Catherine Connelly & Adella Wotherspoon, General Slocum Survivors, Lived To Ages 109 & 100
The Story of The General Slocum Steamship Disaster
June 15, 2014 marks the 110th anniversary of what had been New York’s biggest disaster and loss of life until the September 11 attacks occurred. We think it is worth remembering the ill-fated General Slocum steamship fire. Here is the story of the General Slocum and a brief summary of the lives of the last two survivors of the disaster who amazingly lived into the 21st century.
A Beautiful Day For A Picnic
“Kleindeutchland,” as the area of Little Germany was called on the lower east side, was bounded approximately by the East River and Third Avenue and stretched from Houston Street to about 23rd Street. It was a working class, close-knit community of laborers and business owners. The German families that lived in this neighborhood made Tompkins Square Park their center for congregating and relaxation. But for special occasions they would embark on a trip to get out of the city.
Wednesday, June 15, 1904 was a sunny day and the members of the Sunday School of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 323 E. 6th Street were looking forward to a day filled with games, music and a large picnic for their 17th annual excursion to bucolic Locust Grove, Long Island.
To get there, the church had chartered a steamship built in 1891, the three decked white paddle-wheeler, General Slocum.
The General Slocum was filled with around 1,400 passengers, mostly women and children as the men generally had to work on a weekday. The Slocum headed out from its berth at 3rd Street on the East River at about 9:30 am with a band playing and the passengers joyously celebrating the smooth ride and beautiful weather.
Thirty minutes after setting out, the ship caught fire (how the fire started was never precisely determined) at around 90th street as it neared Hell Gate. When thirteen-year-old passenger Frank Prawdziski ran to the pilot’s house and informed Captain, William van Schaick that the ship was on fire, the Captain replied, “Shut up and mind your own business.”
Minutes later, Captain van Schaick realized the ship was indeed on fire and made the mistake of trying to beach the vessel on North Brother Island opposite 145th Street of the Bronx coastline, rather than go for closer shores. As the Captain accelerated his speed against a headwind, the flames were fanned and the fire spread quickly. No alarm or signal was given to the passengers that the ship was on fire. When passengers discovered the quick spreading fire, they became frantic in an effort to escape the flames.
Unlike the Titanic which sank eight years later, where the crew was organized and disciplined in evacuating the ship, most of the Slocum crew of 36 men pushed passengers out of the way and abandoned ship. The crew had never been trained in a fire drill and the few lifeboats on board were never lowered – they were wired down.
The panicked passengers were left to fend for themselves. The life preservers were strapped to the ceiling of the ship’s deck and were out of reach of many of the women and children. Those who could grab a life preserver had a nasty surprise waiting for them.
The Slocum and its life preservers had “passed inspection” only weeks before, without ever actually being checked. In reality the life preservers were rotten – filled with dried, pulverized cork.
When some passengers tried putting them on, they disintegrated in their hands. Others who managed to jump into the water wearing the “good” life preservers, sank like a boulder was weighted around them.
Not only was the pulverized cork filling of the life preservers water logged without an iota of buoyancy, it seems some of the life preservers had metal weights added to them to bring their weight specifications up to standards. Fire hoses of the cheapest kind were also rotten from age and neglect, ruptured when activated and were rendered useless.
Most of the women and children who jumped into the water without life preservers could not swim. They were also weighed down by the heavy clothes then customarily worn at the turn of the century, and many drowned.
Others who jumped overboard were crushed to death by the huge paddle-wheel of the steamer.
Some of those who could swim were swamped by those who could not, and were desperately clutched at by the drowning masses and dragged down to their watery graves.
One of the decks of the Slocum collapsed sending hundreds of passengers into the bowels of the fiery ship. Many were burnt to death or died of smoke inhalation from the fire.
Surrounding ships in the area and onlookers from shore rushed to the aid of those flailing in the water and pulled out as many survivors as they could.
In the end according to the New York Times, an estimated 1021 people lost their lives and approximately 321 survived.
Since there was no manifest of passengers the final death toll will never be exact, but it was probably more than 1021. The official police report put the number at 1031 and The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper listed 1204 as dead or missing.
In the neighborhood of Little Germany families were decimated, many losing a mother and two or more children. In some cases entire families were killed. At the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, over 900 victims were buried, including 61 in a mass grave for the unidentified.
The owners of the General Slocum, The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company escaped jail time for negligence. Knickerbocker President Frank Barnaby was indignant at people wanting to sue him or his company. Knickerbocker filed suit that a limit be fixed to their liability claimed by the plaintiffs as the number of suits grew for loss, damage and injury.
The liability limit they wanted was not to exceed the value of the boat. That is the value of the boat after the fire and beaching and termination of the excursion should not exceed the sum of for all the victims collectively — $5,000.
That would amount to less than $5 paid per fatality and injured.
The owners then had the gall to claim that under maritime law that sum should be subject to the fees of the salvage and wreckage services performed. Essentially they were claiming they should be limited to the current value of their wrecked boat which would be close to nothing.
Sure enough, besides a fine they had to pay, Knickerbocker ended up paying nothing to the survivors or the victims families.
Ship safety inspectors Henry Lundberg and John Fleming who had passed the General Slocum despite numerous violations were indicted. Lundberg was tried three separate times for manslaughter but was never convicted.
Captain van Schaick was made the scapegoat for the disaster and was sentenced to prison for ten years, but was pardoned after serving less than four years.
The Organization of the General Slocum Survivors was formed soon after the disaster. Those who survived the General Slocum disaster were generally reluctant to talk about their experience even with their families.
Many remaining family members devastated by the deaths of so many loved ones, lived with sorrowful memories that would not die and committed suicide or went crazy.
Tompkins Square Park has a memorial fountain that commemorates the General Slocum disaster, but the center for grieving and attendance of the memorials was at the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.
As anniversaries came and went fewer and fewer survivors attended annual memorial commemorations. The public was quick to forget the tragic events with attendance at the memorial event dropping from the thousands to the hundreds and then dozens; mostly relatives and history buffs as they years wore on. By 1957 at the memorial commemoration there were only twenty nine members of the Slocum Survivors Organization, only twelve of whom were aboard the ship. By 1979 the Queens Historical Society had identified there were only 21 Slocum survivors still alive.
The majority of the detailed survivors accounts are contemporary ones from newspapers, magazines and the instant books that were published within weeks of the catastrophe.
It took many years after the disaster for authors such as Irving Werstein in 1965 and Claude Rust in 1981, to re-examine the disaster and write books about the General Slocum.
Weakened by morning sickness, Rust’s mother fortuitously stepped off the Slocum just before it departed. Rust was captivated by his mother’s story and collected Slocum material over many years and did interview some of the few remaining survivors.
The best overall telling of the General Slocum tragedy is Edward O’Donnell’s book Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum; 2003, Broadway Books.
And Then There Were Two
Catherine Connelly was born Catherine Uhlmyer April 4, 1893 in Manhattan. Her father died before she was a year old, and her mother married John Gallagher and Catherine took his last name for her own.
According to the New York Times, a grocer who belonged to the church gave the Gallaghers, who were Roman Catholics, three tickets. But they needed one more. Mr. Gallagher had to work.
”I went over to the store crying and they gave me a ticket,” Mrs. Connelly said. ”I was never on a boat before.”
She never set foot on one again.
Catherine lost her mother, Veronica, her 9-year-old brother, Walter, and 9-month-old sister, Agnes. Catherine, then 11, escaped by jumping or being lowered to a boat, the name of which she never knew.
”You know you don’t fully grasp the meaning of everything,” Catherine said of her initial response. There had been a family. But now there was only a motherless child surveying her world. ”There were six other deaths just on the block where I lived,” she said.
After the disaster Catherine Gallagher first lived with her grandparents, then with an aunt and uncle. She dropped out of school at 13, and at 20 she married Thomas Connelly, a truck driver.
She had all but one of her 11 babies at home, and made her own diapers. Mother’s Days meant wall-to-wall flowers in the Manhattan apartment where she lived alone until she was 102. Her pleasures included cooking rich food, and her secret for longevity was a banana a day.
Catherine died October 17, 2002 at the age of 109.
Adella Wotherspoon was born Adella Liebenow on November 28, 1903 in New York. She was six months old when she escaped the burning ship. When the fire started, Adella was in the arms of her mother Anna. Adella’s sister also named Anna, 3, and her sister Helen, 6 were nearby. Her father, Paul, was on another part of the ship. Her mother covered her face, and, with her clothing on fire, jumped into the river.
”My mother was very, very badly burned, all up her left side,” Mrs. Wotherspoon said in an interview with The Journal News, ”so I assumed that she hung on as long as she could and then dropped into the water when she couldn’t hang on anymore.”
According to the New York Times, after helping the two to shore, Mr. Liebenow left to search for his missing daughters. The body of Helen was never found, but he identified little Anna’s. By then, he had lost track of his wife and baby.
A year afterward, the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella, unveiled the monument to the 61 unidentified dead at Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. The toddler dropped her doll as her mother held her up to pull the cord to reveal the sculptures of four figures symbolizing despair, grief, courage and belief in the hereafter.
Adella’s father Paul was also badly burned, contracted pneumonia after the fire and never mentally recovered from the loss of two of his daughters, two sisters, two nieces and a nephew who were also aboard the ship. Despite his fragile health he went back to work and lived another five years dying at the age of 38 on January 30, 1910.
Adella, the last survivor of the General Slocum disaster, died January 26, 2004 at the age of 100.