October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
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.
June in Middle Village—a time of flowers. Along block after block in that quiet section of Queens in New York, front yards glow with their colors. Roses by the thousands, the tens of thousands. And in the Lutheran Cemetery on the community’s southern fringe, sixty-one red carnations, one for each of the unidentified dead in New York’s worst disaster. Their anonymous bodies lie together in what is known as the Great Grave. Nearby are rows of headstones with the names of more than nine hundred others who died with them, by fire or drowning, one bright June day in 1904.
The wreath of carnations is set in place each year, in somber remembrance by those who managed to live through the disaster. Nineteen survive by latest count, but some live far from Middle Village—in Florida, in Hawaii—and all are growing old. The seventy-fifth anniversary, held in 1979, may prove to have been their last significant reunion. But many more of us remember the event, or know of it as part of family legend, for thousands of New Yorkers were involved in one way or another in the rescue effort and its sad aftermath. Most of us may never visit the Slocum plot in the cemetery or even see the flowers of Middle Village, yet we seldom live through mid-June without remembering the General Slocum .
Built for the profitable run to Rockaway Beach, the Slocum , as people called her, was a handsome wooden steamboat larger than most in the excursion trade: 264 feet long with a 37-foot beam, side paddles 31 feet in diameter, and three commodious open decks. At her launching on April 18,1891, and again at the trial run on June 25, the guest of honor was the notable whose name she bore—Henry Warner Slocum, a major general in the Civil War and later a three-term member of Congress from Brooklyn.
That August 12, after being in service less than two months, this new pride of the excursion fleet had its first mishap when a girl was crowded off the deck and drowned; the next day the boat ran aground at Rockaway Inlet; just two days after that it collided with another ship while docking in the Hudson River. Over the next dozen years there were eight other such accidents, enough to prompt men in shipping circles to consider the Slocum an unlucky vessel. Almost as if to dare bad luck to do its worst, her captain and owners neglected her safety equipment, year after year. The lifeboats were lowered so seldom—perhaps never—that coat upon coat of paint had frozen them to their chocks. There were more than-enough life jackets aboard, but they were not easy to geLat and had become so rotten that few of the»i could have kept even a small child afloat. The firhpse, of inferior grade, had also rotted and could no, longer sustain pressure from the ship’s pumps. The deck hands were recruited off the streets and were never adequately trained in emergency procedures. In short, the Slocum , in her fourteenth season, was a prime candidate for desEructioriTand boarding her carried a terrible risk.
With the pleasure-seeking public, however, she remained very popular, and people mounted her gangplank without the slightest misgivings. So it was on the morning of June 15,1904, when well over a thousand residents of “Little Germany,” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, boarded the Slocum at the Third Street pier for the annual outing of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The weather was ideal—warm, bright sun and refreshing wind out of the north. The ship recently had been overhauled, and a coat of fresh paint bolstered the illusion of safety. Many in the festive crowd, moreover, knew Captain William Van Schaick from previous outings and had full confidence in his seamanship. Some also knew one or both of the pilots, Edward Van Wart and young Edwin Weaver. What possible reason could there be for apprehension?
The church social committee had sold 982 tickets, mostly to women; the fifteenth was a Wednesday, no holiday for working husbands. There was no charge for the small children, more than 400 of them, who brought the total boarding count to 1,358. At about half-past nine the ropes were cast off and, with the band playing “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” and bright pennants snapping in the breeze, the Slocum got under way, bound for Locust Point, a popular picnic spot at the western end of Long Island Sound.
There was plenty of room; the ship’s certified capacity was 2,500, and on at least one occasion 4,700 people had crowded aboard. As mothers settled themselves on the long benches and children explored the novelty of a playground afloat, the band, on the rear promenade deck, struck up a lively march, “Unser Kaiser Friedrich,” and followed with the “Poet and Peasant Overture.” From the galley came the pleasant aroma of chowder being prepared for lunch. On either bank, and on the East River islands, were landmarks to point out and argue over: what church does that steeple belong to? is that handsome old house really Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence? Crew members on passing vessels exchanged waves and calls with the children along the Slocum railing.
Meanwhile, the ship was catching on fire. It probably began when a carelessly dropped match or cigar ignited loose hay in a barrel. The place was the “forward cabin” below decks, used as a storeroom and lamp room. Quick work with an extinguisher might have smothered the blaze in seconds, but nobody, apparently, was there when it flared up. Nor was it visible to the excursionists, most of whom were closer to the stern, out of the wind that swept the bow, and beyond the midship bulge that cut off a direct line of vision. Least likely of all to notice either smoke or flame were the men in the pilothouse, directly above the forward cabin but three decks higher. The captain had gone there, as was his custom, to see his ship through Hell Gate, the narrowest passage along the East River and still treacherous despite the dynamiting of subsurface ledges in 1876. Van Wart was at the wheel with Weaver watching beside him. Men on other vessels, however, could see the smoke. William Halloway, captain of a dredge near the Astoria shore, sounded the standard nautical warning, four blasts of his whistle. He noted the time—10:05. If Van Schaick or his pilots heard the signal they did not heed it. It was no time for an interruption, and when Frank Perditski, a boy of fourteen, burst into the pilothouse with excited words about smoke, the captain dismissed him curtly: “You get to hell out of here and mind your own business!”
As the Slocum emerged from Hell Gate into more open water, men on both shores could see the fire clearly. Superintendent Grafting of the gasworks at Casino Beach, on the Long Island side, saw a wisp of smoke and reached for his field glasses. By the time he found the range, flames were visible and shrieks of terror audible. On the Bronx shore opposite, the alert watchman in the tower of a refrigerating plant at the foot of 138th Street reached for his telephone. His call to police headquarters, the first alarm received, set in motion a swift and massive response by city employees.
The Slocum sped on, headed into the wind that fanned the flames toward the stern. Another boy, exploring the ship as boys will, saw the fire and ran to tell a deck hand, who went to see for himself before reporting to the mate, Edward Flanagan—who in turn insisted on seeing for himself before notifying the bridge. All of this while the fire grew worse by the second, working its way sternward along the lower deck and accelerating with frightful speed. Here is how one youngster, John Tischner, recalled it: “We were sitting on the lower deck eating ice cream and smelling the clams they were frying, thinking how nice they would taste. All of a sudden everything around us got afire.…Finally I got a life preserver for Ida, and she gave it to a woman with a baby. I tried to get another, but it stuck in the rack and I couldn’t reach it well enough to pull it down.” He and-Ida were lucky; a typical Slocum preserver was nearly as deadly as the flames.
Mate Flanagan’s agonized message, crackling through the ship’s speaking tube, gave the men in the pilothouse their first knowledge—pathetically tardy—that the Slocum was ablaze. Captain Van Schaick apparently panicked, inexplicably ordering Van Wart to steer for a grounding at North Brother Island, a mile farther on, rather than the Bronx Waterfront a little over a hundred yards away. Workmen on the waterfront dropped their tools in astonishment as the ship raced past. Like the chorus of a Greek play, they could do nothing to influence events; but they could form opinions. Beaching where they and other men close by could help get the passengers off in time seemed to them the most obvious course. At the very least, the captain should have reversed the engines to bring the ship to a halt and give small craft a chance to reach her sides. Naval and revenue cutter officers subsequently endorsed these opinions, citing a law that required a captain to halt any vessel in such distress. One of the officers said of Van Schaick: “With the strong wind blowing…directly over the bows of the Slocum and the boat rushing against it, he could not have destroyed the boat quicker had he wished to do so.”
On the last mile to North Brother the flames feeding on the weathered, brittle wood mounted to the upper decks, and frantic mothers fought each other for lifejackets, only to have them come apart in their hands, spilling out dry cork dust. Those who could find their children in the chaos herded them toward the stern. So many crowded against the rail that a section gave way: a mass of debris and screaming passengers plunged thirty feet into the river.
The pastor of St. Mark’s, the Reverend George C. F. Haas, was better able than most of his flock to put experience into words. “I was in the rear of the boat with my wife and daughter,” he remembered. “Women were shrieking and clasping their children in their arms. Our case seemed hopeless. Death from fire was to be escaped only to die in the water. When the fire shot up to the top deck and drove the crowd back the panic was terrible to witness. The crush from the forward part of the boat swept those in the rear along.…I believe that the first that fell into the water [when the rail collapsed] were crushed over. When they went there seemed to be a general inclination to jump. The women and children went over the railings like flies.…In the great crush many women fainted and fell on the deck, to be trampled upon. Little children were knocked down. Mothers, with their little boys and girls in their arms, would give wild screams and then leap into the water.”
Haas was pushed over the side by the pressure of bodies, along with his wife and daughter. “When I struck the water I sank, and when I rose there were scores about me fighting to keep afloat. One by one I saw them sink.…But I was powerless to do anything. I was holding my wife and daughter up in the water…almost under the side of the boat, when someone, jumping from the rail directly above me, landed on top of us. My hold was broken, and we all went under together. When I came up my wife and child were gone.”
Along that fatal last mile the Slocum ’s wake was strewn with hundreds of the pastor’s parishioners—about half of those who had boarded so happily less than an hour before; and very few of them were picked up alive. Even good swimmers—and there were not many in those days—had little chance, what with the waves whipped up by the wind and the long dresses and layers of petticoats that dragged them down. Passengers still on the ship were not much luckier. Some bought time by mounting the paddle-wheel boxes, well above the level of the top deck and farthest from the ship’s center. Others somehow found spots the fire had missed. A few of the more agile climbed down the ship’s sides on ropes and hung, just above the water they feared, until rescued by men in small boats. But no place on or off the Slocum offered any real assurance of survival.
Henry Iden lost four sisters, and Amelia Swartz her mother, grandmother, aunt, and niece; but the pair kept alive, as Henry told their story: “Miss Swartz and I went to the rail. We saw a lot of people waving their arms at us. We stayed close to the rail where it wasn’t so hot, until the steamer grounded. Then we jumped into the water. I couldn’t swim with Miss Swartz, so we held onto the boat. It got so hot in two or three minutes that I had to keep ducking her to keep her hair from being burned, and had to duck myself. We were finally saved by a towboat, but not until our faces had been blistered and our eyebrows burned off.”
The grounding, at an angle to the North Brother shore, was far worse for most still on board. The captain and his pilots, being near the bow, were able to drop into shallow water and work their way to land—not too easy for Van Schaick, whose ankle was fractured and his spine injured in the jump. But the passengers, most in the stern amidst a swirling mass of flame and smoke, could neither see the island nor brace for the impact. It catapulted a number into the hold, now a yawning pit of fire. Others, their clothing afire, were thrown down to a tugboat, the Wade , which had eased alongside. As the flaming victims hit the deck, her crew doused them with buckets of sea water. More might have been saved in this way if the Wade had not caught fire herself and been forced to withdraw.
More vessels soon arrived, including a city fireboat, the Zophar Mills, whose crew trained her great hoses on what was left of the decks. This wet down a few small areas from which passengers could jump, all that there was left to do. Dry land, they knew, was not far away, and dry land meant people who would do what they could to help.
North Brother Island was the site of city hospitals, but with few able-bodied men and no special equipment for coping with disasters. The personnel rose to the occasion admirably, but before they could turn their attention to saving the passengers, they had to calm patients in buildings nearest the site of the grounding, who went wild at the horror they could see only too well from their windows. In one contagious ward the patients actually rioted, and it took some fifty staff members to restore order. The patients quieted down only when the burning wreck floated off the rocks, after about an hour and a half, and drifted away on the strong tidal current. It settled finally off Hunt’s Point in sixty feet of water, where divers later recovered the charred, sodden dead from the hold and dislodged broken bodies from the paddle-wheel blades.
Meanwhile, doctors and nurses, matrons and orderlies, formed a human chain and hauled about seventy of the excursionists ashore, a score of them still living. Dr. McLaughlin, head of the tuberculosis unit, rowed out alone and saved six. Another six were rescued by Nellie O’Donnell, an assistant matron, before she dropped from exhaustion; she had never been able to swim before. A group of nurses waded out up to their necks, pulled or pushed bodies ashore, and revived some of the drowning by the latest method of resuscitation. Thomas Cooney, a reserve policeman, saved eleven, only to drown as he returned for a twelfth.
If there are degrees of courage, the highest was shown by Mary McCann, a fourteen-year-old convalescent patient. Though still running a fever, she pulled nine small children to safety. (Five years later, she was located after a long search and was awarded a silver lifesaving medal, one of nine granted by Congress for heroism during the Slocum disaster. The other eight went to men.)
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.
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.”
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.
The disaster slowly faded from the nation’s collective memory, and even the survivors, outliving bitterness and dwindling in number, eventually gave up their annual reunions at the Slocum plot. But in 1973 a fresh start was made, when a Slocum Memorial Committee was organized as a branch of the Queens Historical Society. Each year since, on the Sunday in June preceding the fifteenth the faithful have gathered again at the Lutheran Cemetery. There, while gray-robed choristers sing softly, the survivors present lower the flag to half-mast and set in place the traditional wreath. The occasion could be lugubrious; instead, it is serene, dignified, and inexpressibly touching. The younger observers watch not with pity but with respect, and something of awe, the few old people who were aboard the Slocum that bright and terrible day a lifetime ago.