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Futility Closet

May 27, 2019

In 1904 a Manhattan church outing descended into horror when a passenger steamboat caught fire on the East River. More than a thousand people struggled to survive as the captain raced to reach land. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the burning of the General Slocum, the worst maritime disaster in the history of New York City.

We'll also chase some marathon cheaters and puzzle over a confusing speeding ticket.


In 1959 a Norwegian insulation company wrangled a three-ton block of ice from the arctic to the equator.

At his death in 1838, the governor of Bombay was transported into innumerable pussycats.

Sources for our feature on the General Slocum:

Edward T. O'Donnell, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, 2003.

Henry Davenport Northrop, New York's Awful Steamboat Horror, 1904.

Annual Report of the Supervising Inspector General, Steamboat Inspection Service to the Secretary of Commerce, 1915.

"In re Knickerbocker Steamboat Co. (District Court, S.D. New York, April 7, 1905)," in The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, Volume 136, 1905.

Gilbert King, "A Spectacle of Horror -- The Burning of the General Slocum,", Feb. 21, 2012.

Frances A. Scully, "Tragic Last Voyage of the General Slocum," Sea Classics 37:2 (February 2004), 14-17, 66-67.

Valerie Wingfield, "The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904," New York Public Library, June 13, 2011.

Ted Houghtaling, "Witness to Tragedy: The Sinking of the General Slocum," New York Historical Society Museum & Library, Feb. 24, 2016.

Valerie Bauman, "Anniversary of 1904 General Slocum Steamboat Disaster Marked," Newsday, June 10, 2017.

"100 Years After the General Slocum Fire, Smoke on the Water," Newsday, June 15, 2004, A42.

Glenn Collins, "A 100-Year-Old Horror, Through 9/11 Eyes," New York Times, June 8, 2004.

John E. Thomas, "Echoes of a Church Picnic," Newsday, May 23, 2004, G06.

Douglas Martin, "Last Survivor of General Slocum Steamboat Disaster Was 100," Montreal Gazette, Feb. 6, 2004, E7.

Douglas Martin, "Adella Wotherspoon, Last Survivor of General Slocum Disaster, Is Dead at 100," New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004.

Jay Maeder, "Built Like a Bonfire General Slocum, 1904," New York Daily News, March 12, 1998, 31.

Eric Pace, "Years After Ship Fire Captain's Role Debated," New York Times, June 11, 1984.

"Survivors Remember the General Slocum," New York Times, June 11, 1979.

David C. Berliner, "Fateful Day on Which 1,030 Died Is Recalled," New York Times, June 9, 1974.

"General Slocum Disaster Is Commemorated Here," New York Times, June 10, 1963.

"Mrs. Anna Kindley Dies; Nurse Took Part in General Slocum Rescue in 1904," New York Times, Nov. 7, 1958.

"Van Schaick Pardoned; Captain of the Ill-Fated Slocum Is Restored to Full Citizenship," New York Times, Dec. 20, 1912.

"The General Slocum Gone; Ill-Fated Steamer, Converted Into a Barge, Sinks Off Atlantic City," New York Times, Dec. 6, 1911.

"Last of the General Slocum; Hull of the Steamer of Disaster Sinks as a Brick Barge," New York Times, March 7, 1909.

"Captain of Slocum Surrenders to Law," Deseret News, Feb. 27, 1908.

"Full Extent of the Law: Sentence of Captain of the Gen. Slocum," [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, January 28, 1906, 2.

"Thousands Sob as Baby Unveil Slocum Statue," New York Times, June 16, 1905.

"Indictment for Slocum Captain," Minneapolis Journal, July 29, 1904, 1.

"Slocum Memorial," New York Tribune, July 8, 1904, 2.

"Slocum's Owners and Crew Held," Clinton [Iowa] Morning Age, June 30, 1904.

"Grand Opera House Benefit," New York Tribune, June 25, 1904, 3.

"No More Needed for Relief," New York Tribune, June 24, 1904, 7.

"Over Six Hundred Perish," Muskogee [Okla.] Cimeter, June 23, 1904, 2.

"Official Inquiry Into Burning of the Steamer General Slocum," [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, June 22, 1904, 6.

"Seven Hundred Lives Lost," Stark County [Ohio] Democrat, June 17, 1904, 1.

"Hundreds Perished by Fire and Water," [Newberry, S.C.] Herald and News, June 17, 1904, 1.

"504 Bodies Found," Boston Evening Transcript, June 16, 1904.

"The 'General Slocum,'" New York Times, June 16, 1904.

"The General Slocum an Unlucky Craft," New York Times, June 16, 1904.

"More Than Six Hundred Women and Children Die on Flaming Vessel or Leap Overboard to Drown," San Francisco Call, June 16, 1904, 1.

"Horror in East River," New York Tribune, June 16, 1904, 1.

"Horror Claims Over a Thousand," Washington Times, June 16, 1904, 1.

"An Appalling Catastrophe Women and Children Perish," [Walla Walla, Wash.] Evening Statesman, June 15, 1904, 1.

"City and Suburban News," New York Times, June 26, 1891.

Listener mail:

Stephanie Gosk, Rich McHugh, and Tracy Connor, "Marathon Investigator Derek Murphy Reveals How He Catches Cheaters," NBC News, Jan. 22, 2017.

Nik DeCosta-Klipa, "For a Marathon Cheater, the Biggest Obstacle Isn't in Boston," Boston Globe, April 3, 2019.

Mark Wilding, "Meet the Marathon Cheats," Guardian, Oct. 28, 2018.

Jen A. Miller, "Cheating to Make the Boston Marathon? You Can’t Run From This Detective," New York Times, April 11, 2019.

Wikipedia, "Rosie Ruiz" (accessed May 19, 2019).

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lex Beckley.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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