The End of the "General Slocum"--Last Survivor Dies at 100

Adella Wotherspoon, the last survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York City history until Sept. 11, 2001 — the burning and sinking of the steamboat General Slocum in June 1904 — died on Jan. 26. She was 100, the youngest Slocum survivor having at last become the oldest. The burning of the General Slocum, named for Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War hero and New York congressman, was the most lethal peacetime maritime disaster in the nation’s history. It is generally accepted that 1,021 people died, almost seven times as many as in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, which killed 146 and is often thought of as New York’s worst inferno.

The General Slocum, which killed members of a German Lutheran church excursion, also quickly receded in memory because of the start of World War I and the resultant anti-German feeling, wrote Edward T. O’Donnell [a friend of the SDMB] in his book, “Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum” (Broadway Books, 2003). Mrs. Wotherspoon herself used the example of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912, with about 1,500 deaths, to make another point. “The Titanic had a great many famous people on it,” she said. “This was just a family picnic.” On June 15, 1904, a sunny Wednesday morning, Mrs. Wotherspoon, then the 6-month-old called Adele Liebenow, was part of the 17th annual Sunday school picnic of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, on the heavily German Lower East Side. The church had chartered a paddle-wheel, 264-foot-long steamboat, for $350 from the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company to go to Locust Grove Picnic Ground at Eaton’s Neck on Long Island. The Liebenow party included Adele’s parents, her two sisters, three aunts, an uncle and two cousins.

Forty minutes later, the joy turned to abject terror. Smoke started billowing from a forward storage room. A spark, most likely from a carelessly tossed match, had ignited some straw. Soon, the boat was an inferno. The captain ignored cries to steam for shore and proceeded at top speed through the perilous waters known as Hell Gate to North Brother Island, a mile ahead. The inexperienced crew, which had not had a single fire drill, provided scant help. Lifeboats were wired or glued to the deck with layers of paint, cork in the life jackets had turned to dust with age and fire hoses broke under water pressure. By the time the General Slocum reached the island, it was too late. The death toll among the estimated 1,331 passengers was 1,021, according to most sources. The dead included Adele’s sisters, Anna, 3, and Helen, 6. Munsey’s Magazine, a periodical of the time, wrote, “Children whom the flames had caught on the forward decks rushed, blazing like torches to their mothers.”

Adele was nearby in the arms of her mother, also named Anna, when the fire started. Her father, Paul, was elsewhere on the boat. Her mother covered her face, and, with her clothing on fire, jumped into the river. “My mother was very, very badly burned, all up her left side,” Mrs. Wotherspoon said in an interview with The Journal News of Westchester County in 1999, “so I assumed that she hung on as long as she could and then dropped into the water when she couldn’t hang on anymore.” After helping the two to shore, Mr. Liebenow left to search for his missing daughters. The body of Helen was never found, but he identified little Anna’s. By then, he had lost track of his wife and baby. Mr. Liebenow was himself badly burned on the head but relentlessly prowled the city’s hospital corridors in search of his missing family members. Each hospital tried to detain him, but he refused. The New York Times reported that he was so “crazed with grief and pain” that he almost became violent with the coroner who was trying to help him in his quest. Finally, he found the lost ones.

In 2002, Catherine Connelly, a Slocum survivor, died at 109, leaving only Mrs. Wotherspoon. “I’m sorry, of course,” Mrs. Wotherspoon said then in an interview with The Times. “She had a long life. She was a very interesting person.” So was Mrs. Wotherspoon. Frank Duffy, vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx and a friend of Mrs. Wotherspoon for 25 years, said that the organizers of the 100th annual Slocum commemoration had hoped she could attend the event, planned for June 12 and 13, which is to include a wreath-laying off North Brother Island.

Eve, thanks for posting this. I was going to if someone hadn’t.

I emailed Ed O’Donnell the news this morning. He teaches in Worcester MA where the news would not get much play.

FYI, the New-York Historical Society has intentions of recreating the boat trip of the Slocum (presumably not the fire) this summer to mark the centennial. I assume it will be open to the public.

We have to make this a Dopefest!! I will wear my asbestos Gibson-Girl outfit.

So—how’s about it? A Slocum Dopefest in June? StuyGuy, can you find out how we could get tickets? Only those who can swim will be allowed to attend . . .

Ahh, yes, the <i>General Slocum</i>. Not many people know that after the disaster, her hull, which was still basically sound, was raised from the seabed off Brother’s Island, towed to a shipyard where she was sold for $70,000 and converted into a barge named <i>Maryland</i> that sailed the seas for six more years before springing a leak in a storm and sinking off the coast of New Jersey. The Army Corps of Engineers had her dynamited as a threat to navigation in 1912, and her bones were finally found beneath the silt of the Atlantic Ocean and surveyed in 2000.

Damn vB vs HTML. grumble

I think I mentioned this in a previous thread, but my grandmother, who was 4 years old at the time, told me she remembered the bodies from the disaster being brought to the docks near where the family lived at the time, in the South Bronx.

StuyGuy? Ask Ed if there are still any berths on the Slocum this summer–I wanna be there, and I’m sure a handful of other Dopers will, too!

I certainly am, and I believe I’m not being too presumptuous in saying Billdo probably is, too. He and I are taking a New York City history class at the New School - it ends with the Brooklyn Bridge, sadly, twenty years before the General Slocum, but that’s still a Good Time.

Oxy, so you guys are taking Joyce Gold’s course? I once took one of her walking tours. We were later both part of a semi-exclusive tour of normally-off-limits Hart Island. I told her I had taken one of her tours and offered to hold her bag for a moment while she struggled with her camera. She treated me like her personal sherpa for the rest of the tour.

Don’t let her get away with ignoring Andrew H. Green like so many city historians do. If she tries to take the Olmsted line that Green’s supervision was a hinderance to building Central Park, tell her the park would have gotten built with or without Olmsted but, given the political climate of the city and state, the same can not be said about Green. But even more important than the park, Green was NYC’s first comprehensive urban planner. Remind her about that.

I’d be up for it if I’m not in class that day & it’s wheelchair accessible.

How many died in the 1882 World Building fire?

Only 12. Baby stuff.

So, StuyGuy, how’s about it? How do we get tickets for the big Slocum excursion?

Eve, I checked the N-YHS website. Their public program schedule only goes through March, so details regarding the boatride are not public yet. If I get a chance I’ll drop Ed O’D a line to see what he knows. If that draws a blank, I’ll try to get the skinny from someone at the N-YHS.

Keep bugging me.

Since you guys are so big into historical reenactments, you should know that one or more historical groups intend to restage the Hamilton-Burr duel in Wehawken, NJ this summer. Lots of bloody historical fun to look forward to as the weather improves!

Ohk good—if we start early, maybe we can get tickets before the rush. Though I hope the Slocum cruise won’t really be a “reenactment . . .”

stuyguy, we’re taking Joyce Gold’s course, but I had to miss the first session today. Oxy was at the class. Don’t worry, we’ll defend the honor of Distinguished New Yorker Andrew Haswell Green!

I’d love to join the Solcum recreation. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to be rescued from a burning boat.

Doesn’t Sampiro have some quote about what it means when the last survivor of an event dies?

Does anyone have a date for this? DaveW0071 has announced that RibFest is tentatively on, and I’m sure he’ll want to have it so they don’t conflict.

Clive Cussler’s new book, Sea Hunter’s II, describes the search for the Slocum. Quite fascinating.

Okay, I missed this the first time. But a chance to re-enact a trip that killed a thousand passengers the first time? Who could pass up a chance for that? Count me in.