Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Favorite NYC Disaster, or the Risks Associated with Wearing Wool in the Summer

Today is June 15th. My rent is due, second-quarter estimated income taxes are due, but those are just details of the day. What is important is that it was on a day just like this — exactly 99 years ago, almost to this very moment — that the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Lower East Side must have really pissed off Varuna.

It was time for the Lutherans' much anticipated annual summer picnic. A boatload (and I mean that literally) of fine church-going woman and children piled onto the General Slocum to head out for a day of wholesome, God-sanctioned fun on the North Shore of Long Island. We're talking the kind of fun that One Million Moms would approve of and not the kind where you put Zesty Italian on romaine lettuce.

Obviously, we're talking this                                not this                  
Clearly, decorum dictated that they were bedecked in their best Sunday finery, despite the fact that it was Wednesday. At the risk of editorializing (sometimes I even make myself laugh) I do have to admit the clothes were very fetching. As I have written time and time again, I miss the days when no respectable human would leave the house without a hat and gloves. Much as we don't think of this as summer picnicwear today, I would happily return to this style.

You can refer to my previous posting on swimwear,
but here are some scantily-clad children at full frolic.

Remember that good, working-class German men would have no time for picnics, so there were few on the boat since they were all busy cheese-mongering that day.

On to the tragic tale: The General Slocum set off up the East River laden down with 1,342 souls aboard. The details of what happened next are incomplete and at time contradictory, but the boat caught fire shortly after launch. The captain was reluctant to beach his craft (there was no way he would get paid for the day if he had done THAT), so he just sailed along on his merry way. Here is where the story becomes gruesome, reflecting the lack of regulation and oversight of the time. The safety equipment was purely ornamental. In fact, I do believe the lifeboats were merely frescoes painted on the exterior. The fire hoses were rotted out. The life preservers had been filled with cork, sawdust, and possibly iron filings. Capacity regulations and inspections were non-existent at the time. Mothers watched their children dragged down under the surface of the river, weighted down by the life vests that they had strapped to them. It was bitterly ironic. Ultimately, 1,021 people drowned in that fire.

A rare photo of the General and Widow Slocum

Since you, my gentle readers, are clearly intelligent, motivated, and well-appointed with Internet access, I expect that you can research further information yourselves, and there is no need for me to copy text from WikiWorld and the like. Suffice to say that this disaster is important beyond just being the second-largest loss of life in a single New York City incident. Despite the fact that The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was barely penalized afterwards, maritime safety regulations received a substantial overhaul. Ignore the Titanic for the moment, which had a better survival rate.

It's all very wool. Very wool, indeed.
Now back to the wool part of this whole affair. It is fairly well believed that had these people NOT been wearing a fabric that became so heavy when waterlogged, more might have been able to stay afloat long enough to be rescued. In realty, no one could swim back then — even actual naval sailors and assorted seamen often drowned when they fell overboard because THEY never learned to swim.

Don't even try it. I always have this on under my clothes.
Another fun fact: I can't swim either, so if you are going to murder me and make it look like an accident, I suggest you hold me face down in the tub and dump my body on a nice beach somewhere... somewhere it will be found by children making sandcastles. I probably shouldn't have told you that.

Fun fact number two: you should not go boating drunk while wearing one of those awful puffy down jackets. Natalie Wood died that way. Just to be on safe side, don't ever wear a puffy coat.

Incidentally, that particular church is now a synagogue right in the middle of Curry Row. Varuna will just not let this one go.

Coming soon: Wool Underpants and Why Come They Are So Scratchy.

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