The General Slocum, owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company, was a sidewheel passenger ship that took harbor excursions around New York city. The General Slocum, captained by Captain William H. Van Schaick, employed 21 crew members to look after as many as 4,700 passengers.
On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the ship had been chartered for $350 by the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the German district Little Germany, Manhattan. Over 1,300 passengers, mostly women and children, boarded the General Slocum.
Eyewitness reports say the ship fire started in several areas, perhaps the work of an arsonist. One location was a paint locker filled with flammable liquids and another was a cabin filled with gasoline.
The ship did not hold fire drills by their crew, or with their passengers. This day, most of those aboard were women and children who could not swim. They relied heavily on the life jackets, and that was a mistake.
When the captain finally realized his ship ablaze, instead of stopping at several opportunities, he continued his course. Van Schaick would say at trial he was trying to use the wind to blow out the flames, when instead it fanned the flames, and accelerated the growth of the fire.
The life jackets, were useless, purchased from the Nonpareil Cork Works company were defective, second-grade products. They had been filled with granulated cork, instead of large, solid core pieces, one on each side, and brought up to proper weight by the inclusion of iron bars inside the jackets. The ship's dry-rotted fire hoses fell apart when the crew attempted to use them to put out the fire.
Only 321 passengers survived, and only two crew members died. Van Schaick immediately fled the ship on a nearby tug, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. As a result of his negligence, 1,019 passengers died, along with two of his crew.
Seven 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.
Van Schaick was found guilty on one of three charges: criminal negligence, failing to maintain proper fire drills and fire extinguishers.
The jury could not reach a verdict on the other two counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He served only three years in Sing Sing and was pardoned by President Taft.
The neighborhood of Little Germany declined following the disaster, with so many women and children having died, it left many of the men in the community in emotional disrepair.