General Slocum Fire

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The Last Survivor of the Slocum Died in 2004

Adella Wortherspoon, the last survivor of the General Slcoum disaster, died at age 100 years in 2004. She was a six month old baby named Adella Liebenow when the disaster occurred. She was accompanied by her parents, Anna and Paul, and her two sisters, Anna and Helen and several aunts and uncles. Her sisters, Anna age 3 and Helen age 6 perished in the fire. Mrs. Liebenow jumped from the boat holding the baby Adella. Mr. Liebenow, who was on another part of the boat, also survived. Both parents suffered from burns.

The New York Death index shows two Liebenow deaths on June 15, 1904 both recorded in the Bronx:

  1. Anna C age 3 #3323
  2. Martha age 29, #3746

Helen's body was never recovered.

The 1900 census shows Paul, a bartender, born 1871, Anna born 1872 and Helen born 1898 living on 2nd Ave. Paul Liebenow died at age 38 on January 30, 1910 (Manhattan #3513). In the 1910 census Anna was still on Second Ave. a widow, mother of 5 children with 1 child still living. By the 1920 census Anna and Adella were living in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

Adella Liebenow was the youngest Slocum survivor and became the oldest.

On June 28, 1880 a similar incident occurred when the steamer Seawanhaka


The General Slocum

by Rebecca Kirschman and Dr. Nils Samuels, March 21, 2002

It is a holocaust, a 'burnt offering' to the spirit of cupidity which keeps a floating fire trap in service as an excursion boat, to be crammed with all the people that can be inveigled on board of her, in spite of the fact that by her construction she is a mere tinder box, and that, if the fire which she invites once breaks out on board of her, the great majority of her passengers have no chance for their lives.

--Editorial from The New York Times, June 16, 1904 June 15, 1904 was the perfect day. Children played on deck and adults relaxed in the sun as the General Slocum, an excursion boat carrying 1350 German passengers, set sail that morning for Long Island's Locust Grove Picnic Ground. The sounds of music, laughter, and friendly chatter drifted from the steamboat as it glided down New York City's East River. But even before this day had begun these people's fates were decided. This day would destroy a tightly knit community and kill more New Yorkers than any single day until September 11th ("1904 Paddleboat Fire").

Most of the passengers were communicants of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, located in the Weiss Garten neighborhood, part of an area in Manhattan's lower East Side then known as Kleindeutschland, or "Little Germany." German immigrants had always inhabited New York City, and by 1904 New York City's German population had reached 750,000 Germans, with more coming every day. As Kleindeutschland's spiritual center, St. Mark's was "almost mystically revered in the old country as the first place any voyager would seek out upon arrival in the New World" ("1904 Paddleboat Fire").

The Locust Grove picnic traditionally marked the beginning of summer and had been an annual event for St. Mark's parish since 1887, much anticipated throughout the church and neighborhood. As an encouragement to all families in the parish to attend, children rode the General Slocum for free ("1,000 Lives" 1). Traveling on a Wednesday, most of the ship's passengers were women and children, all dressed in their Sunday school best. The men of St. Mark's, at work for the day, would be picking up their wives and children at 11:00 that night.

To carry the passengers on the one-hour voyage to Locust Grove, the church had chartered the General Slocum, an aging steamboat yet "the largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York," made almost entirely of wood and reaching three decks high (Oats). But behind the ship's impressive façade laid a troublesome past. Captain William H. Van Schaick had steered the ship since its first launching in 1891, and during the thirteen years since, the General Slocum had a series of minor yet alarming mishaps: it had run aground six times and collided with four other vessels (Bleyer). None of the collisions individually warranted investigation, so Captain Van Schaick's mistakes remained hidden. However, the Slocum's owner was well aware of the Captain's errors, with rumors circulating that the 62-year-old Captain would soon be urged to retire (Oats).

Even more disturbing, inspections of the General Slocum were lax. Just five weeks before June 15, inspector Henry Lundberg deemed the Slocum "in good condition". In his inspection Lundberg examined only briefly the ripped life belts, disregarded malfunctioning valves, and neglected to inspect the lifeboats and water hoses stored high above his head (NUMA). Had Lundberg looked, he would have found the lifeboats stuck to the boat with a thick coat of paint and the water hoses completely rotted out (Bleyer).

The General Slocum's inherently unsafe conditions and the captain's reported insecurity were not the only factors riding against the ship. To save money an inexperienced crew manned the Slocum (Oats). Captain Van Schaick made no attempt to supplement his inept crew's basic nautical skills-he did not prepare his crewmembers for disaster, never having given them emergency drills. Also, the night before the ship's final voyage, deck hand Dan O'Neill stored barrels of packing hay on board, a clear violation of fire regulations (NUMA). Other highly flammable materials-including oil-were stored with the hay, making the General Slocum a powder keg waiting to be lit.

The St. Mark's picnickers began boarding Van Schaick's ship around 9:00 a.m., which left half an hour later as an oompah band on the middle deck played "Ein Fest Burg Ist Unser Gott" ("Our God is a Firm Castle"). As the ship set sail children frolicked on the top deck (Ogilvie 61). The women chatted with each other while relaxing in lounge chairs around the band, and what few men were on board stood around the bar ("1904 Paddleboat Fire"). People on shore waved to the passing ship, its hundreds of brightly colored flags flapping in the wind as it traveled down the East River.

About thirty minutes into its voyage, the ship reached the "treacherous, tide-swept and whirlpool plagued narrows next to the shoreline of Astoria" known as Hell Gate. At this time a boy reported to deckhand John Coakley that smoke was coming from behind a door, whose stairway descended to the lower deck. A fire had ignited when embers from a deckhand's pipe, or perhaps a dropped match, fell into the barrels of illegally stored hay. When Coakley opened the door, the rush of oxygen fed the smoldering hay, which burst into flames (Oats). Coakley searched for something to put out the fire and in his haste threw two bags of charcoal on the blaze, stoking the now raging fire. The flames soon spread throughout the lower deck, engulfing the oil, oil lamps, and paint boxes also stored there. Quickly the fire swept up the stairway and spread to the first deck.

While Coakley struggled to fight the fire, another boy approached Captain Van Schaick. Van Schaick dismissed the boy's report as a prank, telling him to "get the hell out of here and mind your own business" (Bleyer). By the time the skeptical captain saw the flames, the blazing inferno in the ship's bowels was too strong to be denied. The ship was old and wooden-its very condition made it conducive to fire. The safety equipment that Henry Lundberg had deemed "in good condition" fell to pieces when the crew rushed to employ it (NUMA). The fire hose was rotted and had burst when the water pump was turned on (Bleyer). A replacement rubber hose was found, but was unusable because its metal coupling was severely rusted (Oats).

Mayhem broke out. Upon seeing desperate passengers fling themselves overboard to escape the flames, Captain Van Schaick made a crucial and notorious decision: instead of docking the ship a few hundreds yards away on the shore of Astoria, the captain ordered the ship to travel to North Brother Island, over two miles away. Getting there would only take a few minutes, but it was a few minutes that the Slocum's passengers didn't have. The fire was spreading fast. Van Schaick was in a difficult situation-the whirlpools of Hell Gate kept the captain from easily maneuvering the boat to the nearby shore (Martin B1). And even if the captain could guide the ship through the treacherous waters, a gas plant on the shore of Astoria would have made docking there even more catastrophic than what was already underway (Bleyer). So Van Schaick steered the flaming boat onward as horrified witnesses on the shore of Astoria watched the terrifying events unfold.

His unprepared crew yelled, "Fire! Fire!" as they fled the ship: jumping en masse overboard (Oats). Hundreds of people scrambled for and fought over lifeboats that could not be freed from the boat (Barrett). Many people who jumped overboard drowned because they could not swim (Pace B5). Life preservers filled with sawdust, "up to date and of good quality" according to Lundberg, dragged passengers to their deaths (NUMA; Barrett). On board, many were crushed in the pandemonium. "The panic was nearly as deadly as the flames and the water," said Dr. McLaughlin, who worked in the rescue ("Wreck Said" 1).

Onlookers saw a boy mysteriously attached to a pole on the front of the boat, unable to free himself, burning to death-"a living pillar of flame" ("1,000 Lives" 1). Another young boy climbed a flagpole to escape the flames, but fell to a fiery death in the ship's hull when the pole collapsed. A young woman gave birth on the ship amidst the hysteria, only to die with her baby as she leapt into the sea (Oats). The ship left a trail of debris and bodies in its wake ("1,000 Lives" 1).

"The scenes attendant upon the disaster have seared themselves in the brains of the survivors never to be effaced. Women were roasted to death in sight of their husbands and children, and babes by the score perished in waters of the East River, into which they had been thrown by frenzied mothers," reported The New York Times ("1,000 Lives", 1). Parents, who at the beginning of the voyage thought nothing of letting their children stray, scrambled to find them, as passengers scurried about the ship. Many families were separated in the commotion, never to see each other again. Still others found their children, only to see them burn to death or drown before their eyes. One woman lost five of her seven children, throwing those she could find into the water when her own clothes caught on fire ("1,000 Lives" 1).

At 10:10 a.m., only four minutes after exploding into flames, the ship docked at North Brother Island (Rust 39). Here the boat's superstructure collapsed, dropping hundreds of people into the fire's core (Oats). By 10:20 the Slocum was almost entirely devoured by flames, leaving only a roasting skeleton of the once magnificent ship. Later that morning the ship was pulled off of North Brother Island and set out into the main stream to keep the fire from contaminating the hospital and other nearby buildings. Seven hundred feet off shore the ship sunk to the ocean floor (Rust 94-5).

Few survived. Amazingly, several infants did. Six-month-old Adella Wotherspoon, whose mother saved her by jumping overboard, was the youngest survivor (Barret). Another infant, a 10-month-old boy known as "No. 144," somehow drifted to shore uninjured. Orphaned by the disaster, "No. 144" was cared for at a hospital for three days until his grandmother identified him as Charles Debit ("Slocum's Engineer" 5).

One 11-year-old boy, Willie Keppler, described what he witnessed after jumping overboard: "twenty would jump at once, and right on top of 'em twenty more would jump. Then there would be a skirmish of grabbing at heads and arms, and the fellows what could swim would be pulled down and had to fight their way up." Initially listed among the missing, Keppler had ridden the General Slocum without his parents' permission and did not go home for fear of being punished. However, after reading his name in the newspaper the next day, "I thought I'd come home and git the licking instead of breaking me mudder's heart. So I'm home, and me mudder only kissed me and me fadder give me half a dollar for being a good swimmer" ("Slocum Death" 1).

After the disaster, The New York Herald ran an editorial saying, "one ray of light amid the awful gloom of the story told this morning is found in the numberless heroic actions performed by women and men amid the sickening scenes of the disaster," the police, nurses, and doctors on the scene (Ogilvie 230-1). One of the first rescuers was an unidentified police officer who saved eleven passengers before he drowned in the river ("1,000 Lives"). Nurses, doctors, and even scarlet fever patients from Riverside hospital rushed into the water to help. Both publicly and privately owned smaller boats pulled near the Slocum to rescue the drowning and recover the bodies. James L. Wade* (see email below) steered his tugboat to the shore to use it as a rescue bridge for the Slocum's passengers. Wade's tugboat, representing ten years of savings, suffered some of the greater ship's fire (Ogilvie 207-8).

Some survivors also aided in rescue efforts. 18-year-old Charles Schwartz Jr. dragged the dead bodies of his mother and grandmother to shore. "I felt as though my heart would break, and then I looked out upon the water and saw that there were yet men, women and children who might be saved." Schwartz worked the owner of a small boat in the rescue and braved the water to save 22 people. "I went overboard whenever I could and swam up to people and helped them into the boat. Many of them grabbed at me, but I was able to keep off enough to prevent being dragged down. I felt hands way down in the water holding at my feet. Hands caught me everywhere, and above me was the fire raging and roaring. I wish that I had been stronger and could have done more" (Ogilvie 199).

Rescuers worked for days to recover those who did not survive. By 2:30 the next morning, 606 bodies had been found, with rescuers were pulling bodies from the wreck at a rate of one body per minute ("1,000 Lives" 1). Diver Charles P. Everett, who had in 1898 examined the sunken Maine, was hired to explore the Slocum on the day of the disaster. "If I had not known what caused the frightful wreck I would have thought an explosion of some character had ripped the very bowels from the vessel and torn and lacerated her superstructure. The wreck was complete, absolute . . . The appetite of the fire must have been insatiable." Everett found hundreds of bodies trapped in the ship's sunken remains-some clustered in mass graves of fifty or more, others sharing a last private moment with their family. "A small group impressed itself indelibly upon my memory. Three children and a woman, who certainly was their mother . . . The children clung to her dress as if the life was still throbbing in their little hearts. But the mother, with a look of agony on her face, was kept from grasping the little ones by a big piece of iron . . . which lay diagonally across her breast . . . They tell me I was down in the tomb about an hour and a half. That must be a mistake. I was down there a year" (Rust 96-98).

The terror on the General Slocum lasted only two hours (Oats). The ship burned down to the waterline, taking with it 1,021 of the ship's passengers (NUMA). "Waters around North Brother Island were thick with dead bodies" ("1,000 Lives" 1). Even those who escaped the physical damage were affected in other ways. 13-year-old Henry Heinz was stricken dumb after escaping the ship ("Death's Hand" 2). Rescuers found a young girl alone, crying, "Mamma is all burned up" ("1,000 Lives" 2). Many General Slocum survivors were institutionalized, and dozens committed suicide ("1904 Paddleboat Fire").

Almost every family in St. Mark's parish, more than 600 households, was personally affected by this tragedy (Martin B1). The dead left many men without their wives, sons, or daughters. The day after the ship's burning, The New York Times ran a partial list of the dead, with virtually every entry containing the descriptor "identified by father", "identified by brother", or "identified by husband" ("Appalling List"). Some families were entirely wiped out. Rescuers set up a makeshift morgue on the shore of North Brother Island. Charred bodies lay in ice-packed coffins guarded by weeping policemen, amid crowds of lamenting fathers almost ceaselessly wandering around the morgue (Ogilvie 134, Rust 70, "Wreck Said" 1). The mourners routinely attempted to jump off the pier adjacent to the makeshift morgue (Rust 134).

Kleindeutschland was devastated. Funerals for the victims lasted over a week (Haberman 5). On Friday, June 17, hundreds of funeral services at 37 churches took place throughout Kleindeutschland, with 114 at St. Mark's alone ("1904 Paddleboat Fire"). That day 156 hearses stretched for almost a mile (Haberman 5). The empty schoolyards were perhaps the most chilling indicator of the Slocum"s destruction. The devastation was evident inside as well: over 100 lost students left "rows of empty benches" in somber classrooms at Weiss Garten's Public School No. 25 ("Death's Hand" 2). In accordance with an order from the Superintendent, the lower East Side schools' graduation ceremonies were abandoned for memorial services (Ogilvie 156).

Eventually Weiss Garten, and subsequently Kleindeutschland, disappeared, as the haunted widowers and childless fathers fled from their memories. Some broken families moved to different areas of the city, and some fled America altogether to return to Germany. Russian and Polish immigrants took over the area, and New York City would never again host such a unified German community. Today a synagogue stands where St. Mark's once was (Martin B1), and the only remnant of the area's German-American inhabitants is a small monument for the 1,021 victims, engraved "They Were Earth's Purest Children, Young And Fair" ("1904 Paddleboat Fire").

Captain Van Schaick was initially blamed for the day's tragic events. The day after the burning The New York Times declared, "it is the opinion of those who witnessed the disaster from the New York shore that Captain Van Schaick, who commanded the vessel, lost his head" ("1000 Lives" 1). In fact, the captain, blinded and crippled by the fire, would be the only person charged for the disaster. While two pilots and several other crewmembers were initially arrested, they were later released. Van Schaick was charged with "not holding fire drills, not training the crew properly, and not maintaining fire apparatus" (Bleyer). Sentenced to 10 years in Sing Sing, he served less than four before being pardoned by President Taft at Christmas 1912 ("1904 Paddleboat Fire").

The stories we tell influence our identity-as individuals, as a community, as a nation. The General Slocum disaster is a story that goes largely untold. Reflecting on the General Slocum disaster, Douglas Martin wrote in 1989 for The New York Times, "history-particularly in this fast city-is ultimately evanescent" (B1). Of course there are lessons to be learned from the disaster, particularly those of preparedness and conscientiousness for the well-being of others, but the true challenge is simply to remember. A difficult task, of course-we were not there to witness them jumping off of the blazing boat, nor did we hear their wails as they burned. We did not tend to orphaned children, nor see our fathers weep. But we can imagine the incredible loss of life, the men, women, and children perishing side by side, and, by reading, keep their memory alive.

Works Cited
"1,000 Lives May Be Lost In Burning of the Excursion Boat Gen. Slocum." The New York Times 16 Jun. 1904: 1.

"1904 Paddleboat Fire." 8 Nov. 2001. Fireball Express. 9 Jun. 1999

"Appalling List of Dead." The New York Times 16 Jun. 1904: 5.

Barrett, Wayne M. "Survival at Sea." USA Today (Magazine) 125.2616 (Sep. 1996): 52-53.

Bleyer, Bill. "The General Slocum Disaster." LI Long Island Our Story. 8 Nov. 2001: Long Island Our Story

"Death's Hand Heavy on Stricken Parish." The New York Times 17 Jun. 1904: 2.

Haberman, Clyde. "Before & After; Agonized, New York Bends, But It Doesn't Break." The New York Times, Late Edition 16 Sep. 2001: 5.

Martin, Douglas. "Survivor"s Life in Shadow of Steamboat Disaster." The New York Times 24 May 1989: B1.

Oats, David. "Disaster at Hell Gate . . . The Sinking of the General Slocum." The Queens Courier. 8 Nov. 2001

Ogilvie, J. S., ed. History of the General Slocum disaster by which nearly 1200 lives were lost by the burning of the steamer General Slocum in Hell Gate, New York Harbor, June 15, 1904. New York: J. S. Ogilvie Publishing Company, 1904.

Pace, Eric. "80 Years Later, New York Steamboat Disaster is Still Debated." The New York Times 11 Jun. 1984: B5.

Rust, Claude. The Burning of the General Slocum. New York: Elsevier/Nelson Books, 1981.

"Slocum Death Total Now Reaches 812." The New York Times 19 Jun. 1904: 1-2.

"Slocum's Engineer Defends Captain." The New York Times 18 Jun. 1904: 5.

"The 'General Slocum'." The New York Times 16 Jun. 1904: 14.

"The General Slocum Page." 8 Nov. 2001. National Underwater & Marine Agency. 24 Sep. 2001:

"Wreck Said to be Cleared of Bodies." The New York Times 17 Jun. 1904: 1-2.

Captain Wade

*June 28, 2006 Email"

My great-grandfather's name was JOHN L. Wade, Not "James". He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1906 for his heroics. My father was named after him.


Kate Wade

The tug WADE is listed in several contemporary accounts of the Slocum Disaster. Her captain is given variously as "Jack", "John L" and "James"

John Wade was born in Ireland circa 1863. He and his wife, Jane, lived in the Bronx in 1900, 1910, and 1920. They had two children, William born circa 1884 and Jane born circa 1888.

Congressional Medal of Honor


Says He'd Do It Again, When His Bravery In Slocum Wreck Is Recalled

A gold medal, authorized by an act of Congress, was presented to Capt. John L Wade in the Metropolis Theater Building las night. When the burning steamer General Slocum came up the East River in June 1904, Capt. Wade was on board his tug, the Wade, at a Port Morris dock with lines of hose stretched to his water tank. He cut the lines and took the tug to the starboard paddle box of the Gerneal Slocum, where he remained after his tug caught fire, finally going aground with the steamer. He rescued many of the passengers and was also engaged for several days in picking up floating bodies.

Congressman Joseph A Goulden, in making the presentation, read a letter for Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Health, saying that in he thirty-two years that the act of Congress had been in force, less that 200 gold medals had been presented. The letter concluded with the statement that when someone shouted to Capt. Wade that his tug was afire, he replied: "To hell with the tug. It took me ten years to earn this one. If I don't roast, I'll earn another".


October 25, 1906, New York Times

Captain John L Wade's death in 1922.
"Capt. J. L. Wade dies Slocum Disaster Hero

Rescuer of 155 Persons From Burning Steamer in 1904 Won Congressional Medal of Honor

Captain John Leonard Wade, holder of a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic rescue of many lives in the General Slocum disaster of 1904, died yesterday of heart disease, age 59, at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Jennie McDonald, 753 East 138th Street, Bronx. He had been in poor health since the death of is wife two years ago. He as manager of the John L Wade Tug Company. When the Slocum took fire the morning of June 15, 1904, Captain Wade was acting engineer in his tug, Wade, then near North Brother Island. He made all speed to the burning steamer and ran alongside, while his crew jumped into the water to aid the struggling women and children there. Wade himself helped sores to safety, being severely burned as he did so. His own decks crowded he raced to the dock at 138th Street and returned to save more lives. In all 155 persons were carried ashore by the tug.

Captain Wade started a relief fund for the victims, who themselves offered him enough to pay the cost of repairs to his tug. But he refused to touch the money and gave it back to the relief fund. Captain Wade had been in the shipping business twenty-eight years. Four years ago he rescued two young men whose canoe had capsized in the Hudson."

New York Times October 13, 1922

List of Dead as publiched in the Brooklyn Eagle, June 17, 1904


Images From the General Slocum Fire
Germans in the New York City Area

The Hoboken Fire

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