A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy

The faded marble fountain dedicated to the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum disaster is not easy to find in Tompkins Square Park.

It’s beyond the brick comfort station that blocks off much of the park from the northernmost end, near the pool and across from the lovely brownstones on 10th Street.

This lonely statue marks the city’s second-biggest tragedy after 9/11 in terms of the number of people killed—and almost all of the dead came from the heavily German “Kleindeutschland” neighborhood of today’s East Village.

The disaster is remembered every June 15, the anniversary of the day St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street chartered the steamship General Slocum for a day excursion up the East River.

The ship, packed with women and children expecting to have a picnic, caught fire as it steamed past 97th Street at about 10 a.m.

As the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were forced to either stay on the ship and die by fire or jump into the river and risk drowning.

The huge death toll rocked the German neighborhood, and two years later, the fountain was dedicated—paid for by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

The inscription, “They were earth’s purest children young and fair” (from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem) has cracks and chips in it, and a powerful sadness.

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24 Responses to “A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    I know of this ‘nautical tragedy’ because it was included in a scene from the movie MANHATTAN MELODRAMA — the Chicago Biograph Theatre’s main attraction on a hot evening in 1934. After watching the flick, G-men assassinated accused-bad man, John Dillinger in a side alley. (Being a person-of-interest regarding all-things ‘Dillinger’, I read a book that included a large section about this confalgration; Afterall, witnessing this tale of woe was part of Johnny’s last few hours…)

    A little over 1,000 passengers lost their lives when the ‘side-wheeler’ (literally a steam boat with the paddle wheel on the side instead of the stern / back) caught fire in the East River. This was on an annual picnic holiday the church had sponsored for 15 or more years…

  2. Will Says:

    My grandfather was there when it happen. He helped pull the bodies ashore.

    • Zoe Says:

      Thank you for telling your grandfather’s story Will. How traumatic for him.

      My mum is from Berlin & yet I lived blocks away from the park in the 1980s/early 90s — walking by that memorial over & over without knowing it’s history. I didn’t even know then that it had been a German neighbourhood until I read about it in the 2000s.

      When I lived there I knew there had been Germans in the neighbourhood but not about a whole neighbourhood w/ the clinic & the library & the shooting club & various churches. (I’d only been aware of the shooting club which later housed Saint Mark’s Books on Saint Mark’s Place — due to it’s very visible German inscription & that I spent a lot of time directly across the street looking at that inscription).

      We visited Yorkville from when I was very tiny (early 1960s) to the 1980s (last days of German Yorkville) to buy embroidery & needlework supplies (Selma’s Art Shop) & Marzipan (Elk Candy) & German fur lined boots (Salamander) & natural herbal pharmaceuticals & cosmetics (forget the name of the pharmacy) & of course German restaurants.

      Yet I’d never known then that the whole German neighbourhood moved up to Yorkville due to this disaster. (I only read that later as an adult). And also to Queens I think.

  3. MRP Says:

    Have there been any efforts to get this marker restored?

  4. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Visit St. Mark’s Zion on East 84th St on a Sunday to view items relating thereto! The 6th St congregation merged with that on 84th Street (its building dates from c. 1884 and the interior is largely unchanged) fairly promptly after the disaster. The 6th St edifice (c.1855) was sold to the Community Synagogue or its predecessor by deed dated Christmas Day 1942. Go on a Saturday morning when Sabbath services are conducted. The main sanctuary was restored years ago and is indistinguishable from its appearance in 1904….

    • Zoe Says:

      Thanks for telling us about that Ben. I’ll try to see it now.

      A lot of younger people don’t know that German Jews & German Lutherans & Catholics lived in the same ‘German’ neighbourhoods in US cities. (In NYC first downtown on the LES & then in Yorkville near E.86th St.).

      As was true for Syrian Jews & Syrian Orthodox Christians & Syrian Catholics — according to elderly people I have heard reminisce. Funnily telling me that they all liked to be near their similar “pickled” foods! (“We all wanted to be near the same pickles.”)

      A lot changed regarding where people moved to after WWII/the Holocaust & after 1948 Palestine/Israel. People took sides in the States also… sadly. No more shared “pickles”… until as younger people we are resurrecting our shared humanity together.

  5. Zoe Says:

    One of the most horrifying things was the life preservers being faulty: so that mothers put them on their babies & children & they sunk like stones — causing the mothers to feel as though they drowned their children.

    The company that rented the boat was to blame for various safety violations. I forget all of them — but I can’t forget the mothers & their children drowning due to these faulty life preservers.

  6. sanecatguy Says:

    The cork in the life preservers had deteriorate, so they were basically like wearing a bag of wet sawdust around your neck. This was a big reason there were so many water fatalities.

    A friend of mine attended the 6th Street synagogue that used to be the Lutheran church for the community. He remarked that the seats still have the “kneeling rails” underneath. The synagogue is a short walk from the monument and is the biggest reminder of what the neighborhood once was.

    The 100th anniversary was a few years ago. There’s an group of descendants of the ship passengers and they organized a walk through the old neighborhood, ending with a memorial boat trip up the Harlem River to the spot of the disaster.

  7. Thomas Comiskey Says:

    The captain of the Slocum was convicted of homicide and sentenced to Sing Sing.

  8. Tom B Says:

    Percy Shelley, an English romantic poet, who wrote the inscription on the fountain, drowned when he was 29. His second wife, Mary Shelley was the author of ‘FRANKENSTEIN’.
    I heard Tompkins Square Park back in the day, that some New Yorkers still pine for, was a real hell hole. We are lucky that this memorial has survived.

    • Zoe Says:

      Tom B:

      re. “hell hole”

      We rarely (RARELY) went in the park c.1980. All the downtown parks on the LES from Christie Street to Union Square Park were only salons for drug dealers. My good friend (good friend of Jean Michel Basqiat etc.) cut through once & had his leather jacket stolen & teeth removed without permission (by a punch to the mouth). They also did the NY thing of making him take off his shoes because a lot of us kept are money in our shoes to avoid it getting stealthily stolen by skilled pickpockets on the trains etc.

      I still feel guilty that I didn’t offer more sympathy than I did for him losing all his front teeth. It took him till about 89 for him (a downtown post-punk noise musician) who worked construction (w/ Al Diaz the other half of SAMO w/ Jean Michel) to afford new teeth. By then the neighbourhood was going through gentrification (evidenced by the riot after homeless in tents were thrown out of the park by the police) & it was pretty crowded all the time. Around 1980 not even homeless people went in the park.

  9. Ellen Rippel Says:

    My paternal grandmother was pregnant with my dad and was scheduled to participate in the ride on the General Slocum and the picnic. She would have taken her 2 older children as well. Because she wasn’t feeling well, she couldn’t attend. My dad liked to say he
    – from the womb – saved the lives of his mom and 2 siblings. Dad was born prematurely because Oma was so traumatized at losing many of her close friends. I believe there’s also an impressive monument to this sad event in Lutheran (All Faiths) Cemetery in Middle Village.

    • Zoe Says:

      That is an astonishing story Ellen!

      Sometimes I’m amazed I am here due to circumstances that my Oma & Opa & Mütti (grandfather/grandmother/mom) barely survived in both WWI & WWII in Germany (& France where my Opa was wounded as a conscripted WWI soldier & Russia where he was taken off the streets of Berlin to be slave labour after WWII during the post-war occupation).

    • preciousthreads Says:

      This is an amazing story!

  10. Punto Says:

    There is an entire book devoted to the General Slocum disaster called “Ship Ablaze” by Edward T. O’Donnell, published by Broadway Books in 2003. Truly a horrifying tale and one that clearly would have never happened if the owners of the boat and its crew had acted responsibly.

  11. Patricia Feiler Says:

    Were the life preservers filled with weights to pass inspection??

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