Monday, July 25, 2011

Martime (for Maritime)

The burning and sinking of the General Slocum, which killed 1,021 people from New York City's Little Germany neighborhood, was the deadliest maritime disaster (unrelated to war) in U.S. history. And, prior to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the biggest one (in terms of lives that were lost) to ever befall that city. It's been compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but the story of the General Slocum is not nearly as well known. (The former involved exploited immigrant factory workers who had been agitating for labor reforms; and, as Adella Wotherspoon, formerly Adele Liebenow, the youngest survivor of the General Slocum inferno, would later point out: "The Titanic had a great many famous people on it. This was just a family picnic.") It happened on June 15, 1904. The casualties were mainly women and children, all of whom had climbed on board for the 17th annual Sunday school picnic of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. They were headed to Long Island on the East River when the paddlewheeler caught on fire, a catastrophe for which the operators were scandalously unprepared. Lifeboats had been wired to the deck and life preservers (illegally weighted to meet certain standards) had virtually turned to dust from disuse. The captain, William H. Van Schaick, made some very poor decisions in the heat of the moment, including ignoring a young boy's cry of alarm for the crucial first ten minutes, then steering the steamboat away from the shore in order, he said, to keep the fire from spreading to nearby buildings and oil tanks. He was later found guilty of criminal negligance (failing to conduct fire drills and maintain fire extinguishers) and served three and a half years of a ten-year sentence in Sing Sing. (He was paroled and then pardoned by President Taft.) There were 21 hits on Martime in OhioLINK and 404 in WorldCat.

(Adele Liebenow, 18 months old, at the dedication of the memorial to the victims of the General Slocum disaster, from the New York Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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