Mini Review: Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

There are a lot of shipwreck books out there and I have a teetering pile of them on my nightstand. I read and read but just can’t seem to make any headway–for every book I finish two or three more are published. Some are great, some are not. But all attest to the enduring lure of shipwrecks to readers, dreamers and bookophiles alike.

A few weeks ago I finished Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum by Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor of American History at the College of Holy Cross. I had high hopes for this book, it being one of the few shipwreck titles written by an academic historian. In many ways O’Donnell did not disappoint. Thoroughly researched, Ship Ablaze tells the story of one of the worst maritime disasters in American history with intricate detail. O’Donnell situates the wreck, which claimed more than 1,000 lives, in the social and cultural context of turn-of-the-century New York City. We learn not only learn who the passengers on the steamboat were but also the repercussions of the disaster on the German community devastated by the fire. So too do we read about corrupt government agencies, the cutthroat news industry and the range of public, private and civic responses to a major disaster.  Indeed, Ship Ablaze is a fine example of what a shipwreck monograph can be. I only wish I could still watch the History Channel documentary.

But there are limits to this kind of shipwreck book (or any “disaster”-specific book for that matter). Yes, shipwrecks are fascinating topics. Yes, they offer a unique window onto the past. Yes, they sell. But few answer the “so what” question. Why, besides bearing witness, should we care about this or that particular wreck? Most shipwreck monographs, like Ship Ablaze, are “insular” texts; or, to borrow a phrase from my advisor, they are “conversation enders” rather than “conversation starters.” The former are important for populating the past with names, dates and trends, but they tend to swerve towards chronicle rather than history. Conversation starters, however, are the stuff of history–books that suggest new ways of conceiving the past, books that raise more questions than they answer, books that make an argument that grates against others’ conceptions of the past. When defending my dissertation prospectus I told my committee I wanted to write a conversation starter. Now I’m finding out just how difficult that is. I can see the appeal of writing a traditional shipwreck monograph.



Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field

78 responses to “Mini Review: Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

  1. Tom

    Nice reflection on the value of shipwreck stories. It is more than the horror that we want to convey; we want to be able to recognize something positive that came from the disaster, something that makes us feel all those deaths were not in vain.
    You offer a challenge, a chance to go one-better, to make history a living, breathing link between the past and the present. Well done.

  2. Fun review! As someone who is finding herself newly claustrophobic, I’m thinking the idea of reading a book about a ship ablaze in the middle of the ocean may not be the best read for me.

    But I have a good friend who loves this kind of story, so consider your review shared! 🙂

  3. The history of the steamboat tragedy sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing your review of the basics of the story.

    The technique of viewing history from a different angle/aspect so that a slightly altered light may be cast upon the events and its participants, has to be a difficult task, particularly without becoming contrived and manipulative.

    All good luck to you and I’m sure you’ll find the perspective you want in order to write your conversation starter.

  4. Sometimes there may simply be nothing positive to take away from disasters such as General Slocum, when conditions of general incompetence made such tragedies possible. Certainly, changes are often made after such disasters occur, which may save lives down the road, but one can’t help but think that with a little foresight, some of these could of, and should have, been implemented beforehand.

    I disagree with your premise that such stories are often “conversation enders.” By telling such stories, and telling them well, so that the non-academic becomes aware that such events took place, perhaps it helps illuminate the fact that life today is so much safer in so many respects. I remember reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and I believe he wrote about the river bottom being littered with wrecks. How often do you even hear of a ship of any size sinking anywhere in this country today? If nothing else, such stories as the one above can give us a sense of perspective.

    • Jamin Wells

      Thanks for the comment! Well said — these books vividly remind us that the past is a “foreign country,” radically different from the world we live in today. As to the number of shipwrecks historically vs. today — follow the USCG twitter feed and you’ll see just how many “shipwrecks” there are around the country everyday. Although they are mostly recreational craft these days.

  5. I am also a sucker for a good ship-wreck story…I suppose that’s why I was immediately lured in by the title of your blog. 😉

    This was a great review of a book that I was unaware of previous to reading this post…I think I need to add another book to my collection now.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  6. Having made two films when I was starting out that included shipwrecks in the plot, I will attest to the value of a finely detailed historical account. I didn’t try to be accurate in the films, but having access to details makes it much more affordable to film the scenes. Being able to insert a few authentic details into the set lends believability without breaking the budget.

  7. I have never heard of this story before but it does sound fascinating. I am always on the lookout for a good well-written history. Thanks for letting me know about this one! 🙂

  8. Rae

    I have a slight obsession with ships, so I might have to check this one out.

  9. I think I’ll check this out.

  10. a reader

    if you can find it I highly recommend the documentary film Fearful Visitation: The Great New York Steamboat Fire of 1904, by Philip Dray and Hank Linhart which is definitely a conversation-starter.

  11. Congrats on being FP! Your article was very well written.


  12. It would appear you’ve realized there is too much information out there for you to absorb all at once – or even over the course of your lifetime! Just slow down and relax, my friend; you’ll unlock the mysteries of the world soon enough.

  13. i dream of shipwrecks. i’m a snorkeling and diving enthusiast and a wanna-be pirate. sounds like a read i should consider for an airplane ride…good, but not face-glued-to-the-pages good. thanks for the review!

  14. nicely done thanx for the info 🙂 🙂

  15. Joe Labriola

    Wow awesome history!

  16. It seems like there is only so much you could say about a shipwreck that happened decades ago, when few records were kept, without resorting to fictional narratives or over-embellishing the characters to the point of them sounding larger than life, when in reality they were just victims of bad luck

    • Jamin Wells

      Thanks for the comment. You’d’ be surprised just home many documents there are for historic shipwrecks. Detailed narratives frequently appeared in newspapers and periodicals, depositions in legal proceedings, and many other sources enable good researchers, like O’Donnell in “Ship Ablaze,” to stick to the “facts” and not resort to fictionalizing or over embellishing.

  17. This was good. I hope Gordon Lightfoot reads this book. He is really good with writing songs about disasters and ships. I can’t believe this ship. Catching on fire and sinking. That is so tragic. Do you know if any bells tolled, and how many times?

    • Jamin Wells

      I don’t know about songs or bells but “Manhattan Melodrama,” a full length film based on the Slocum disaster, was made in 1934. Thanks for the comment!

  18. Fabulous review! I think that all writers should have that goal – to write a conversation starter rather than an ender.

  19. great job, really enjoyed reading 😉

  20. James LaForest

    I’ve definitely had the experience of hearing a shipwreck story and having my eyes glaze over. I think as with any discussion of history, the key is to place the event in a wider context, what was the ship doing, who owned it, what was going on at that time. What about the lives of the sailors. I grew up near the Great Lakes in Michigan and we had a lot of shipwrecks and I only remember two: the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Eastland Disaster. Why, because the stories were memorialized in song on the one hand, placing the ship in an almost mythic context, and WRT the Eastland disaster, it is a very dramatic story with lots of witnesses. I guess that is part of the problem too, with shipwrecks there aren’t often witnesses left behind!
    James LaForest

    • Jamin Wells

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree, filling in the context is vital. But I’m interested in pushing the discussion to the next step–to the next level of analysis. In other words, ‘Ships Ablaze’ is a great story steeped in turn-of-the-century ‘history.’ But is that all we can get out of the Slocum disaster or the thousands of shipwrecks that ravaged the American coast during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

  21. scott

    This wreck is referenced several times in Ulysses (the news gets to Dublin on the 16th and several of the characters see it in the papers). I wondered if anyone had written a book about the actual accident.

    • Jamin Wells

      Yes! Bloom and the bartender discussing shipwrecks, “American exceptionalism” and graft, what could be better? Thanks for the post!

  22. I have to admit, I spent way too much at a restaurant just because a ship wrecked in the nearby bay and they had all kinds of cool history to read while I ate.

    In Las Vegas a few weeks ago where the remains of the Titanic are currently on display at the Luxor. Pretty cool! Minus the pun.

    What is the allure? Why should we care about any shipwreck? For me it’s pirates. Serious. Not the battles at sea (I love those too) as much as the mysteries of the sunken plunder and the stories of those lost.

    Curious enough to check back and see what you/others think.

    • Jamin Wells

      Hi Anne,

      This is a great question and one I’ve been giving a lot of thought to as I write this dissertation. I think it boils down to a couple of points: 1. our collective fascination with technology, “authentic” experiences and the sea; 2. the enduring resonance of the shipwreck metaphor to our understanding of personal, corporate and national struggles (in other words we identify with the shipwreck and shipwrecked–they’re close to home). I’ve written a lot more about this here, if you’re interested. And I’d love to hear what you or anyone else thinks!

      Many thanks!

      • That’s obviously a lot more thought than I ever put into it, and I learned a new word – retroussé. I think after reading, the answer to my question might be very different for each person. You know, it seemed like everyone was interested in the St. Paul for a different reason, from curiosity to forensics. Lots of interesting facts and well-referenced!

      • Jamin Wells

        It is a great word! (Have to admit its half the reason I put the quote in there). No doubt the reason why people are enthralled by shipwrecks will vary from person to person. But that interest is particular to certain periods of history and particular places. Look no further than the first chapters of Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” for example. And one of my favorite history books–Alain Corbin’s “The Lure of the Sea”–traces how before the emergence of the Romantics and notions of the sublime, shipwrecks (like the sea and shore) were more or less shunned by Western Europeans. Its worth checking out because it suggests how culture affects individuals’ sentiment.

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  24. congrats on the FP! that’s awesome!!! 🙂
    the story sound absolutely terrifying. and aren’t you both a philosopher & an historian? I think that’s the conviction enough that you will succeed in starting conversations and asking questions.
    so when i started gathering psychological data and talked with Roland Pietsch, he cautioned the same principle: that although we have medical understandings today that give us a perspective on the past, we cannot label the past with present context (ie, using disorder labels that didn’t exist at the time). this is a big problem in psychology; the subjective vs. objective- if someone seemingly feels something but does not report it, is it occuring? if someone is clearly psychotic, can we assume they are afraid by their facial expression? the more tools you have to gather objective data the better (like your monoliths, advertisements, contemporary texts of day)- however, there is something to social conditions and making claims about perspectives of the past- check out the writings of Ian Hacking whose literature concerns social constructions- sounds a lot like what you are doing- gathering history documents and generating a buzz about what was really going down at the time. grats!

    • Jamin Wells

      Lol! Many thanks! I appreciate your comment–thinking and writing about the past gets pretty tricky once you start thinking about what you’re actually doing.

      And by the way — your blog is looking great these days!

  25. Great stuff all the way along….I’d be interested, Jamin, in your top 5 books in this category. Would “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” be on it by any chance? Everyone I tell about that book has enjoyed it.

    • Jamin Wells

      Hi Mark,

      Great question — I’ll have to think about the “top five” list. But I’m a big fan of Steven Biel’s “Down with the Old Canoe” and Andrew Jampoler’s recent “Horrible Shipwreck!” I finally read “Ship of Gold” this summer–its a great yarn (I only wish it had been edited down a bit).

      Thanks again for the comment!

  26. I have a significant interest in maritime history but I had never heard of this event nor the book. Perhaps I need to be more plugged in! Thanks for bringing it to light in the blogosphere. I very much like what you had to say about avoiding “insular” histories. It can certainly be challenging when dealing with a single event like this, but it’s a challenge historians should work to overcome.

  27. Fascinating! Looks like a good read. We have a strange affliction for sunken/sinking ships…Amazing cover art. Thanks for posting!

  28. win

    I very much like what you had to say about avoiding “insular” histories. It can certainly be challenging when dealing with a single event like this, but it’s a challenge historians should work to overcome.

  29. Wow, nice writing man. I’m not really into shipwrecks, but it’s quite interesting. I might digg around a little bit.

  30. merctravels

    Do you have any documentation of ship wrecks around the coast of South Africa?

  31. I have seen the PBS program about the shipwreck, it is a great piece of work
    this is a great site
    Being in chicago we have periodic mention of the eastland disaster
    There is also a good program on this


  32. Haven’t read much about shipwrecks although this book sounds like it would be an interesting read. My favorite all time sea adventure book however, is Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I’ve probably read it at least three times over the years. Terrific post.

    • Jamin Wells

      Many thanks for the comment — I’m a big fan on Kon Tiki too but my favorite “sea adventure” book would probably be Bernard Moitessier’s “The Long Way”

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  34. Looks great, I’m going to add it to my list.

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  37. Pingback: “It Was Sweeping Up From Below Like a Tornado” : SS General Slocum | Map of Time | A Trip Into The Past

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