Revisiting a personal connection to New York's deadliest maritime tragedy

I was watching an episode of Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel last week - the description had caught my eye, about a museum dedicated to the Mothman mystery in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I got distracted, missed that whole segment, and just happened to leave the show on. The next segment was a visit to the New York Historical Society, where a tiny pair of girls' shoes, over 100 years old, were on display, a remnant of a tragedy that was the worst loss of life in New York until the terrorist attacks on 9/11. My husband was intrigued and tried to guess what it could be, but I knew instantly.

"It's the General Slocum steamboat disaster," I told him, without hesitation. Which is exactly what it was. I could have written the segment - how on June 15, 1904, a steamboat full of more than 1,300 German immigrants and German-Americans from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens going on an annual church picnic outing - meaning it was mostly women and children - caught fire in the East River; how most of the people on board couldn't swim; how when they donned the life vests and jumped into the river most of them sank because the vests had rotted and were full of nothing more than cork powder; how the captain of the boat tried to save everyone by sailing full-steam toward an island in the middle of the river but instead only fanned the flames; how more than 1,000 of those on board were killed. Though I could've written it, the show had a lot of pictures and images of the ship, before and after, that I had never seen. It was heartbreaking.

A lot of people have never heard of this disaster, but I know it well. It hurts my heart to read about it because my 3rd great-grandmother's sister was on the ship, and she was one of those who died. Hulda Lindemann lived in Brooklyn and wasn't a member of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, which sponsored the trip, but the family she worked for in the city did belong to the church. The father didn't go on the picnic - Hulda joined the mother and the son for what was supposed to be a day of fun. All three of them died.

I think it was meant to be that while I turned on the show for one reason, that I ended up watching it for another. As a genealogist, I trace family lines, but some family lines just end, and some of them end rather abruptly. While we are all the continuation of somebody's line, and we read about and remember and honor those who come before us, I like to remember those in our families who are the ends of their lines - the aunts and uncles who never married or had any children, the babies and young children who never grew into adulthood - they don't have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren to visit their graves, but we can.

You can read an earlier account of mine on Hulda Lindemann and the General Slocum steamboat disaster here.