June 15 1904 A Community, no More

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  

In the first full century of American independence, three great waves of European and later Asian immigrants left their homes in the ‘old country’, headed for a life in the new world.

The-Scotch-Irish-the-Eighteenth-Century-Irish-Diaspora-1Starvation, shipwreck and disease killed no fewer than 1 in 10 during the period 1790 – 1820, without any so much as setting foot in the new world. And still they came.

The largest non-English speaking minority were the ethnic Germans, escaping economic hardship and in search of political freedom.  At the time of the Civil War, nearly one-quarter of all Union troops were German Americans, some 45% of whom were born in Europe.

German migration rose faster than any other immigrant group through the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, many in pursuit of agricultural opportunity while others settled in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

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 the area, 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.

Little Germany

June 15, 1904 dawned bright and beautiful on Little Germany, a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel Passenger Steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into the East River.

PS General Slocum was on a charter this day, carrying German-American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on a harbor cruise and picnic. Over a thousand tickets were sold, not counting 300+ children who were sailing for free.

general_slocum_1

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 into the forward section lamp room. The flames spread quickly, fueled by lamp oil and oily rags.  A 12-year old boy first reported the fire, but the Captain didn’t believe him.  The fire was first noticed at around 10:00am.

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.

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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.

The wind and the speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.

Slocum 1

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.

general-slocum-disaster

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and 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. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.

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Adella Liebenow

There were only 321 survivors.

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six-month-old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster 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 of Liebenow’s sisters were among the unidentified dead.

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.

There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of a once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  2600326453_0eae4732c8

There was no longer anything for them, in that place.

Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the General Slocum disaster, had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

Deep inside the East Village, amidst the hipsters and the poets’ cafes of “Alphabet City”, stands a forgotten memorial.  A 9′ stele erected in Tompkins Square Park, sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside them are inscribed 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.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

May 7, 1915 Lusitania

American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

By Spring of 1915, WWI had already devolved into the slugfest of trench warfare that would bleed nation states white and destroy empires. Imperial Germany had held off of unrestricted submarine warfare, believing the tactic would bring the United States into the war against them. Yet this war could not be won on the battlefield alone. They had to make it a war on commerce, to choke of their adversary’s lifeline. Besides, the German view was that ostensibly peaceful shipping was being used to ferry war supplies to the allies, which were going on to kill Germans on the battlefield.

Lusitania warningGermany adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 18, 1915. The German embassy took out ads in American newspapers, warning that ships sailing into the war zone, did so at their own risk. That didn’t seem to bother anyone as they boarded RMS Lusitania.

Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship afloat when she was christened in 1904. They called her the “Greyhound of the Seas”, in 1915 she could still outrun almost anything big enough to pose a threat. Lusitania left New York for her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing on May 1, 1915, carrying 1,959 passengers and crew, 159 of whom were Americans.

All ships heading for Great Britain at this time were instructed to travel at full speed in zigzag patterns, and to be on the lookout for U-boats, but fog forced Captain William Turner to slow down as Lusitania rounded the south coast of Ireland on May 7.

The German U-boat U-20 commanded by Captain Walther Schwieger had targeted Lusitania by early afternoon.  At 1:40pm the U-boat fired a single torpedo. The weapon struck Lusitania on her starboard side. Some believe a second explosion was caused by the ignition of ammunition hidden in the cargo hold, others say that coal dust had ignited. Whatever the cause, there is near universal agreement that a second explosion rocked the ship. The damage from this second explosion was catastrophic.

13_lusitania

Lusitania quickly began to list, and sank in 18 minutes. There had been enough lifeboats for all the passengers, but the severe list prevented most of them from being launched. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died, including 128 Americans. 100 of the Americans, were children.

lusitania-sinking-color

American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

poster_4

In what’s been called his “too proud to fight” speech three days later, President Woodrow Wilson said “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, and American entry into WWI was averted. The final provocation to war came in January 1917, when the “Zimmermann Telegram” came to light. A communication from the German Foreign Minister to his ambassador in Mexico, the Zimmerman telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event of war with the United States, in exchange for “an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

Zimmerman noteUnrestricted submarine warfare was resumed the same month. In February a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California off the Irish coast, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew. President Wilson asked for a declaration of war in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 2. From the text of the speech, it seems the Germans were right. It was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare which provoked the United States to enter the war against Germany, which it did when Congress declared war on April 6.

The German view that Lusitania carried contraband ammunition was vindicated as well, but at the time that was far into their future. Decades later, formerly secret British papers revealed the presence of contraband ammunition in the holds of the passenger liner. Divers explored the wreck in 2008, located under 300′ of water off the Head of Kinsale. On board, they found four million US made Remington .303 bullets, stored in unrefrigerated compartments in crates marked “butter”, “lobster” and “eggs”.

Lusitania, ammunition

A personal postscript to this story:  On several occasions, my folks hired an elderly Irish woman to babysit my brothers and me when we were kids, back in the ’60s.   As a little girl, Mrs. Crozier was living in Kinsale, back in 1915. Like the rest of her village, she ran out to the cliffs that morning to watch the great liner sink.  It was only nine miles off the coast and could be seen, clearly.  She must have thought I was a strange kid, but I couldn’t get enough of that story.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 27, 1865 Sultana

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but ended.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later, and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed on the 26th.  Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole camps.

The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and to pick up a promised load of passengers.

The mechanic wanted to cut a bulging seam out of the boiler and install a new plate, easily three day’s work.  Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers.  He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch, and he wanted it done in a day.

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The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted guys home, and $10 apiece for officers.  Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal.  Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers, and they’d both walk away with a pocketful of cash.

As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity.  Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.

The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load.  Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24, with 2,427 passengers.  More than six times her legal limit of 376.

BoilerBlue
This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River.  She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds.  Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.

Sultana (1)
SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current.  Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.

The temporary boiler patch exploded at 2:00am on April 27, detonating two more boilers a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way, as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

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Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze.  Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river.  Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning or hypothermia.

The drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana sank to the bottom, seven hours later.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.  700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals, of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure.  Bodies would continue to wash ashore, for months.

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

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Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable.  One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat.  It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned.  It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.

Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer.  The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own.  Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster.  Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months before the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

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.

General Slocum tokenIt 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+ 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.

Slocum 3

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.Slocum 4

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. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

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.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and 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.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster 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.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

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 were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   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′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the 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.

General_Slocum_Memorial