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700 Families In The General Slocum Families Tree

Posted by Sean Daly on Jun 15, 2022
general Slocum project graphic

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum steamboat disaster in New York City decimated the German-American community there. At Geneanet, we honor the victims and survivors of the tragedy with the family trees of every known passenger. It’s a free and collaborative project, open to all.

On June 15, 1904 — 118 years ago this week — a terrible disaster befell the German-American community of New York City: a chartered steamboat burned and sank in the East River with the loss of over a thousand lives, mostly women and children on a picnic excursion. For nearly a century, until the events of September 11, 2001, it was New York City’s worst catastrophe. Unfortunately, it was a preventable disaster, a result of greed and incompetence.

A Preventable Disaster

Like many catastrophes, a chain of conditions and events led to the awful outcome. The decade-old paddle steamer General Slocum — named after a popular army general and politician — was entirely made of wood, painted with flammable paint, and was tinder dry on that hot June day. The company that operated the steamer and a sister ship, the Grand Republic, cut corners everywhere on safety: life preservers were decrepit or outright counterfeit and were secured with sharp wires; lifeboats were painted to the deck, having never been used or tested; firehoses were old, cheap, and damaged; bulkhead doors — those in working condition — were wood and not metal. Flammable materials were improperly stored in a small hold forward where the fire started, perhaps from a cigarette or lamp. Captain William Van Schaick was in his last year of service before retirement and had grown complacent: the crew, most of whom had been recruited from the docks a few weeks before excursion season, had never practiced a fire drill. Despite these conditions, a pair of federal inspectors had renewed the seaworthiness certificate of the ship a few weeks prior.

The General Slocum was a well-known palace steamer, one of the largest plying the New York waterways, and was certified for 2,500 passengers.

Kleindeutschland

Tompkins Square Park was the heart of Kleindeutschland — Little Germany — on New York’s Lower East Side, an area called Dutchtown by non-Germans at the time and called the East Village today. Waves of German immigrants from the 1840s on liked living in a neighborhood where their daily business, entertainment, and worship could be conducted in their native language. Many immigrants were skilled workers and prospered in their new home. German-born young people met and married and started families in New York. By 1904 however, many German families had moved away for better housing, uptown to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, or over the Brooklyn Bridge, or across the Hudson to Hoboken or Jersey City. But the community’s spiritual home remained St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 6th Street; Philadelphia-born pastor George C.F. Haas had officiated at hundreds of marriages. Starting in 1887, the St. Marks Sunday school celebrated the end of the school year with a daylong picnic outing to Long Island, a welcome change for everyone from the humid tenements. The side-paddle “palace steamers” of the day were spacious and attractive, with ample space outside on all decks to enjoy ocean breezes. Families who had already left the old neighborhood relished the opportunity to spend a pleasant day with cousins and to renew contacts with friends. There would be band music, German dishes, and ice cream. A program was published, supported with ads from German-owned businesses.

The picnic excursion program listed the musical selections the band would play and the Sunday school teachers, and carried ads from German-American businesses in the neighborhood.
In the rush to publish, not all of the names were correct. But images like this affected all New Yorkers in the summer of 1904.

The picnic excursion departs

June 15th was a Wednesday, a working day, so nearly all of the fathers and older brothers of the families on board went to work after seeing off their loved ones at the East 3rd Street pier in the morning. Many would never see their wives or children again.

The first signs of smoke appeared as the ship prepared to enter Hell Gate in the East River, an estuary where three bodies of water meet, with treacherous tide currents. The captain had a headwind from the north, but a flood tide pushing from the south. Hell Gate was narrower and more dangerous then than it is today (underwater rocks were blasted and dredged and the channel was widened following the disaster), and the captain and his helmsman knew they could not safely stop the ship in the Hell Gate channel in case of emergency.

Frank Prawdzicki, a lad of twelve, was aboard with his mother and four sisters. When he saw smoke, he ran forward on the top deck below the pilothouse and called to the captain to warn him. Van Schaick shooed him away as a prankster, and precious minutes were lost as crewmen ran about on the crowded ship trying to inform the ship’s officers and captain that there was indeed a fire, then trying to sort out how to fight it.

The fire could have been extinguished quickly with functioning equipment and a trained crew, but neither were there, so it soon became a raging inferno. The captain ordered full speed ahead, planning to beach the ship in shallow water either on the Bronx shore or on small North Brother Island where there was a hospital, both more than a mile away. The ship’s engineer started the firehose pumps, and he and his crew stayed at their posts and kept water pressure up until the beaching, but the cheap firehoses above had ruptured, there was confusion about the water column coupling, and there was no other way to fight the fire. Crewmen began jumping overboard while passengers headed aft. The flames followed…

Few Swimmers Aboard

In 1904 in New York, many city dwellers did not know how to swim. Moreover, on that day, everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, shoes tightly laced. As the fire spread aft due to the headwind, the festive environment turned in a moment to all-out panic. Parents who had allowed their children to run about with their cousins now called for them desperately.

In the river and from the shore, hundreds of witnesses saw the ship on fire as the first panicked passengers started to jump. Tugboats blasted their horns in warning and raced to keep up with the fast ship. In general, crewmembers and some of the boys managed to swim and stay afloat — most of the others had never jumped in water before.

Captain van Schaick ordered full speed ahead through the Hell Gate channel, hoping to beach the Slocum on the Bronx shore or on North Brother Island where there was a hospital

North Brother Island

There were debates about why the captain chose North Brother Island over the Bronx mainland shore, or even the Queens shore facing Rikers Island. Was he worried about spreading the fire to a lumberyard or gasworks? Did he think Riverside Hospital on the little island was a better choice? When the prow of the ship ran aground, its stern was perpendicular to the shore, in four fathoms of water. Some passengers were able to jump onto tugboats; most jumped into the water; some landed on top of others. Very few could swim; they clutched at anyone who could. Counterfeit life preservers sank, weighed down with metal bars; others crumbled to cork dust. Not a single lifeboat could be launched. Then, the top (“hurricane”) deck collapsed…

The General Slocum burned to the waterline, drifted off the beach of North Brother Island and sank.

In only a few minutes, over a thousand people, nearly all women and children, had either burned to death or drowned. Rescuers did their utmost to save as many of the floundering as they could, with rowboats and ladders from the shore, but there just wasn’t time to get to everyone.

The New York “penny dailies” of the period were published in two or three editions every day, with extra editions when there was big news

The Awful News

As the first soaked survivors stepped off the El train down from the Bronx, the news that something awful had happened spread quickly. A crowd converged on St. Marks church, organiser of the excursion. Pastor Haas’ son George began taking names of family members from worried fathers. Then, the first editions of the daily newspapers arrived and the horrible scope of the disaster became apparent. Kleindeutschland was decimated and would never be the same again.

Survivors were taken to hospitals in the Bronx and Manhattan; bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue at a police station. Fathers went from morgue to hospital and back in search of their families. Within hours, the city’s coroner, of German extraction himself, organized an enormous temporary morgue on the covered East 26th Street pier. In the days that followed, it was here that anxious family members queued up for hours to try to identify their loved ones. Some passengers were missing and were never found.

The pier at the foot of East 26th St. was converted into a temporary morgue; hundreds of worried family members waited hours for their turn to identify the dead

Aftermath

In the days following the catastrophe, there was an outpouring of donations to the Mayor’s Relief Committee which held a memorial in the Cooper Union Great Hall on June 29th, 1904. The German-Americans didn’t like asking for charity, but in many cases the fund did cover expenses for those most in need. Sadly, a rift later developed between Pastor Haas — who requested and received from the committee the last funds available, to rebuild his congregation and continue his charitable programs — and the survivors’ association, who felt that the remaining balance of the donated funds should have gone directly to still-suffering families with disabilities from their injuries.

Mourners hung crepe ribbons on their building doors to signal mourning: black for adults, white for children. The portal of 104 First Avenue, just north of East 6th Street, was photographed with five white and two black ribbons attached.
On the Saturday following the disaster, every hearse in New York City was called upon to bring the dead from Kleindeutschland over the Williamsburg Bridge to Lutheran Cemetery in Queens (called All Faiths today).

Most German-Americans moved away from Kleindeutschland in the year following the disaster. The neighborhood was quickly transformed by an influx of Eastern Europeans, millions of whom arrived in New York in the years to follow.

The General Slocum Survivors Organization

The survivors formed an association and pressed the government to prosecute the operators and officers of the Slocum, but also the useless federal inspectors who had certified the ship. In the end, only the captain went to prison, where he served less than half of his sentence; the owners of the ship and the incompetent (or crooked?) inspectors got off scot free; and the government refused to grant compensation of any kind for the failure of the inspectors, despite hearings in Congress and written statements from injured survivors detailing their difficulties in 1910. The injustice was so apparent, author James Joyce set his novel Ulysses in the day after the disaster and had his characters talk about it.

A monument was unveiled a year after the disaster in Lutheran Cemetery, and another a year after that in Tompkins Square Park. The association also worked tirelessly to improve maritime safety; today, the US Coast Guard cites the Slocum disaster as a turning point for the professionalism of federal boat inspections.

Charles Dersch, the first president of the General Slocum Survivors Organization, in 1909.

Some people who had lost loved ones married others in the two years following the disaster. In 1906, Catherine Zausch who lost her mother and a sister married Frederick Baumler who had lost his wife and three children. William B. Tetamore, whose sister-in-law was married to Pastor Haas — both wives perished, each with a child — married Emma Haas, the pastor’s sister, in the same year. Fathers whose families were wiped out married again and started second families, such as Eugene Ansel, a chef and deli owner from Alsace who rebuilt his life. However, for some bereaved fathers, the pain was too much to bear and they took their own lives, such as Andreas Stiel five months later, or Joseph Vollmer and George Feldheusen, who killed themselves the day after the annual memorial service six years apart.

The General Slocum monument in Lutheran (now All Faiths) Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens. The pedestal statues represent Faith and Courage; the smaller figures are Grief and Despair. 61 unidentified victims are buried here.

There may never be a definitive list of passengers

Today, well over a century later, there is no definitive list of the Slocum’s passengers. No accurate count was made during boarding; 2 children were counted as 1 adult by a crewman on the gangway. Some people had only recently arrived in New York and didn’t have friends or family to identify them or to report them missing. Some families had a single family member who never came back, and grieved privately. Some fathers were traumatized and didn’t identify themselves and their missing to the authorities. And, there was a language barrier for some. American journalists and vital records registrars routinely mangled German names in the press and in official documents. In the confusion of the temporary morgue, many death certificates were hurriedly filled out by the coroners and are missing the names of parents.

The official New York City report of 1905 counted 1,331 passengers, of whom 863 were identified dead and 61 were confirmed missing. The federal commission established to investigate the disaster reported in 1904 1,358 passengers, with 893 dead and 62 missing. A week after the disaster, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper quoted the morgue authorities who estimated there were over 300 people missing. In this project, we have currently documented 867 dead and 73 missing. (Visit this page for the lists.) Most scholars believe the death toll was well over 1,000 and author Karen T. Lamberton in her book “Angels in the Gate” has listed over 200 names of the missing who are absent from the official confirmed lists.

Geneanet’s General Slocum Families Tree

In Kleindeutschland, people tended to associate with others from the same states of the old German Confederation: Prussia, Hannover, Bavaria, and so on. Extended families — aunts and cousins — boarded the Slocum together. Some parties of 15 or 20 family members only had a few survivors that day. The General Slocum Families Tree shows the relationships of these cousins to each other and it’s easy to navigate from family to family. In some cases, Geneanet’s automatic matching feature, for Premium members, finds ancestors present in register indexes or other Geneanet trees. However, no membership fee is required to view or update the tree.

Geneanet has found possible matching ancestors in Germany for Pastor Haas’ paternal and maternal lines

We use the “Nobility Title” data field for each person to indicate one of seven statuses as of June 15, 1904:

  • Injured – passenger treated in hospital (with name of hospital)
  • Missing – never found
  • Not Aboard – family member who was elsewhere that day
  • Predeceased – family member who died prior to the event
  • Unborn – family member who was born after the event
  • Uninjured – returned home themselves, or were treated and taken home from hospital the same day
  • Victim – passenger identified by another family member, with a death certificate issued. Some were buried unidentified, then identified afterwards through their personal effects; these were disinterred to be reburied in family plots.

Note that German umlaut characters (ä, ö, ü) are rendered ae, oe, ue in the tree data.

New availability of NYC vital records

Earlier this year, the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) of the New York City Municipal Archives (“MUNI”) published some 13 million birth, marriage, and death certificate scans (don’t miss our guide here). Previously, these certificates had to be searched in person at MUNI on microfilm, or on FamilySearch at a Family History Center. The new online availability of these certificates is transforming genealogy research for New York City ancestors and the General Slocum tree now has over 230 birth and marriage certificates associated with people, rich with information about parents’ names and places of birth, occupations, and residential addresses. Some old mysteries are being solved! For example, “Mrs. Annie Cahill” as she was identified in the newspapers and official lists was born Anna Mack in 1881 in NYC, and married Englishman James Corbett on March 2, 1904, just three months before the disaster. No doubt she was identified by a friend who didn’t quite remember her new husband’s name. But he was not there to identify her, and there is no trace of him after the disaster; was he among the uncounted missing?

James Corbett, a Londoner, married Annie Mack, a New Yorker with German parents, only three months before the disaster

The easiest way to locate certificates in the MUNI portal is to identify the borough and certificate number beforehand. Indexes are available at Ancestry (Geneanet’s parent company), FamilySearch (a Geneanet partner), and the German Genealogy Group (GGG), a New York-based association with flexible search screens (wildcards, filters) for locating cert numbers when a basic name search doesn’t yield usable results.

Participate in the General Slocum Families Tree!

This is a collaborative project and anyone can join it! It’s best if you have a working knowledge of how to enter data in Geneanet trees. We will provide you with Admin access, then you provide the time you wish. There are no obligations, and remember, this is a free project. If a Slocum survivor is among your ancestors, please consider adding photos or family stories as well. If you are interested, send us a message!


Find answers to your questions on our forums.

2 comments

The defense of the master of the General Slocum led to the establishment of my union: the International Organization of Masters Mates and Pilots, now 134 years old.It’s associated educational school has !ed the maritime community in safer and better officers for our now tiny Merchant Marine.


An excellent article but still very sad reading about the tragic day. My Grandfather ( 8 years old at the time) apparently was not permitted to get on the ship that day by his mother because his misbehavior ( or i would not be here)

One correction to the article Lutheran cemetery in MIddle Villlage is now known as All Faiths not All Saints as mentioned in the article

Answer from Geneanet: Many thanks, we have corrected the article!


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