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The Slocum Families: Emily Ziegler and the Unrequited Love of John Flammang Schrank

Posted by Sean Daly on May 12, 2023
A portrait photo of a victim of the General Slocum disaster

The General Slocum Families Trees collaborative project is documenting the 700+ families impacted by the 1904 excursion steamer disaster in New York, when over a thousand German-American women and children died. In this multipart series, we are telling the stories of some of these passengers.

Read about the General Slocum disaster here and visit the tree here.

John Schrank identified Emily Ziegler’s body at the morgue the morning after the disaster. New York’s Awful Steamboat Horror, Henry Northrup, 1904.

Emily Ziegler was born on August 21, 1885, in New York City and by June 1904, she was a pretty teenager working as a cap maker and living with her mother, brothers, and sister in a tenement building in Kleindeutschland, Manhattan’s Little Germany on the Lower East Side. Her father, Christian, a lead shot caster from Lemberg in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, had died of stomach cancer when Emily was six. The family struggled; Emily’s mother, Melanje (called Minnie), born in East Prussia and 26 years younger than her late husband, had gone to work as a dressmaker. Emily’s older brother, Edward, was working as a salesman. Younger brother Alfred and sister Elisa, called Ella, were in school.

The Ziegler family had rented their tenement apartment at 370 East 10th St for years. Tompkins Square Park, the heart of Kleindeutschland, was a block away. Schools, shops and the lively pushcart markets on Avenues A and B were all close by. At that time, the Lower East Side was the epicenter of American garment production, and there was work available for all who wanted it.

368 and 370 East 10th St were twin tenements near Tompkins Square Park. The building to the left was 370 where the Zieglers and Flammangs lived. Neighbor Margaret Daseking next door at 368 was the undertaker for the funerals of Emily Ziegler and later the Flammangs. The buildings are still there today, but the storefronts have been bricked up and the cornice is gone. NYC DOF tax photo, 1940.
The Flammangs operated a saloon at 370 East 10th St, and lived upstairs; the Zieglers rented an apartment on the third floor.

Dominick Flammang was a German speaker born around 1837 in Luxembourg who had arrived in the USA as a teenager, learned carpentry, then became a saloonkeeper. In 1873, he had married Anna Schrank from Erding, Bavaria, whom he had met in New York. Anna’s first husband, Diedrich Finken, a sugar baker from Teufelsmoor north of Bremen, had died in an accidental fall the year before. Dominick and Anna had no children of their own, but had raised Anna’s nephew, Johann Schrank, as their adopted son John Flammang.

Johann Schrank

Johann Schrank in the Erding Catholic birth register. With column headings in Fraktur and writing in mixed Kurrent and Latin script, it’s not easy to read this Bavarian document! Johann Schrank is register entry N°13. Image: Erzdiözese München und Freising

Johann Schrank was born on March 5, 1876, in Erding, near Munich, to Anna Flammang’s brother Michael Schrank and Katharina Auer; the couple married the following year. Growing up, in 1884 young Johann experienced the loss of his sister Elizabeth six years his junior. Then, sometime after 1886, his father passed away, reportedly from tuberculosis, leaving no money to support his wife and son. Johann’s paternal grandparents were dead, so Katharina and Johann moved in with Michael’s brother Joseph, his wife Elisabeth, and their young children Christina and Elisabeth. Katharina’s parents may have lived there as well. Johann helped his uncle Joseph with his gardening work and was an outstanding student in school. But when the Flammangs came to Erding on a visit in 1889, the decision was made for them to take young Johann away to be raised in New York.

In New York’s Kleindeutschland, Johann Schrank becomes John Flammang

Young Johann sailed with his aunt and uncle aboard the four-masted steamer Fulda in October 1889.

Presented as son Johann Flammang on the passenger list, the Flammangs arrived home in New York on October 22, 1889. Thirteen-year-old John Flammang, as he was called from then, attended night school for the next four winters so he could help his uncle during the day, at first carrying buckets of beer to customers in the neighboring tenements, later bartending. John was a quiet boy with a keen mind, an avid reader of newspapers with an interest in history and politics. He quickly mastered English, writing in neat, readable script. As time went on, his English improved until he was very fluent, with only a trace of an accent. He began writing poetry when he was 15 or 16. By disposition, he was mild-mannered, reserved but cheerful, with a wry sense of humor. He was liked by his neighbors on the block, but did not form friendships. He was a light drinker, but enjoyed cigars. He kept treasured mementos of his transatlantic crossing: the address and immigration tags from his steamer trunk.

Dominick Flammang’s saloon was a quiet place for a beer, where political arguments were not tolerated. John worked diligently at the bar and his adoptive parents doted on him. He was particularly close to his aunt Anna.

John looked forward to reading the newspapers every day: the New York Herald, New York World, the German-language New York Staats-Zeitung. He didn’t talk much, but he developed a strong sense of what was right, and a deep loyalty to the ideals of the United States. His heroes were Washington, Madison, Kościuszko, and Lincoln. When he turned 21 in 1897, he took the oath of American citizenship, swearing to uphold the Constitution and renouncing allegiance to the emperor of Germany; his uncle Dominick vouched for his character.

John Schrank became a naturalized citizen of the United States several months after his 21st birthday.

The Flammangs were not churchgoers, and John himself was a lapsed Catholic, yet he was religious in his own way. He wrote once: “I am a Roman Catholic. I love my religion but I hate my church as long as the Roman parish is not independent from Rome, as long as Catholic priests are prevented from getting married, as long as Rome is still more engaged in politics and accumulation of money contrary to the teachings of the Lord.”

John takes over the Flammang saloon

John Flammang Schrank before 1912.

In the spring of 1904, Dominick, by then 67 years old, told John that he was ready to retire. His plan was for John to take over the saloon while he and Annie moved a few blocks uptown to quieter and more pleasant lodgings, at 423 East 16th St. John however preferred to stay in the building. According to one 1912 newspaper account quoting a longtime resident, John lodged with the Zieglers from April 1904 until the disaster in June. It was said Emily’s older brother Edward was absent, in Baltimore for work in the produce business; perhaps mother Minnie liked having this quiet, unassuming young man in the house. Or, perhaps more likely, John helped her make ends meet by paying for room and board.

John fell in love with Emily, whom he had known since childhood, being 9 years older than she. Or perhaps he already loved her, and had arranged to live with the Zieglers for that reason. Did she know? Did she have feelings as well for this quiet, witty man, who had just put the name SCHRANK over the door of the Flammang saloon, to the puzzlement of the neighbors who had never heard the name? Years later, people on the block remembered that she had enjoyed his company, however no one had heard of any engagement. It is quite possible John never proposed; perhaps he thought there was all the time in the world. After the events of 1912, Edward Ziegler vehemently denied to reporters that any engagement had been planned between the two, or indeed that they were even close, a statement echoed by Charles Dersch, president of the General Slocum Survivors’ Association.

The General Slocum Picnic Excursion

Emily looked forward to her day on the Slocum visiting Long Island’s North Shore. It would be a day away from the dreariness of work, and her friends would be aboard. John wanted to go with her, but the daylong excursion was on a Wednesday, a workday, and he couldn’t find anyone to tend the bar in his absence. He resigned himself to looking forward to hearing Emily’s stories that night about the fun that was had in that fine June weather. But Emily never returned home. And John it was who went to the morgue the next morning and identified her.

John Schrank was present when Bronx coroner William O’Gorman Jr. filled out Emily Ziegler’s death certificate. With hundreds of frantic family members waiting to identify their loved ones, the coroners worked quickly and often scrawled minimal information.
Emily was buried with her father in section 22 of Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens (called All Faiths today). The family couldn’t afford a tombstone, and did not accept the charitable funds available for one; the grave is unmarked. Mother Minnie was buried in the family plot in 1927, and brother Alfred in 1959.

John must have imagined that he could have saved Emily — no matter that he wasn’t athletic and likely couldn’t swim. The comfortable life he had imagined of saloonkeeping and raising a family with Emily vanished. Two months after the disaster, the Zieglers left Kleindeutschland, moving ten blocks away to East 20th St, then elsewhere. John lost contact with them — proof if any were needed that he had only ever been interested in Emily.

John is alone after the Flammangs pass away

John joined his parents on East 16th St, continuing to operate the saloon on East 10th. But Kleindeutschland had been shattered by the Slocum catastrophe, and Germans were moving out as Eastern Europeans moved in. In the summer of 1905, he obtained a passport and between then and the spring of 1906, he crossed the Atlantic to visit Erding one last time. His grandmother (or godmother) had left him an inheritance; John returned to New York, sold the saloon to Charles Wolfert, and moved with the Flammangs uptown to their newly purchased tenement building at 433 East 81st St in Yorkville on the Upper East Side, the destination of many Germans who wanted to escape Kleindeutchland. The rents were sufficient to pay the $20,000 mortgage and to support the family. But when Annie died in 1907, John was disconsolate. Dominick, old and feeble, passed away in 1911, and John found himself truly alone. He put the family furniture into storage, rented out the family apartment, and moved to Brooklyn, near Evergreen Cemetery where the Flammangs were buried, so he could visit their graves often. He tried his hand at insurance and real estate sales, but had difficulty making the mortgage payments on his building — he much preferred writing poetry as he mourned. It was at this time he learned that Theodore Roosevelt, former 2-term President of the United States, wanted to run for President again against his former protégé President William Howard Taft.

Theodore Roosevelt’s third party run in 1912

“T.R.” called his party the Progressive Party, but as the larger-than-life character liked to say he was fit as a bull moose, his followers called it the Bull Moose Party.
In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice christened the Kaiser’s new yacht, Meteor, in New York with Prince Heinrich. Theodore Roosevelt Center, Fritz R. Gordner Collection.

John seethed with indignation that a tradition as old as the Republic — no president in power more than two terms — was to be trampled by Roosevelt. In John’s mind, Roosevelt — who had had the most to gain by President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 — was guilty of a conspiracy to gain power, and was ready to plunge the country into civil war in an effort to regain it. Roosevelt split the Republican Party, running as a third-party candidate. John was affected by a dream in which President McKinley spoke to him; he resolved to assassinate Roosevelt. He would be a 20th century Jeanne d’Arc, who would act while others were passive. But: not in New York, lest Wall Street appear to be involved. So John borrowed $350 from the unsuspecting associate who collected his rents, bought a revolver, and set off to do away with Roosevelt who was campaigning in the South.

John sailed from New York to Charleston, SC to intercept Roosevelt in Georgia and tracked the candidate through eight southern and midwestern states. Finally, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14, 1912, John Schrank got close enough to shoot.

Schrank wrote poetry and musings about history, politics, philosophy, and religion. He never referred to Roosevelt by name, calling him instead “the third termer”.

Schrank shoots Roosevelt in Milwaukee

The assassination attempt by John Flammang Schrank of Theodore Roosevelt was widely reported at the time and has been well-documented since (the book “Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin” by Gerard Helferich covers in detail Schrank’s pursuit of Roosevelt as well as the political context). After being shot, Roosevelt — saved by his eyeglasses case and the thick folded speech in his breast pocket, both of which slowed down the bullet — ordered that Schrank not be harmed, then delivered his speech to a crowd of 10,000 and made a speedy recovery, carrying the bullet until his death in in 1919.

John Flammang Schrank gave his address as 370 East 10th St in New York, an address where he hadn’t lived for years, but perhaps where he spent the happiest years of his youth.

At the police station, John — calm and cooperative — was interviewed by detectives and by reporters. He was asked if he had a sweetheart; he said he had only ever loved Emily Ziegler who had perished on the Slocum. (Emily was written as “Elsie” in the rush to publish.) The New York police scrambled to provide information on Schrank as he told Milwaukee police: “I am not an anarchist or socialist or democrat or republican; I just took up the thing the way I thought it was best to do.”

This November 1912 letter from an official in Erding provided American police with information about Johann Schrank’s early life in Bavaria. It says, in part: “Seven years ago Johann Schrank visited Erding for a short time. Anna Binghammer, brewmaster’s wife, a biological sister of Johann Schrank’s mother, was institutionalized in the district psychiatric hospital in Gabersee because of paranoia and died there on November 21st, 1904 from softening of the brain. Nothing has come to light here about criminal records of the parents, grandparents, etc”. Milwaukee Public Library
John Flammang Schrank in Milwaukee, 1912.
A panel of five doctors was tasked by the judge to determine if John Schrank was sane or not, to stand trial or be institutionalized. Milwaukee Public Library

Schrank is found insane and committed

John was quickly found to be criminally insane by a panel of doctors and therefore unable to stand trial. The penny dailies published fanciful tales of insanity running in John’s family. The doctors noted that John was an unusual assassin, who had meant to stop a perceived threat to government, rather than sow disorder. John was cordial to the police and doctors and even amused them with his wit. When asked by a guard if he enjoyed hunting, John replied with a smile, “only bull moose” — a reference to Theodore Roosevelt!

Edward Ziegler denounced John’s statements about his sister Emily as inventions, but there can be no doubt John had been in love. In 1912, he had told police and reporters that he had never had another sweetheart since 1904, as that wouldn’t be right to Emily. But years later, having fallen in love with a woman on the staff of the mental institution, he wrote to a doctor he trusted, on the topic of Prohibition: “Had I married one of those foolish tenants daughters and gone back into the liquor business, would I not be a ruined man today with possibly a large family to support?”

John Schrank spent the rest of his life in institutions in Wisconsin. He died in 1943, having never received a letter or visit from anyone over the years.


Very interesting.

Interesting connection of Schrank with the Gen Slocum tragedy. Mention of the General Slocum disaster appears in James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses, the action of which occurs on June 16, 1904 because apparently the tragedy which occurred on June 15 was widely reported in Irish newspapers at the time.

Answer from Geneanet: Yes, that’s true! We have mentioned the Ulysses connection before. This awful tragedy is not widely remembered and we feel, as James Joyce did, that it should be remembered, so that other tragedies resulting from greed and incompetence won’t happen.

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