- 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
The nation’s press hailed the report. So did the Organization of the General Slocum Survivors, formed soon after the disaster, which sent a warmly worded thank-you letter to the White House. Hope for speedy trials was dashed, however, by the announcement that the first could not be scheduled until early in 1906. The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company welcomed the delay as a chance to win a ruling of limited liability. Its lawyers barraged the federal district court in Manhattan with legal papersaffidavits and libels, petitions and exceptions, answers to interrogatories and amendments to the answers. The company also set about raising the Slocum for its salvage value. Afloat once more with nothing left above the water line, the hulk was sold, ironically enough, on the first anniversary of the disaster.
That anniversary was more fittingly observed at the Lutheran Cemetery, where survivors, friends, and sympathizers gathered at the Slocum plot. The United Singing Societies of New York and Brooklyn, five hundred strong, sang of hope and love, and Adella Liebenow, at eighteen months the youngest of the survivors, unveiled the Slocum monument of austere white marble as a crowd of more than ten thousand wept.
Seven months later, on January 16,1906, Van Schaick’s trial began. His attorney argued eloquently that the captain should be honored rather than punished; he had stuck to his post to the end, and had suffered grievous injuries. He also observed that Van Schaick, already sixty-eight and in poor health, was unlikely to survive a long term in prison. The jury, out only twenty-five minutes, reported disagreement on the first two counts, of manslaughter, but returned a verdict of guilty on the third, of failure to conduct the mandatory fire drills. The judge, after telling Van Schaick he intended to make an example of him, pronounced sentence at once—ten years in Sing Sing Prison. The sentence was appealed and the captain walked out the next day on $10,000 bail.
That he was guilty and deserved punishment was generally agreed, but the severity of the sentence and the fact that other men no less and perhaps more guilty were apparently evading prosecution caused a major shift in public opinion. One editor called Van Schaick “this poor old man” deprived of his livelihood, and another thought the verdict would encourage inspectors and shipowners to continue playing “fast and loose with human lives in the assurance that in case of disaster the captain will be made the scapegoat.” It was widely believed that the court of appeals would overturn the conviction.
But that court, on February 12,1908, let the sentence stand, to the gratification of the Slocum survivors, and to the dismay of Van Schaick’s supporters. The former pilot, now Captain Edwin Weaver, was one of several friends at the courthouse a week later who asked to accompany the convict on the short train ride to the prison. The federal marshal would have none of it; he limited that privilege to Van Schaick’s wife and namesake son, who was also a steamboat captain. The wife was a recent acquisition. As Grace Mary Spratt, a nurse, she had earned a certificate of honor for her work at North Brother Island that terrible night in 1904; later, though less than half his age, she had married the captain, after nursing him back to health. At the Sing Sing portal Van Schaick, tottering and shaken, was led to his cell, where he groped his way to his cot, sobbing uncontrollably.
He had hardly grown accustomed to his cell before a drive began to free him. The American Association of Masters, Mates & Pilots sent a petition to President Roosevelt, urging a pardon. The Organization of the General Slocum Survivors submitted a strongly worded protest. Having endorsed his commission’s report in 1904, Roosevelt hardly could consider a pardon, but his successor, William Howard Taft, could and did. Largely through the efforts of Mrs. Van Schaick, a new petition reached the White House bearing a quarter of a million signatures. Impressed, Taft granted an unconditional pardon late in 1912, to be effective on Christmas Day. By then Van Schaick was already out of Sing Sing, having been paroled in August, 1911, despite fresh objections by the survivors. He spent a peaceful old age on a farm in the Mohawk Valley bought with contributions from friends in the shipping business and died at ninety in the Utica Masonic Home.
The Slocum never made it to old age. Renamed the Maryland by her new owners and converted into a barge, she sank in March, 1909, under too great a load of bricks, was raised again, and finally met her end in December, 1911, when she went down off Atlantic City in heavy weather.