From the autobiographical notes of Captain Charles Albertson regarding the time he served in the New York City Police Department.
THE GENERAL SLOCUM DISASTER
About 1870, the steam excursion boats Grand Republic and General Slocum were built to run from New York to Rockaway Beach. They were about two hundred and fifty feet long, broad of beam, had three decks, drew only seven feet of water and were permitted to carry two thousand five hundred passengers each. They ran to Rockaway for many years until the steam roads and Trolley Lines took their place, then they were used for excursions, for Sunday Schools, clubs, etc., from the city to the various picnic ground out of town. On the morning of June 15, 1904, the General Slocum took on board at the dock at 6th Street and East River a German Lutheran Sunday School from their church [St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church] nearby. Rev. Haas was the pastor.
About one thousand five hundred mostly women and children boarded the boat, which proceeded up the East River and through Hell Gate. The hold or bottom part of the boat contained the engine and coal bunkers and the bow or extreme forward part was used for storing the boat’s lights and kerosene oil for filling them. This space was entered by a trap door in the deck which was made of three inch oak plank and the door was of the same thickness and material. This door was three feet wide and six feet long with a piece of the plank fastened up edgeways around the opening six or eight inches wide. The door was slightly larger than the opening and had a three inch plank around the edge. This fitted so tightly that when closed down the deck could be cleaned with a hose without wetting below. This door had heavy hinges on the side and when lifted up was fastened to a heavy upright (one of many that supported the deck above) with a hook and staple. Soon after passing Hell Gate, fire was discovered in this forward hold. There were many persons near the man with candy privilege had his stand not ten feet away and had had the privilege on this boat frequently.
Any one could have loosened the hook and dropped the door down and the fire would have smothered out. The fire being in the forward part of the boat the speed of the boat made a strong wind.
Captain Van Shaick was at the pilot house where the law compelled him to be while passing this dangerous point. He was not aware that the boat was on fire for several minutes. When he was informed there was no place to land. Ten or fifteen minutes later, he ran on the submerged rocks to the north point of North Brother’s Island. At this time all of the boat as far back as the wheel houses was a roaring furnace and all of the passengers were on the right hand side, the land side, behind the wheel house. When the bow of the boat struck the rocks, the sudden stop pitched the passengers into the water like brick out of a cart, and they clung on to each other like bees hang together on a limb when they swarm. The crowd on the main deck took the supports to the upper or hurricane deck with them and hundreds on that deck spilled off on those in the water. Pen cannot commence to describe the terrible scene. Many were drowned and had they stood up their heads would have been out of water. There were two policemen on duty on board, skilled water men, and both came near being drowned.
There were many who did not go over with the mass, all sorts of boats gathered to help save them. There were many heroes. The little tug “Wade” named after the owner, put the bow of his boat against the wreck and held it there until so many got aboard that she nearly sank, many in the water holding with a hand on the boat to help keep her afloat. Wade kept her there until all of the glass in the pilot house was broken with the heat and his hair and whiskers singed off and his hands and face blistered. Row boats gathered near and picked up many until their boats were full and many with a hand on the boat to keep afloat until other boats came to their relief. One of these boatmen saw and object down in the water, reached down with his oar and brought to the surface Pastor Haas who had gone down for the last time.
Captain Van Shaick and his pilot remained in the pilot house until the boat struck then they jumped into the water twenty feet below. The Captain’s clothes on fire and he so badly burned that he was in a hospital for several weeks.
North Brother island belongs to the city. After passing through Hell Gate the river runs north east for a short distance then north to the north point of the island then east out to Long Island Sound. The island covers about ten acres. There were several contagious disease hospitals on the island such as measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, etc. When the Slocum struck there were several of the convalescent patients on the lawn and among them a young Irish immigrant girl [Mary McCann] who had the measles when she landed a short time before. She was of slight build but a wonder in the water as she rescued twelve or fifteen persons. Several times she was nearly drowned in the struggle with those she was trying to save. She swam out and brought them to shallow water where others cared for them. I saw a gold medal from Congress present to her. She started a swimming school soon after and the last I heard of her she was doing well.
About ten on the morning of the disaster, I received a phone message from North Brother’s Island that a boat all in flames was coming up the East River. I hastened to the wharf at 138th Street opposite the island. There was a great confusion and excitement. The wreck was still on the rocks and several fire boats were throwing water on her. Later when her superstructure burned away, she floated out towards the Sound about three miles and sank in shallow water, her hold having been pumped full of water.
The river was covered with boats, many had brought the injured to the mainland and they were being hurried to the hospitals in all sorts of vehicles.
I went aboard a New York and New Haven R.R. tug in company with several policemen and firemen in uniform and when we neared the wreck they went overboard like ducks for there were bodies to be rescued even then. I assisted in saving a fat woman who was floating below the surface, unconscious. I tried walking on the water but with very poor success. We finally lifted her up so that her stomach was over the gunnel of the boat and while trying to get her aboard she ejected more than a gallon of water. Her extreme weight probably saved her life for she regained consciousness at once. We took several that we had recovered ashore and sent them to hospitals. I then boarded a steamboat and went over to the island taking many policemen with me. Next to one of the hospitals was a lawn covered with the rescued many of them in very bad condition. I ordered my men to assist in placing them aboard the steamer on their way to the hospitals. Some had to be carried on blankets or any way possible. I helped a young woman to her feet and started for the boat and after going a short distance she died leaning against me. My next was a lad twelve or fourteen who was lying down. He rolled over to get up and ejected a lot of water, looked up at me and said, “I have got rid of that any way.” He recovered. Coroner McGovern was early on the scene and he was a very efficient officer wonderfully resourceful. The Slocum went on the rocks at high tide which rises and falls about eight feet. As the tide went down some of my men waded out into the water, reached down and pulled up the bodies and dragged them to shore. Others were out in boats with all sorts of grappling apparatus, bringing their gruesome finds to shore where a squad of men placed them on stretchers and carried them up on the lawn which was about ten feet above high tide. Here they were placed on the grass in rows. Four hundred sixty five bodies were recovered the first day. A complete description of each body was taken, apparent age, height, weight, complexion
and clothing with a description and estimated value of jewelry. This was recorded in a book. The valuables and money were placed in a large strong envelope with description of contents written on the outside which was placed in a large clothes basket and closely guarded. Later placed in a large safe in the coroner’s office and there guarded by policemen for months until finally claimed or legally disposed of. This was an enormous undertaking as the Germans are a thrifty saving people and apparently had little confidence in banks as many of them had large sums of money with them. One woman had more than six thousand in bills with her. Each body was given a number which was securely fastened to their clothing and marked on their envelope. Later when we had plain rough board coffins to place the remains in, the clothing was removed and placed in a strong sack which was numbered and the number securely tacked on the box. Soon after noon, Mayor McClellan and Police Commissioner McAdoo visited the Island and it was decided to send all of the bodies to 26th Street and East River where the city had a long dock which was all cleared and used as a morgue. It would have been impossible for the friends to come to the island to identify and claim the remains. Nearly every city department was represented at the island and to avoid confusion, Commissioner McAdoo by order of Mayor McClellan placed me in command of all efforts in that vicinity. The weather was extremely hot which forced the bodies to surface as it hastened decomposition. A constant patrol with all sorts of small boats was continued in all directions for fear that the bodies would be carried away by the tide which ran very strong to and fro at this point. Divers were employed but could be used but a short time at high and low tide when the water was slack. They recovered quite a number of bodies, the most of them from a deep hole or pocket down among the rocks. A few mornings after the disaster, the Captain of one of the sound steamers when passing on the way to the city, called out through the megaphone that they saw a body floating about of a girl about fourteen. I was inclined to think that my men who were patrolling back and forth across the river some distance east of the disaster had been negligent and permitted the body to pass, but on our way back I saw a body floating four or five feet beneath the surface at a point where an equilibrium was located. When more gas was developed in the abdomen the body will float to the surface. This fact complicated the problem but I had plenty of boats and they went here, there, and everywhere collecting the harvest. Bodies were found out the sound on both shores and the coroners refused to give up the remains on Long Island. This would have caused much trouble, but I called up the Governor of the State at Albany and he ordered all bodies to be turned over to me or my men. Many methods were used to hasten the bodies to the surface. Several cannon were placed on a railroad car float and heavy charges of powder discharged with the muzzle of the guns depressed. This hastened some to the surface. There were several sticks of dynamite discharged under the water which killed a vast number of fish and brought to the surface many bodies. After several days the remains became very bloated and the stench was terrible. It was difficult to get policemen to do the work. The coffins had to be extra large. We fastened wire netting to two long pols which was placed underneath the bodies and the poles attached to each side of the boat and brought to the island in this way. There was many cases where the drowned mother had her little one clasped in her arms.
A prominent east side poultry butcher was permitted to come to the island to look for the remains of his wife. He was there for several days. I feared he was becoming insane. One morning I received a phone message from Whitestone, Long Island, requesting that a boat be sent for the body of a woman. The boat was sent and when it returned with the body there was with it a little feeble fisherman who had found the remains and refused to permit it out of his sight until it was placed in my charge. There were several thousand dollars worth of diamonds in sight. It was the wholesale poultry dealer’s wife and the last body found. He took the little fisherman in his arms and said, “If you will permit me I will furnish you with easy employment and care for your and your family while you life.” And the last I heard which was several years after he was fulfilling his agreement. There were one thousand six bodies and a little boys foot recovered. There were heartrending scenes at the 26th Street dock where most of the remains were identified and claimed but here were a large number who were not identified due to their being in such a condition that they could not be or that the entire family were wiped out. These were buried in one grave. I had my office in a room in a small building at the dock. In the adjoining room the telephone was located. The day the wreck was pumped out and raised by Merrit Wrecking Company, a reporter for one of the city papers called up his office and stated that it was reported that there was the mangled remains of many of the victims found in the paddle wheels. I went into the room and said to him “Before you hang up I wish to talk with your city editor.” He handed me the phone. I advised the editor not to publish the statement relative to the mangled bodies as there were none in the wheels or elsewhere about the wreck. I also said to him, “If you have a man down there that can tell the truth send him up, this man goes over on the next boat.” This request was complied with and we had no further trouble. Any reporter who would wish to add to the horrors of this melancholy disaster would have a morbid mind. All things must have an end and on the 26th we towed the hull of the wreck down to the Atlantic Basic, Brooklyn. Her engines were taken out later and she was made over into a coal carrying barge.
In every disaster there must be a scapegoat. In this case it was one Rosenberg, an inspector of steamboats who was a political appointee and knew little or nothing about craft of any kind. As a matter of fact, the boat was in first class condition except her life preservers which had been painted over several times and ceased to be buoyant. The U.S. District Attorney selected four of those drowned who had life preservers on and charged Rosenberg with manslaughter having caused the death of four individuals. He was tried twice and the jury disagreed at both trials. On his third trial, I was summoned as a witness at my home in Waverly having been retired. When I arrived at court a recess was taken and the district attorney informed me that I was to testify that the four deaths were caused by the defective life preservers. I said, “You can not prove that by me!” He was very angry. I said, “If each one of the victims had on the best life saving devices every made, they may have been pulled under and drowned by those clinging on to them. If you convict this man I will supply his counsel with evidence to obtain a new trial and on that trial to acquit him. Charge him with the crime he is guilty of, failing to properly inspect the Slocum and I will supply you with all the evidence needed.” Rosenberg was acquitted.
Captain Van Schaik was tried on the same charge and convicted his case appealed and higher courts sustained his conviction. There was never a greater injustice done. He should have received a medal from Congress for bravery. He had been in command of excursion boats out of New York for nearly forty years and never lost a life.
The Sunday following the disaster, I took the police boat “Patrol” which was rated for speed the same as the Slocum when the tide was running the same as it was at the time of the disaster with the pilot of the Slocum at the wheel and went over the course. Eighteen minutes from the time Captain Van Schaik was notified the boat was on fire we were at the place where the Slocum was run ashore. I had a number of the best pilots aboard and all agreed that the Captain had done the best possible as bad as it was. The sound steamer Sewanka, many years before caught fire at nearly the same place and was run ashore and nearly all on board drowned, about fifty.
The only crime Captain Van Schaik was guilty of was failing to fire drill his crew which was not a very difficult task. A list of names of the crew should have been posted up with the duty of each placed opposite his name and then from time to time sound the fire gong and see that each man hastened to the place assigned to him. The crew of the boat was of miserable material, poorly paid, overworked, only the most dissolute sought the job and remained only until the first pay day. Captain Van Schaik who was along in years, married the young nurse who attended him soon after coming from the hospital. After the courts decided against him on his appeal, he commenced serving his ten years and had served over a year when I wrote a careful and explicit history of the case and sent it to President Roosevelt emphasizing the great injustice that had been done. I received a prompt reply stating that the case would be taken up by the Board of Pardons.Back to top
Article from Brooklyn Daily Eagle from the 26th of June 1904 states that Inspector Albertson was on scene "yesterday afternoon." This dates many of the photos attached to this topic as being from 25 June 1904.
The article was transcribed by Mimi Stevens.