On Wednesday, June 15, 1904 the ship was chartered for $350 by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district of Manhattan. Over 1,400 passengers, mostly women and children, boarded the Slocum, which was to sail up the East River and then eastward across the Long Island Sound to Locust Grove, a picnic site in Eatons Neck, Long Island.
Around 9:30 a.m. the ship began its doomed trip. As it was passing East 90th Street, a fire started in the Lamp Room in the forward section, possibly caused by a discarded cigarette or match. It was fueled by the straw, oily rags, and lamp oil strewn around the room. The first notice of a fire was at 10:00 a.m.; eyewitnesses claimed the initial blaze began in various locations, including a paint locker filled with flammable liquids and a cabin filled with gasoline. Captain Van Schaick was not notified until ten minutes after the fire was discovered. A 12-year-old boy had tried to warn them earlier but his warnings were not believed.
The owners of the ship made no efforts to maintain or replace the ship’s safety equipment. The fire hoses had been allowed to rot, and fell apart when the crew tried to put out the fire. The crew had were never trained properly on what to do in case of a fire, and the lifeboats were tied up and inaccessible. (Some claim they were wired and painted in place) Survivors reported that the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands. Desperate mothers placed life jackets on their children and tossed them into the water, only to watch in horror as their children sank instead of floating. Most of those on board were women and children who, like. most Americans could not swim during this period of time. Victims found that their heavy wool clothing absorbed water and weighed them down in the river. Many were killed when the floors of the boat collapsed; others were killed by the still-turning paddles as they tried to escape into the water or over the sides.
Captain Van Schaick decided to continue his course rather than run the ship aground or stop at a nearby landing. His actions fanned the flames and made them spread. Van Schaick later argued he was trying to avoid having the fire spread to riverside buildings and oil tanks. He lost sight in one eye because of the fire. Reports indicate that Captain Van Schaick deserted the Slocum as soon as it settled, jumping into a nearby tug, along with several crew. Some say his jacket was hardly rumpled, but other reports stated that he was seriously injured. He was hospitalized at Lebanon Hospital. As the General Slocum sank in shallow water at North Brother Island, just off the Bronx shore, an estimated 1,021 people had either burned to death or drowned. There were 321 survivors. Five of the 40 crew members died.
Eight people were indicted by a Federal grand jury after the disaster: the Captain; two inspectors; and the president, secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Captain Van Schaick was convicted. He was found guilty on one of three charges: criminal negligence, for failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other two counts of manslaughter. Shaik was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He spent three years and six months at Sing Sing prison before he was paroled. President Theodore Roosevelt declined to pardon Captain Van Schaick.
He was not released until the federal parole board under the William Howard Taft administration voted to free him on August 26, 1911. He was pardoned by President Taft on December 19, 1912. After his death in 1927, Schaick was buried in Oakwood Cemetery (Troy, New York). The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the ship, paid a relatively small fine despite evidence they might have falsified inspection records. The sunken remains of the General Slocum were recovered and converted into a barge, which sank in a storm in 1911. The disaster motivated federal and state regulation to improve the emergency equipment on passenger ships.
The victims were interred in cemeteries around New York, with fifty-eight identified victims buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.Several were buried at Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens (now Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery). An annual memorial ceremony is held at the historical marker. In 1906, a marble memorial fountain was erected at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies, with the inscription: “They are Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” On January 26, 2004, the last surviving passenger from the General Slocum, Adella Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), died at the age of 100. At the time of the disaster she was a six-month-old infant.