“Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible! Terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending, horrifying scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing!”
- From James Joyce’s novel Ulysses
How the fire started is not exactly clear. That Sunday morning, August 12, 1935 around 7:00, Hubert S. Dunham, a household employee of Muhlenberg College president John A.W. Haas and his wife began his day as he usually did at the couple’s Paradise Falls cabin (located about 14 miles above Stroudsburg, a summer colony run by the Lutheran Association), lighting a fire in the kitchen where his wife Sophie would soon be preparing breakfast for the couple and their recent guest, Haas’ 67 year old sister Emma Tetamore.
Dunham then went off to do some outdoor chores. Opening the kitchen door minutes later, Sophie Dunham was greeted by fire and smoke. She began to scream, arousing the Haas's and their guest. Asleep on the first floor they ran for the door dressed only in their nightshirts. Tetamore was last. Mrs. Haas recalled later making a remark to Tetamore as they left the cabin but not getting a reply. Finally turning around outside, she was horrified to see that her husband’s sister was no longer behind her. It was later speculated that she had run back to get something. The next thing the couple knew, they heard Tetamore’s terrified screams coming from the second-floor bathroom, her face pressed against the window glass. Others came rushing and tried to get to her, but the heat was too intense. Much later they removed Tetamore’s charred body from the burning cabin.
The next day newspapers carried the grim news. They also noted that thirty or so years before, Tetamore had barely survived another fire. On June 15, 1904 she had, along with her brother, the Rev. George Haas, and his wife and family, boarded the General Slocum, a side wheeled steamer, for a Sunday School picnic excursion in New York that turned out to be one of the worst ship fires in the nation’s history, causing over a thousand deaths, including an estimated 500 to 700 children. Although Rev. Haas was badly burned, he survived. His wife and daughter did not. Sister Emma, picked up by a tugboat but badly burned, spent a year in a New York hospital undergoing skin graft operations.
The details of that tragedy were in the public’s mind when the film Manhattan Melodrama, starting Myrna Loy and William Powell (apparently taking a break from the Thin Man series), began with a vivid re-enactment with the best special effects of the day, of the Slocum fire. It did manage to make the folks on the ship Irish instead of Germans but that was Hollywood.
For John Haas, ordinarily a stoic man not given to displays of emotion or questioning God’s will, memories of the Slocum fire may have flooded back after the fire of 1935. It was June 22, 1904, days after the Slocum tragedy, that he was inaugurated president of Muhlenberg and now, on the eve of his departure from the college into retirement he was to see his sister burned to death in a tragic fire. Perhaps his own death in 1937 was hastened by it all.
Haas’ family had come to America as German immigrants in the 1840s and settled in Philadelphia. Their father was a music teacher. George decided on the ministry and his brother John followed in his footsteps. Emma studied music and became a church organist. George was hired right out of seminary as assistant pastor to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in New York. It was the first major church in America’s largest German community on the city’s East Side known as Kleindeutschland or Little Germany.
But by the dawn of the 20th century it was beginning to lose its German character. “Simply put,” writes Edward T. O’Donnell, author of the classic study of the General Slocum tragedy, Ship Ablaze, “despite the emotional and cultural ties people had to Little Germany and St. Mark’s, the lure of a better life uptown or in Brooklyn, one with steam heat and elevators, not to mention good schools and safer and cleaner streets and shortened commutes, beckoned ceaselessly.”
Haas was aware of all this and that is at least part of the reason that he encouraged the Sunday School movement at St. Mark’s. Each year he had encouraged at the end of the Sunday School season an event to award both pupils and parents. The 1904 event was the 17th that the school had undertaken. It was to be to a picnic out to a Long Island picnic ground called Locust Grove. The excursion program was thick with advertising. Even a “commodious steamer” called the General Slocum had been chartered at the sum of $350 to carry the picnickers to their destination.
From a distance the General Slocum, built in 1891, looked impressive. It was long and sleek and had side wheels that bore the ship’s name, for a Civil War general and New York Congressman, in wonderfully gilded letters. Unfortunately, it was what could not be seen that was the problem: firehoses that were worn out, full of holes and barely functional, life vests that were filled with sawdust that turned to stone when the hit the water, and a crew that never had a rescue or fire drill. It had recently passed a city inspection test, but who knows whose palms were greased on that one.
The ship began to gradually move out the East River headed north. It was probably in these first moments of the voyage that the fire began to smolder somewhere in the lower portions of the ship. It was just a little while later, after finishing his inspection of all three decks of the ship, that Rev. Haas began to smell something he could not believe he was smelling. According to O’Donnell he thought it might be food cooking somewhere. In fact, it was burning wood: the ship was on fire! And shortly after he was not the only one smelling the smoke and with that, all over the General Slocum panic set in.
“The fire aboard the Slocum was no ordinary situation of terror,” writes O’Donnell. “Unlike a theater fire, where the crowd at least knows that the safety lies just beyond the building’s walls, the fire aboard the Slocum presented an almost unthinkable scenario-a fire from which there was virtually no escape. They were surrounded by water, something the passengers considered more terrifying than fire-even with life preservers strapped on.” At a time when most people, including many sailors, did not know how to swim, the possibility of jumping in the water was not even considered. Some just stood there and watched as the flames got closer as if transfixed by them. One 14-year old boy found a young girl in the state, picked her up and managed to throw into a tugboat that traveled to the rescue. But many others were not so lucky.
The captain tried speeding the ship to shore but all that seemed to do was encourage the flames. Women wearing long skirts when they could stand it no longer jumped in the river. Some dressed in the heavy clothing of the time never returned to the surface. Others along with men and children were pulled toward the ship’s still turning side-wheel, the Slocum having turned on its side and was pulling them down underneath it.
Haas tried to block the fire by closing side by side doors that separated the cabin from the flames. But they were super-hot and burning to the touch. Finally, according to several witnesses, after trying with all his might and suffering from burns on his hands, he could not move them. So, he ended up joining the others while trying to find his wife and daughter. Haas found them at the stern railing of the ship along with the majority of the panicked passengers clawing on top of each other to get away from the flames. Finally, the captain managed to partially beach the Slocum. But few could see it and a mob rushing for the water swept over Haas and his family and “when I reached the surface a second time” he told others, “my wife and child were gone.”
He was to see his wife’s body later after it had been recovered. His daughter’s remains were never found. Haas was later pulled out of the water, burned and shaken into a tugboat. He was unconscious when taken on the beach and medical personnel working desperately revived him. Haas’s first words were to ask the fate of his wife and daughter. No one could tell him.
Headlines about the Slocum disaster could be found in newspapers around the world. James Joyce in his novel Ulysses, which largely takes place on June 16, 1904, even included a character commenting on it. The salvaged remains of the Slocum reconstituted as a barge named Maryland sank in 1911 during a storm carrying a load of coal on the North Atlantic off Sea Isle City, New Jersey. All four crew members were rescued.
Until 9/11, with a death toll of 1,021 the General Slocum ship fire was the worst disaster in New York in terms of lives lost. Although his doctors warned him against it, Rev. Haas attended the funeral of his wife and those of others. “She was a devoted wife,” he told his doctors, “and though it kills me, I shall play her this last tribute.” His brother John arrived from Allentown for the funeral. Shortly before the service word came that the body of his wife’s sister Sophia Tetamore had been discovered in the morgue and the two were buried on the same day. Newspaper photographers gathered around as Haas, leaning on his son and brother, took him to the carriage to the cemetery.
The shock was a severe blow to the German community, and many relocated to other parts of New York to make way for different immigrant groups. In 1940 St Mark’s became a synagogue. In 1918 Rev. George Haas, who had remarried, also left the area and was a professor of German at the Wagner Memorial Lutheran College on Staten Island. He died there on September 29, 1927 with his brother John at his bedside. Sister Emma Tetamore, a widow, was living with her brother’s widow on Staten Island when she made her trip in 1935 to Paradise Falls.