This may look like an ordinary child’s shoe, but it has a much darker history. The above shoe belonged to the then nearly six year old Helen Liebenow as a baby, sister of the donor, Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon. Wotherspoon was the last survivor of the General Slocum steamer disaster. On June 15, 1904, fire broke out on the ship and 1,021 passengers perished within minutes. Helen’s body was never recovered from the disaster.
The General Slocum disaster was New York’s deadliest disaster until September 11, 2001. The steamer was carrying members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, mainly German immigrants, to a picnic on Long Island. Most of the nearly 1,400 passengers were women and children living in Manhattan’s Little Germany neighborhood, now the East Village. In fact, there’s a memorial to the disaster in Tompkins Square Park.
As the steamer traveled up the East River, a fire caught in the Lamp Room. Many lifeboats and life preservers on the ship were in disrepair, and as a result 1,021 passengers died by fire or drowning. The community in Little Germany was devastated, as many victims were members of prominent families. The area’s German population was already in decline, with the influx of Russian, Italian and Jewish immigrants, and after the disaster many of the neighborhood’s Germans moved to Brooklyn or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The above shoes, and more, are currently on view in A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects.