- Historic Sites
The Flames Of Hell Gate
Her life preservers weighted with scrap-iron, her lifeboats mere decoration, the excursion steamer General Slocum left New York’s Third Street pier at 9:30 on the morning of June 15,1904, with thirteen-hundred picknickers bound for a Long Island beach. Less than an hour later, she was afire.
October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Coroner O’Gorman, arriving on North Brother early, turned an old shed into a temporary morgue, but the bodies soon overflowed onto the lawn. The gruesome work continued all afternoon and into the night under the glare of cluster lights borrowed by Police Commissioner McAdoo from a street-railway company. After O’Gorman examined each body, a reserve firefigher, Thomas Cahill, tagged it with a number, and another man photographed it. By one in the morning, the number had reached 486; by two-thirty it was up to 606, and it kept rising. Some of the dead were found with identifying papers in their clothing. Valuables were impounded for relatives to claim later. By O’Gorman’s estimate, the cash, bankbooks, and jewelry taken for safekeeping at North Brother represented more than $200,000. A reporter observed that every dead woman he saw “wore on the third finger of her left hand a heavy gold wedding ring.” He also noted fchat not one body wore a life jacket.
North Brother’s isolation from the mainland had one advantage: no great crowd could gather, as at the 138th Street pier where a flotilla of small craft delivered the bodies from the Slocum ’s wake. Policemen were there in force, but keeping order was difficult, especially where physicians needed space to attend the injured and dying. Reporters swarmed, collecting vignettes of human interest. There was the little boy who had been saved by his hobbyhorse; he had jumped overboard hugging it, and it had kept him afloat. There were also reports of one man, name unknown, who mounted a paddle-wheel box and handed down, to a tugboat below, women and children too terrified to climb down themselves.
Most of the stories the reporters filed had no such happy endings. Among the dead was Joseph Wallmer, seventeen, who only the previous Saturday had been the hero of a fire on Broome Street, manning an elevator the regular operator had deserted and taking about seventy people to safety. Lizzie Krieger, a little girl found alive atop a pile of bodies and taken to the Alexander Avenue police station, sat all afternoon sobbing over and over, “Mama is all burned up.” Mrs. Albertina Lembeck, her head swathed in bandages, ran shrieking through the corridors of Lincoln Hospital, crazed by the loss of her five children.
In the confusion, there were numerous errors, subsequently corrected. The Slocum ’s engineer, B. F. Conklin, was hailed as a hero who had paid with his life for sticking to his post when all his shipmates deserted theirs. Hero or not, he turned up the next day, unscathed. In the final accounting, the only dead crewman was a steward, Michael McGrann, who had put his faith in one of the useless life jackets. By contrast, every officer of St. Mark’s Church perished except the pastor. George Pullman, treasurer of the social committee, was identified by a check in his pocket that he had made out to the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, owners of the Slocum, in payment for the excursion.
Not all who put out in small boats had rescue uppermost in mind. Some demanded payment before they would pull victims out of the water. Others, sarcastically described as souvenir hunters, simply removed watches, gold chains, and anything else of value from the dead and dying. One human vulture tore off a girl’s ear for the earring.
By midafternoon the potter’s-field boat, the Fidelity , began shuttling back and forth from North Brother Island and 138th Street to the Bellevue pier at 26th Street, bearing all the corpses it could carry, thirty at a time. Only those burned beyond easy identification were placed in the city morgue, in the basement of the medical college. The rest were laid out in double rows in the great enclosed pier. There, far into the night, friends and relatives filed past, looking for familiar faces under the sheets. Crazed by what they found, so many men tried to jump into the river that a special police detail was posted just to stop them.
On Thursday, flags were at half-mast throughout the city as life returned gradually to normal—everywhere, that is, except in “Little Germany,” which, said the New York Times , had been turned into “A Blighted Oasis” by the disaster. Doors along the tidy streets were hung with long white mourning sashes. Many had more than one; a few had five or more. The hardest hit school was P.S. 25, on Fifth Street near First Avenue, where whole rows of benches were vacant. The principal had excused more than a hundred pupils from Wednesday classes to attend the picnic, and at roll call on Thursday teachers broke down along with the surviving classmates.
Messages of condolence poured into the city—from the White House, from mayors and pastors across the nation, from foreign countries. Mayor George McClellan appointed a Citizens Relief Committee, which began work at once. Its members quickly learned that people in “Little Germany”—hard-working and self-respecting—shied away from charity; most grieving families would accept only the cost of burial, and about a fourth of them declined even that. The committee disbanded at the end of August, leaving an unspent balance of about $17,000 after setting up trust funds for children orphaned by the disaster, and making a few hardship grants. In the 437 families accepting aid, 784 individuals had died, and the breakdown is sobering: 9 fathers, 191 mothers, 73 other adults, 155 children over fourteen and 356 younger.