Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion...
June 15, 2004 6:09 PM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today, 1,358 members of the Kleindeutschland, the German neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, boarded a chartered ferry named the General Slocum for a picnic excursion to Long Island. A fire broke out in the ship's hold while it cruised up the East River, the captain ran the vessel aground on the rocky shores of North Brother Island amid the swift currents of Hell Gate, and when it was all over 1,021 people (mainly women and children) had perished by drowning or from the fire, and it remained the worst single-day New York City disaster until 9/11.
posted by Vidiot (16 comments total)
The disaster effectively wiped out the Kleindeutschland neighborhood, which is today's East Village. The last survivor of the Slocum died this April. In 2000, the remains of the General Slocum were found near Atlantic City. Here are newspaper stories from the Brooklyn Eagle. Here is an excerpt mentioning the Slocum from James Joyce's Ulysses, which is set the next day. Here is a poem about the disaster by William Allen. And here is a good general history of the disaster, by the New-York Historical Society.
posted by Vidiot at 6:09 PM on June 15, 2004

very well done, thanks!
posted by moonbird at 6:52 PM on June 15, 2004


My mother lives in Yorkville and looks out over Hell's Gate, which remains a terribly treacherous bit of water. I knew some of the story, but not all this detail. Thanks.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:04 PM on June 15, 2004

The Brooklyn Eagle stories, in particular, are a great find.

The elevated trains on Manhattan on the east side were crowded with bandaged survivors, their clothes soaked with water and most of them still in the same condition of panic that struck them when the boat caught fire.

The stories of the missing and dead are heartrending.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:18 PM on June 15, 2004

There's a memorial in Tompkins Square Park, that I used to point out to out of town visitors and use to tell them the story of the sinking.

Walking around the neighborhood, you can still see the vestiges of what it was before the tragedy and subsequent exodus: the Free Library and Dispensary (Second Ave between St. Mark's and 9th Street), the German American Shooting Club (St. Mark's between Second and Third Avenues.) For some reason, that stretch felt a little abandoned to me, even with the crazy kids from the boroughs who have hung out there for 30+ years (myself included.)
posted by ltracey at 8:50 PM on June 15, 2004

Wonderful post, Vidiot - I never heard of this. Beautifully researched, thank you!
posted by madamjujujive at 8:53 PM on June 15, 2004

[this is a good post]
posted by Hackworth at 9:06 PM on June 15, 2004

Incidentally, the Hell Gate is still treacherous, as CunningLinguist noted. It's also spanned by what I think is New York's most beautiful bridge.

Here's a picture of the Tompkins Square Park memorial to the General Slocum victims that ltracey mentioned. (And here's a picture of the much larger memorial in the Queens cemetery where most of the victims were buried.)

(Bohemian Tompkins Square Park is interesting in its own right -- there have been riots, bonfires during blackouts, scores of demonstrations and homeless people, Grateful Dead concerts, and murder: according to NY Songlines, "In August 1989, murderer Daniel Rakowitz served soup to the homeless here that may or may not have contained the remains of his roommate Monika Beerle." More happily, there's even a sacred elm tree in the park.)
posted by Vidiot at 9:55 PM on June 15, 2004

really heartbreaking, thanks
posted by matteo at 4:04 AM on June 16, 2004

It's interesting to note that this was 8 years before the Titanic sank. I wonder if this is part of the genesis for the stories of the band playing on. From the Brooklyn Eagle:

The fate of the band could not be determined, although it is understood that
a fair proportion of the musicians were saved.
One of the survivors, dripping wet and very much excited, took pains to
tell an Eagle reporter that the musicians had displayed marked heroism at
the time of the panic. They played up to the last moment, then, abandoning
their instruments, they hurried to the upper deck and began handing out to
the frightened women and children the life preservers which they tore from
the racks.
This they did even when their own lives were in peril.

posted by CunningLinguist at 5:11 AM on June 16, 2004

excellent post!
posted by jann at 7:19 AM on June 16, 2004

Great post. The disaster is ably re-created at the beginning of the 1930s film "Manhattan Melodrama," with a very young Mickey Rooney as a survivor. I haven't read through all the material here, but in case it isn't mentioned, one of the other consequences of the disaster was the Germanization of Yorkville, the east side neighborhood centering around 86th and Third (parallel to Hell's Gate). Up until about thirty years ago, Yorkville was a highly ethnic enclave (and a hotbed of pro-Nazi sentiment during the war). Apparently, Germans travelled uptown to identify the bodies, and stayed. Am I correct?
posted by Faze at 7:20 AM on June 16, 2004

That sounds extremely dubious. Why on earth would people uproot themselves from homes they'd lived in for years, in a neighborhood full of people like them and businesses aimed at them, to move miles away to an unfamiliar neighborhood that they went to to identify bodies? Me, I'd want to leave as soon as I'd said "Yes, that's my wife" and never go back.

This article says Yorkville was one of the places Germans moved to after the Slocum disaster, but doesn't say anything about identifying bodies. (And here's a thread of comments by people who live or used to live in Yorkville, full of interesting reminiscences.)

Great post!
posted by languagehat at 7:46 AM on June 16, 2004

Not sure, Faze, but it's a good theory. I hadn't heard of the "Manhattan Melodrama" angle until last night -- CNN did a story on the Slocum that included some footage from the film. (Wasn't that the movie that Dillinger saw just before he was shot?)
posted by Vidiot at 7:58 AM on June 16, 2004

Great post.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:14 AM on June 16, 2004

OK, I can put the Yorkville body-ID thing to rest. I was in a bookstore on my lunch break (as usual) and saw the new book on the Slocum disaster; the fucker doesn't have an index (bad publisher! bad!), but I turned to the relevant chapter and learned that the bodies were laid out for ID at a hospital on North Brother Island, far away from Yorkville. Also, the author says that the disaster accelerated, but did not cause, the exodus from Kleindeutschland, which had begun in the 1890s.
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on June 16, 2004

« Older too...many...bands   |   Fileshare Networking Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments