PS General Slocum, Black Tom Island and the RMS Lusitania

The Slocum: a floating death trap

An evening of research about the German community in New York for my magnum opus. Who now remembers the General Slocum? On 15 June 1904 the huge paddle steamer, a then familar sight for New Yorkers, caught fire and sank in the East River, just off the Bronx. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board perished. She had been chartered, as every year, by the German Lutheran Church in Manhattan’s Little Germany, for a church picnic. In one fell swoop Little Germany all but disappeared (the few surviving members of the community moved up town). It was the New York area’s worst disaster, in terms of loss of life, until 9/11. Similarly, who now remembers the 30 July 1916 Black Tom explosion when, in an act of sabotage carried out by German agents, roughly one kiloton of ammunition waiting to be shipped to the Allies blew up, the equivalent of an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, causing property damage estimated at $20 million? The explosion has been described as the worst terrorist attack on New York prior to 9/11. Lastly, the RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German torpedo off the Irish coast on 7 May 1915, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard. Despite popular belief to the contrary, the disaster did not encourage the US into the war – that came two years later. But why did the ship sink in 18 minutes only? What was that mysterious second explosion? Was the ship secretly carrying explosives? Why did the Royal Navy depth charge the wreck in the 1950s? Episodes like Black Tom and the Lusitania demonstrated just how deeply American industry was involved in the Allied war effort. Combined with pro-British and anti-German propaganda, they also convinced many German New Yorkers to anglicize their names and play down their origins. It’s all history now, but only just: Germany’s final compensatory payment to America for the Black Tom damage was made in 1979; the last General Slocum survivor died on 26 January 2004; and the last Lusitania survivor died on 11 January of this year.

2 Comments

  1. Hugo Kijne

    01/09/2011 at 16:58

    Since Germany paid repairs I’m assuming it was proven that the Black Tom was indeed a German act of sabotage? Living very close to the location of the explosion (Jersey City, NJ), where some people still talk about it, I hear different stories, including one that it was a simple accident without German involvement, and in the post WWI repair arrangements proof may not necesarily have been required.

  2. Martin

    01/09/2011 at 18:01

    I do love a good conspiracy theory, Hugo! It could well have been victors’ justice: though it was in 1939 that the German-American mixed claims commission decided that Imperial Germany had been responsible, agreement on the sum to be reimbursed wasn’t reached until1953. Two workers were initially arrested because they were using smudge pots to keep the mosquitoes away, but it pretty soon became clear that some sort of sabotage was involved (there were a series of small fires along the pier). A Slovak immigrant implicated German agents, but the Directorate of Naval Intelligence later found other potnetial links (Irish, Indian, Communist – inevitably)…

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