The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea

Panic ensued. Sheets of flame followed the roiling clouds of smoke, and the fearful rush began to the sides of the boat.
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The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea

Gare Maritime

Panic ensued. Sheets of flame followed the roiling clouds of smoke, and the fearful rush began to the sides of the boat.

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 wasnt 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 grandmas 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 wasnt) 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 didnt, and who were they? Im 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. Marks 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. Ogilvies 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 ships 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 boats fourteen year career:

HER MISFORTUNES


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 Slocums 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.

We had a party of eleven on the boat, and were anticipating a fine days outing. We wanted to hear the music on the way up the river and so all of us were gathered on the after deck, not more than twenty feet away from the band and close to the rail of the deck.

The first intimation we had that there was something wrong was when a scream came from the forward part of the boat. We concluded that someone must have fallen overboard and began scanning the water in the wake of the boat. But we did not have to wait too long to find out what the real trouble was. A few seconds after the first scream there was a general panic on the forward deck.

We could hear the women and children screaming, and an instant later there was a puff of smoke and flame near the bow of the boat. I realized then that we were all in the gravest of peril and that if we expected to escape with our lives some of us at least must keep our cool heads. In our party were my daughter, Annette, my son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Schnude and their two little children, and my daughter Mrs. Frieda Toniport and her two children. In addition to these nine, there were the father and mother of Mr. Schnude.

The moment I saw the flames I called all of our party together and told them quietly that if we were to escape alive we must stick close together so as to be able to help one another. I thought that the strong among us could take care of the weak. But my words of warning were not more than out of my mouth when there came such a rush of panic stricken people to the stern of the boat that no human being could have stood up against it.

I clung to the rail and managed to hold my place, but when I looked around not one member of my family was to be seen anywhere. They had been whisked away from me in the rush and I did not know what had been their fate. By that time there were scores of women and children in the water.

At last I managed to get a foot upon the rail by clinging with my hands to a post. From that point of vantage I watched the crowd in search of my loved ones, but they were nowhere to be seen. Just then I saw our Pastor, the Reverend Mr. Haas, with his wife and daughter at the other side of the boat. He was trying to protect them from the trampling crowd. Then a minute later I saw them climb over the rail and all jump into the river together.

I took another careful look around to see if any of my family were on the boat, but still they were nowhere to be seen. Then I decided to take my chances in the water. The fire was so near that my hands and face were scorched and blistered and there were holes in my clothing that had been burned there by the flying sparks.

I climbed over the rail and jumped feet first into the water. It seemed to me that I sank hundreds of feet and that I should never come to the surface again. But at last I saw a flash of light, and that told me that I was up where I could get a breath of air. I tried to keep myself from sinking again by striking out blindly with my hands and feet, and did manage to keep up for a few seconds.

In that brief time I saw women and children around me in the water. They all seemed to be drowning. I remember I wondered in a dreamy sort of way if any of my children were near me, and if they would be rescued. Then my strength failed me and I sank once more. I stopped struggling and didnt seem to care any longer whether I ever rose to the top or not.

Just then my head struck against something hard. That aroused my senses and I grabbed at whatever had bumped my head. I caught it with my hands and held on. Once I got a breath of air, my strength came back a little and then I discovered that I was clinging to the paddlebox. I held on desperately and a minute or two later a man in a small rowboat pulled up close to me. The boatman held out an oar to me and yelled to me to grasp it and hold fast. I did so, and he soon hauled me aboard his boat. I begged him to look for the other members of my family, but he had as many in his boat as it would hold and had to go ashore.

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 .

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.

There was never a happier party than we were when we boarded the boat Wednesday morning. The children danced around when I was preparing the lunch the night before and we started early. My husband and myself, my children Emma and Frank, and my sister Martha Liebenow met my brother, Paul Liebenow and his wife, with their six month old baby in her arms, and Helen, six years old, and their baby girl three years old at the dock. We had invited them to go with us to the excursion, and we went on board laughing and talking, the children ahead with my sister.

We went to the middle deck, near the forward part of the boat. The sun was shining, and the boat glided through the water so smoothly that the children could play around without any danger, and were told to remain within call. The four little ones romped back towards the stern of the boat with my sister.

We were sitting in a circle talking when a puff of smoke came up the stairway leading to the deck below. It was a big puff of smoke and startled everyone.

'Don't mind that, it's the chowder cooking' some one said, and then we laughed at our fears, but the laughter changed to a cry of horror when a sheet of flame followed the smoke.

I cried for my children, and my sister in law with her baby ran back to search for her two little ones. The flames kept sweeping up, growing higher and spreading. My husband and my brother had gone to look for the children.

Then we were all separated. I rushed here and there, looking for my children and saying to myself that my husband had found them. The flames were sweeping back as the boat raced on, and it was like the breath of a furnace.

'Get life preservers' said a man, and we all stood up on camp stools and on the benches and reached for life preservers. Some of them we could not budge, and the others pulled to pieces and spilled the crumbs of cork over our heads. The heat was blistering and the flames swept along the roof of the deck and scorched our fingers as we tried to snatch down the life preservers. The flames drove those who were standing around me back and over to the side of the boat.

Nobody could live in heat like that. My face was scorching and my hair caught fire. I went to the side of the boat and swung myself over the side by a rope. Every time my hands, face or body would come in contact with the sides of the vessel it would blister my flesh.

I don't know whether I dropped or whether I was pushed off. I found myself struggling against the water. There were others struggling in the water around me, and they were pulling each other down. I cried for help and heard a man, who was in the water, tell me to come nearer, that it was too hot where I was for him to swim to me. I was pulled on shore on North Brother Island and then went back to the water to look for my children.

Before I let go of the rope, the vessel was one mass of flames. I knew that the children couldn't live there and thought I might keep them from drowning. I found my husband with his clothes burned off, looking for the children, and then they took us both to the hospital.

At the hospital I found my brother and his wife. Some one restored to them their six month old baby, which had been pulled from the water. My two little children and her two girls are missing.’

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.

"I felt myself carried along to the side of the boat. I don't remember whether I jumped, for I was pretty badly burned, or was pushed overboard. In the water I grabbed at a man but missed him. I gave up hope, thinking I was going to be drowned. I felt a ringing sensation in my head and it seemed as if I were going to fall asleep, when somebody grabbed me and pulled me aboard a boat."

Margaret Maurer, 48, was the wife of George J. Maurer (53) the leader of the band that played aboard the General Slocums 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 consisted of:

1) Unser Kaiser Friedrich
2) Poet and Peasant
3) Bird of Passage
4) Waldvoeglein
5) Vienna Swallows
6) Swanee River
7) On The Beautiful Rhine
8) Dutch Patrol
9) Hip Hip Hurrah
10) Carousal

For the return voyage, the program was:

1) Unser Kaiser Friedrich
2) College
3) Ever or Never
4) Under The Double Eagle
5) America
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.

We were playing on the upper deck. The band, of which George Maurer was the leader, was composed of seven musicians. We were seated in the stern when a whole crowd of people suddenly rushed toward us, shouting and screaming. At least half of them jumped right overboard. It wasn’t until a  few seconds afterward that we saw smoke and fire. The wind, luckily, was blowing the flames away from us.

 I got my family together and told them to stick close to me. I took my little Augusta, 3 years old, on my arm and was just considering the best place for safety when the deck broke, and fell with the ruins.

I still held my child, but my wife and the other two children were torn away from me and I didn’t see them again and do not know where they are. I was taken off by rescuers in a  tugboat.

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:

It has been my practice every year to make a tour of the boat as soon as we started on our annual excursion, to see that everything was all right. Shortly after the steamer left the Third Street pier that morning I started from the promenade deck to make such a trip. I had just completed the round of the steamer on the several decks forward and aft, and was on my way back to the promenade deck when I saw smoke coming up a narrow gangway leading from the lower main deck.

I thought at first that the smoke might be blowing that way from the galley, where I know they were preparing to cook the clam chowder, but the smoke speedily increased in volume and I soon realized that it was something more serious. I ran to where my wife was sitting on the promenade deck and returned with her to the main deck, at the same time giving the warning to everybody I met to go to the stern of the boat.

On reaching the main deck I drove the people before me toward the stern, but that was not difficult, for many of them had noticed the smoke almost as soon as I had, and were hastening away from the point of danger. When I reached the end of the cabin, I tried to close the sliding doors so as to prevent the smoke and flames from being blown through them to the open part of the deck, where a big crowd had gathered. I closed one of the doors, but the other I could not move.

I cannot tell how many minutes elapsed between the time when I first saw the smoke and when the steamer was all in flames. It seemed only a few seconds to me, but from what I can remember having done in that interval it must have been considerably longer. My wife and I stood together by the rail until we saw that the upper deck was about to fall upon us. We saw nothing of our little girl, who had been playing with other children. My sister stood near us. None of us could swim, but when we realized that it meant certain death to remain longer on the steamer we all jumped overboard together.

We had on life preservers, but I dont think we had them properly adjusted. At all events, after I got into the water I did not float, and I immediately became separated from my wife and sister. I have no recollection as to how I was rescued. The first thing I knew I found myself on North Brother Island, and was brought from there to the hospital. I did not know that my sister had been saved until I found she was a patient in the same hospital, and I have received no tidings of my wife.

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. Tetamores son Herbert, 3. Reverend Haas made his first post-fire public appearance, his head swathed in bandages, at his wifes 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. Sophias 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. Tetamores was 3160, and Mrs. Haas 2930) while Herbert Tetamore was never found.


Haas Funeral

St. Marks Sexton, Joseph Halphusen, and his family, were more fortunate than the Haas party:

We had been gone about an hour, I suppose, and I have no idea how far we had gone, when I suddenly saw a rush toward the center of the boat, followed by a cry of alarm.

Panic ensued. Sheets of flame followed the roiling clouds of smoke, and the fearful rush began to the sides of the boat. Women and children were thrown down and trampled on. Many were pushed overboard, and more jumped into the river.

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.

There was little time to secure life preservers, and I doubt if many thought of them.

I assisted as much as I could, but I also had my daughters, Mina, 12, and Clare, 10, to look after. I took them to the top deck, and led them on to the paddlebox. The flames were all about us now, and I was merely waiting for the moment to order my children to jump.

Tugs were coming to the rescue from all directions. In the water I could see on every side the despairing struggles of the dying. Finally, the flames crept so close to us that they almost set our clothes afire. I signaled to a tug and called to my daughters to jump.

The tug Sumner picked us up.

 

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:

It was too awful to remember about, and I wish I could forget it all. Such tearing pushing and hauling I never saw before. In the water it was worse. Women fought for small pieces of board, grabbed each other for support, some of them begging others to save their children. I don't know how I got in the water, but after I had been in a short time I felt a sort of suffocation. I could not breathe. My ears tingled and I seemed to hear sounds like music afar off. I don't remember any thing more until I found myself on the island with the doctor working over me.

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.

After papa tied the life preserver around me, I jumped into the water. The life preserver was of no use, for it broke right off me, and I thought I was going to drown. I grabbed a man's neck and went under the water. When I came up again, I seized a woman by the hair and she scratched my face. I let go of her and was sinking again when a man in a boat picked me up.

Bernard Mueller died in the hospital on June 23, 1904. Before he died, he stated:

Myself, my wife and four sons, were sitting on the first deck when I saw smoke coming up through the deck in great clouds. The people on the boat acted as though they had lost their minds. I grabbed life preservers, and, after putting them on my wife and children, assisted them over the side of the boat into the water. Then I put one on and went after them, telling them to make for shore. The youngest child was in my wife’s arms. I started after them, but had not taken more than half a dozen strokes when I was surrounded by half a dozen women, who clung to me and dragged me under. I had all I could do to save myself from being drowned by their frantic efforts to hold on to me. A rowboat came up and took us all on board. When we got there I searched for my wife and family in vain. They were not to be found.

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 Fickbohms 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 Fickbohms saloon where he gave this account:

Shortly after leaving the pier, I left my wife and the Fickbohms on the middle deck. They were sitting in the bow. I took little Freddy Fickbohm on the top deck to show him the points of interest. We were approaching the island when, looking forward, I saw flames shooting up from the deck below. Unclasping my knife, I slashed at the fastenings of the life rafts nearby. But, they were secured by wire instead of rope. I told Freddy to stay with me, but when I returned he has disappeared. I then started for my party but was driven back by the flames.

The whole front part of the boat by this time was a mass of fire. For the time being, so near were we to shore that there was no panic. The passengers, mostly women and children, retreated before the flames. All thought that the boat would put into shore at once, but it seemed fully five minutes or more before she swung inshore. By this time, the scene was terrifying. Women threw their children overboard and then followed. They had no other refuge from the flames, which swept everything before them.

I rushed aft, calling to my wife, but I could not see her, and in the roar of the fire and the cries of the panic-stricken passengers, she could not hear me. I was driven back to the wheelhouse by the fire. I thought I was trapped. There was no chance for me to go farther aft, and below was the fire.

I threw myself over the railing and dropped into the water on the side farthest from land. It was then I received these burns. The waster came only to my armpits, and I could have walked to 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 living to the 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 throw themselves over the side.

I searched in vain for my wife. Body after body was laid out on the shore, but hers was not among them. Then someone said that a party of women and children had been sent to the city, and a neighbor told me my wife was among them.

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. Emilias 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 mothers sad final moments:

"The first thing I knew was a lot of people yelling 'fire!' and in almost a minute the whole middle of the boat seemed burning. The wind blew the flames towards us, and I saw the dresses of several children catch fire all at once. The screaming was awful. My mother called out to me 'Don't be afraid! Hang over the side!' then she pushed me over the rail and I fell down to the lower deck, outside, and I hung to the railing with my feet and legs in the water."

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 dont 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 (ODonnell), 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.

Contributor
Jim Kalafus
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    Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Thursday 21st June 2007, last updated .