Unlike the disaster averted in yesterday’s plane crash into the Hudson, a horrible disaster occured in New York’s other river back in 1904.  It was so awful nobody thought it would ever be forgotten.  And yet how many of us have heard of the steamboat General Slocum?  Hands?  Nobody?  Exactly.

I certainly hadn’t, until I found an old book at (yes, of course) a library sale – a book which mixes journalism and yellow journalism, reportage and ghoulishness.  Check out the amazing title page: 

“New York’s Awful Steamboat Horror:  Hundreds of Women and Children Drowned and Burned to Death.  With Graphic Descriptions of Flames Sweeping Many Souls to Eternity with Restless Fury;  Panic Stricken  Multitudes Jumping to Sure Death, Etc. Etc.  And Containing Thrilling Stories of This Most Overwhelming Catastrophe of Modern Times, to which is added Vivid Accounts of Heartrending Scenes Where Hundreds Were Burned and Drowned in Their Efforts to Escape.  By H.D. Northrop, the well-known author.” 

What began as a lovely East River pleasure boat excursion on June 15, 1904 (mystics will note that yesterday was January 15 – two months beginning with J, both accidents on the 15th) ended in horrific tragedy when a storeroom full of flamable material caught fire.  The captain made a series of wrong, even boneheaded, decisions, deciding to keep heading for a pier over a mile away instead of going into full evacuation mode.  

Nearly 1000 people died either from fire on board, or from drowning when they went overboard.  Some were saved in dramatic ways, as when nurses and convalescing patients from hospitals on Brother Island jumped to the rescue.  But this was back in a time when very few people knew how to swim, so the odds weren’t good, even if you escaped the burning wreckage. 

An inquest later revealed that shady city inspectors had given the boat passing grades for its life preservers, which in fact were cheap, “rotten” and, oh yeah, non-bouyant.  Records were even clumsily changed, using acid, to imply that quality life preservers had been ordered for the General Slocum. 

All the drama of the accident, the desperation of familes on shore, the city in mourning, the shortage of coffins, is detailed in this incredible book.  I’ve spared you the photos of the dead bodies. 

Thank God yesterday’s drama ended so astonishingly well.

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