General Slocum

General Slocum

In Brief

An event of 15 June 1904, reported in newspapers around the world on the following day, gave Joyce an occasion to include a representative horror of modern life. The General Slocum, a triple-decked side-wheel paddle steamboat carrying German-American women, children, and grandparents from lower Manhattan to a picnic spot on Long Island Sound, caught fire on the East River and sank off the Bronx shore. More than 1,000 of the approximately 1,400 people on board drowned, burned to death, died of smoke inhalation, or were crushed by huge paddle-blades, in a catastrophe made far worse by carelessness, ineptitude, and corruption. It was the worst New York disaster before the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and perhaps only the greater death toll on the Titanic in 1912 has kept it from continuing its hold on cultural memory.

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In Lotus Eaters Bloom carries around a copy of the Freeman's Journal, which reported the disaster on the morning of June 16, and in Aeolus he visits the paper's offices. In Lestrygonians, before the novel mentions any newspaper accounts, he thinks of what he has apparently learned from the Freeman: "All those women and children excursion beanfeast burned and drowned in New York. Holocaust." Reports of the disaster surface in Wandering Rocks on newsboards announcing "a dreadful catastrophe in New York," and in Eumaeus the "New York disaster" is covered in the Evening Telegraph.

But the fullest account of the horror comes in Wandering Rocks when Tom Kernan, pleased with having booked an order, stops in for a celebratory drink: "I'll just take a thimbleful of your best gin, Mr Crimmins. A small gin, sir. Yes, sir. 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 firehose all burst."

"Spontaneous combustion" refers to the fact that the fire may have started in the ship's Lamp Room, where lamp oil, dirty rags, straw, or trash on the floor could have been ignited by a match or cigarette. When a teenage boy reported the fire to the captain, he was told to shut up and mind his own business. Some minutes later, the captain realized the truth of the boy's report, but instead of heading to the nearby Manhattan shore, where there were stores of oil and lumber, he accelerated toward an island across the river, steering his vessel into a headwind that fanned the flames.

The "heartrending scenes" crowd upon one another in imagination. When the fires grew, sections of deck collapsed, pitching people into the flames below. Desperate passengers found that all the lifeboats on the ship were wired and painted down and could not be lowered into the water. Most of them could not swim, and the women who tried were weighed down by the heavy wool clothing of the time. Mothers placed life preservers on their children and threw them into the water, only to watch them sink like stones. The life preservers, which had been hanging in place for 13 years, their canvas covers rotting, were filled with cheap pulverized cork and seem to have had iron bars stuck in them to bring them up to regulation weight. The 36 crewmen had never trained in a fire drill, and when they tried to put out the fires, the hoses fell apart in their hands. Rather than assist passengers, many of them sought their own safety—among them the captain, who jumped onto a tugboat as soon as the boat settled on the river bottom, leaving his burning passengers behind.

All of the safety equipment on the boat had passed inspection a few weeks earlier, but clearly nothing was actually inspected. The Knickerbocker Steamship Company had a long history of graft and bribery, uncovered by newspaper investigations after the disaster, and the General Slocum, which had suffered numerous groundings and collisions in its 13-year life, had sadly decayed from the showpiece it once was. Two inspectors were indicted but found not guilty. The Company received only a small fine. Only the captain, William Van Shaick, went to jail. Tom Kernan comments on the influence that big money perennially wields in America: "What I can't understand is how the inspectors ever 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. And America they say is the land of the free. I thought we were bad here."

The people who had chartered the General Slocum for a highly festive outing to Locust Grove, Long Island, hailed from the working- and middle-class neighborhood of Kleindeutchland [sic] or Little Germany on the lower east side of Manhattan. The excursion was organized by the pastor of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, George Haas. It was intended to celebrate the end of the church school year, and to give church members a respite from crowded, grimy Manhattan. People showed up for the long-anticipated trip in their best clothes and passed up the river in high spirits until the fire broke out.

The Protestant faith of the victims figures in Wandering Rocks when Father Conmee, reading about the disaster, thinks complacently that "In America those things were continually happening. Unfortunate people to die like that, unprepared. Still, an act of perfect contrition." "Perfect contrition" is a safety valve that compassionate Catholic theologians have dreamed up to save the souls of people who face death without access to the rite of extreme unction (normally required): lacking the church's intervention with God, the sinner's sincere repentance may in certain exceptional cases be enough. But this kindly indulgence can hardly be expected to apply to believers who lack the true faith.

JH 2018
The docked General Slocum loading passengers, in a photograph from the U.S. National Archives. Source: Wikimedia Commons.