the funeral he went back to his work in a commission house downtown, but his employer said to him in kindly fashion: ‘Take the week off; come back next Monday.’
‘I was glad,’ said the boy simply as he came home and took off his coat, ‘for now I can get the moving done.’ With a little help, he moved over what furniture would be needed from their own tenement to that of his grandmother. The children will live with her for the present.
‘She oughtn’t be left alone,’ explained the boy. ‘I will have to take care of her and my little sister. Well, I don’t know just how I’m going to do it, but I’ll manage it somehow. There isn’t anyone else to do it.’
A William Richter, born in 1888 and a bank clerk, is shown as residing with his uncle and aunt, Harry and Alice Richter, on West 25th Sreet in Mnahattan, in the 1910 census. Franis Richter, 15 or 16 when the census was taken, was not residing with her brother, if this is, in fact, the William Richter.
Life in Little Germany was austere in a way that seems unbelievable in the 21st century. My great grandmother was raised in a home where German only was spoken, a switch with which to discipline the children was kept beside the family Bible, the evening meal was preceded by an interminable prayer delivered by Vater, and relentless emphasis was placed on education and personal achievement. It was a typical home for that time and that community. Floors were to be scrubbed by hand and not mopped (mops only spread the dirt) emotions were simply not shown in public and very seldom in private (a very fond memory of mine is of my mother affectionately commenting to my great-grandmother ‘You Germans have no sense of humor’ and my great-grandmother deadpanning ‘We don’t need them.’), and bakeries were the province of unmarried men, widowers, and bad mothers - after all, if a woman was not to spend her time baking for her family then she was obviously spending her time up to no good. The mores of Little Germany were deep rooted and utterly intractable. Had widowed Emilia Richter sought help in caring for her eight charges, as a recipient of charity she would have been both pitied and censured. Her crushing 20 hour work day, and emphasis on keeping her family together at all costs, were exactly what the community expected of her. “Her hands were rough, but her children were all clean,” words spoken by a neighbor in the days after her death, were as high an accolade in Little Germany as any imaginable. The same rigid belief in self-reliance, and refusal to take charity, remained even in the face of the greatest disaster in New York history. As documented in Ship Ablaze (O’Donnell), when it came time to distribute the large sum of money raised for the Slocum needy, not even the worst off showed up. Finally, the charity was organized in such a way that claimants could apply in complete privacy, safe in the knowledge that all records would be destroyed after the funds were distributed, eliminating any “shameful” evidence of just who petitioned for aid. When the beloved Reverend Haas attempted to use charity money for the benefit of St. Marks Church the reaction was so negative that he was eventually driven way from Little Germany.