Volume 76, Number 20 | October 4 - 10, 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

As Francis Duffy of the Maritime Industry Museum listens, Maureen Enright shows pictures of and talks about her grandmother Catherine Connelly, who was one of the few survivors of the General Slocum fire.

Statue centennial remembers worst pre-9/11 disaster

By Bonnie Rosenstock

On Saturday morning, Sept. 23, in Tompkins Square Park, just beyond the park building off of Ninth St. and Avenue B, Jessica Enright-Polanish, 28, and Katherine Enright, 26, the great-granddaughters of Slocum survivor Catherine Connolly, placed a wreath of 61 red carnations to the unknown dead alongside the memorial statue to the estimated 650 children who did not survive. Fire Department fireboat pilot Dan Garvey accompanied the ceremony with “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes. Garvey has been a musical volunteer for this event since 1998.

This day’s observance not only commemorated all those who died in the General Slocum steamboat conflagration on June 15, 2004, but it also had a special resonance as the centennial of the 1906 dedication of the pink Tennessee marble obelisk by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. The inscription on the monument reads, “They were the Earth’s purest, Children Young and Fair.”

The crumbling, graffiti-marked structure was restored 12 years ago through the fundraising efforts of Frank Duffy, the moderator and organizer of the yearly memorial service. Duffy, executive vice president of the Maritime Industry Museum SUNY-Maritime College at Ft. Schuyler, the Bronx, noted that although few in number this year — there were about two dozen at the memorial — “God willing, we’ll keep up the work and come back and pass it on to Maureen’s daughters some day.”

With Connolly’s daughter Betty Reilly looking on, granddaughter Maureen Enright related how Connolly, 11; Connolly’s mother; and 9-year-old brother and 9-month-old sister received free tickets from their kind Lutheran grocer so they could participate in the 17th annual excursion of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — then located at 323 E. Sixth St. — aboard the wooden-hulled steamer to Locust Grove, L.I. Connolly was on the lower deck when the boat caught fire, and someone threw her onto a tugboat. Her mother and two siblings, who were on the upper deck, perished. Connolly, who died in October 2002 just shy of her 110th birthday, was the second-to-last survivor to pass away. Although Connolly’s family was Irish Catholic and lived on E. 15th St., most of the victims were women and children from Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, in the present-day East Village.

“She talked about it often when we were growing up, particularly around the anniversary,” reminisced Enright of her great-grandmother. “She was afraid people would forget it. They were poor immigrants, not famous and wealthy people, unlike the Titanic. It was forgotten until 9/11, when it was brought up because it was the biggest disaster before this event.”

An attendee at the memorial event, genealogist Karen Lamberton, who also lost several relatives in the tragedy, believes the official death total of between 900 and 1,200 has been grossly underestimated. Her recently published in-depth study, “Angels in the Gate. New York City and the General Slocum Disaster” (Heritage Books, 404 pages, $36), contains information never published before. Her research puts the number of victims in the range of 2,000 to 2,500.

“Many people probably were washed out to sea, a lot of bodies got stuck in the mud river bottom and were never recovered by the divers,” Lamberton stated.

Reverend Clint Padgitt, who was pastor of Zion-St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on E. 84th St. from 1977 to 1982, gave the invocation. As the Downtown congregation — and Little Germany — disappeared, decimated by the tragedy, it united with the Uptown church. The building was sold to the Community Synagogue in 1940.

“I was always touched by seeing page after page of death records, many of them children, large leather-bound volumes written in old German script, dated Wednesday, June 15, 1904,” he recalled. “This is a particularly beautiful monument dedicated to the children.” 

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