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Author tells of horrors of Slocum steamship disaster

More than 1,000 people died when the General Slocum steamship burned in 1904, but borough residents got a peek into the minds of those who lived at a lecture last Thursday.

Author Stefanie Pintoff used the disaster as a focal point in her new historical fiction novel “The Secret of the White Rose” and discussed how she thought the incident might have affected the Lower East Side community called Little Germany at the turn of the 20th century.

“It was something that resonated with me,” Pintoff said before the talk. “Nobody had to die that day, and it just decimated the community.”

Some 1,300 women and children boarded the giant steamboat hoping for a relaxing day at a picnic in Long Island as it pulled away from a Third Street pier.

But the near-absence of safety regulations, a poorly trained crew and a spark sent the ship into flames. It eventually sank into the East River, leaving about 1,000 dead behind. Those who were not identified were buried at a memorial site in All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, where a memorial will be held June 11 to commemorate the 106th anniversary of the tragedy.

The incident was documented extensively, but the characters in Pintoff’s book paint a picture — which cannot be found in any textbook — of how the tragedy might have affected individuals like her protagonist Simon Ziele, a detective in lower Manhattan who has been the focus of the two previous books in her three-part series.

In the first book, Ziele boards a rescue boat immediately after the fire breaks out and frantically searches for his fiancée amid the burning wreckage. But he does not find her.

In truth, nearly every household in Little Germany lost at least one relative aboard the General Slocum.

The immigrants left in droves for Astoria, Yorkville and the Bronx to escape reminders of the General Slocum, and Ziele moves to Westchester County in the novel, Pintoff said.

But Ziele is haunted by the sinking wherever he goes, after he injured his arm searching for his wife, Pintoff said. Every change in the weather or slight inconvenience brings back the anger and resentment over the fire.

And the subject of Pintoff’s latest novel is the anarchists in the Lower East Side, who tap into that shared anger over the lack of safety regulations on the boat and spread anti-capitalist messages, often with violence.

Ziele did not exist, but Pintoff said she takes great care in her fiction to write about what could have feasibly happened.

And she is accurate right down to the clothes, attitudes and technology.

“I’m very secure that the things I describe could be true, but are not,” she said. “That’s usually the line for all historical fiction. I like everything I read to be so invested in the time period the things ring true even though they are imagined.”

Pintoff said she plans to take a break in the series, but hopes Ziele will return in subsequent installments.

The talk was hosted by the Queens County Historical Society at 143-35 37th Ave.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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