Final General Slocum Survivor Passes Away

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Trent Pheifer

Former Member
The New York Times reported today that Adella Wotherspoon passed away on January 26th, she was the last remaining survivor of the General Slocum Disaster. Take a moment to remember her. Best regards to her family.

From the New York Times:

Adella Wotherspoon, Last Survivor of General Slocum Disaster, Dies at 100

Adella Wotherspoon, the last survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York City history until Sept. 11, 2001 – the burning and sinking of the steamboat General Slocum in June 1904 – died on Jan. 26. She was 100, the youngest Slocum survivor having at last become the oldest.

She died at a convalescent home in Berkeley Heights, N.J., said a close friend, Julia A. Clevett.

The burning of the General Slocum, named for Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War hero and New York congressman, was the most lethal peacetime maritime disaster in the nation's history. It is generally accepted that 1,021 people died, almost seven times as many as in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, which killed 146 and is often thought of as New York's worst inferno.

Historians have suggested that the Triangle fire is better remembered because the poor immigrant women who died were the clear victims of exploitative owners at a time of intense labor struggle.

The General Slocum, which killed members of a German Lutheran church excursion, also quickly receded in memory because of the start of World War I and the resultant anti-German feeling, wrote Edward T. O'Donnell in his book, "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum" (Broadway Books, 2003).

Mrs. Wotherspoon herself used the example of the Titanic's sinking in 1912, with about 1,500 deaths, to make another point.
"The Titanic had a great many famous people on it," she said. "This was just a family picnic."

On June 15, 1904, a sunny Wednesday morning, Mrs. Wotherspoon, then the 6-month-old called Adele Liebenow, was part of the 17th annual Sunday school picnic of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, on the heavily German Lower East Side. The church had chartered a paddle-wheel, 264-foot-long steamboat, for $350 from the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company to go to Locust Grove Picnic Ground at Eaton's Neck on Long Island.

The Liebenow party included Adele's parents, her two sisters, three aunts, an uncle and two cousins. When the boat left the East River pier at Third Street at 9:40 a.m., a church band on board played, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Forty minutes later, the joy turned to abject terror. Smoke started billowing from a forward storage room. A spark, most likely from a carelessly tossed match, had ignited some straw. Soon, the boat was an inferno. The captain ignored cries to steam for shore and proceeded at top speed through the perilous waters known as Hell Gate to North Brother Island, a mile ahead.

The inexperienced crew, which had not had a single fire drill, provided scant help. Lifeboats were wired or glued to the deck with layers of paint, cork in the life jackets had turned to dust with age and fire hoses broke under water pressure.

By the time the General Slocum reached the island, it was too late. The death toll among the estimated 1,331 passengers was 1,021, according to most sources. The dead included Adele's sisters, Anna, 3, and Helen, 6. Munsey's Magazine, a periodical of the time, wrote, "Children whom the flames had caught on the forward decks rushed, blazing like torches to their mothers."

Adele was nearby in the arms of her mother, also named Anna, when the fire started. Her father, Paul, was elsewhere on the boat. Her mother covered her face, and, with her clothing on fire, jumped into the river.

"My mother was very, very badly burned, all up her left side," Mrs. Wotherspoon said in an interview with The Journal News of Westchester County in 1999, "so I assumed that she hung on as long as she could and then dropped into the water when she couldn't hang on anymore."

After helping the two to shore, Mr. Liebenow left to search for his missing daughters. The body of Helen was never found, but he identified little Anna's. By then, he had lost track of his wife and baby.

Mr. Liebenow was himself badly burned on the head but relentlessly prowled the city's hospital corridors in search of his missing family members. Each hospital tried to detain him, but he refused. The New York Times reported that he was so "crazed with grief and pain" that he almost became violent with the coroner who was trying to help him in his quest. Finally, he found the lost ones.

The Slocum is memorialized in one of the English language's most celebrated novels, "Ulysses" by James Joyce. A character refers to the General Slocum disaster as being the day before Joyce's strange and legendary Bloomsday, thereby setting the novel in actual time.

"Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion," the character says. "Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heart-rending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing."

The disaster surely framed the life of Adele Martha Liebenow, who was born in Manhattan on Nov. 28, 1903. A year afterward, the youngest survivor unveiled the monument to the 61 unidentified dead at Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. The toddler dropped her doll as her mother held her up to pull the cord to reveal the sculptures of four figures symbolizing despair, grief, courage and belief in the hereafter.

"The mother's face, still cruelly scarred by the burns she had suffered in protecting her little one, flushed with pride that the baby made no mistake and pulled the cord as directed with strength enough to make the unveiling a success," The Times reported.

By the time of that ceremony, Paul and Anna Liebenow had changed her name to Adella because they considered that spelling better English. Later, in school, Adella picked up a lifelong nickname, Tiby, because her young friends mispronounced her surname as Tibentow.

Mr. Liebenow was forever consumed by the disaster. Less than two weeks afterward, he testified at the coroner's inquest on how life preservers had been wired down. He kept the tiny brown leather shoes Anna was wearing on that day as well as the little white cotton dress Adella wore to the unveiling of the monument.

He also compiled thick scrapbooks of newspaper articles in German and English. Mrs. Wotherspoon willed these to the New-York Historical Society.

Mr. Liebenow, who was part-owner of a restaurant in Manhattan, remained on a nervous edge until his death in 1910, six years after the fire, Ms. Clevett said. He suffered from breathing problems, which could have come from smoke inhalation.

After his death, Mrs. Liebenow and her daughter moved to Watchung, N.J., where Mrs. Wotherspoon made her home for the rest of her life. Her mother was glad to put real distance between her and the tragedy.

"She never talked about it," Mrs. Wotherspoon said in an interview with German Life magazine in 2003. "If I asked her something, she'd answer it. But she never initiated talking about it. Out of respect, I stopped asking.

"But she always got upset when I'd go in the water and I've always loved the water. She had a hard life, but she lived to be 75."

In Watchung, Adella attended a one-room schoolhouse and then went to Plainfield High School, where she graduated in 1921. She trained as a teacher at Trenton Normal School, now Trenton State College.

She taught for one year at Cleveland High School in Cranford, N.J., and then moved to Plainfield High School, where she taught business administration from 1925 until 1961, when she retired.

She married James Wotherspoon, who worked in the furniture sales department at Macy's in Manhattan. They had no children, and he died in 1982. Mrs. Wotherspoon has no immediate survivors.

As year fell upon year, the General Slocum receded into history. German-Americans quickly left the neighborhood, many for Yorkville on the Upper East Side. The old place had become haunted with memories of black crepe on door after door and 200 hearses rolling slowly across the Williamsburg Bridge.

The captain of the ship, William Van Schaick, sold fire extinguishers after the fire before being the only person convicted for negligence. He served three years of a 10-year sentence in Sing Sing and was released on parole in 1911; President William H. Taft pardoned him a year later.

The hull of the Slocum was made into a brick barge, which sank in 1909. In 1927, The Times reported the death of a police inspector who had been given a diamond-set badge by Slocum survivors for his efforts in identifying bodies. In 1954, a half-century after the tragedy, only about 20 survivors still lived.

In 2002, Catherine Connelly, a Slocum survivor, died at 109, leaving only Mrs. Wotherspoon. "I'm sorry, of course," Mrs. Wotherspoon said then in an interview with The Times. "She had a long life. She was a very interesting person."

So was Mrs. Wotherspoon. Frank Duffy, vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx and a friend of Mrs. Wotherspoon for 25 years, said that the organizers of the 100th annual Slocum commemoration had hoped she could attend the event, planned for June 12 and 13, which is to include a wreath-laying off North Brother Island.

Robert W. Collier

Former Member
Thank you for sharing with us all the story of Mrs. Wotherspoon. It made for fascinating, and informative reading. I believe as long as there are people such as the members here on the ET board, that such historic, and tragic events, will not be forgotten. They are of the kind who will carry the torch, and pass it on to the next generation. May Mrs. Wotherspoon rest in peace.
Robert W. Collier
I am sorry to hear that. Last summer I helped Anthony Cunningham get in touch with Mrs. Wotherspoon, who was kind enough to audiotape her story for him after granting a phone interview. In addition to being the last surviving link to G.S. she was also a nice person and will be missed.
I am saddened to hear this news as Ms Wotherspoon was most helpful when I was doing the research for my book and I enjoyed chatting to her.

A charming and gracious lady.

Richard K. Mason

Former Member
Hello Trent;

Hey! Thanks for the information on Ms. Wotherspoon. How sad that she couldn't have made it until at least this summer when the 100th anniversary of the disaster is remembered. But then, maybe she wouldn't have wanted to be reminded, huh? Well, anyway, I admire her kindness to you and others to whom she granted her memories of that terrible day. BTW, on a different note, if you know where and when, could you perhaps [ or someone else on this site ] tell me when the last surviving person of the 1865 SULTANA steamboat disaster passed away? Now THERE'S a horror story all in itself! [ At least according to the book by Jerry Potter ].

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