A bureaucrat blunders, and hundreds die.
Now that no one is left who witnessed the event and its aftermath, the case of the steamboat General Slocum has become a footnote in New York history. Here, O’Donnell (History/Holy Cross College) restores it to memory by finding themes that could just as well come from today’s front page: official misdeeds meet ordinary carelessness, and disaster ensues. In the case of the General Slocum, this played out so: a marvel of its time on being commissioned in 1891, the ship had been dwarfed by other oceangoing vessels and become a second-tier vehicle only a decade later. In an apparent effort to save money, no one had thought to maintain its life preservers, something that the safety inspector, only five months on the job, had failed to notice; had he handled one of them, O’Donnell writes, the inspector “surely would have noticed that the once-solid chunks of cork in them had been reduced to useless dust, with the buoyancy of dirt.” Fire of unknown origin swept the ship shortly after a crowd of mostly German, mostly church-affiliated travelers had boarded it for a leisurely excursion from Manhattan to Long Island; within a few minutes on June 15, 1904, lacking any means of saving themselves, 1,021 had died. It was, O’Donnell writes, the worst tragedy in New York history up until the events of September 11, 2001. O’Donnell follows the story through the official inquest, which scapegoated the blameless captain, and into the years of WWI, which “eradicated sympathy for anything German, including the innocent victims of the General Slocum fire.”
Strong material met with solid storytelling: sure to be of wide interest to American- and transportation-history buffs.