‘Heart-rending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing.’ Thus did James Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, describe the wreck of the General Slocum which happened on this day 110 years ago.
The steamer happened to meet disaster the day before ‘Bloomsday’ – June 16, 1904, on which all the action of the novel takes place, so the characters read about it in the newspaper. The ship had chugged up New York’s East River carrying parents and children on an outing organised by a German Lutheran church.
A bale of straw on board caught fire, and the crew of 22 were unable to put it out, partly because their rotten fire hoses burst. As the flames were fanned by the ship’s motion, the crew attempted to launch lifeboats, but these were tied down and the life jackets were no good either.
By the time the ship beached at North Brother Island she was burning from end to end, and many of her passengers had drowned as they had tried to escape by jumping into the waters. Altogether, 1,021 people perished, making it the city’s worst disaster apart from 9/11. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.