The General Slocum Disaster

On a warm mid-June morning in 1904, approximately 1,500 parishioners of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church (the exact number was never known) from the Lower East Side piled aboard the ferry boat General Slocum for an excursion up the East River and into Long Island Sound to their annual church picnic on Eaton’s Neck, near Huntington, Long Island. As a band played and children danced, Captain William Van Schaick had the paddlewheeler (named for Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War hero and leading Brooklyn political figure) steam up the river and into Hell Gate. It was there when a tongue of fire from a stove in the bow started a fire that spread into a nearby locker where drinking glasses were packed in hay, and then to several barrels of oil.

A stiff headwind blew the fire toward the stern, and the passengers crowded aft, with little or no attempt by the crew to bring order. People threw themselves over the side into the path of the paddlewheels, and the captain was dangerously incompetent. Back in 1880, the death toll on the burning Seawanhaka (as William R. Grace and his wife calmed the passengers) had been limited by her captain’s decisive beaching of the ship at the first opportunity. But Van Schaick delayed and delayed, and when the Slocum finally grounded at North Brother’s Island, the ship was almost entirely consumed, and hundreds of men, women, or children had been drowned or burned or trampled to death. The final death toll was estimated at more than 1,000. Of the eight hundred forty-eight bodies that were found, one hundred thirty-two could not be identified. Corpses that could be found – many burned beyond recognition – were wrapped in blankets provided by the hospitals of Ward’s Island and Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island, and then brought by dories and other small craft – “death boats” they were called – to Manhattan wharves, where they were laid out for identification, a procedure that became more dignified once hundreds of hastily constructed pine coffins were delivered to the waterfront. Thousands of people desperately crowded into morgues in search of relatives and friends as newspaper reporters and police conducted house-to-house searches – all these efforts handicapped by repeated inconsistencies in translating and spelling German names.

After days of funerals at thirty churches, the burials took place in many cemeteries around the city. The Evergreens buried fifty-eight of the Slocum’s victims, all identified, in nineteen sections of the grounds. Twenty-six of the dead were between five months and fifteen years of age, twenty-six were related to at least one other victim.

Information taken from the book Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery by John Rousmaniere. Learn more here.

For more information on the Slocum Disaster, see this 1904 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.