Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now the East Village. “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world save for Berlin, and Vienna.
It was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.
She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300 or so children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.
The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am. A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.
The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment. Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor. Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.
Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.” It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island just off the Bronx’ shore, as the wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into a holocaust.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under. Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion and then jumped overboard with her newborn, to escape the flames. They both drowned.
A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.
Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye. His feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island. Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.
1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned this day in 1904. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history. Only 321 lived to tell the tale.
Six month old Adella Liebenow was the youngest survivor of the disaster. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial to the calamity which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”
Both her sisters were among the unidentified dead.
Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families. There followed more than a few suicides. Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-close community as the men began to move away. There was nothing for them anymore, in this place. Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.
In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9-foot stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside these words:
“They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”
Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100. The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.