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September 5th, 2003, 03:15 AM
September 5, 2003


A Refresher on Tragedies and Resilience


YES, there was Sept. 11, but New York has endured many disasters over the centuries, and prevailed. Not much of an original thought, perhaps, but it may be worth bearing in mind as we brace for the second anniversary of the terrorist attack.

The painful long ago seems to be upon us with a vengeance. One by one, some of our worst catastrophes are materializing in book form, vexing specters in a city cursed and blessed with a short memory.

In June, Broadway Books published Edward T. O'Donnell's "Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum," retelling the deadliest event in New York history before 9/11. More than 1,000 people, most of them women and children, died in 1904 when the Slocum, an ill-equipped excursion steamer, caught fire in the waters of Hell Gate.

This month, from Atlantic Monthly Press, we have "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America," David Von Drehle's study of the 1911 blaze that killed 146 people at a shirtwaist factory in Greenwich Village. New York's heart-of-darkness blackout, the one in 1977, gets a new look in a book called simply "Blackout," by James Goodman, scheduled for December by North Point Press.

Barnet Schecter, a New York writer, is midway through "The Devil's Own Work: New York City's Civil War Draft Riots" (Walker & Company), about the ruinous disorders in 1863 that engulfed much of the city and left at least 105 people dead. For Oxford University Press, Beverly Gage, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, is finishing "The Wall Street Explosion: Capitalism, Terrorism and the 1920 Bombing of New York." That bombing in the financial district, 83 years ago on Sept. 16, killed at least 39 people and injured hundreds.

For all one knows, other disaster histories are also in the pipeline. There is certainly no shortage of possible tales in New York.

A catastrophic fire in 1776 burned down 493 houses, or more than one-third of the city. Another in 1835 destroyed 674 buildings; the glow in the sky could be seen as far away as Philadelphia, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace wrote in "Gotham," their sweeping history of New York before the 20th century. Why not re-examine the city's worst subway wreck, the 1918 Malbone Street crash in Brooklyn, which killed, by most accounts, 97 people? The litany of horror is long.

It is tempting to see the delving into old misery as a product of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. But these books were under way before 9/11. That they are reaching fruition now, Mr. Wallace said, is not "a clue to the zeitgeist."

All the same, he said, there may be "some greater sensitivity to disasters past." Others have no doubt about that. Epic fires and historic storms, perfect or otherwise, have filled many pages in the last few years. Add to that a general interest in old New York that has been growing, in Mr. O'Donnell's view, for a decade. "With New York becoming a much more livable and vibrant place," he said, "people began to discover that it had a great history, the Ric Burns documentary being a prime example."

Besides, tragedy can mean opportunity for a historian because the collective memory about cataclysms is often short. How many New Yorkers know much, if anything, about the General Slocum or the 1920 Wall Street bombing or the 1863 riots?

EVEN if Sept. 11 did not set these book projects in motion, it had an effect. Writing as she was about an act of terror during the Red Scare that followed World War I, Ms. Gage found 9/11 to be inescapable. Mr. O'Donnell said "it reshaped how I wrote" about the families that lost loved ones on the Slocum.

Mr. Von Drehle, the Triangle fire chronicler, said the trade center attack stopped him cold for a month. His reaction was, "Who's going to want to read about 146 people dying in a 10-story building when we had, at the time we thought, 6,000 people dying in a 200-story building?"

But one calamity does not negate another. He forged ahead.

A great thing about the past is that it can help us survive the present. "There's a certain comfort to it," Ms. Gage said. "There were other times when people thought, `This is the end of everything,' and as we know, it wasn't."

After each disaster, Mr. Schecter said, "New York has surged to greater heights" a point endorsed by Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society.

"We'll get through this one," he said. "Someday, the city will emerge stronger. It's just hard to see that sometimes when you're going through it."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

September 17th, 2003, 09:16 AM
September 17, 2003

After 1920 Blast, the Opposite of 'Never Forget'


At noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb exploded in front of the J.P. Morgan & Company bank headquarters on Wall Street.

On the block where it happened, there were no "we will never forget" speeches, no candles or bronze plaques bolted to the wall that has never been repaired. All that was there yesterday was the noontime crowd, swirling by with lunch to be gulped, errands to be run and an afternoon of work waiting to be done. In other words, no one was paying much attention.

That was pretty much what the noontime crowd was doing on Sept. 16, 1920 83 years ago yesterday when a bomb exploded there. And that was why, after the dead had been taken to the morgue and the injured to hospitals on that Thursday afternoon, there were so many descriptions of the bomb-laden cart that had been parked beneath a window of the J. P. Morgan & Company bank headquarters at 23 Wall Street.

In the aftermath, there were questions: What had the horse looked like? What had been painted on the cart? Some witnesses recalled the letters "D," "N" and "T," others the word "dynamite," others the word "DuPont." And what color was the smoke, anyway? Black, from dynamite? Yellow, from nitrogylcerine? Blue, from some other explosive? Among witnesses who survived the devastating hail of metal and glass, there was no consensus.

But the damage was clear. The fortresslike facade of the Morgan building was pocked with craters that remain deep enough to sink a palm into. The columns of what is now Federal Hall, across the street, were blackened. More than 30 people were killed and several hundred wounded, and the damage exceeded $2 million more than $18.4 million in 2003 dollars.

"The number of victims, large though it was, cannot convey the extent of the inferno produced by the explosion, the worst of its kind in American history," Paul Avrich, a professor of history at Queens College, wrote in reviewing the case more than a decade ago.

The investigators sniffing for clues long ago went from being detectives to historians. The police never charged anyone in the bombing, and it is a mostly forgotten moment in New York City history.

"Nobody remembers," said Beverly Gage, whose book "The Wall Street Explosion: Capitalism, Terrorism and the 1920 Bombing of New York," is to be published next year by Oxford University Press.

One reason is the speed with which the attack went from rating a banner headline to barely rating a footnote. "Wall Street's Wall Street," said Meg Ventrudo, the assistant director of the Museum of American Financial History. "Wall Street is more concerned with tomorrow's trades than yesterday's news."

And as Ms. Gage noted, "The Morgan bank from the first was rather self-conscious about wanting to get the whole thing over with and forgotten because it wasn't terribly good for business."

Within a few years, the bombing was hardly talked about on the street. "There was an article in 1925 or 1926 that I found in The Wall Street Journal, a reporter going down to see what's going on on the anniversary," Ms. Gage said. "People kind of remembered, but he found stenographers standing around who didn't recall the event."

So, like the passers-by yesterday, they did not remember what Ms. Gage described as the silence that followed the explosion two full seconds of quiet just around the corner from the noise of the New York Stock Exchange. By some accounts, the bells at Trinity Church were still tolling 12 o'clock when the bomb went off. A moment later, the shower of glass began chunks of glass from windows that had been knocked out by the force of the explosion or by shrapnel hurled in all directions. Some historians speculate that the ramshackle wagon left at the curb was loaded with dynamite and cast-iron springs, or perhaps steel window-casings.

The authorities were on the case until the late 1930's. Ms. Gage said one theory was that it was an accident the cart part of a thriving underground trade in dynamite during the building boom that followed World War I. "There were interviews saying, `You always see carts of explosives going through this neighborhood and I always think, how dangerous,' " she explained.

But the police believed the bomb had been set by Italian anarchists or Communists. In "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background" (Princeton University Press, 1991), Professor Avrich of Queens College argued that the cart had been rigged with explosives and a timer and ridden to its parking place by an angry anarchist named Mario Buda. He was upset, Professor Avrich wrote, by the indictment of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a shoe-factory robbery in Massachusetts in which two people were killed.

If Buda was indeed lashing out at American capitalism, he missed the most famous of its figures. As Professor Avrich noted, J. P. Morgan Jr. was traveling in Europe. The principal victims were messengers and clerks. Buda eventually sailed for Italy, where he died in 1963. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927.

Yesterday's anniversary went unnoticed across from the Morgan building itself now empty in what was a Treasury Department building in 1920 and is now a gym. It went unnoticed in a building up the block that bears Donald J. Trump's last name in big, shiny letters. It went unnoticed by people talking on their cellphones, and by a man selling pictures of the World Trade Center and playing cards picturing Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders from a table on the sidewalk.

It would have gone unnoticed by four firefighters who had been dispatched to the building next door, until a reporter told them the story.

Lt. Niels Jorgenson, 35, was clearly moved. "People of my generation would never know the significance of what took place because there's nothing to memorialize the event," he said, "and that's a shame."

Then two lawyers, Kipp C. Leland and Hewson Chen, arrived. Mr. Leland had read about the bombing on the Web, and wanted Mr. Chen to see the damage. "Morgan's on the record as saying they'll never repair the damage," Mr. Leland said.

Mr. Chen said: "It looks like acid rain damage. The average Joe walking by will be like, `What a ratty building.' "

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

September 17th, 2003, 10:20 AM
IMO, tragedies have been treated differently ever since the holocaust. It was the first thing to have a "we will never forget" type of response.

Monuments were made to great battles and tragedies before then but they never tried to keep the event "alive" in the same way as has happened since the holocaust.

June 8th, 2004, 07:13 AM
June 8, 2004

A 100-Year-Old Horror, Through 9/11 Eyes


Sixty-one of the unidentified victims of the General Slocum's fiery sinking rest at a monument at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.

An annual ceremony at the cemetery marks the June 1904 disaster, which killed more than a thousand.

And so it is nearly time to mark the centennial of the horror that New Yorkers were forced to remember again.

The fiery sinking of the paddle-wheel steamboat General Slocum was the city's deadliest disaster before the destruction of the World Trade Center. More than a thousand innocents - mostly German immigrant women and their children, on a picnic excursion - perished in the East River calamity on June 15, 1904.

"For many years, this was the tragedy that we forgot,'' said Kathleen Hulser, public historian of the New-York Historical Society. "But faded memories can be renewed, and this one was, after the greater disaster of Sept. 11.''

Increasingly, scholars and Slocum descendants are viewing the 1904 tragedy not only through the prism of the attacks on the trade center, but also as a template for the arc of public mourning, private grief and painful recovery that New Yorkers have continued to negotiate in the years after Sept. 11, 2001.

The fire was possibly started by a carelessly tossed match, and quickly engulfed the Slocum, which headed up the East River through the perilous waters of Hell Gate, then sank at North Brother Island.

The flames took a terrible toll: few of the women and children had been taught to swim, and the majority of the passengers drowned, because of the Slocum's rotted life jackets and inoperable lifeboats.

"Nobody really knows how many people died because there was never a definitive count," said Ms. Hulser, curator of "The General Slocum and Little Germany," an exhibition opening at the Historical Society next Tuesday on the centennial. "It took forever to figure out who was missing, just as with 9/11."

One poignant photograph in the show captures the moment when the boatful of churchgoing folk left the Third Street pier on that warm Wednesday morning in glaring sunlight, overcrowding the General Slocum, a three-decked, white steamboat.

The generally accepted number of dead has been given as 1,021. But for the last five years, Karen Lamberton, whose great-uncle lost his wife and three daughters on the Slocum, has been exhaustively matching passenger lists with century-old coroner and address records and has come to the conclusion that about 1,300 people died.

The community buried its dead three days later, on "Black Saturday," when hundreds of hearses rolled through the Lower East Side, in the old Kleindeutschland, the Little Germany enclave.

For a while, the yearly marking of the Slocum deaths was a somber citywide ceremony. Then came the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 (which killed 146 people), the loss of 1,522 on the Titanic in 1912, and the numbing killed-and-missing lists of World War I. The Slocum was supplanted as a primary object of the city's mourning.

Some descendents of the families involved in the steamboat disaster watched helplessly, with a shock of recognition, during the televised unfolding of Sept. 11, 2001. "It was horrible to realize the impossible choices," Ms. Lamberton said. "In 1904, you could burn or drown, and at the World Trade Center you could burn or jump.''

Although the deliberateness of the terrorist attacks differed from the negligence that destroyed the Slocum, there are many other correspondences. "So many of the good and bad things associated with 9/11 had already happened with the Slocum disaster,'' said Frank Duffy, executive vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum of the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.

"For example, in both cases, you had not only heroic rescue efforts but also fraudulent claims for survivors' benefits.'' He sighed. "In 100 years human nature hasn't changed.''

Indeed, the heroism of the trade center rescuers was paralleled by the bravery of those who tried to save Slocum passengers. Though none among the rescue boat crews lost their lives, many suffered severe burns.

Because the paddle-wheeler was made of much-varnished flammable wood, "the disaster unfolded very rapidly, just as it did at the trade center," Ms. Hulser said. The fire was fueled by wind as the captain made a dash for the shore, "and many perished when the decks pancaked down on them, a parallel to the trade center collapse."

And just as frantic families hunted for the trade center missing, in 1904, she said, "there were long lines all night as people filed by the opened coffins to identify the victims.''

The Slocum, too, left many unidentified victims. Sixty-one of them lie under granite at a monument at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. It was in its day the equivalent of the memorial planned at ground zero.

Just as the trade center losses have provoked a reconsideration of disaster response and skyscraper construction, the sinking of the Slocum put maritime safety on the public agenda.

Strangely, there is even a link between ground zero and the former St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church on East Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues. Daniel Libeskind, architect of the ground zero master plan, is the architect who will remodel that building - now the Community Synagogue Center - to accommodate a Yiddish theater troupe.

This Saturday, the Maritime Industry Museum will take a tour boat to retrace the Slocum's voyage and lay a wreath on the water. And it has organized a ceremony at 9 a.m. Sunday at the synagogue for the unveiling of a Slocum plaque, to be followed by a procession to the nearby Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park.

"It was a wound in the community, and continues to be part of people's memories,'' said Kenneth Leib, president of the General Slocum Memorial Association, which conducts a yearly commemoration at the Lutheran cemetery in Middle Village. It is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m.

The disaster helped accelerate the flight of Germans from the Lower East Side to Yorkville and other neighborhoods, although there were other motivations as well. "The very dense old housing on the Lower East Side was no longer attractive to upwardly mobile Germans,'' said Dr. John Logan, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany.

Soon there was a dramatic diaspora from the city as well. Census data shows that in 1900, four years before the tragedy, there were 828,758 German immigrants and their children in New York City, or 23 percent of the city's population. But by the year 2000, there were but 255,536 New Yorkers claiming German extraction, 3 percent of the city's population.

Trauma from the disaster played out through the generations in many ways.

Catherine Connelly, the next-to-last survivor who died in 2002 at the age of 109, said in a 1989 interview that "I was never on a boat before.'' She never set foot on one again.

In some homes, the Slocum agony became a family secret. "I only learned about our family connection to the Slocum six years ago," said Ms. Lamberton, a 57-year-old technical writer from Suffern, N.Y.

She was helping to clean out the apartment of an aunt who had died. To her astonishment, she learned that her grandfather, Conrad Muth, would have been on the Slocum if he didn't have to work that day. Then she discovered that his brother John had escaped the burning ship with his 2-year-old son, though John's wife, Katie, and three daughters perished.

"I was shocked," Ms. Lamberton recalled. "But my story is typical of the descendents. There seem to be two courses families followed. Most typically, they never talked about it at all."

"Of course, the other side of the coin," she added, "is that some families made the tale of the Slocum a litany every week at Sunday dinner.''

The toll of the Slocum and the effects of two world wars on the German community are evoked in the show at the Historical Society. Among the items on display there is a dress worn by Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon, as a 7-month-old, at the unveiling of the Queens monument. Mrs. Wotherspoon, who lost six family members, was the youngest known Slocum survivor. She became the oldest when she died on Jan. 26 at age 100. The dead included her two sisters, Anna, 3, and Helen, 6.

Anna's tiny brown leather shoes are in the exhibition.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company