Skip to main content

My Brush With History

Nanny’s Ride

June 2024
1min read

A Spirit Forged In Fire

Some 1,020 people perished when the steamer General Slocum exploded in New York's East River.

This June my family and I will gather together to mark the hundredth anniversary of a tragedy. On June 15,1904, my great-grandmother (we called her Nanny) Catherine Connelly, then 11 years old, boarded the excursion steamer General Slocum along with her mother, Veronica, her 10-year-old brother, Walter, and her year-old sister, Regina. They were setting out on a church-picnic trip up Long Island Sound.

As the General Slocum approached Hell Gate, it caught fire. As panic took over, Nanny’s mother grabbed hold of her, but she broke away and ran to the Slocum’ s railing, where a man reached from a tug standing close alongside and lifted her aboard.

General Slocum explodes in the East River.
General Slocum explodes in the East River.

Once ashore, Nanny went home to tell her father what had happened. They went to the morgue, where they found Nanny’s mother, brother, and baby sister. Some 1,020 people perished in the East River that June 15, but Nanny, the strongest woman I’ve ever known, marched on with her life. She dropped out of school at 13 and married when she was 20. Nanny had 11 children, 26 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren, and 3 great-great-grandchildren.

On April 4, 2002, at her birthday party in Wilton, Connecticut, the whole family gathered to honor her. It would be Nanny’s last birthday; that October Catherine Connelly died at the age of 109.

Now, instead of getting together in Wilton, the family celebrates Nanny’s life whenever and wherever we see one another. For it is because of her will that we are all here. Nanny has instilled a measure of her courage and determination (and perhaps a little bit of stubbornness) in all of us.

During bad times of my own, I think of her on the burning deck of the Slocum; she survived the most terrible of accidents to live a long, full life, and knowing this helps me. So my “Brush With History” is a lifelong one; it comes from seeing generations of a family drawing strength from one woman’s resilience.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.