The boat that sank a neighborhood: the tragedy of the SS General Slocum disaster.

One hundred and fourteen years ago today, on June 15, 1904, virtually the entire congregation of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark, in the East Village of New York City, put on their best clothes and headed out for a church picnic. This was an annual event that was the highlight of the social year for the church’s parishioners, almost all of whom were German-American immigrants living in the same neighborhood, called Little Germany. This day, however, would prove to be tragic for most of them. They boarded the General Slocum, a 235-foot paddle-wheel excursion steamer, to take them to their picnic ground. Over a thousand of them would not get off the boat alive.

Half an hour after the boat left its Lower East Side dock a 12-year-old cabin boy ran to the captain, reporting a fire had begun in a paint locker. The captain, Von Schaick, didn’t believe him. Then smoke started pouring out of portholes and passengers started smelling smoke and seeing flames. The old steamer, built of wood, was going up very quickly. Although he was very close to the shore, Von Schaick decided to maintain the ship’s course–he later said he was afraid of spreading the fire to shore. This was a terrible decision. Continuing full speed ahead simply fanned the flames and made them spread faster.

In minutes the General Slocum was a blazing funeral pyre. The lifeboats were useless: the crew had never drilled with them and some were even stuck in place by layers of paint over their pulleys. What few fire hoses there were had rotted away to nothing, and sprang leaks as soon as crew members tried to use them. Worst of all were the life preservers. Shoddily manufactured by a crooked contractor 13 years before, the ancient preservers were stuffed with inferior cork dust and weighted down with pieces of lead to bring them up to the regulation weight. Panicked passengers strapped life preservers onto their children and threw them into the water–only to see them pulled to the bottom of the East River by the lead weights. Almost no one aboard could swim; swimming for pleasure was not common in the early 1900s, and the heavy woolen clothes and leather shoes worn by most of the passengers made it impossible anyway. The General Slocum finally fell apart and sank off North Brother Island in the Bronx, putting out the fire, more or less, but 1,021 people were dead. The bodies washed up on shorelines all over the New York area for days.

Many of the bodies of the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum fire were found on New York City shorelines after the tragedy. Many were buried in Brooklyn.

The horror of the General Slocum disaster was not only that it was caused by gross negligence and dishonesty, although it was. This one event also had the effect of wiping the neighborhood of Little Germany off the map of New York City. With over 1,000 of its residents dead and the church that was the neighborhood’s lifeblood struck by this irreparable tragedy, Little Germany, which was already in decline before the disaster, quickly ceased to exist. German-Americans, disillusioned by the disaster, began to move out to other parts of the city, and other ethnic groups, particularly Jews, began to move in. In fact, what was the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark is today a Jewish synagogue. The neighborhood that was Little Germany is as vibrant as it ever was today, but its German character is largely gone, and was largely decimated on this one single day.

June 15, 1904 was one of the blackest days in the history of New York City. It was the largest one-day loss of life in the city’s history until the terrible events of September 11, 2001. The General Slocum itself was salvaged and turned into a barge, which again sank seven years later. The final survivor of the disaster, Adella Wotherspoon, died at the age of 100 in 2004.

The General Slocum disaster, incidentally, is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place the following day, June 16, 1904.

All images in this article are believed to be in the public domain.

The little spaceship that could: the epic odyssey of Pioneer 10.

Most people have heard of the Voyager space probes–the small unmanned spacecraft that were launched in the late 1970s on twin missions to explore the outer planets of the solar system. In addition to being immortalized in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the origin of the powerful but misunderstood entity known as “V’Ger,” these spacecraft have their own Twitter handle. But few people remember that the Voyagers weren’t the first probes sent on this sort of mission; a few years earlier a little ship called Pioneer 10 was the very first one to blaze the trail.

The Pioneer probe was quite simple. Basically a fiberglass box containing cameras, magnetometers and radio transmitters, the whole thing weighed only 500 pounds. That’s not a lot to bring on a trip to Jupiter. The craft, designed by defense and NASA contractor TRW, was launched on March 2, 1972. The total cost to build Pioneer 10 and its sister ship, Pioneer 11, was $380 million.

This spunky little ship left Earth’s orbit in a big hurry. Traveling at over 32,000 miles per hour, it became the first man-made object to traverse the asteroid belt. Its main mission was to explore Jupiter, the gas giant planet it reached in November 1973. It took a bunch of pictures and made some interesting discoveries, but I’m more interested in what happened after the Jupiter mission was over. After all, what do you do with a space probe that’s past its prime? By definition you just have to kind of leave it alone.

An image of the gas planet Jupiter, taken by Pioneer 10 in 1973.

Pioneer 10 never stopped moving. Due to the law of inertia, it will continue on its trajectory until it encounters another object–and space is pretty empty. Thirty-five years ago yesterday, on June 13, 1983, Pioneer 10 crossed the orbit of Neptune, the outer planet of our solar system. (Remember, Pluto was “demoted” as an official planet in 2006, putting Neptune back on top). In doing so it became the first man-made object to reach interplanetary space. On March 31, 1997, a quarter century after its launch, Pioneer’s mission was officially closed.

Still, even after it left the solar system, NASA was able to maintain contact with Pioneer for quite a long time.  Even after the turn of the century the probe’s fading signal could still be picked up by the Deep Space Network. NASA would occasionally “call” when its antenna was aligned, just to see if it would “answer.” It did so for the last time on January 23, 2003. At that time the ship was 80 times the distance from Earth as the Earth is from the Sun. After that, Pioneer never answered. Another attempt to pick up its signal was made in March 2006–but it was unsuccessful. NASA thinks it’s still out there, but its power batteries have gone so low that the radio transmitter won’t work anymore.

Few voyages in the annals of human discovery rival the epic odyssey of Pioneer 10. Although no people were there to see it with their own eyes, this little bucket of bolts has extended humanity’s reach literally farther than anything before or since. And it’s ostensible mission–to gather information about Jupiter–was a total success. If $380 million sounds like a lot of money, consider how far Pioneer 10 has traveled and the amazing things it’s seen its lifetime–things that no human being will be able to see in person for decades, if not centuries. This machine has truly gone where no man has gone before, and where no man is likely to go for a very long time.

And it’s still out there. Somewhere in the far reaches of space, this little ship is still going. It’s so small and space is so big that probably no one will ever find it, but if you look up at the night sky in a certain place you might be looking right at it and never know it. Provided it’s not hit by a meteor or ground into powder by interstellar dust, Pioneer 10 will still be flying long after the civilization that build it ceases to exist. That’s a pretty profound thought.

All the images in this article are believed to be in the public domain.

Historic Photo: Paris in the “June Days” uprising, 1848.

I first saw this photo years ago when I was TA’ing for a European history class, and it fascinated me then and now. This interesting and ominous shot was taken on the Rue Saint-Maur in Paris on June 25, 1848, in the midst of what’s known as the “June Days” Uprising. The lines of junk you see blocking the streets are barricades that were hastily constructed by revolutionaries, mostly unemployed men seeking work, a few days earlier. The street is deserted and given the date my guess is that this was taken right after the uprising was put down by French Army soldiers. There are no bodies visible–they must have been cleared away before this Daguerreotype was taken–but the June Days was a very bloody affair, killing perhaps 10,000 people in three hellish days of savage urban rioting in the heart of Paris.

The June Days were part of a series of upheavals that seized France and other European countries during 1848. A previous “revolution” had already taken place earlier in the year, and the shaky new French government promised to establish job centers, called Warehouses, to employ men who were being squeezed by an economic downturn related to industrialization and the previous unrest. On June 23 the government closed the Workshops, and unemployed men, led by political radicals, took to the streets. The government sent out the army and the fighting shut down Paris for three days. The revolt was ultimately put down, but had some short-term effects of providing the impetus for a new constitution. Unfortunately that constitution allowed the accession of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, who ultimately became the dictator Napoleon III.

I think this shot is fascinating because there are so few actual photographs of urban European cities at this time, and also because it was taken in the midst of such a momentous event. The Revolutions of 1848 were part of the reason why Paris underwent an extensive urban renewal in the 1860s. The boulevards were broadened considerably precisely so that urban rioters couldn’t seek refuge in the narrow streets and overhanging buildings you see here. Environment, even an urban environment, does affect history–this photo is proof of it!

This photograph is in the public domain.

The anonymous face of resistance: the enduring mystery of “Tank Man.”

Chances are very good that you’ve seen the above photo before, possibly many times before. Taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, it’s one of the most iconic news photos of the entire 20th century. It was taken on June 5, 1989, 29 years ago tomorrow, the morning after the massacre of student and worker protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That itself was one of the most important events of the 20th century. That makes it all the more unusual, therefore, that the man at the center of this photo is completely unknown–no one has any idea who he is, now decades after the event.

I was surprised to discover, only a few months ago, that the identity of “Tank Man” is unknown and has been since 1989. I remember watching the news coverage of the Tiananmen Square event as it happened, and I’m certain I remember–incorrectly, it seems–hearing or reading that “Tank Man” was ultimately shot down by People’s Liberation Army soldiers or run over by the tanks that he stopped. However, that was not the case. The real story is a bit more complicated.

First of all, the name “Tiananmen Square massacre” (or, as the Chinese say, the Tiananmen Square incident) is a little misleading. Although the pro-democracy protesters who rallied by the thousands in the spring of 1989–sparked by demonstrations upon the death of Hu Yaobang–occupied Tiananmen Square for many weeks, most of the killings occurred outside of it, not inside. “Tank Man” was photographed on Chang’an Avenue which borders the square. On the morning of June 5, as People’s Liberation Army troops forcibly cleared demonstrators from the square, “Tank Man” confronted a column of tanks and stopped. The tank drivers were unwilling to run him over and tried to go around him. The “dance,” where the protester mirrored each attempted maneuver to block the column, lasted several minutes. At one point he actually got up on the lead tank and conversed with someone inside. No one knows what was said. When he got down, two men in blue shirts came out of the nearby crowd and whisked him away. The tanks went on their way. Whether the protester was arrested or executed is unknown. Also unknown is how many people died in the massacre. Low estimates put it at 300; high ones several thousand (I’ve even heard 7,000). The Chinese government is unwilling to discuss the incident.

The raw video by CNN of the “Tank Man” incident is even more dramatic than the still photo. There are fewer more stark examples of standing up for what you believe in.

A British newspaper claimed they identified the protester, but no one is sure where the supposed identification came from and certainly it was never corroborated. Many people think that the Chinese government does not know, and never did know, precisely who “Tank Man” was. The capital was in a state of chaos on the morning of June 5, 1989, with both mass arrests and mass killings rampant. He could have been arrested, but perhaps once he was processed no one could prove he was the guy who held up the tanks. As the “Tank Man” image generated interest mostly in the West, not so much within China, there may not have been an incentive to identify him. It’s at least possible that he’s still alive, and if so he would probably be afraid to come forward and identify himself.

A fascinating thing happened to me during my teaching career. At my university I taught a course in the winter term on the history of China. A large percentage, perhaps 80%, of my class consisted of international students visiting from China. Almost all of them were between 18 and 25. When I showed an image of the “Tank Man” photo and asked, “How many of you have never seen this picture before today?” the hands of about half the class went up. This isn’t surprising. What happened in Tiananmen Square 26 years ago this week is not publicized very well within China, and most modern students know little about it. It’s amazing just how malleable historical memory is, and how it changes over time.

I believe copyright law should recognize a doctrine of “constructive public domain” for images, such as that of Tank Man, that are irreplaceable and of such cultural importance that private ownership cannot be recognized as attaching to them. Barring that, however, the image is copyright (C) 1989 either by Jeff Widener, the photographer, or Associated Press. Due to its importance, ubiquity and irreplaceable nature, I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use under existing copyright law.

Oh, Ashley! The mysterious fate of BOAC Flight 777.

Seventy-five years ago today, on June 1, 1943, a DC-3 traveling under the designation BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) flight 777 was shot down by eight German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors among the 17 passengers and crew aboard the plane. Easily the most famous of the victims was British actor Leslie Howard, most known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 blockbuster movie Gone With The Wind, though he also played opposite Ingrid Bergman in the 1939 romantic film Intermezzo. BOAC Flight 777 was unarmed and the attack by the Luftwaffe was an outrageous violation of the laws of warfare. This tragic incident has been the subject of rumor and speculation almost since the day it happened.

The story behind BOAC Flight 777 is pretty fascinating, and by definition I can only hit the highlights here. It may seem strange that, with Europe and much of the world engulfed by the Second World War, anyone would be foolish enough to still try to have regularly-scheduled airline flights around the continent, but this did happen. Three major countries in Europe–Spain, Portugal and Switzerland–were neutral in the conflict and Britain, though a belligerent, thought it important to maintain air links with them, and with the United States. Thus BOAC was born, a temporary wartime consortium of prewar airlines including British Airways and KLM. Still, not just anybody could travel on these flights, admittedly more dangerous than run-of-the-mill airline flights before the war. Only VIPs and people with special clearance from the British government could even get tickets. This fact plays heavily into theories as to why the Germans shot the plane down.

Flight 777 was a DC-3, like this one, which happens to be painted in 1940s period colors used by Scandinavian Airlines.

The flight was going from Lisbon, Portugal to the BOAC’s temporary terminal at Whitchurch, England. Leslie Howard was extremely prominent in the British film industry, making and promoting pro-Allied films and propaganda. In fact that’s what he was doing in Portugal, having been invited there by the British government to promote a film (in which he did not appear) called The Lamp Still Burns. He was on his way back to England from this tour. Other passengers included Wilfrid B. Israel, son of a German department store magnate, who had spent most of the war trying to get Jews out of Germany. (Howard was also Jewish and had been active in pro-Jewish causes during the war). A few lucky passengers were turned away at the gate, including a young boy, Derek Partidge, who in his adult life went on to appear on the original Star Trek show and narrated a documentary about Leslie Howard’s life.

Flight 777 took off from Lisbon at 7:35 AM, five minutes late due to the tardy delivery of a package to Leslie Howard. A bit more than three hours later, over the Bay of Biscay, eight German Messerchmitt fighters appeared and began firing at the DC-3. The Dutch pilot radioed the ground that he was being followed by “strange aircraft” and then that cannon tracers and shells were ripping through the fuselage. His last words were, “Wave-hopping and doing my best.” One of the plane’s engines was severely damaged in the first salvo. One of the German pilots years later reported seeing three people try to bail out of the crippled aircraft, but they were on fire and had no chance of survival. The plane crashed into the water and sank. Its remains have never been located.

Why did the Nazis attack Flight 777? They were generally not in the habit of shooting at civilian airliners, although BOAC planes had been attacked on two prior occasions. The most famous theory is that German intelligence believed Winston Churchill was on board. Churchill spent the end of May 1943 in North Africa conferring with General Eisenhower. Rumors of a portly man in a hat with a cigar boarding Flight 777 might have been misinterpreted as a suspicion that Churchill was on board. Personally I find this extremely unlikely; Churchill would have been foolhardy to travel back to England on an unarmed civilian airliner with no military escort, and he says so bluntly in his memoirs. Plus, the German intelligence service simply wasn’t that inept.

Wilfrid Israel was a German-born Jew who helped tens of thousands of Jews, many of them children, escape Germany during the Shoah (Holocaust). He died on Flight 777.

Another theory is that Leslie Howard was actually a spy, and that he was the Germans’ intended target. It’s historical fact that Howard was deeply involved with pro-Allied propaganda, and he did insult Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The question of whether Howard was really a spy, though, is less clear. He may have passed intelligence information to the governments of Spain and Portugal. Several books written about him state that he was the target of the attack and that the Germans thought he was a spy; not all endorse the conclusion that he actually was, so the Germans might have been mistaken.

These theories are exotic, but the truth is probably more prosaic. In the 1980s and 1990s several historians tried to track down the surviving German pilots of the fighter group that downed the aircraft. Several were still alive. To a man they insisted that they didn’t know about the BOAC flights and assumed, when they saw the aircraft, that it was a British warplane. Only after they’d already fired did they realize it was a civilian flight, and they were shocked that their superiors hadn’t warned them about the possibility of this happening. A book written by the son of one of the victims of Flight 777 concludes that the stories by these German pilots are genuine. Without having done extensive research into the case, my gut feeling is that this explanation is the correct one. If so, the downing of Flight 777 begins to look a lot more like the tragedy of KAL Flight 007 forty years later: a terrible and deadly mistake.

The portrait of Leslie Howard was painted during Howard’s lifetime by Reginald Grenville Eves. The picture of the DC-3 is by Wikimedia Commons user Towflight, used under GNU Free Documentation license.