- 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
As for the overall death toll, no figure is altogether reliable. Edward Kline shot himself, after losing his wife and five children: should he and other suicides be counted? And Thomas Cooney, who drowned while searching for victims? For a while the count stood at 955, but it steadily rose as bodies washed tardily ashore and as many of the seriously injured died. The final official figure is 1,021, a number that Claude Rust, the prime authority on the disaster, feels certain “is not nearly enough.”
On Friday, the seventeenth, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a federal inquiry under the direction of George Cortelyou, Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Friday was also the day of the first funerals. Undertakers from all over the city were kept busy; finding enough hearses was a problem. More than a hundred of them formed a continuous procession on Sunday, crossing Williamsburg Bridge on their way to Middle Village, where part of the Lutheran Cemetery had been designated the Slocum plot. Spectators lined the entire route, most of them silent except for their sobbing, which was hardest to muffle when four white hearses passed, bearing eleven tiny coffins.
At one point in James Joyce’s Ulysses , two of the characters in a Dublin pub on the morning of June 16,1904, discuss the day’s headline news. ” ‘Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible. A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion; most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehoses all burst. What I can’t understand is how the inspectors allowed a boat like that.…Now you’re talking straight, Mr. Crimmins. You know why? Palm oil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that.…’
”‘Graft, my dear, sir. Well, of course, where there’s money going there’s always someone to pick it up.’”
Joyce had some of the facts wrong, but even the first newspaper reports hinted of inspectors accepting bribes for “temporary blindness.” The graft theme gained strength in the newspapers day by day, and editors demanded tighter regulations, strict enforcement, and stern punishment for both those who offered and those who accepted the bribes. Evidence was ample. At the Slocum ’s last inspection, on May 5, everything had been certified sound—life jackets, lifeboats and rafts, firehose and pumps. “So,” lamented the New York Evening Post , “the farce of government steamboat inspection in this port has ended in tragedy,” and the Daily American agreed: “It is the old, the usual story of such events in this country, where money laughs at the laws made to protect life—where the dull, sordid, unimaginative love of money deadens the conscience and despises costly safety.”
In Washington, Supervising Inspector George Uhler, stung by the attacks on his subordinates, tried to shift the blame. “What is the use,” he asked, “of having the laws? They no longer act as a deterrent. We go out, discover a boat with rotten life preservers, bad boilers, and a dozen other things, which someone is operating in defiance of the law. This is punished by a heavy fine. That is the limit of our powers. Now what happens? The violator of the law appeals to a Senator or Congressman and others high in political authority. The fine is reduced. I know of scores of cases where fines have been reduced from $1000 to $20, and others from $500 to $10.…Does anyone suppose that the owner of a big excursion steamer cares for these fines, especially when to obey the law would mean the outlay of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Of course not.”
Uhler’s remarks encouraged editorial cynicism, as in a Des Moines paper: “The blame will be shifted from official to official, from individual to individual, until the investigation dies a natural death, without issue. Then the public will continue heedlessly and carelessly until some new disaster sends it into fresh spasms of remorse and reform.” In a more plaintive vein an Indianapolis editor asked: “Are we getting to be utterly rotten? Is the slime of politics dissolving the cement of national character?”
But with President Roosevelt taking a personal interest, it was reasonable to hope for wholesale convictions and significant reforms. A coroner’s inquest, held in a Bronx armory from June 20 to 28, faulted the Slocum ’s equipment but came down hardest on Captain Van Schaick for his poor judgment, his neglect of safety devices, and his failure to train his crew. Then a federal grand jury, with a somewhat broader scope, indicted the captain, the negligent inspectors, and the managing directors of the steamboat company on July 29. But the most thorough investigation was that of a blue-ribbon federal commission, which not only reviewed the Slocum evidence but surveyed conditions on 268 other passenger vessels plying coastal waters. Its report, issued in mid-October, ran sixty-two pages, including a letter of endorsement from the President. He approved the earlier indictments and new ones handed down for three employees of the Nonpareil Cork Works who had inserted iron bars in life preservers to bring them up to the weight required by law. This neat little trick, which violated no specific law, struck Roosevelt as being “of so heinous a character that it is difficult to comment upon it with proper self-restraint.”