June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst single-day disaster to befall New York City prior to September 11, 2001; and 2) the event affected American culture, including popular culture, such as my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.
I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:
In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.
The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx. Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface** or stock Irish characterizations.
Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.
The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.
The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.
What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.
The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them! (In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”. And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.