A Brief History
On December 19, 1912, US President William H. Taft pardoned the skipper of the ill-fated cruise ship, the PS General Slocum, which had burned and sunk on June 15, 1904, costing over 1000 people their lives. Captain William Van Schaick had been convicted of negligence in the incident and had served 3 ½ years in prison at Sing Sing prior to his pardon.
The General Slocum was a cruise steamship built in 1891 that had made a career of taking sightseers around the waters of New York City. Unfortunately, her owners and operators, including Captain Van Schaick, did not see after appropriate maintenance of emergency equipment and conduct appropriate emergency drills and training. The lifeboats and life jackets the ship was equipped with had never been maintained, inspected or replaced, and the life jackets suffered from being above decks open to the weather for the 13 years the ship operated before the tragedy. The lifeboats were tied into place and inaccessible when needed, possibly even wired into place and furthermore, possibly painted into place by annual coats of fresh paint! Compounding the problem with equipment, the fire hoses were rotten and fell apart when the crew tried to use them to douse the flames.
About 1400 people were aboard the ship on June 15, 1904, mostly women and children from an area Lutheran Church, German Americans that had made cruising around New York an annual summer tradition for the previous 17 years. The price of the charter was only $350, but of course that is in 1904 dollars.
Shortly after the ship got underway at 9:30 in the morning, a fire started in the “lamp room,” a room cluttered with flammable materials such as rags, straw, and spilled lamp oil. Possible sources of ignition include the careless discarding of a match or cigarette butt. By 10 o’clock the fire was noticed, but when a young boy tried to tell the Captain of the fire, he was sent away and not believed. Valuable time was lost before other persons reported fires now located in multiple areas, including a paint locker (with flammable paints and thinners) and a cabin in which gasoline was stored. Crewmen trying to fight the fire were thwarted by fire hoses that disintegrated when they tried to use the hoses. The prudent action for the Captain to take should have been to immediately go to shore and ground his vessel, but instead he headed into the wind, which fanned the flames and quickly spread the fire.
As the fire raged, panicked passengers found many of the life jackets to be falling apart from rot. Frantic mothers put life jackets on their children and dropped them over the side into the water to escape the flames, only to see their children immediately sink! It seems the so-called lifejackets were of poor manufacture, filled with granulated cork instead of large pieces of cork (a way to save money). Incredibly, in order to meet regulations about the weight of the cork lifejackets, the manufacturer put iron bars (iron is cheaper than cork, by weight) into the jackets! Passengers drowned from life jackets that acted as anchors or that fell apart. The clothing of those days certainly contributed to the drownings, encumbering the victims, most of which did not know how to swim (a common fact in large cities of the time).
The horrors continued as decks collapsed and people were caught in the mess, and other passengers in the water were beaten by the still turning paddle wheel. The General Slocum burned and sank, taking about 1021 victims with her (though exact numbers are hard to come by). Perhaps 5 of the 40 crewmen also died. Nearly 200 other people were injured. The disaster remains the worst maritime disaster in New York waters, and was the worst disaster in New York City until the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Although a total of 8 people were indicted for crimes related to the General Slocum tragedy, only Captain Schaick was convicted and jailed. Incredibly (to this author), the life jacket company avoided criminal prosecution. The owner/operator of the ship, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, had probably falsified inspection and maintenance documents and forms, but also avoided prosecution though they were assessed a small fine. Not surprisingly, state and federal regulations were revamped in the aftermath of the disaster.
The General Slocum was sunk but was not quite done. Her hulk was raised and remade as a coal barge, which sunk in the Atlantic in 1911, though nobody was killed in that sinking. The last surviving passenger of the General Slocum on her last trip, Adella Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), died at the age of 100 years in 2004. She had been the youngest survivor of the tragedy and had lost 2 of her sisters in the fire and sinking.
As long as people have ventured onto the water in boats and ships there have been disasters, many of which we have previously reported on. (Click the link or search our site for “maritime disaster” or “naval opps moments” for more articles.) No matter how big or how small, how old or how new, any boat or ship has the potential to become the subject of a sad article about a disaster.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever gone on a sightseeing cruise ship? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Blackmore, David. Blunders and Disasters at Sea. Pen and Sword Maritime, 2004.
Charles Rivers Editors. America’s Deadliest Shipwrecks: The History of the SS Sultana, the SS Eastland, and the PS General Slocum. CreateSpace, 2016.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Sinking of the General Slocum: The History of New York City’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster. Amazon Digital Services , 2015.
The featured image in this article, an image by Angelo Agostini (1843–1910) of the great catastrophe of the passenger steamboat General Slocum, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.